The Mother of the Bull

Warning – This post is rambling, driven by UPG and uses the words “what if” too many times.

I believe the Minoans worshipped the god Dionysos and the goddess Ariadne as a sacred bull and bee cult. Being a polytheist society the Minoans venerated many gods, but the cults of Dionysos as a bull god and Ariadne as a bee goddess were of especial importance to them, as indicated by their art and reference of the offerings made to “The Mistress of the Labyrinth” in Linear B texts.

Ariade is the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, and half-sister to the Minotaur. According to Athenian mythographers, Pasiphae was consumed with unnatural lust for a mystical white bull which her husband refused to sacrifice to the god Poseidon. Offended, Poseidon caused Pasiphae to mate with the bull, spawning the monstrous cannibalistic Minotaur. To keep the Minotaur from causing havoc, Minos had the monster sealed away inside a cunningly crafted maze, and sent a sacrifice of seven women and seven men each year to sate the creature’s hunger. However the hero Theseus, a son of Poseidon and the founder of Athens, slays the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help (she gives him a ball of thread so he can find his way out of the labyrinth) and flees Crete with Ariadne, only to later abandon her on the island of Naxos.

I have a couple of issues with this narrative.

1) Pasiphae the Adulteress.
According to a fragment from the 5th Century BCE lyric poet Bacchyilides, Pasiphae was compelled to satisfy her “unspeakable sickness” by having a wooden cow created in which she could entice the bull of Minos to copulate with her. The author of Pasiphae’s desire, the sea god Poseidon, is angered by Minos’s refusal to sacrifice a fine white bull, which Poseidon send to Minos for the explicit purpose of being sacrificed back to Him, and instead makes Pasiphae lust after it. The tone in these myths is always the same; mocking the Cretan queen for her perversion, making her a figure of derision and ridicule.  The crime is Minos’s, though it is Pasiphae who must pay the price. But perhaps Pasiphae offended Poseidon another way.

Dionysos is a bull god. This is evidenced in His epithets Taurokeros (bull-horned) and Tauroprosopos (bull-faced). He is called bull-faced in Orphic Hymn #30 – To Dionysos, and appears with bull horns in Greek and Italian art. His followers practiced omophagia; a ritual communion where Dionysos’s essence was called into the body of a young bull, which was then sacrificed and eaten raw. Bulls clearly had religious significance to the Minoans – frescoes and clay figures depicting bull-leaping and the various bull-head rhyton (drinking vessels). Because of this, I believe that Dionysos was the chief god of the Minoans, and they venerated Him as a bull god, along with His wife the goddess Ariadne, who is the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. What if the mystical white bull sent by Poseidon was Dionysos? What if Poseidon’s anger at Minos was because the king refused to sacrifice Dionysos’s worship and to adopt the cult of Poseidon? What if instead, Pasiphae embraces the beautiful bull-horned Dionysos and His cult?

Pasiphae is the daughter of the sun god Helios. Her name means “wide-shining”, is thought to be a reference to the moon, and indeed the geographer Pausanias claimed that “Pasiphae” was an epithet for the lunar goddess Selene. One of Pasiphae’s siblings is the sorceress Circe, and Pasiphae herself is reckoned to be an accomplished magician. With her solar and lunar connections, and the moon-horns of the white bull, there is a sense of a celestial bull cult. If Dionysos is the white bull who comes to mate with the Minoan queen, there is a striking similarity between this and the rites of Anthersteria, during which Dionysos engages in hieros gamos (divine marriage) with the basilinna (queen, though more of a figurehead than a political power) of Athens. If this is the case, then Pasiphae also has a role as a priestess of Dionysos, as well as the mother of His celestial bull-horned son, Asterion.

2) The Monstrous Minotaur.
The Minotaur is the one of the most recognisable figures in Greek mythology. A bull-headed humanoid monster with a lust for human flesh, trapped inside a cunning maze from which it, and its victims, cannot escape, until it is slain by the hero Theseus. As with Pasiphae, the Minotaur is mostly damned in Athenian art and literature as a despised monster. But did the Minoans feel the same way about their starry prince? A single kylix (cup) from Southern Italy (incidentally where Dionysos’s cult flourished) shows Pasiphae cradling her son on her knee, and coins from the 4th century BCE found at Knossos show the labyrinth with a star at the centre. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, the Minotaur’s name is Asterion – “The Starry”, which makes a certain sense given that his mother is a lunar sorceress/goddess and his grandfather is Helios. Add Dionysos as a lunar white bull and you have a celestial holy family.

There is also the question of the labyrinth. In myth, the labyrinth is a vast maze, created to contain the monstrous Minotaur. But a labyrinth isn’t a maze. Labyrinths have a single pathway leading to the centre and back out again; one cannot get lost inside a labyrinth. So what if the purpose of the labyrinth was not containment, but initiation? The star at the centre is Asterion, the starry bull god, who is Dionysos’s son, and in the way of gods is partly Dionysos as well. He is an initiator, a challenger, those who enter the labyrinth are “slain” by Asterion, for when they emerge again they have undergone a ritual death and are changed. Asterion is not a monster contained in a maze, but a beloved prince, semi-divine brother of Ariadne. What if Ariadne gives Theseus the thread, not as a means to help the hero find his way out of the labyrinth, but as a symbol of the lineage of initiation into the mysteries? Instead, Theseus kills Asterion (he is the son of Poseidon after all), and takes Araidne to Naxos, where he leaves her.

Sannion of The House of Vines mentions in his book Ecstatic that Poseidon and Dionysos appear to have a level of antagonism between Them. If Poseidon was offended by the Minoans preference to Dionysos He may have ordered Asterion’s death through His son Theseus, and His followers may have dragged Asterion’s and Pasiphae’s names through the mud. Dionysos is very protective of His followers and His family, as evidenced in The Bacchae, and this could be the reason behind the ill-feelings the two gods have towards each other.

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