Read an Excerpt
There was a time when Athens was not the
major city that it is today, but a small town
perched on the edge of a cliff some three
miles from the sea. King Aegeus was on
the throne and he was a good ruler. There
were no wars, there was plenty of food
to go round and no plagues or monsters
inhabited the land.
And yet, once every seven years, something
strange would happen. There would be
no alarm, no signal, but suddenly the streets
would empty. Men and women would hurry
home, avoiding each other’s eyes, gathering
up their children and taking them indoors. It
would seem as if Athens had been deserted.
And inside their homes, families would sit
together, hiding in the shadows, and nobody
A stranger, walking through the town,
might think that some terrible catastrophe
had just occurred. And yet there would be
no sign of any damage, like that caused by
an earthquake or a fire. The streets would
be clean and orderly, even if all the shops
were closed for business. Trees carrying the
first spring blossoms would surround him if
he strolled into the parks.
Standing there, the stranger might feel a
cold wind whisper through the streets and,
if he listened carefully, he might just be able
to hear what it was saying.
‘Minos is coming. Minos will soon be
here . . . ’
And hearing that, he would understand.
He would turn and hurry out of this accursed
place, leaving the wretched people
to their fate. Throughout Ancient Greece
everyone knew what had happened to the
son of King Minos and the cruel revenge
that he had demanded. They also knew the
terrible secret that lay hidden deep underneath
But even the breeze was too afraid to
speak that name. It would rush through the
streets saying nothing more, twisting round
the corners as if it too was in a hurry to get
The Birth of the Minotaur
Minos was the king of Crete, the Island of
the Hundred Cities. He was one of the most
powerful sovereigns in the world and his
island was one of the most magnificent. Its
harbour was huge, built to hold a hundred
ships and surrounded by towering walls
and guarded by turrets that were manned
twenty-four hours a day. The capital –
Knossos – was a mass of colour and life. The
Cretan people, all too aware of their status,
loved to wear expensive clothes and to eat
the most luxurious food, brought to them
from the furthest corners of the civilized
world. The market stalls, jammed together
in the narrow streets, were always piled
high with the finest goods, including silks
and satins, exotic spices, ivory and jewels,
rare parrots, performing monkeys and
much, much more. While the sun shone,
the buying and selling never stopped and
even at night, once the torches had been lit,
dancers and fire-eaters, snake charmers and
magicians would come out to entertain the
And yet there was a darker side to Crete.
And even Minos, for all his wealth and
success, could not escape from its shadow.
The Minotaur. It was like a cancer beneath
the skin, the unpleasant truth that spoils
everything that is exposed to it. Minos
would have gladly emptied the markets
and thrown all the riches into the sea if he
could have got rid of it. And the worst of it
was – it was all his fault. If it hadn’t been for
his own greed and stupidity, the Minotaur
would never have existed. He had made one
mistake. He had been paying for it ever
This is how it had happened.
Every year, for many years, Minos had
sacrificed the best bull from his herd to
Poseidon. Crete depended on its sea power
and Poseidon was, of course, the god of the
sea. One year, however, acting in a moment
of madness, Minos had decided to hold
back his best animal . . . a huge white bull,
the like of which he had never seen before.
From such a beast he could breed a whole
herd of prize cattle. It would be a complete
waste to slaughter it and then burn its remains
on an altar. Surely Poseidon wouldn’t
notice if he sacrificed another, slightly less
magnificent bull in its place.
That was what Minos thought, but of course
Poseidon did notice and his anger was as
terrible as his revenge was strange and cruel.
He left Minos untouched, but turned his
powers on the king’s wife, the young and
innocent Queen Pasiphaë, making her fall in
love with the white bull. Not knowing what
she was doing, the queen stole away one
stormy night to the stables and it was from
this unnatural union that the Minotaur was
Minotaur means, simply, Minos bull.
King Minos and his wife looked after the
ugly creature for as long as they could, trying
to keep it away from prying eyes. But
the moment it was strong enough to walk,
the Minotaur broke free and left the palace.
In the days that followed, it went berserk,
destroying much of Crete and killing many
of its inhabitants. It was as if a psychopathic
murderer had arrived on the island. It didn’t
kill for any other reason than because it
Minos was filled with shame and horror.
In desperation, he turned to the Oracle
to find out what to do. He couldn’t kill the
creature. It was, after all, his wife’s child.
But how could he deal with it? How could
he avoid the terrible scandal that now
As usual, the Oracle had all the answers.
She told the king to build a labyrinth at
Knossos in which to conceal both the
Minotaur and his own unfortunate wife.
The maze would be so complicated, with so
many twists and turns, so many false starts
and dead ends, that no man, once trapped
inside it, would find his way out. The
two of them could remain there, safe and
secure. Minos would never see either of
Minos did what the Oracle had suggested.
He commissioned his court
architect, a man called Daedalus, to do the
work – and the maze was so fantastic that
several of the slaves who built it disappeared
without trace. And that might have
been the end of it. Minos might have continued
his rule, alone and lonely, but a little
wiser about how to deal with the gods.
However, a few months later, another
event took place that was once more going
to change his life. Minos had a son whom
he loved, a boy called Androgeus. Shortly
after the Minotaur had been incarcerated,
Androgeus set sail for the town of Athens to
take part in the Pan-Athenian games, which
were held there every five years. He was a
strong, skilful athlete and he did well, winning
several of the events outright. Soon
he found himself being cheered on as the
favourite of the crowd, much to the resentment
of the royal court and in particular the
nephews of King Aegeus.
These nephews were an unpleasant bunch
who spent their time fighting in the streets
and lounging around the palace. Now, jealous
of the success of Androgeus, they lay
in ambush one evening after the games had
ended and fell on him as he walked home
to his lodgings. Androgeus fought bravely
but he was heavily outnumbered. The gang
killed him and left his body in the road.
When Minos heard of this he was beside
himself with grief and rage. At once he
ordered his fleet to set sail, and the next
day, when King Aegeus awoke, he found the
town surrounded. Fighting was impossible.
The Cretan army completely encircled the
town; and the fleet itself, anchored in the
shallows just off the coast, was larger than
the whole of Athens. Aegeus had no choice.
Kneeling before Minos, he surrendered himself
and his town to the Cretan king’s mercy.
‘I come in search of my son’s assassins,’
Minos said. ‘Yield them to me and I will leave
‘I can’t do that,’ King Aegeus replied. ‘I’m
sorry, great king. It was a miserable deed
and I would gladly give you the killers
if I knew who they were. But I don’t! The
cowards remain hidden. And so we must all
suffer for their crime.’
‘And suffer you will,’ Minos said. He
thought for a moment, then came to a
terrible decision. ‘This is my decree,’ he continued.
‘I have lost a son. The sons and the
daughters of Athens will have to pay the
price. At the end of every Great Year, which
is to say, every seven years, you will send
me your seven bravest young men and your
seven most beautiful maidens. Do not ask
what will happen to them! All that matters is
that you will never see them again.
‘This will be your tribute to me for the
death of my eldest child. Fail, and Athens
There was nothing King Aegeus could do.
Every seven years, the fourteen Athenians
were chosen by lottery and taken away by
ship to Crete and an unknown death. And in
Crete, while the colourful throng jostled in
the streets, the Minotaur stalked its victims
through the subterranean maze and killed
them to satisfy its lust for blood.