Mythology in Crete

The Birth of Zeus

Zeus, in Greek mythology, is the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus and the god of the sky and thunder. His symbols are the thunderbolt, eagle, bull, and oak. (Details for Zeus please find at Wiki).

When Rhea bore Zeus, Mother Earth hid him in the Spileo Dicteon Andron on Lassithi Plateau of Crete. Kronos, Zeus father, swallowed the children that Rhea bore each year, among them were Estia, Dimitra, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. He did this beacause it was prophesied by Mother Earth and Uranus that one of Kronos’ sons would dethrone him. He believed that he had swallowed Zeus, but, in fact, he had swallowed a stone given to him by Rhea to trick him and spare this son. So the king of the gods was brought up in Crete.

Zeus was raised by the nymph Adrasteia, her sister Io, and the goat-nymph Amalthia. The Kuretes clashed their spears against their shields to conceal the noise of the wailing baby. Zeus was nursed by the shepherds of the Nida Plateau in the Psiloritis (Idi) Mountains and lived in a cave, Spileo Ideon Andron on the Nida Plateau. He then approached Rhea and with her help made Kronos drink an emetic poison mixed with a honeyed drink. Kronos vomited up the brothers and sisters of Zeus. Zeus led them in a war against the Titans, which they eventually won.

The above myths were widely accepted by the ancient world. A truly Cretan variation presents Zeus as dying and being reborn every year. The head of the dead Zeus is seen in the shape of a hill (Youktas) behind Iraklion and it is visible from a long distance as one approaches the city. This myth about Zeus’ death is a continuation and reflection of the beliefs of the ancient Minoans concerning the fertility goddess, who died and was reborn every year.

Zeus and Europe

In the land of Canaan, Agenor and Telepfassa had five sons and one daughter, who was named Europa. Zeus fell in love with Europa and disguised himself as a snow-white bull. Awed by his beauty, Europa climbed up onto his shoulders, allowed him to take her into the sea, and looked back in terror as he swam away. Zeus swam to Crete where Europa bore him three sons: Minos, Radamanthis and Sarpedon. When Zeus left Europa she married Aserius, who adopted these sons.

Minos, King of Crete

Crete is probably a form of the Greek word «crateia», meaning «strong» or «ruling goddess». After Asterius’s death, Minos claimed the Cretan throne and ruled as King for many years from his palace in Knossos. Crete was powerful and prosperous under his rule and its commercial fleet dominated the Mediterranean, bringing wealth to the island. Minos had the reputation of being a fair man. His brother, Radamanthis, who remained in Crete and lived in peace with him, also had the reputation of a just lawmaker who legislated for Cretans as well as for the islands of Asia Minor, which voluntarily adopted his judicial code. Every ninth year Radamanthis and Minos would visit the cave of Zeus and return with a new set of laws.

Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos, gave the early Cretan culture the name «Minoan Civilization». Minos may have been the royal title of a ruling dynasty, not a single person. The peaceful acceptance of the law of Crete by the other island dwellers of Asia Minor seems to suggest the expansion of the Cretan civilization all over the Aegean and into Asia Minor. The Cretans built the city of Milatos in Asia Minor. Legend says that another city called Milatos was built by Minoans in Ireland.

The Minotaur and the Labyrinth

To present his case for occupying the throne of Crete, Minos had claimed that the gods would answer whatever prayer he offered them. When he prayed that a bull should emerge from the sea, which he would then sacrifice, Poseidon sent a dazzling white bull ashore. Minos, struck by its beauty, decided to sacrifice another bull in its place. Poseidon was offended and to avenge this slight made Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with the white bull. She asked Daedalus, a famous Athenian craftsman living in exile in Crete, to help her. Daedalus built a hollow wooden cow in which Pasiphae could hide and approach the white bull. The white bull mounted the cow and consequently Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s head and a human body. Minos asked Daedalus to build a maze, called the Labyrinth, where he concealed the Minotaur.

Some say that the Labryinth was the actual palace of Knossos. Its amazing size and complexity created the illusion of a maze. The bull and the double axe, called labrys, were the symbols of the Minoan civilization and appeared everywhere in the palace.

Minos’ War with Athens

Minos was the first king to control the Mediterranean Sea, which he cleared of pirates and he ruled over the ninety cities in Crete. When the Athenians murdered his son Androgeus, he waged a war against them which dragged on for a long time. Minos prayed to Zeus to avenge Androgeus’s death and Zeus orchestrated a series of earthquakes. The terrified Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delfi. The Oracle told them to give Minos whatever satisfaction he might ask. Minos asked that seven maids and seven youths be sent every nine years to Crete as prey for the Minotaur.

Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur

Theseus was the son of Aegeus, King of Athens. Theseus pitied the youths and maidens being sent for sacrifice to Crete and decided to go himself. If he could slay the Minotaur with his bare hands, the tribute would be remitted.

Minos’ daughter Ariadne immediately fell in love with Theseus. She gave him a thread, which he would tie to the door of the Labyrinth and unravel until he reached the place where the Minotaur was sleeping. Theseus killed the Minotaur, although it is disputed whether he killed it with his bare hands or with a sword given to him by Ariadne. He then used the thread to find his way back to the entrance to the Labyrinth.

Theseus and Ariadne escaped from Crete; but on the way to Athens, Theseus deserted Ariadne on the island of Naxos and the god Dionysos married her immediately.

