Greek Mythology

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Student Question

What is the moral of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur?

Quick answer:

The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur does not a moral in the modern sense of a story that communicates an ethical lesson to its audience. Instead, the myth is likely aetiological in origin and is rooted in the establishment and later dismantlement of Athenian-Minoan tributary relationships.

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It is anachronistic and often counterproductive to view Greek mythology through the modern lens of moral allegory. While such stories did exist in the ancient world, like Aesop's Fables which are dated to c. 6th century BCE, classical myths about heroes and gods should be seen as fundamentally amoral. Instead, they were used to reinforce social customs such as xenia (hospitality or guest-friendship) and eusebeia (correct worship of the gods) or as aetiological explanations of natural phenomena, historical events, or important cultural traditions.

In this way, the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is most likely an aetiological myth that explains the complicated history between Athens and Crete. Between c. 2700 and 1420 BCE, Crete was the dominant socio-political power in the Aegean, with this period being referred to as the Minoan Period or the Aegean Bronze Age. During this time, Athens, then a relatively insignificant polis, was a tributary under the Minoan empire and forced to send annual gifts of gold, grain, and possibly young men and women to the Minoan capital in Knossos.

Following this interpretation, the mythical demand of King Minos that Athens send seven men and seven women to be devoured by the Minotaur at Knossos serves as an allegory for Athenian subordination to Crete during the Minoan Period. Consequently, the Athenian prince Theseus's slaying of the minotaur is a symbolic representation of Athens' growing political and military strength as a Hellenic polis and its ultimate usurpation of power in the Aegean.

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