Though they merit only brief cameos, two of the most intriguing characters in Dante’s Inferno are Minos and the Minotaur. Both share Taurine features, mythological stories, and a supernatural bloodline. The fact that they are (though rather indirectly) related draws even stronger parallels between them. Their lives in mythology and in Dante’s underworld are linked, in the most intriguing of ways.
Zeus, in the form of a white bull, abducted Phoenician princess Europa to the island of Crete whereby she bore him a son, Minos. So Minos was born by the mating of a royal woman and a supernatural bull.
As the son of Zeus and king of Crete, Minos became "so renowned for justice as to be called the Favorite of the Gods" (The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, page 235). Like most morals this went straight to his head. He boasted that he could attain any favor from the gods that he asked—and then, set out to prove it. "As a confirmation of his right to rule, he prayed that a bull would appear from the sea, which he vowed to sacrifice" (http://vanaheim.princeton.edu/Myth/pasiphae.htm). Poseidon, god of the sea, was impressed with this gesture and so sent forth a magnificent creature—a white bull. Ironically, Minos’ wife Pasiphae was daughter of the sun god Helios. "As daughter of Helios and Perseis, she may well have been originally a goddess of the moon, and as such represented under the form of a white cow." (Murrary’s Manual of Mythology, page 286).
While he was widely renowned for his wisdom and fair judgement, Minos here makes an absolutely stupid mistake. He was so giddy with possessing the white bull, being that white bulls do not tend to exist in nature, that he decided to keep it. Instead of sacrificing it to Poseidon as promised, he sacrificed an ordinary bull from his own flock. Poseidon was immediately overcome with rage by this insult, and as the Greek gods tended to do, he decided to get his own underhanded revenge.
What better contrapasso could Poseidon have come up with? He decided not coincidentally to cause Minos’ wife to fall deeply into an obsessive lust with the very bull Minos had selfishly kept. Pasiphae, the white cow overcome with desire for the white bull, decided she would be satisfied. Soliciting the help of a master craftsman, she had the frame of a cow built—a contraption that would let her mate with Poseidon’s gift. From this unholy, violent, and sodomite union the Minotaur was conceived.
Half beast and half man, the creature was born with a carnal desire for human flesh. Only his body was that of a bone-crushingly strong man; his head and likely his brain were those of a bull. While he thrived on violence, it was only because it was within his nature, and thereby his murderous acts were done with incontinence and maliciousness, but not brutality. It seems "…that Dante in his classification of sins does not follow Aristotle’s grouping of them [minotaurs] into incontinent, malicious, and brutal, but recognizes the first two only…an indication that in the sins of the seventh circle he found the equivalent of the Greek philosopher’s [un-writeable Greek word]—the result of giving a free range to the brutal, as distinct from the common animal, impulses" (Dante His Times and His Work, page ninety-seven). Because of the Minotaur’s bloodlust, Minos was forced to have a complicated maze built, at the center of which he placed Asterius, the Minotaur. [Irony strikes again here, in that Minos used the same craftsman to construct the Labyrinth as Pasiphae had asked to construct the cow frame]. At intervals of nine years he would release seven Athenian maidens and seven of their youths into the Labyrinth as fodder for the beast—he did this out of revenge to Athens, the city that killed one of his young sons.
It is not unreasonable to question here why Minos did not simply dispose of the Minotaur in the conventional way: kill him and drop the body off a cliff. Well, recognizing at last his fatal mistake against Poseidon and fearing further retribution, Minos was forced to leave things as they were. This meant he had to keep the Minotaur alive. And so, years passed with the deaths of many a maiden and youth at the hand of Asterius. Only Mino’s daughter Adriadne knew the secret to the maze. In the end, she told her lover, a hero named Thessius. He entered the maze (using a spool of golden thread to find his way back out) and clubbed the Minotaur to its death. It is better put in the form of a poem.
The labyrinthine forest’s spoor
Leads to the patient Minotaur.
Deep in the dark and structured core
The bull-man waits inside the maze
And he who dares explore will raze
The beast of fear behind the door
No Adriadne and no crone
Will point the way. Each man alone
Must thread his path, unreel his own
life spool and fumble to the lair.
Each man must journey naked there
Not arm himself with wing nor stone.