The Death of Aegeas

Theseus, the son of King Aegeus of Athens, when leaving for Crete to fight the Minotaur, had agreed with his father to raise a white flag on his ship as he returned to Athens, if everything had gone well on Crete. He forgot to do so when he returned victorious, and Aegeus, who was watching for the return of the ships, was so distraught that he cast himself into the sea which has henceforth been called the Aegean Sea.

Daedalus and Icarus

When King Minos learned that Daedalus had helped his wife Pasiphae to couple with the white bull of Poseidon, he imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth. Pasiphae freed them, but Minos kept his ships on guard so that Daedalus could not escape from Crete. Daedalus made a pair of wings for himself and another pair for Icarus, and they flew away from Crete. Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and flew towards the sun. The sun melted his wings and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. Today the island near where he fell is called Icaria.

The Death of Minos

When Daedalus escaped from Crete, using the wings that he had constructed, he flew to Sicily and lived among the Sicilians. Minos searched for him with his fleet. When he reached Sicily, Minos visited King Cocalus, who was hiding Daedalus, and demanded that he give Daedalus to him. Cocalus and Daedalus trapped King Minos and scalded him in boiling water. Cocalus returned the corpse to the Cretans, saying that his death was an accident. The Cretans built a tomb in Sicily for Minos. Today there is a city called Minoa, and several other cities in Sicily originally built by Cretans. Zeus made Minos a judge of the dead, together with his brother Radamanthis and his enemy Aeacus.


Talos is another major mythical figure associated with Crete. Talos was a bull-headed bronze servant given to King Minos by Zeus to guard Crete. Talos was living in the Spileo Melidoniou. He had a single vein that ran from his neck down to his ankle where it was stopped by a bronze pin. Talos travelled three times every day around the island of Crete in order to protect it from attack by foreign ships. He also went to the many villages of Crete to display Minos’ laws inscribed on brazen tablets. When Sardinians invaded the island, Talos turned himself into a red-hot fire and destroyed them. When the Argonauts tried to approach Crete, Talos prevented them by throwing huge rocks at them. Talos was killed by the protector of the Argonauts, Medea, who pulled out his bronze pin and caused Talos to bleed to death.

Minos’ Family

Many of Minos’s brothers, sons and grandsons fled Crete for different areas of the Mediterranean, and voyaged as far as Ireland. New cities were established, several of them being called Minoa. Many myths associated with these cities have their roots in the time that the Minoan fleet dominated the Mediterranean. These myths originated in the golden time of Cretan civilization, named after Minos, that endured for thousands of years.

Heracles and the Cretan Bull

Eurystheus ordered Heracles to capture the Cretan Bull as his seventh labour. It is not known whether this was the same bull that Poseidon sent to Minos for sacrifice and with which Pasiphae fell in love, or if it was the bull that Zeus used to carry Europa to Crete. Minos offered him every assistance but Heracles refused help. After a long struggle, Heracles captured the bull and brought it to Mycenae.

Crete and Delfi

Cretans founded the Mother Earth shrine at Delfi, and left their sacred music, rituals, dances, and calendar as a legacy to the Hellenes (Greeks). The association of priests at Delfi was called the Labrydae, from the Cretan word Labrys (double axe), a symbol of the Minoan civilization.

Crete and Homer

Some time after the decline of the Minoan civilization, Homer refers to Crete in his poems on several occasions. He calls Crete «hospitable, handsome, and fertile», and a land with many cities where Minos ruled. Homer refers to Cretans of many races: Eteocretans, Pelasgians, Ahaeans, Dorians, and Kydonians. While the Eteocretans (True Cretans) were of Minoan descent, all the others were Greek tribes that inhabited various parts of the island at the time of Homer. Kydonians lived on the west side of the island and even today the name of the province around Chania is Kydonia. Kydon was the son of Minos’s wife Pasiphae, and Hermes. The name means «glorious»,» proud».

The Cretan fleet also took part in the expedition against Troy. When the Greek fleet was at Aulis, envoys were sent from King Idomeneas of Crete to Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greeks, announcing that if Agamemnon agreed to share the command with Idomeneas, one hundred Cretan ships would join the Greek expedition to Troy. Agamemnon agreed to this proposal and thus the expedition against Troy became a Creto-Hellenic enterprise.

Several parts of the Odyssey contain possible references to Crete. The cave of the Cyclops, where Odysseus and his companions were trapped by Poliphimos, may have been in the present-day area of Sougia, on the south coast. In southwest Crete high mountains drop to the sea and strong wild goats (the Cretan «kri-kri») roamed these mountains which contain many caves. One such cave in the mountains above Sougia still bears the name the cave of the Cyclops. During his adventures Odysseus also reached the island of Aeolus, the god who governed all the winds. Homer says that an unbroken wall of bronze encircles this island, and below it sheer cliffs rise from the sea. Aeolus trapped the boisterous energies of all the winds in a leather bag which was given to Odysseus. The Imeri Gramvousa, fits the description of the island of Aeolus with its cliffs bronzed from the setting sun and rising high from the often turbulent sea. In addition, the ancient name of Gramvousa was Korykos, which means «leather bag».


TOUTnetThe above text is copied from CreteTOURnet, a site with tourist information about Crete, and you can find it there at French and German as well.



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