The Legend of the King Minos, the Labyrinth and the Minotaur

September 2021: The Minoan civilization of Crete dates back to 3500BC when Crete was home to the first advanced civilization in Europe. It’s history is closely associated with Greece along with it’s mythology…Zeus for example or the legend of him was borne in a cave in the highlands of Crete. The Minoan civilization is believed to have met it’s end at the hands of a devastating volcanic eruption that occurred on the island of Santorini. The volcano and subsequent tsunami’s likely wiped out the major settlements along the coast of Crete bringing with them a swift end to the Minoan civilization.

The name Minoan derives from the legend of the ancient king of Crete-King Minos.  Linked with King Minos is the legend of the labyrinth and the minotaur.  The legend is long and complex so I will try and shorten it to one paragraph. King Minos was given a beautiful bull from the God of the Sea, Poseidon. King Minos was expected to sacrifice the bull to the Gods but like most mortals, he did not do as the God’s had intended. Out of anger, Poseidon caused the king’s wife to fall in love with the bull. The king’s wife and the bull had a child named Asterious-  half man and half bull, which became the minotaur. When King Minos discovered this, he had a labyrinth built and the minotaur was banished to live out the remaining years of its life there. The labyrinth was designed to be complex so that the minotaur could never find it’s way out and it was so elaborate  that even it’s architect once was lost in it. Each year seven young men and 7 young women were sent into the maze as a sacrifice to the minotaur and were it’s only food source.  Eventually , Theseus from Athens, who was sent into the labyrinth as a human sacrifice, made it to the end of the labyrinth and killed the minotaur. The daughter of King Minos, who fell in love with Theseus, helped Theseus escape the labyrinth by tricking the designer of the labyrinth into revealing the secret to escape it. Theseus escaped and became a hero.

Where is the Labyrinth

According to popular belief, the labyrinth was located beneath the palace of Knossos in the ancient Crete capitol- near the modern day city of Heraklion-a coastal city on the northern shore of Crete.  Of course nobody knows exactly where the labyrinth was or even if it existed for sure. But legends, it seems, are always borne out of some degree of truth and it is likely that some semblance of real life history gave rise to the story of the minotaur and the labyrinth. If it did exist, then where would it be? If the minotaur was a monster and banished by King Minos, why would the labyrinth be constructed near the king’s palace. Instead wouldn’t it be constructed far from the palace?  

If the labyrinth did exist, a cave in the highlands of central Crete may have been the inspiration for the story. An ancient cave that is man made with tunnels depicting ancient Minoan writings on some of it’s walls  with tunnels that are known to extend for miles into the underground depths of a mountain.  Lastly the tunnels were built in a confusing manner that almost resemble the labyrinth of the minotaur legend. 

The labyrinth cave is located in a mountain near the ancient Minoan ruined city of Gortyna, surrounded by olive tree groves, which give way to the soaring peak of  Mount Ida. 

Not much is known about the labyrinth cave and it’s location is not published on the world wide web. There are two man made labyrinth tunnel caves. One is small-only about 30 minutes deep- displayed on google maps and reachable via a winding gravel road through olive tree groves. The smaller one has no known entrance into the much larger labyrinth cave but both are believed to have been built during the same era. 

The second and much larger cave is not published and is miles deep. It can only be entered via a small opening in the ground that you need to squeeze through and the interior is extremely unstable and prone to cave-ins..not to mention there is also the possibility of un-exploded munitions inside that cave that were left there by the Nazis in World War II. Because of the safety issues associated with the cave, it’s location is not advertised and is kept secret. 

Map of Labyrinth Cave on Crete

More About the Recent History of the Labyrinth Cave

The labyrinth cave, because of its depth and vastness, was used by Nazi Germany to store it’s aresenal of weapons and munitions in World War II. The Nazi’s built generators to pump oxygen into the tunnels because they were so deep and the Nazis’s reinforced sections of the ancient and un-stable cave with concrete. When the Nazi’s were no longer in a position to defend the island of Crete against the allied forces, they had to abandoned the cave and most of their munitions in a hurry. Without time to flee with all of the munitions, and to keep them from falling into enemy hands, they bombed the labyrinth cave causing the entrance and  most of it’s tunnels to collapse. Afterwards, local Crete villagers discovered a way into the cave and began to salvage the munitions in order to sell them or recycle them. Over the years many villagers were killed by cave-ins or when live munitions exploded. As a result, the Greek military closed off the cave in the 50’s to keep outsiders from entering. Metal bars were placed over the entrance and entry became forbidden by law. 

