Sunday, 13 July 2014

Exploring the ancient palace of Minos, home of the Minotaur

The sun beat down on me as I passed through the metal barriers separating a sea of tour guides vying for my attention and a tranquil stone path up to the palace ruins. The Palace of Minos in Knossos, Crete, is a place of mystery and wonder, although being over 3000 years old there isn't much left to see.

Set in a mountainous backdrop, the Palace of Minos is the most famous Minoan palace and was occupied for the best part of 700 years, a beautiful structure with striking red pillars and lovingly reconstructed fresco paintings. As I wandered around the ruins that used to be stock rooms, halls and communal areas, my mind went into overdrive thinking about the legendary resident of the palace: the Minotaur.

Photo: Scott Malthouse

The palace gets its name from the legendary King Minos, ruler of Crete and son of Zeus. He was a tyrannical king who demanded that youths from Athens were sent over on a ship every seven years to be fed to the Minotaur, a beast he kept in the centre of a labyrinth beneath the palace. The beast had the head of the bull and the body of a man, often said to be the offspring of Pasiphae, Minos' wife, who was magically enchanted by Aphrodite after Minos insulted Poseidon for not sacrificing a pure white bull the god sent the king. Paintings of bulls around the palace really drove the story home as I explored the crumbling structure and the beautiful stone pillars.

Legend has it that when the time came for Athens to send its sacrifices, the prince Theseus decided to go over in place of one of the young people. He told his father Aegeus that he would return in a white-sailed boat if he were to survive, but if he were to perish the boat would return with a black sail.

When he arrived at the palace, Minos' daughter Ariadne instantly fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread to track his path through the labyrinth. So Theseus went into the underground maze with the thread and made his way to the centre where he faced the ferocious beast. He thrust his blade into the Minotaur's neck, killing him.

On his way back, he left Ariadne on the island of Naxos, but forgot to replace the black sail with white. When his father saw the black sail, he threw himself to his death, presuming his son had perished. Theseus took the throne of Athens, but forever lived with the guilt of what he had done.

The palace of Minos is a beautiful place, evoking the legends that spawned from its ancient existence. I could almost sense the Minotaur deep below me, living in the dark, awaiting its next sacrifice.