Far beneath the palace of the treacherous King Minos, in the damp darkness of an inescapable labryinth, a horrific beast stalks the endless corridors of its prison, enraged with a bloodlust so intense that its deafening roar shakes the Earth. It is easy to see why the Minotaur myth has a long history of being disregarded as pure fiction. However, there’s a good chance that the Minotaur and other monsters and gods were created by our early ancestors to rationalize the terrifying things that they saw in the natural world but did not understand.
And while we can’t explain every aspect of their stories, there may be some actual science that reveals itself when we dissect them for clues. So, as far as we know, there have never been human-bull hybrids. But the earliest material written about the Minotaur doesn’t even mention its physical form. So that’s probably not the key part of the story. What the different tellings do agree upon, however, is that the beast lives underground, and when it bellows, it causes tremendous problems. The various myths are also specific in stating that genius inventor Daedalus, carved out the labyrinth beneath the island of Crete.
Archeological attempts to find the fabled maze have come up empty handed. But Crete itself has yielded the most valuable clue of all in the form of seismic activity. Crete sits on a piece of continental crust called the Aegean Block, and has a bit of oceanic crust known as the Nubian Block sliding right beneath it. This sort of geologic feature, called a subduction zone, is common all over the world and results in lots of earthquakes. However, in Crete the situation is particularly volatile as the Nubian Block is attached to the massive buoyant continental crust that is Africa.
When the Nubian Block moves, it does not go down nearly as easily or as steeply as oceanic crust does in most other subduction zones. Instead, it violently and abruptly forces sections of the Mediterranean upwards in an event called uplift, and Crete is in uplift central. In the year 2014, Crete had more than 1300 earthquakes of magnitude 2.0 or higher. By comparison, in the same period of time, Southern California, a much larger area, experienced a mere 255 earthquakes.
Of course, we don’t have detailed seismic records from the days of King Minos, but we do know from fossil records and geologic evidence that Crete has experienced serious uplift events that sometimes exceeded 30 feet in a single moment. Contrast this for a moment with the island of Hawaii, where earthquakes and volcanic activity were tightly woven to legends surrounding Pele, a goddess both fiery and fair. Like the Minotaur, her myths included tales of destruction, but they also contained elements of dance and creation. So why did Hawaii end up with Pele and Crete end up with the Minotaur?
The difference likely comes down to the lava that followed many of Hawaii’s worst earthquakes. The lava on Hawaii is made of basalt, which once cooled, is highly fertile. Within a couple of decades of terrible eruptions, Islanders would have seen vibrant green life thriving on new peninsulas made of lava. So it makes sense that the mythology captured this by portraying Pele as creator as well as a destroyer.
As for the people of Crete, their earthquakes brought only destruction and barren lands, so perhaps for them the unnatural and deadly Minotaur was born. The connections between mythical stories and the geology of the regions where they originated teach us that mythology and science are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are rooted in explaining and understanding the world. The key difference is that where mythology uses gods, monsters and magic, science uses measurements, records and experiments.