Beer and Bull: The Legendary King Minos

As St Peter is believed to judge souls at the gates of Heaven, so Minos is the man who hands out accommodation assignments in Hell.
Minos was a legendary king who appears in many stories involving other, equally mythical characters. There are so many of them that there may have been more than one man with that name, so archaeologists are uncertain whether Minos was really a name or the title of the king – but the Minoan civilisation was named after Minos by an early 20th century archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans.

Rise of the King

Around 4000 years ago, the decentralised cultures on Crete formed a new political system, headed by a single person – their king. Large palaces were constructed, which were for administrative and storage purposes as well as living spaces. Roads were built between their cultural centres, which exhibited set class structures…and the beginnings of an established bureaucracy.
This king – the legendary Minos – brought about peace, prosperity and the political system that supported it. His navy was the first of its kind in the ancient world – or at least the first documented navy. To put this into perspective, this was before the Trojan War.

Minos’ Kingdom

Minos’ kingdom was modern-day Crete and there are still ruins from his reign dotted around the island. The earliest known buildings from the Minoan civilisation are around 4000 years old. For around 500 years, they were one of the most advanced of its time, as evident by the culture’s art, written language, functional indoor plumbing and structures that have withstood centuries.
Their cities were open to the sea and their pottery has been found throughout the Mediterranean, indicating that they traded far and wide, presumably by sea. Minos lived in Knossos, the largest Minoan city, where he was reputed to hear leadership advice from Zeus. This he translated into legislation and a complete constitution for Crete.

Palazzo Minosse7.jpg
Palazzo Minosse7“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Knossos was mostly destroyed around 3700 years ago, possibly due to volcanic activity, an earthquake and/or resulting tsunami. The Minoan people rebuilt the city, but it wasn’t theirs for much longer.
The Minoans were invaded by Mycenaeans approximately 3500 years ago, at which point the Mycenaean culture started to dominate the island of Crete.
Some of the Greek legends surrounding Minos are far from the benevolent ruler who united the communities on the island of Crete, which suggests that there was more than one Minos…or the man was both brilliant and a complete nutter. Ancient historians like Plutarch support the theory that the benevolent Minos was the ruler who started a navy and wrote the laws; but that the original Minos’ grandson gave rise to some of the more colourful legends of the time.

The Minotaur

Minos was apparently the stepfather to the Minotaur. The sea god, Poseidon, was angry that Minos hadn’t sacrificed a bull to him, so he made Minos’ wife, Pasiphae (the daughter of the sun god, Helios), fall in love with the bull. With some help from Daedalus, she managed to somehow seduce the bull and conceive a child – the half-man, half-bull known as the Minotaur – the Bull of Minos.

The Labyrinth

No, not the David Bowie movie – though that was good. Minos didn’t like the Minotaur much, so he ordered Daedalus to build a palace to hide the creature. The result was the Labyrinth. A less than grateful ruler, Minos then imprisoned both Daedalus and his son, Icarus, so they couldn’t tell anyone else how to get through the Labyrinth.

Slaughter in Athens

One of Minos’ sons, Androgeos, attended the athletic games held by King Aegeas of Athens. He was so successful at the events that the local competitors conspired to murder him. When word of his death reached Minos, King Minos declared war on Athens.

Megara and Scylla

On the way to Athens, Minos besieged the coastal city of Megara. Megara’s king, Nisus, had an unusual gift: as long as he retained a lock of red hair, which he hid under the rest of his white hair, his city would be safe.
Minos seduced his daughter, Scylla, who cut off her father’s lock of red hair so she could offer it to Minos. Her father died, Megara fell…and charming Minos drowned the treacherous Scylla.

Executioner of Athenian Children

Minos did reach Athens and he conquered it, too. He required that Athens send him seven of their best young men and women every 7-9 years (sources are a little hazy on precisely how many years), which he then sacrificed to the Minotaur.
On the third such sacrifice, Theseus volunteered to go. With the assistance of one of Minos’ daughters, Ariadne, and a ball of string, Theseus found the Minotaur and killed it, thus ending the slaughter of Athenian children.

Death of a King

Daedalus and his son escaped from their prison by creating wings from feathers and wax. Icarus flew too close to the sun, so his wings melted and he drowned, but Daedalus made it to the mainland and into hiding. Minos set off to search for him and found him in Sicily. With the help of King Cocalus of Sicily and his daughters, Daedalus managed to kill Minos…by scalding him to death with boiling water while he was in the bath.

Judge of the Dead

To reward him for his good (?) judgement throughout his life, Minos was made the judge of the dead in Hades, possibly with his two brothers. According to Virgil, he decided who went to Elysium or Tartarus.
In Dante’s epic Christian poem, The Divine Comedy, Minos judges souls in Hell. He has a very long, serpentine tail which he uses to indicate the level number the damned soul belongs to. He’d wrap his tail around himself the same number of times as the level number.

Minos in Mel Goes to Hell

As I’ve used Dante’s descriptions as inspiration for a lot of the settings in this book, once I’d researched Minos the man, I couldn’t resist using him as a character in Mel Goes to Hell. I also agreed with Plutarch, that the Minos who was allowed to sit in judgement couldn’t possibly be the nutter whose wife preferred a cow over him.
Minos in Mel Goes to Hell is every bit the wise ruler, whose wisdom was derived from divine advice. Seeing as divine advice to rulers is definitely Mel’s speciality, who better to have been his advisor? So when he sees Mel again after thousands of years, he doesn’t recognise the young, modern woman…but he’s never forgotten the angel who taught him how to rule.
Like many of Hell’s denizens who date back to the time when it was called Hades, Minos is neither demon nor damned – his immortal soul has taken on the job of judgement in the underworld. Though he’s kept very busy, he does find time to leave Hell on occasion. When he does, he meets up with St Peter and St Michael the archangel, both colleagues in their roles as final judges of human souls, and the three find a quiet spot to enjoy a barley beer or six.