We all know mythology is not reality. Ancient mythology, however, is always based on at least a little truth--an event, a person, etc. Especially when it comes to the ancient Hellenic heroes and their deeds, there is a lot of embelished truth, but truth none the less. The difficulty is in finding it--and archeological finds are our best bet.

Take Theseus and the minotaur: Theseus (Θησεύς) was fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, whom had both slept with his mother Aethra, and was thus destined to become a hero. All heroes were given at least one divine parent--usually one connected to their later deeds. The same held true for kings. When he heard about the Minotaur of Krete, and the nine-yearly sacrifices to it--a punishment by King Minos of Krete for the death of his son Androgeus, at the hands of Athenian assassins--Theseus offered to be one of the youths who sailed for Krete. Once there, Ariadne, daughter of the king, fell for him and offered him a ball of yarn so he would be able to find his way out off the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur the youths would be sacrificed to. With Ariadne's aid, Theseus defeated the Minotaur, and brought the sacrificial children home.

It is very difficult to sort out fact from fiction with legends from such a long time ago. The palace at Knossos, where the labyrinth was supposed to have been built, certainly existed. Knossos was undeniably the capital of Minoan Krete. The ruins of the palace are located about twenty minutes south of the modern port town of Iraklio. Knossos was inhabited for several thousand years, from the neolithic to 1375 BC, when it was abandoned after its destruction. The first palace on the low hill beside the Krairatos river was built around 1900 BC on the ruins of previous settlements. It--and many of the other buildings--were destroyed around 1700 BC by an earthquake or invaders. It was rebuild and destroyed or damaged again and again by earthquakes, volcano eruption, invaders and fires, until its abandonment. With its demise came the demise of the Minoan civilization.
Knossos has been an archeological treasure trove--and amongst its ruins was a chilling find: a collection of bones, belonging to eight to eleven children aged ten to fifteen, of which about a third bore the marks of flesh being cut from them with a knife. We don't know what happened to them, but given the myth, it's tempting to leap to the obvious conclusion--as many scientists have done with me: human sacrifice. This possibility is made even more probabable when taken into account a very grim find in the Anemospilia, an ancient Minoan temple on the island.

The temple was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 2000 BC from Thera and the resulting earthquakes. Traces of ash and charcoal were found on the ground, and from this, one can postulate that the building was burnt down. The temple is set out with three chambers and one annex that leads into them, and inside, archaeologists have found something somewhat unusual.

The east chamber held an altar and various pithoi with sacrificial itmes like honey and milk. In the central chamber was anther altar--this was the main worship room. What has my attention, however, is the western chamber. In the western chamber, two skeletons were found on the floor, one in the south west corner of the room This body was of a 28 year old female; because the average life expectancy in ancient civilisations was around 55, she would have been a middle aged woman. She could have been a high priestess of some sort. The other skeleton was that of a male, he was aged in his late thirties, and 183 cm tall, and powerfully built, he was lying on his back with his hands covering his face, as if to protect it.

On top of the platform another body was found. This was a body of an 18-year-old male; he was found in the foetal position, lying on his right side. Amongst the bones was found an ornately engraved knife, it was 40 cm long and weighing more than 400g. Each side of the blade had an incised rendering of an animal head, the snout and tusks of a boar, ears like butterfly wings and slanted eyes like a fox. His legs were forced back so that his heels were almost touching his thigh, indicating that they were tied there.

Just like the bones of the cut up children found in one of the ruined houses, we do not know if this youth was truly about to be sacrificed, or if it was some sort of other, non lethal, rite, but the possibility is certainly there. So who were these youths? Could this be Athenian children sacrificed in vengance? Could this be the practice Theseus came to put an end to? Then what about the minotaur? Some authors and scholars assume that the minotaur was a priest who wore a bull mask--the sacred aminal of the Minoans. Theseus could have killed him in the escape (possibly aided by Ariadne) and saved the children from human sacrifice. It certainly sounds plausible at least.

We don't know what happened at Knossos. We will never know for sure what happened at Knossos. But we do know that mythology is oh so often based in fact, and there are facts that support a very grizzly truth--one that Theseus might have ended.