There were two Cretan kings named Minos, the first being the father of the second. A son of Zeus and Europa, Minos I proved to be a progressive ruler, for under him Crete became the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean. He encouraged trade, constructed major public works, instituted an excellent legal code, established an educational system, and helped the arts to flourish. Through his wisdom Crete grew into an important civilization. His brother Rhadamanthus was also known for his just rulership, and when Minos I and Rhadamanthus died they were made judges in the netherworld.
Minos II was different from his father — proud and selfish. It was said of him that he pursued the maid Britomartis so relentlessly that she plunged to her death from a cliff rather than submit to him. Minos once offended Zeus, who decreed that any woman he lay with would die. However, he was cured by the exiled Procris, who fashioned a female model that drew off the poison in Minos as he lay with it. Minos took Pasiphaë as his queen and fathered several children on her, most of whom were badly fated. Thus Ariadne was deserted by Theseus; Phaedra committed suicide; Catreus was killed by his own son; Androgeus was killed by the bull of Marathon, which started the war with Athens; and Glaucus was drowned in a vat of honey, although the prophet Polyeidus brought him back to life with a magic herb.
The reason for these fatalities and misadventures lay with Minos. He had a knack for attracting disaster. In dedicating a temple to Poseidon he prayed to the god to send him a bull for sacrificial purposes. Poseidon rewarded him with a magnificent white bull, but Minos decided to keep it for himself and offer up another bull in its place. To punish this outrage Poseidon arranged that Pasiphaë, the wife of Minos, fall in love with the splendid bull. Pasiphaë confided her passion to the inventor Daedalus, who made a wooden cow to conceal her. In this manner the union was consummated, and Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur, a beast with a man's body and the head of a bull. To conceal this monstrosity Minos had Daedalus build a huge palace with countless rooms and baffling passageways from which no one could escape. When this Labyrinth was completed Minos and his family and servants moved in, while the Minotaur was put in the nethermost region of the palace. Only Minos and Daedalus knew the key to this enormous place.
One day Minos received word from King Aegeus of Athens that Minos' son, Androgeus, had been killed by the bull of Marathon. Minos did not believe the report, suspecting political treachery. So he went on an expedition against Athens and its allies. In laying siege to the town of Megara, Minos attracted the love of Scylla, the daughter of King Nisus. Nisus was invulnerable because his life depended on a lock of purple hair above his forehead. However, Scylla, knowing the secret, betrayed her father and her city by cutting off the lock. Far from being grateful, Minos flew into a rage at the lovesick girl, who asked him to take her home with him. He punished Scylla by towing her through the water by her feet, which drowned her. Having conquered Megara, Minos attacked Athens and got the city to surrender. He then demanded a tribute of seven maids and seven youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur every nine years.
When the next payment of human beings came due Minos took an instant dislike to young Theseus. He sent an undefeated giant of a boxer against Theseus, and the giant was trounced. Theseus offered the trophy of flowers to Ariadne, who fell in love with him and vowed to help him. She called upon Daedalus, who was an Athenian like Theseus. Having killed a nephew, an apprentice more skilled than he, in a rage of envy, Daedalus had had to flee to Crete. But he was homesick and resolved to aid his fellow townsman. He gave Theseus the thread by which to find his way out of the palace after destroying the Minotaur. In making his getaway Theseus set fire to the palace, sank a good portion of Minos' navy, and deserted Ariadne at Naxos. Minos was infuriated, knowing that Daedalus had helped Theseus, and he imprisoned the inventor and his son.
Daedalus fashioned a means of escape for himself and his boy Icarus — two pairs of wings made of a wooden frame and feathers glued with wax. The inventor instructed his son not to fly too high or the sun would melt the wax, or too low, for the water would destroy the wings. The pair then mounted the sky as Daedalus took the lead. Before they had gone very far, Icarus became intoxicated with his new powers of flight and began to ascend to get a better view of the Aegean Sea. Unthinkingly he soared dangerously close to the sun, which melted the wax holding together the feathers, and Icarus plunged into the sea and drowned.
Eventually Daedalus found refuge with the king of Sicily, Cocalus. In his new place of exile Daedalus constructed an impregnable fortress. Meanwhile, Minos came searching for the traitor who had undermined him, arriving at last at Cocalus' court. He had brought a spiral shell of intricate design and he offered a reward to the one who could thread it. Cocalus took the shell and gave it to Daedalus, who threaded it by tying a string to an ant and putting it in the spiral maze. When Cocalus handed back the shell Minos knew he had found Daedalus and demanded the fugitive. Cocalus temporized. That evening when Minos was in his bath Cocalus' daughters poured boiling water on him and he died. The Cretans besieged Cocalus' fortress for several years but to no avail. Since all of Minos' sons had died before him, the Cretan throne passed to others.
The stories of Minos II and Daedalus carry a strong element of poetic justice. When Minos withholds the sacred bull his wife become bestial, bringing scandal upon him. By killing Scylla, who betrayed her father and home for him, Minos seems to call down the betrayal of his own daughter, Ariadne, upon himself, not to mention her abandonment by Theseus. By requiring an unjust tribute of human beings from Athens he draws Theseus to his court, who kills the Minotaur, fires the palace, and sinks his ships. Daedalus must pay for killing his own nephew by becoming an exile, losing his only son and working for others as an honored slave. These are not coincidences but the fulfillment of a moral law by which sins are punished in kind. The Greeks knew that character determines its own calamities.
But these legends point to a larger reality than the merely personal. In them we see a condensed account of the rise and fall of Crete as a civilization. Early in this century when Sir Arthur Evans excavated at Cnossus he found a labyrinthine palace and ample evidence of a resplendent culture. Yet the legends of Crete show some grasp of how a culture grows and declines. Minos I is selfless, dedicated to producing a great civilization, and his personality is submerged in this effort. Under such a king a land is likely to prosper. Minos II, however, asserts his personality at the expense of Crete and his own family. He offends two major gods, leads his navy on missions of personal vengeance, builds a very costly palace for himself, and invites defeat by demanding a terrible tribute from Athens. Here we see Theseus from a different angle, not so much as the swashbuckling hero but as the instrument of Minos' humiliation and as an agent of Crete's decline. A king as selfish as Minos II seems likely to bring ruin to a small country with limited resources, and wealth and power tend to foster rulers like that. We have no way of knowing whether Crete deteriorated because of bad leadership, but these legends make it appear perfectly plausible. Kings with foolhardy arrogance could easily demoralize a people and weaken its will to resist invaders.