Phaedra, Crete, and a Whole Lot of Bull

I’ve been neglecting Phaedra a bit so it’s time to fix that. Phaedra was the youngest daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of Crete. Her sister Ariadne helped Theseus escape the Labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. Then Theseus abandoned her on Naxos. (Don’t be too sad though, Dionysus picked her up there and she basically became a goddess. There’s a whole opera about it.)

Let’s talk about Phaedra’s parents and grandparents first because it’s amazing this woman came out as well adjusted as she did.

Europa or Seriously, Why All the Cows?

Minos, Phaedra’s father, was the son of Zeus and Europa, a Phoenician princess. Now there are lots of weird Zeus rape-y stories, but this one takes the cake.

Zeus looked down from Olympus and saw Europa and decided he needed her all to himself, so he turned himself into a bull, threw her on his back, and swam across the sea to the island of Crete. Europa’s father and brothers set off to look for her but they never found her.


There are lots of paintings called "The Rape of Europa." They're filled with little Cupids and soft colors. This is problematic.


Now it’s not really clear whether Zeus then revealed himself as a human-looking god or not, but once they reached Crete Europa settled down and had three children with Zeus, one of which is usually believed to be King Minos.

“A Dishonest Man Lives Here”

You know that episode of Mad Men where Don remembers learning the Hobo Code and the tramp puts the sign showing “A Dishonest Man Lives Here” outside Don’s house? King Minos is probably the reason the Hobo Code was invented. He screws over inventors, gods, princes. Everyone. And they keep trusting him. I HAVE NO IDEA WHY.

Pretty much from the beginning he was a really terrible person. When he came of age he deposed the current king of Crete because he was the son of the Zeus dagnabit and he deserved a kingdom. Then he asked Poseidon to defend his title and Poseidon obliged by giving him a gift of a beautiful white bull as long as Minos promised to sacrifice the bull to Poseidon.

Minos was like “Great. Now I have a Mandate of Heaven, Greek style. Awww but this white bull is so cute. I think I’ll keep it.”

So Poseidon’s sitting up on Olympus chillin’ and he’s waiting for the bull sacrifice. And he waits. And he waits. And then he realizes the sacrifice is not coming. So he goes to his niece Aphrodite and asks her to make Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, fall in love with the bull. “That’ll teach them to not get all PETA on my gifts.”

So Pasiphae gets pricked by Cupid’s arrow and she is just head over heels for this bull. But it’s a bull, so it’s not into her. (See if Zeus had picked Pasiphae for the whole Europa deal there would’ve been no trouble, right?) So Pasiphae has this cow costume made by Daedalus, the Nicola Tesla of the Ancient World, and she gets inside it and the bull decides he likes this strange looking cow and long story short Pasiphae gets pregnant. (There are illustrations of this from different eras. I do not want to put them on my blog.)

Pasiphae’s child ends up being the Minotaur whose name was Asterius (but no one ever remembers that really. They tend to focus on the fact that IT’S A DUDE WITH THE HEAD OF A BULL WHO EATS PEOPLE.)

So Then There’s a Minotaur


Face only a mother could love. And she's not doing a very good job, is she?


Obviously, Minos finds out and imprisons Daedalus and orders the execution of Pasiphae for adultery (this is partly the subject of Euripides’ The Cretans.) This is kind of unfair of him because he was cheating left and right, but there’s also a story about Pasiphae bewitching him into ejaculating wild beasts when he made love with women other than her so maybe he offed her to try to get rid of that fun little side effect.

Once Pasiphae’s out of the way, Minos has Daedalus imprisoned for corrupting the Queen and forces him to build a huge Labyrinth to hide the Minotaur.

Years go by and Athens loses a war with Crete. The tribute of maidens and young men begins to feed the Minotaur and then Theseus arrives in town. Read more about that on the Theseus page.

I should mention that because Daedalus helped Ariadne come up with a way to save Theseus, Minos had him and his son Icarus imprisoned within the (now empty) Labyrinth itself. And then they made wings out of wax to get out and the boy flew too close to the sun and so many stupid metaphors were born and terrible band names coined based on that poor teenage boy.

You Haven’t Explained the Bull Imagery!

I know. I was getting to that. Why so many bulls? Minoan Crete (which was a real society that is still studied by archaeologists today) was filled with imagery of cattle, particularly bulls. It is hard to know whether the stories of Europa and her descendants came before or after these motifs. Bulls have been appearing in cave paintings since we as a species figured out how to paint.

In general cattle stands in for a kind of reliable fertility. Cow milk was a reliable source of sustenance as long as you kept a few bulls around. In Ancient Egypt (which was one of the other truly advanced civilizations around the time of the height of Crete’s power) several gods had the heads or bodies of cattle, especially heifers, who were associated with fertility of all kinds: creative, sexual, and agricultural, most notably the goddess Hathor, whose cult is believed to have predated Egypt by several hundred years.

As far as the bull as a symbol of destructive masculine fertility (i.e. the Minotaur and Zeus’ form), look no further than modern day bull-riding and bull fighting. Bulls are testy and dangerous.


Except for Ferdinand. Oh Ferdinand.


They are also strangely beautiful –muscled power distilled into a still, usually calm animal. Bulls are both domestic and supernatural creatures.


Hey remember this moment in True Blood? That was weird.


Bulls are these ridiculously powerful creatures that could be made complacent by a pat on the head and some grass (or flowers. Oh Ferdinand.) They represented both the uncontrollable power of nature, and man’s ability to seemingly pacify those same natural forces. Partly because of this (but also because they taste good) they were often sacrificed to gods.

In Greece it was very important that the animal “assent” to its death. Priests would gently through water on its head so it would bow, indicating that it was offering itself. It is interesting to think about this idea of a powerful sacrifice giving itself up in reference to Euripides’ Hippolytus. Both Hippolytus and Phaedra offer themselves up at different points, and yet we are moved and disturbed by their deaths. “This should not have happened.” we think. I wouldn’t put it past Euripides to keep dropping in bull imagery to subvert contemporary religious thought, the “cult of innocence” that was created by pretending the animal agreed to die. (For similar themes, examine Iphigenia at Aulis which was composed after Euripides’ voluntary exile from Athens.)


Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch, first published as a complete text in 1913.

Women on the Edge: Four Plays By Euripides edited and translated by Ruby Blondell, Mary-Kay Gamel, Narcy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and Bella Zweig. (Routledge, New York, 1999.)

(among others, please drop me a comment if you’d like more information/sources on anything. I try to keep the blog from looking like an MLA paper.)

3 thoughts on “Phaedra, Crete, and a Whole Lot of Bull

  1. Could you please tell me whose painting is the first one Zeus and Europe on it?
    Thank you for your information.

    • Of course Marika. That particular incarnation of what’s basically a Renaissance and Neo-classical cliche at this point is a detail from “The Abduction of Europa” by early 18th century painter Noël-Nicolas Coypel. It’s currently housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

      • Lillian your information was very useful. I’m using it in the diploma project and needed the painters name for the references.


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