Of course this didn’t keep everyone out. Someone over the years managed to break open the metal bars and a scientific team of cave explorers also  managed to enter the cave with permission from the government and study it in the 90’s. I found a copy of their study on the internet along with a description of the cave and it’s approximate wherabouts. According to their study, the tunnels could have been built as part of a quarry to mine construction materials for the ancient palace or other buildings. But they also were convinced that the tunnels may also be the location of the labyrinth cave of the legendary minotaur. This is based on the confusing design of the tunnels, and the ancient wiritngs found deep inside. The tunnels are not fully explored. Many of the deeper ones are too unstable and collapsed to further any exploration. One article I read claimed that one of the greatest war crimes the Nazi’s committed in WWII, and there is a long list of them, was bombing the cave potentially sealing within the cave forever ancient treasures, artifacts and the answers to many ancient mysteries from the Minoan civilization. 

For me I was sold on the words ancient labyrinth caves, minotaur, and Nazi’s . This adventure had all of the makings of a childhood Indiana Jones fantasy. My wife and I had to find the cave and yes she was just as excited as I was to find it. But before we could find the labyrinth cave, we first needed to fly to Heraklion, the capitol of Crete. 

 

 Heraklion 

We arrived late in the afternoon very nearly missing our flight from Athens to Heraklion because our departure flight from Albania was late. We had to run through the airport, budding in lines only to get to the gate and find out that our next flight was also delayed. Upon arrival in Heraklion we picked up our flimsy go-cart rental car. I had serious concerns about it handling the rough roads to the labyrinth cave but rental cars in Crete are in short supply and expensive so we had no choice but to go with it.

We drove 30 minutes to our hotel-a fancy 5 star hotel on the beach, where we would meet our friends from San Diego that were staying there later that night for dinner. We don;t typically stay in such fancy hotels but our friends were kind enough to book us a beach cottage for two nights.  The hotel was great, luxurious and relaxing but in all my years, I have never traveled to relax. We came for adventure and early the next morning, Paula and I were going to set off to try and find the labyrinth Cave.

View of an island facing the hotel in the Aegean Sea

Amirandes Grecotel Hotel

The View from the Restaurant at the Amirandes Grecotel Hotel

Finding the Labyrinth Cave 

We set off early, turning off the highway into the smaller interior roads leaving the touristy areas of the coast behind and we headed up over the spine of the island. We followed google maps to the smaller labyrnth cave , which was marked. Along the way we drove through small one lane roads passed sleepy Crete villages. 

Old Buildings We Passed in Small Crete Villages

Village Life

View from the Hill of the Labyrinth Cave 

Google maps took us in the wrong direction but I took a lot of notes on the actual location of the cave, so with these notes along with google maps, we were able to eventually find the turn off to the dirt road leading through the olive grove tree plantations to the mountain where the small labyrinth cave was located. We arrived, parked the car and were the only ones aside from an old Crete farmer, who didn’t speak english, seeking shelter from the hot sun in the shade of the cave’s entrance. 

Small Labyrinth Cave Entrance

The smaller cave was interesting and we needed a flashlight to explore its depths. It was about 30 minutes deep and there were some smaller outlying tunnels that went nowhere.

But now that we found the small cave, we knew the larger one was nearby. But the mountain was covered in thorn trees and scrub vegetation and I knew it would not be easy to find the large cave.  The caver that described the entrance in the internet article described it as a small hole in the mounbtainside that you would never be able to find on your own…but we had to find.

We walked in the blazing sun up and down the mountain looking for any sign of a small hole but there was nothing and after an hour of doing this it became clear to me that we would need days to cover the entire mountain if we had any hope of finding the cave at all. Plus I didn’t even know if the entrance still existed. It had been a long time since the article was written and in all likelyhood the cave was now closed by the authorities or it had collapsed entirely.

