ἕβδομον ἐπέταξεν ἆθλον τὸν Κρῆτα ἀγαγεῖν ταῦρον. τινὲς δὲ τὸν ὑπὸ Ποσειδῶνος ἀναδοθέντα ἐκ θαλάσσης, ὅτε καταθύσειν Ποσειδῶνι Μίνως εἶπε τὸ φανὲν ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης. καί φασι θεασάμενον αὐτὸν τοῦ ταύρου τὸ κάλλος τοῦτον μὲν εἰς τὰ βουκόλια ἀποπέμψαι, θῦσαι δὲ ἄλλον Ποσειδῶνι: ἐφ᾽ οἷς ὀργισθέντα τὸν θεὸν ἀγριῶσαι τὸν ταῦρον.
“The seventh contest put upon him was to fetch the Cretan bull… it was the prize Poseidon gave from the sea when Minos promised to sacrifice to Poseidon whatever should appear from the sea. And they say that when he beheld the bull’s beauty, he sent it off to his herds and made a burnt offering of another to Poseidon, at which the god became angry and made the bull savage.”
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Βιβλιοθήκη (Bibliothēkē, “Library”), 3.8.7 (trans. by W. Grizzle)
It took three days for Herakles to get back to Mycenae. His experience at Lake Stymfalos had left him pensive. He found his mind wandering, reconsidering a great number of things he had so recently taken for granted. It was a soul shocking experience, and he knew that he would never be the same. Somehow, he felt even more damaged than before, but also more capable. He saw the damage when he looked at himself now. His cracks were filling-in with gold.
For the first time, Herakles walked back into Eurystheus’ throne without dread in his heart. Herakles threw the dead doom bird down at his cousin’s feet. A few stray feathers flew into the air; the stench of iron and rotting flesh filled the room. Eurystheus’ mouth curled into a sinister, sneering smile. Accepting this labor, he hissed:
“YesS! Now, Herakles, you must leave the Peloponnese. Come! I have prepared a ship for you at Nauplia!”
“To where?” Herakles asked.
“To Crete!” Eurystheus exclaimed, far too jollily.
Herakles left Eurystheus to his sickening glee, and, by mid-day, he had reached the ancient port at Ναυπλία (Nauplia). He hurried onto the waiting ship and embarked southward into the Argolic Gulf. From there, he would sail into the Mediterranean before landing at Crete about three days later.
Κρήτη(Krḗtē, Crete) is a great island in the Mediterranean Sea south and slightly east of the Peloponnese. The king in Crete was a man by the name of Μῑ́νως (Mī́nōs, Minos, pronounced /MY-nōzs/ in the ancient Cretan fashion), who ruled the island kingdom from his palace at Κνωσός, (Knōsós, Knōssós).
When Minos ascended the throne, he prayed to Poseidon for a divine sign to confirm his right to rule. Poseidon heard Minos’ prayers, and so caused a huge, snow-white bull to rise out of the sea. This divine bull was meant only as a loan, however, for Poseidon attached a proviso that Minos should return the bull to Olympus by slaying it and making of it a burnt offering to Poseidon.
Minos refused. Thinking Poseidon’s bull far too grand a specimen to kill, Minos sent it to pasture to mate with his herd, while he sacrificed a regular bull instead. Needless to say, Minos’ betrayal was not well-received atop Mount Olympus.
Poseidon, enraged, conspired with Ἀφορδίτα (Aprodíta, Aphrodīte) to make Πασιφάη (Pasiphaë), Minos’ wife, fall in love with the bull. Pasiphaë desperately longed for the bull’s presence. She followed it into the fields wherever it went. Eventually, she forgot her husband, and her heart filled with lust for only the bull.
She had been gone nearly nine months, when she reappeared at the palace great with child. [Exactly how this occurred is another tale.] Soon after, Pasiphaë gave birth to Μῑνώταυρος (Mīnṓtauros), the minotaur—a grotesque composite of bull and man.
Being an unnatural creature with no natural source of nourishment, the minotaur subsisted on human flesh and blood. Every time Minos banished the minotaur from Knossos, he killed and ate his escorts before finding his way back into the city.
