Crete plays a momentous role within Greek mythology: it was on this island that Zeus was born, and his legend is one of the proudest Cretans mention in a conversation. However, there are many other myths you are already familiar with but probably don’t know originated on Crete Island.
Zeus Was Born on Crete Island
Zeus – the king of the Olympian gods – was the son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea; however, his birth and childhood were not without perils.
Cronus was one of the twelve Titans fathered by Uranus, the personification of the sky, and Gaia, the Earth. With Gaia, Uranus also fathered the three Cyclopes, and the three Hecatoncheires, then hid them inside Gaia because he hated them – although the reason for his hate is unclear.
Upset, Gaia fashioned an adamantine sickle and asked the Titans to punish Uranus. Only Cronus was brave enough to stand up to Uranus, overthrowing him after castrating him with the sickle to prevent him from fathering other monsters. Still, the Furies, the Giants, and the Meliae tree-nymphs were born from Uranus’s blood.
Despite acting at his mother’s behest, Cronus was to suffer the consequences of his actions, and Gaia warned him that one of his children would overthrow him too.
Cronus married his sister Rhea and fathered Hestia, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, and Zeus – the youngest. He swallowed all his children, one by one, for fear that one would overthrow him as he did Uranus. At Gaia’s advice, Rhea hid in a cave on the island of Crete, giving birth to Zeus and then entrusting Gaia to protect and raise him.
Several myths place Zeus’s birthplace in the Dictaeon Antron (Psychro Cave) on the Dikti mountain range on Crete Island. Today, you can visit the sacred cave in the Lasithi district of eastern Crete.
A cave where, according to legend, Rhea hid Zeus from Cronos was the Idaean Cave on Mount Psiloritis (formerly known as Mount Ida). This cave, too, is open to the public and is interesting to visit for its cultural significance. According to the legend, after Rhea hid Zeus in this cave, she wrapped a boulder in cloth and gave it to Cronos, who swallowed it promptly, believing it was the baby. Thus, Zeus survived.
Zeus was left in the care of nymphs Adrasteia and Ida, who fed him with Amalthea’s (a goat or a nymph) milk. To prevent Cronos from hearing the baby Zeus’s cries, the Kouretes – armored male dancers – protected the cave, singing, dancing, and beating their spears on their shields to mask the noise.
Zeus and Europa
In love with the beautiful Phoenician princess Europa, whom he noticed on a meadow gathering flowers with the nymphs, Zeus devised a plan to seduce her. But, instead, he shapeshifted into a bull of rare beauty, as Ovid describes in his Metamorphoses (Book II, 846-875):
“The father and chief of the gods, whose right hand is
Armed with the triple-forked lightning, who shakes the whole world with a nod, laid
Dignity down with his sceptre, adopting the guise of a bull that
Mixed with the cattle and lowed as he ambled around the fresh fields, a
Beautiful animal, colored like snow that no footprint has trodden
And which no watery south wind has melted.”
Europa was impressed that the majestic white bull showed no hostility and approached him, first adorning his neck and horns with flowers, then trusting the animal enough to climb on its back to ride it. The bull then kidnaps the princess, taking her from Phoenicia (today Lebanon) to a faraway land: Crete.
He didn’t stop until he reached Gortyn, where he forced himself upon the princess under a plane tree (platanus). The affair between Zeus and Europa lasted enough to result in the births of two sons, according to Homer’s Iliad: Minos – the first, legendary king of Crete and father of the Minoan civilization, Rhadamanthys who was a demigod and later one of the judges of the dead in the afterlife. The British Museum currently has a colossal statue of Europa riding the bull in its permanent collection.
After ending his affair with Europa, Zeus gifted her:
- The bronze automaton Talos, who inhabited the Melidoni Cave – forty-five minutes drive from Fodele, towards Rethimni. His role was to protect the island against enemies, circling it three times every day and throwing boulders at approaching rival vessels.
- The hound Laelaps always succeeded in catching his quarry – the constellation Canis Major represents the hound in the skies.
- An infallible javelin that never missed its target, later inherited by Minos, who gifted it to Procris, an Athenian princess, and the wife of Cephalus, for the promise that she could cure him of a curse that made him ejaculate poisonous snakes and scorpions every time he had extra-marital affairs. Cephalus inherited the javelin after he accidentally killed Procris while hunting.
Europa was the first queen of Crete, and her name remains in history as the name of our continent. EUROPE owes a lot to the Cretan myths.
The white bull plays a central role in Cretan mythology. First, Zeus took the shape of a beautiful white bull to sway Princess Europa. Then, in another Cretan myth, Poseidon – god of the sea, storms, earthquakes, and horses – gives King Minos a sacrificial snow-white bull. Impressed by the animal’s beauty, Minos decided to keep it, sacrificing another bull instead.
Poseidon took great offense at the king’s action and plotted a cruel revenge: he had the goddess of love, lust, pleasure, and fertility Aphrodite use her powers on Minos’s wife, Pasiphaë, and make her fall in love with the bull. The offspring of Pasiphaë’s affair with the bull was a half man half bull monstrosity, who, although nursed by his mother in his forming years, later developed a taste for human flesh, devouring mortals for sustenance.
To protect his people from the Minotaur, King Minos had the legendary architect and craftsman Daedalus construct the Labyrinth near the Minoan palace at Knossos.
The Minotaur was strong enough to kill all those who dared to enter his labyrinthic lair. On top of everything, King Minos used to sacrifice war prisoners to the Minotaur to tame its hunger. So, when Theseus – the mythical king and founder-hero of Athens – promised his father Aegeus that he would slay the beast, he sailed to Crete. Princess Ariadne, King Minos’s daughter, fell in love with the Athenian prince and offered her help: she gave him a ball of thread he used to trace his way back out of the Labyrinth.
Ariadne’s thread is one of the most beautiful and compelling Cretan myths. Today, in modern logic, Ariadne’s thread is a method of “solving a problem by multiple means—such as a physical maze, a logic puzzle, or an ethical dilemma.” These are some of the most interesting and beautiful Cretan myths, yet not the only ones. In the future, we will reveal other iconic legends that influenced Greek mythology and European artists over the ages.