We exhausted our search and gave up. It was hot and it was time to drive to the southern coast, where I had found some remote coves to swim in.  This was the excuse I told myself, and with the shame of defeat brushed off to the side we drove off back down the dirt road through the olive tree plantation. The road was blocled by a water truck and to the side stood a farm boy. Paula and I decided, why not ask a local if he knew the location of the entrance.  This was our last shot at finding it. So I asked him if he spoke english. “Yes of course”. Do you know where the large cave is? He lowered his tone and said, “ah yes, but it is dangerous.” I anticipated he might respond this way, so I asked him if he could just show us the entrance and I promised we would not enter especially since I was with my wife. he looked at us and reluctantly agreed and motioned for us to follow him on his motorbike. With excitement, we followed him passed the small cave, up over the mountain down really bad narrow roads with thorn branches, barbed wire hanging out and huge ruts in the middle of the road. I struggled to keep up with him in our crappy little rental car and I also didnt want to damage the vehicle since this type of road is not covered in our insurance. We eventually came to a small cliff and he stopped and pointed over the side and said,” it is down there”. I asked him if he had ever been there and said yes. he wasn’t much for words and set off leaving us alone on top of the presumed cave entrance.  

We scrambled down through the brush to the bottom of the cliff to where a small tree was located. There was a cave-in of rocks. All of this was met the description of the cavers website. Located before the mound of rocks was a barbed wire fence and a sign that stated no trespassing. Then right behind that was a small hole in the ground. We found it!!!

No trespassing Sign

Entrance to Labyrinth  Cave

Now that we found the entrance, we had to enter. The small hole in the ground I admit was not the most inviting. I didn’t know exactly what was on the otherside. If we did get stuck inside our rental car was parked on top and I had told my friends back at the hotel where we were so hopefully somebody would come to rescue us. But nonetheless, I knew we had to be very careful, I was with my wife and here were were about to go into an ancient labyrinth cave that was unstable and may still have un-exploded WWII ordinances in it.

I crawled into the cave  feet first. We came equipped with a few flashlights and head torches. The entrance was about ten feet long and was small and twisting. Once passed the rocks, it gave way through busted metal bars that must have been knocked open with a lot of force. Then the cave opened up into a large concrete tunnel. This was the tunnel that reportedly the Nazis had built to re-enforce the cave. Paula crawled in after me.

Paula in the Cave’s Entrance

Entrance Tunnel

The concrte tunnel had grafitti on its walls dating back to the early 50’s , likely from the Greek military that eventually closed the cave to the outside world. We continued to go deeper inside to where the newer concrete walls became replaced by the ancient Minoan man made walls. The tunnels went in all different directions in true labyrinth fashion and to the sides of the path were heaps of used munition boxes, empty shells, and other random equipment. One of the ruined metallic structures ,we read,  was a generator used by the nazis to pump oxygen deep into the cave through a system of hoses. 

 

Paula the Explorer

Me In The Tunnel

Paula Looking at a Heap of Munitions

More Piles of WWII Munitions

Micellanious WWII Materials 

The cave was dark and creepy and it was easy to imagine that a minataur could appear at any moment expecting his sacrifice.  We wandered for about 30 minutes into the cave and stayed to the center of the path to avoid stepping on any un-exploded ordinances. Most likely there weren’t any but I didn’t want to take any chances. The dark tunnels went on and on and I wanted to keep going but a little voice of reason whispered into my ear…it was time to go back. We were illegally in the cave, our car service served as a beacon to our illegal presence  and we were in a cave that at any moment could collapse. So we headed back and crawled back out the hole to the surface and back into the world of sunlight. 

 

After our victory, we decided to head to the remote southern coastline of Crete and find some desolate coves, I had scouted out on Google Earth, for swimming. The ruggesd southern coastline was mostly accessible only by rough dirt roads and was an adventurers paradise. There is virtually no  development-no big hotels. We only had time for a swim in one spot before heading back to meet our friends for dinner at the hotel. So we set off to a remote place that involved pushing open a gate held shut to keep the goats corralled and then driving down a steep 4wd drive road. It was steaming hot and we jumped into an idylic cove and swam into little hidden caves and cooled off. Then we set back up the dirt road almost ending up stuck. The road was steep and sandy and I couldn’t get enough traction in the go-cart rental car .  I feared we would be stranded miles from the nearest house. After multiple attempts, the car miraculously grabbed the road in it’s highest gear on the verge of killing the engine.  I slowily made my way up the hill,  afraid to stop to pick Paula up who was guiding me.  Our awesome but short adventure in Crete had come to an end. The next morning we set off by ferry to the island of Sikinos for our next adventure.

 

Remote Southern Crete

Remote Southern Crete

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