Flummoxed, Minos traveled across the sea to Δελφοί (Delphi, pronounced /del-fee/) to consult the Πύθία (Pythia), oracle of Apollo. Her suggestion was to build an impossibly complex maze underneath the palace at Knossos. Minos had Daedalus construct the labyrinth to imprison this bastard step-son. [The labyrinth, also, is the setting for another tale.]
Poseidon’s wrath was not complete. As an added punishment, he passed his anger into his divine bull, causing it to go wild and ravage the countryside. The bull laid waste everywhere it went. It uprooted crops, broke through orchard walls, and leveled barns. No man could tame it; neither could anyone soothe its pain, nor ease its fury. For forty years, Poseidon’s bull terrorized Crete. Then came Herakles.
Herakles arrived at Crete in late summer, as the fields were beginning to bear their bounty. It was always at this time, near the harvest, when the white bull wreaked the most havoc. It was part of the divine punishment to have the Cretan harvest decimated, little by little. After forty years, famine had taken hold of the island kingdom.
Herakles went to Knossos to seek audience with Minos to ask permission to take the bull away from Crete. Minos received the hero gladly and gave his blessing to Herakles’ labor, but cautioned that Herakles would have to capture the bull by himself, for the famine had made all Cretan men weak from starvation.
That night, Herakles left the palace at Knossos to seek out the bull in the surrounding countryside. Being both huge and snow-white, the divine bull was not hard to find—even in the dark of night. Herakles set upon it immediately. Taking it first by the horns, Herakles began to wrestle the bull. All through the night they wrestled, and by dawn, the bull was exhausted: yielding at last to Herakles’ strength.
Wasting no time, Herakles drove the bull onto his ship and set sail for the Peloponnese.
Making port again at Nauplia, Herakles disembarked and drove the bull north to Mycenae on foot.
The bull, like the boar before it, terrified Eurystheus at first sight. Instead of cowering in a jar, Eurystheus instead sent the bull away to breed with his cattle. Recognizing Herakles’ success, Eurystheus sent him away once more: this time to Thrace, where he was to capture the man-eating mares of Diomedes.
Poseidon’s bull, still wild with the sea god’s rage, easily broke free of Eurystheus’ walled fields. He wandered the Peloponnese for years afterward, terrorizing the people of Sparta to the south and Corinth to the north before ultimately crossing the isthmus and ending up in Marathon: some seventy-five miles to the northeast of Mycenae. At Marathon, the bull came to be known as the Marathonian Bull, and it was there that he crossed paths with another hero called Theseus, but that is yet another tale for another time.
Plate 1. UNKNOWN, Bull-Leaping Fresco, fresco from the ancient palace at Knossos, Crete, 1450-1400 B.C. Painted plaster, 30.8” x 41.1”. Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Ηρακλείου (Heraklion Archaeological Museum), Crete.
Plate 2. SETTECAMINI PAINTER, Pasiphaë and the Minotaur, tondo within an Attic red figure kylix, 340-320 B.C., from Vulci. Ceramic, approx. 10″ in diameter. Cabinet des Médailles, Paris.
Plate 3. COLLIER, JOHN, Priestess of Delphi, the Pythia (priestess) of the oracle at ancient Delphi, Hellas. 1891. Oil on canvas, 63” x 31.5”. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
Plate 4. UNKNOWN, The bull relief fresco, from the palace at Knossos, West Bastion, North Entrance Passage, neopalatial period, 1600-1450 B.C. Painted plaster. Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Ηρακλείου (Heraklion Archaeological Museum), Crete.
Plate 5. UNKNOWN, Bull’s Head Rhyton, stone rhyton fashioned into the shape of a bull’s head, most likely used for ritual purposes, 1450-1400 B.C. Found at the little palace at Knossos. The bull’s head is carved soapstone inlaid with seashell (snout), rock crystal (eyes), and red jasper (rim and irises); the horns are wood overlaid with gold leaf, 10.24” tall. Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Ηρακλείου (Heraklion Archaeological Museum), Crete.
Plate 6. ANDOKIDES PAINTER, detail of Herakles Leading a Bull to Sacrifice, red-figure side of an Attic bilingual amphora, 525-520 B.C. Ceramic, 20 15/16”. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.