4,000 Years Later, the Minotaur Bares Its Fangs Beneath Crete

A stunning archeological discovery means an ancient myth might finally get another chapter

An aerial view of the four-thousand year old structure
An aerial view of the four-thousand year old structure
Greek Ministry of Culture

Four thousand years later, a tale of love, blood and sacrifice may finally be getting another chapter. In a translated statement earlier this month, the Greek Ministry of Culture (GMC) revealed that Cretan construction workers had stumbled upon something enormous — a circular, underground complex with an “almost labyrinthine structure.” Set in the northwest corner of Crete’s Kastelli, the site rests within a tremendous hill, and spans at least 157 feet in diameter. Its basic design consists of eight stone rings — each incised by narrow, functional openings — which together frame a central room, currently tagged “Zone A.” Zone A was accessible from two entrances “revealed on [its] SW and NW sides” and carved into the thick stone walls framing the chamber. 

In a stroke of archeological luck, the excavation site was littered with period pottery fragments, enabling researchers to “tentatively date the building to 2000 to 1700” BCE per LiveScience. These dates would coincide with the zenith of Minoan civilization, a proto-Greek entity which established itself on Crete around 3000 BCE. The Minoans — a modern moniker for a people with a yet-to-be-deciphered language — boasted a wealthy society famed for its palaces, which it built in abundance across the Cretan mainland. Expectedly, initial theories regarding the complex at Kastelli suggested it might be a palace swallowed by thousands of years of earth and time. Since then, archeologists have pushed against that idea, citing as evidence the telltale signs of a Minoan-built palace.

Chief among these structures is the Palace of Minos, a now-desecrated crown jewel of ancient Knossos. Named for the legendary King Minos, the palace exemplifies Minoan palatial architecture, explained the Jerusalem Post, “centered around a large open area with corridors leading to numerous smaller rooms.” Conversely, “the Kastelli structure’s circular design aligns more closely with that of Minoan tombs,” which were traditionally domed. Some experts theorize that the complex may have been used as a community ritual space, one in which feasts and sacrifices were offered to the gods. Despite that, the Kastelli site’s distinctiveness and “labyrinthine” structure place it in a class of its own. “This is a unique find of great interest,” declared the Minister of Culture.

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To understand the significance of a monumental maze hidden beneath Crete, one must trek back 4,000 years, to the mythical reign of King Minos. Though the details of his kingship, and the truth of his existence, have been muddled by time, Minos has long been associated with the tale of the Minotaur. As punishment for refusing to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon, the sea god forced Minos’ wife to bear the beast’s child — the result was a half-breed, a vicious hybrid with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Alarmed by the creature, Minos colluded with the legendary inventor Daedalus to build it an enclosure: an enormous labyrinth buried beneath Crete. According to ancient sources, Minos would exact tribute from his conquered Athenian enemies every nine years, reaping “seven youths and seven maidens be sent” into the depths of the labyrinth.

Sickened by the Athenian blood spilled on Minoan land, King Aegeus of Athens allowed his son, Theseus, to volunteer as a sacrifice to the maze. Believing the boy to be a competent leader and fierce combatant, he tasked him with slaughtering the Minotaur, liberating the tributes and corroding Minos’s iron grip on mainland Greece. Upon his arrival in Crete, Theseus became the object of Princess Ariadne’s affection. With her assistance, and at the suggestion of Daedalus, the Athenian prince entered the labyrinth with a ball of string, which he unraveled as he worked towards the beast in the central chamber. According to the historian Apollodorus, Theseus “killed [the Minotaur] by smiting him with his fists; and drawing the clue after him made his way out again.”

Though Theseus would become a legendary Athenian king, the labyrinth disappeared from the mythological record alongside its monster. Across the handful of ancient accounts mentioning its existence, none describe its fate after the prince’s escape. So, the maze was buried under sediment and history, little more than tall-tale and a distant voice demanding “what if?” It’s unlikely that the structure at Kastelli was Daedalus’ brainchild, but its winding hallways and central chamber will remain eerily familiar to any lover of classical mythology. Though GMC’s press release is technical and neutral, the Minister may have had a smug smile on her face as she wrote the words “almost labyrinthine.”

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