Hercules Labour VII: The Cretan Bull
In Hercules’ seventh labour with the Cretan Bull we learn the true meaning of sacrifice. How does the mythic cycle of King Minos play in with that of Hercules? Is it simply an artistic way to add life and depth to the world of Greek mythology or is there a more important lesson being conveyed?
The seventh labour Eurystheus commanded Heracles to perform was to bring the Cretan Bull. Acusilaus says that this was the bull that carried Europa across the sea for Zeus, but some say that it was the one sent forth from the sea by Poseidon when Minos said that he would sacrifice to Poseidon whatever appeared from the sea. But they say that when he caught sight of the beauty of the bull, he sent it off to his herds and sacrificed another to Poseidon, and that the god, angered by this, made the bull go wild. Heracles went to Crete after this bull, and when he asked for help capturing it, Minos told him to take it himself if he could subdue it. He captured it, carried it back, and showed it to Eurystheus. Afterward, he let it go free, and it wandered to Sparta and all of Arcadia, and, crossing the Isthmos, it came to Marathon in Attica, where it plagued the locals.
Interpreting The Cretan Bull
This labour is essentially showing Heracles righting the wrongs of others and to truly disseminate the myth, we have to look at where it started which was with the wrongs of King Minos.
Now the story of King Minos can fit into the mythic cycle of Theseus as it is also sets up his conflict with the Minotaur, or it can stand as its own mythic cycle. To paraphrase the events very quickly, King Minos wanted to offer a sacrifice to Zeus, so he prayed to Poseidon to give him a sacred bull. Poseidon granted the prayer, and sent King Minos a beautiful bull from the sea. Minos loved the beauty of this bull so much that he did not want to sacrifice it. He replaced this bull with an ordinary one from his own flock believing that no one would notice. Having cheated the gods we go on to see the disastrous effects of his decision. Some of the consequences included the birth of the Minotaur and the bull creating havoc throughout his land.
The underlying question here would be, what is sacrifice? Can you just offer anything up to the gods and it be okay? Obviously not, in this story we see that the gods instantly recognize the difference between a mundane and a divine sacrifice. If we ignore the outer layer of the myth, we can see that a sacrifice is not that of sacrificing an animal to appease a deity but is something freely chosen to display the inner strengths of the individual. It is the surrendering or giving up of something precious or loved. In this way, sacrifice takes bravery, fortitude, and stamina – all heroic traits.
In this myth, Minos has promised to sacrifice something precious to himself, the sacred bull. But he lacks the fortitude to do so. However, he has already promised he would and now that he has gone back on his promise, the thing that was most precious to him has now become his greatest problem.
Psychologically this would imply the dangers of obsession. Unable to part with the bull, it has now become a liability to the king where it was once a joy. This is a pretty straight forward commentary. The myth is also suggesting to the reader that promises of sacrifice should be thought out, think about your promises before you make them. What are you as an individual able to give up? It would have been far better for Minos to have promised something simpler like sacrificing a normal bull and seen it through rather than swearing to sacrifice something he couldn’t and have the guilt of failure eat him up.
The consequences of guilt are the meaning behind the sacred bull devastating the landscape. The landscape is symbolic for Minos’ mind, before his failure it was green pastures and beautiful. After his failure to commit to a promise it is ravaged by his guilt.
So Minos’ mythic cycle is teaching the audience the truth behind sacrifice, that it is indeed the surrendering of something precious to the individual, and anything less than this is merely an imitation of a much purer act. That sacrifice is hard and that it takes a strong character to be able to fulfill. The story is showing us that promises should be thought out and only made with the intention of actually being fulfilled. And we of course see the consequences of failure. But how does this fit in as a labour of Heracles?
Heracles goes to Crete to capture the bull, he does so, takes it back Eurystheus and then releases it into the wild. He does not covet the sacred bull and does not have any wish to keep it. Instead, Heracles does what he has promised to do and then releases the bull which can be seen as a sacrifice in its purest form as he freely gives it up. Heracles completes the task that Minos could not do and we see the hero the better for it as he advances further along his path toward godhood.
Next week we will look at Labour VIII: The Mares Of Diomedes
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