For he who goes his armor shed
and walks with all that once he fled
That man will face the horned head
The unimaginable eyes
And find there where the monster dies
The ichor that the terror bled.
(Myth and Meaning, page 202).
This poem can be seen as a metaphor of a sinner’s journey through hell. For one, aside from Dante all the sinners tossed into hell are unguided. Also, the twists and turns of the Labyrinth are symbolic of the winding passages of Dante’s Inferno, and the journey to the center of the maze symbolizes of the journey through the pit. Finally, the Minotaur itself with horned head at the core of the maze appears satanic. In many ways, these two characters: Minos and the Minotaur are representative of the entirety of hell.
Now as to why Dante assigned Minos and his semi-bestial stepson their respective posts in the Inferno. The Minotaur’s life revolved around violence, from his conception, undoubtedly his birth (given his monstrous proportions), his murderous lifestyle, and his violent end. In Dante’s version of hell, the Seventh Circle is where shades guilty of the sins of the leopard, Violence, run amuck. When Dante and Virgil arrive at this circle, the Minotaur is enraged to the point it thrashes about with incredible vehemence yet cannot move from where it stands. "The Minotaur, then, becomes and emblem of self-contradictory action, an untrustworthy image of its confusion" (Dante’s ‘Inferno’: Difficulty and Dead Poetry, page 169). Its uncontrollable, incontinent violence makes it the perfect representative for the Violent. There is no doubt, therefore, as to the reason Dante assigned him to guard the Seventh Circle. As to Minos, his position in hell is equally well suited. His life, albeit his one tragic mistake was devoted to fierce insight and tyrannical justice. Minos was as bull-headed as the Minotaur when it came to justice. Nothing save the crime committed mattered; not rank or reason, but only repentance changed the ruling when it came to Minos’ just sentencing of crime. He even had the additional qualification of being one of the three judges of Hades’ mythological hell. Because of all this, he makes the prefect judge for Dante’s Christian hell.
However, Dante did not take Minos in just as he was. Dante enjoyed putting the inverse of what was holy into hell. Heaven’s highest virtues of Divine Wisdom, Primal Love, and Omnipotence are mocked in hell’s Ignorance, Hatred, and Impotence. Likewise, "the beasts…, three vices in opposition to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, under transmutation become the Worm at the center of the universe. They are represented in Upper Hell by Charon, Minos, and the three-faced Cerberus. …that of Minos the mockery of judgement" (Symbolism in Medieval Thought and its Consummation in the Divine Comedy, page382). Minos is the moral inverse of Christ—instead of perpetually forgiving sin as Christ did he condemns the sinners every time. Also, Dante emphasizes inhuman qualities of hell by turning characters into bestial shadows of their former selves. Take for instance Satan, who went from a beautiful feathered-winged angel in heaven to a bat-winged devil in hell. So Dante "transforms him [Minos] into an irate and hideous monster with a tail. …the obvious purpose of the brutalization is to present a figure symbolic of the guilty conscience of the wretches who come before it to make their confessions. Dante freely reshapes his materials to his own purpose" (The Inferno, page62). "Like Charon, Minos is drawn from Virgil’s underworld, and like Charon, he represents a violent, comic vision of how judgement will appear to those who, in their lies, have not loved justice. But the comedy is not directed only at the sinners, nor at the solemn inadequacies of Virgil’s scheme: Dante himself is being mocked, for the actions which Minos performs are themselves a representation of the kind of judgements which Dante [Pilgrim] had performed…" (Dante’s ‘Inferno’: Difficulty and Dead Poetry, page 79). Dante Pilgrim all along has tried to judge the sinners by what he himself thought reasonable—a job hardly suited to him, and better left to Minos.
The culmination of their mythological tales and their roles in the Inferno make Minos and the Minotaur the perfect subjects of medieval and modern studies. Whether it is just because the stories are so interesting, or so allegorical, the fact is there is still great interest in the both of them. Over the course of my research, especially over the web, I found numerous sites and companies dedicated to the two of them. At http://www.dujour.com:8080/dujour/maze_index.jsp for instance, there is a game whereby a player "saves Athens from the ravages of King Minos and the Minotaur" for prizes. Alas, Minos and the Minotaur always seem to be the underdogs.