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Knossos, Minos and the Minotaur: The Beast and the Sovereign

Today we visited the palace at Knossos and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.  Knossos is considered the cradle of the first European civilization and is believed to have been continuously occupied for 8000 years from the Neolithic through to the Byzantine period.  As I said in my last post, I’ve been reading Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign lectures, so I see beasts and sovereigns everywhere.  Or perhaps, it’s Greece, so beasts and sovereigns–beast-sovereigns, sovereign beasts–are everywhere.  Knossos and its environs are the ancient Minoan site of the beast and the sovereign, of the beast who opposes the sovereign and of the beast who is sovereign, of the sovereign who appears as the beast and as the sovereign who becomes sovereign by defeating the beasts.  This is the place of the Minotaur and of Zeus.  I’ll get to Zeus in another post–we’ll be visiting his birth place and his place of rest (Zeus died!) in a couple days.

The Minotaur, Asterius, was the brother of Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughter of King Minos, for whom the Minoan civilization was named by Sir Arthur Evans in his turn-of-the-20th-century explorations of Knossos and its environs.  Legend has it that Minos asked Poseidon for an animal to sacrifice when he became king of Crete and Poseidon offered a bull.  Minos wanted the bull for himself because it was an amazing gift-from-Poseidon kind of bull, so he slaughtered another bull instead.  Poseidon was not pleased.  So he made Minos’s wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with a bull.  She was really into the bull, so she had the palace architect Daedalus (the guy who made tripods that could move on their own, constructed the labyrinth and who made wings for his son Icarus to fly too close to the sun) construct a wooden cow to wear so she could seduce the bull.  One thing leads to another, and  Pasiphaë gives birth to the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull.


Reconstructed bull head from remains found at Knossos.

As legend has it, Minos was the first lawgiver.  He gives the law and cordons off the animal-man Minotaur in the labyrinth (also made by Daedelus).  Was it Minos or the Minotaur who became the beast-like tyrant who demanded sacrifice of Athenian youth to make appease the Cretan animal power?  Did lawgiving, the restricting of animal appetites, force Minos beyond the law?  Did lawgiving force him to become forceful?  Like a Minoan Age Hunger Games, complete with someone volunteering as tribute, the Athenians take on the Minotaur.  Theseus, son of Aegeus, offers to go in order to slay the bull-man.  When he gets to Crete, Ariadne helps him with her thread so that he find his way back out of the labyrinth.  Theseus goes in, kills the Minotaur, and then takes Ariadne back with him, but leaves her in Naxos.  (Like a beast or a god, Theseus had a short attention span when it came to the ladies.)  Then, perhaps as retaliation from the gods for leaving Ariadne behind, perhaps just because he is so excited to return home having defeated the Minotaur and releasing Athens from its beastly (sovereign) reign, Theseus forgets to hoist the sails that would signal to his father, King Aegeus, that he was successful.  Aegeus throws himself into the sea that now bears his name.  The beast-sovereign bull takes down one last sovereign in his death.  The Athenians mark the triumph of Theseus with a festival that they celebrate by sending out ships to retrace the steps of Theseus, and it is for these ships that Socrates awaits before he can drink the hemlock, since no one can be killed during the festival.  In his defeat, the man-bull prolongs the life of the philosopher who philosophizes between beast and god, the one who makes human existence–between the ways of nature and the ways of gods–a philosophical concern.


Shield with lion, the animal considered by Minoans (according to the write-ups at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum) to the the master of the animals.

Most of the artifacts found at Knossos are in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.  Between the Knossos site and the museum, images of beasts used to depict the power of rulers (men and gods–and goddesses) are all over: the snake goddess, the lion–master of the beasts–on the shields of aristocrats (also, the Lion of St. Mark’s is on the Venetian Palace in Heraklion since Crete was under Venetian rule from the thirteenth to seventeenth century), the bull, and even Zeus as swan appears in a fresco found in Crete (but like I said, more on Zeus later).


The snake goddess — controversial figure, now widely believed to have been forged by Evans’ contemporaries, the figurine, not the actual snake goddess who was in fact worshipped as part of the Minoan religious cult.

Pro Tips

  • Knossos was disappointing because Arthur Evans, the person who found and excavated the site reconstructed it in ways that make it difficult to say what is a ruin and what is not (see Mary Beard’s review of a recent book on Evans in the London Review of Books).  I thought it was a classic example of how filling in the gaps made the gaps more, well, not just obvious, but suspicious.  I don’t like my ruins ruined, I like them presencing the absence rather than trying to cover it over.   The site does a good job of pointing out what Evans filled in at many points, but it’s still hard to tell what is actually an ancient part of the site.  So here’s the tip: go to Knossos first and then to the museum where many of the artifacts in their original form (or at least in obvious reconstruction where the parts that are reconstructed are clearly marked) can be found.
  • Late afternoon seems like a good time to get in.  The museum was crowded when I got there at 3 but almost empty at 4:15 about half way through.
  •  I moved at a medium pace and it took two hours to get through.  There is much to see.
  • Have lunch close by at Loukoulos on Odos Korai.  It’s nicely decorated, good food, recommended by the Crete Blue Guide.  It was empty when we got there at 12:45 PM but full at 2 when we left.

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