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I was playing an old video game today, and I had to kill an minotaur armed with a battle axe. Afterward, I thought to myself, Minotaurs in fantasy imagery tend to carry axes a lot. I wonder where that originated?

A few examples immediately leapt to mind:

AD&D minotaur

the AD&D Monster Manual,

King of the Dragons minotaur

Capcom's "King of the Dragons"

Magic:  the Gathering minotaur

& a Raging Minotaur from Magic: the Gathering.

There are, of course, many more examples to be found.

However, by the time I had thought of a few examples, an answer, of sorts, had come to me. The association of the minotaur and the axe is very old: both are emblems of Minoan Crete. The myth of Theseus slaying the Minotaur takes place in the labyrinth of King Minos. And, thanks to the excavation of the Minoan palace of Knossos by Arthur Evans, we know that the double-bladed axe (or labrys; whether the word is related to "labyrinth" is unknown) was an important symbol in Minoan civilization. (Agnes Carr Vaughn called her monograph on the Minoans The House of the Double Axe, which was Evans's nickname for the palace site.) Images of such axes were painted on the walls, miniature decorative ones were fashioned out of precious metals.

Minoan decorative double-bitted axes

So there is possibly a very ancient association of minotaurs and axes, specifically double-bladed axes. (Note that the first two minotaurs pictures above are indeed wielded double-bladed weapons.)

However, while the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur has been told since the Bronze Age, the importance of axe imagery in Minoan culture was not known before Evans's excavations, which ran from 1900 to 1905. Of course, this is still much older than all the examples that leapt to mind of fantasy minotaurs wielding huge axes, but it returned me to wondering how the association of that particular monster with that particular weapon came about.

I can think of several possibilities. The association may predate the excavation of Knossos. in that case, there might be a specific identifiable source where it originated, but quite possibly not. Alternatively, the association might be more recent, first appearing in a twentieth-century source. (I suspect that prior to the twentieth century, there were probably not a lot of fantasy works that dealt with generic minotaurs, as opposed to the unique Minotaur of Crete.) In that case, the association with the axe may have been intentionally based on the connection to Minoan Crete; or it might simply have been a coincidence. So, what is known about the history of this monster/weapon association?

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    In my perception, associating minotaurs with hammers is as common and indeed, there are more findings for minotaur hammer than minotaur axe on the Internet. – Wrzlprmft May 29 '18 at 11:34
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    My guess is minotaurs are always depicted ans being extremely strong and strong characters are usually depicted to wield heavy battle weapons like warhammers or battle axes – jean May 29 '18 at 18:24
  • The Percy Jackson series is another example – Rogue Jedi May 30 '18 at 2:20
  • @jean - That's my thinking as well. The main drawback to a battle-axe is that its a big heavy slow weapon compared to a sword. Most of the mass is concentrated on the end, which makes hits powerful, but stopping its inertia to bring it back into play for a subsequent strike more difficult So if your bull-man is looking for a weapon that will leverage his vastly superior strength (and show it off to anyone looking at him), a large war-axe or war hammer is the logical choice. – T.E.D. May 30 '18 at 18:27
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Looking this up, I found this helpful website which lists and excerpts a variety of accounts of the Minotaur, and has a gallery of classical artwork about it. In the sources there, the Minotaur is not depicted with a particular weapon, double axe or otherwise; some of the images show him trying to brain Theseus with what looks like a rock, and some of the text implies he gored people to death with his horns, but no weapon is forthcoming.

enter image description hereenter image description here

(Left: Athenian vase, ca. 6th century BC; right: Roman floor mosaic, ca. 3rd century AD. Images from www.theoi.com)

Because Ovid described the Minotaur as half-man, half-bull, but neglected to say which half was which (and because this account was the most familiar to medieval and Renaissance artists) some depictions from this time show him as a kind of centaur-like creature with the head of a human and the lower body of a bull; his appearance in Dante's Inferno is a prime source of art with this depiction - but still no weapons.

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(Two interpretations of the Minotaur from Inferno. Left by William Blake, right by Gustave Doré. Images from Wikimedia.)

Even through the middle of the 20th century, pulp and cinema didn't appear to feel the need to add axes to minotaurs:

enter image description here enter image description here

(Weird Tales 1945 cover from Wikimedia; The Minotaur (1960) poster from movieworld.ws)

It seems reasonable to conclude that the connection between the Minotaur/minotaurs and axes is probably modern, certainly not Classical and probably dates to some time in the 20th century; it doesn't seem to become popular until relatively recently. Given that it seems to postdate the excavation at Knossos, it would be logical that it was based on the labrys.

As for where it came from - my gut instinct is Dungeons and Dragons, but I have no source for it. D&D was certainly highly influential in fantasy, and included no shortage of mythological monsters (as opposed to e.g. the Conan stories, which seem to prefer original horrible monsters). I could see minotaurs' association with double-headed axes being slipped in a nod to Minoan cult and spreading from there - but I can't prove that that's how it happened.

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    The first time it showed up in D&D was apparently the White Box back in original D&D. I dont' know the details, but Gygax was certainly pulling heavily from various historical and mythical sources at the time. – Ben Barden May 29 '18 at 14:52
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    Minotaurs in the Narnia movies have battle axes, but I'm not sure if that reflects the books or not. – Thunderforge May 29 '18 at 16:34
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    @Thunderforge I just checked, no mention of battle-axes in the books. Minotaurs are also only mentioned once, and no weapons or further description is given. I think it's most likely the battle-axe was just a heavy str-based weapon in D&D, which lent well to the brute force of minotaurs. – Riker May 29 '18 at 16:38
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    Shadiversity's video on minotaurs might be relevant: What medieval weapons would a Minotaur use in real life?. – mu is too short May 29 '18 at 16:58
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    Excellent answer, but swbarnes2 seems to have found a popular reference to Minotaur+axe 15 years before Gygax wrote D&D. It seems very likely that he was aware of The King Must Die. – Martin Bonner May 30 '18 at 10:39
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Mary Renault had her human Minotaur wielding an axe in 1958, in The King Must Die.

Of course there is no real monster in this story. But Minos's son Asterion is referred to many times as the Minotaur.

"That was the King's son, Asterion." I [Theseus] laughed and said, "A starry name for an earthy thing. He answered, "It is not for you to use it. The style of the heir is Minotaurus."

In the end, Asterion fights Theseus with the Labrys, wearing the bull's head mask.

"From the neck down he was man, and base; above the neck, he was beast, and noble. Calm and lordly, long-horned and curly-browed, the splendid bull-mask of Daidalos gazed out. ... He had snatched up Mother Labrys from her stand. ... Then we two were alone in our little bull pit, as in the days of the primal sacrifice; the armed beast and the naked man."

In fact, Theseus himself dons the mask to kill Asterion:

Before me he lay writhing, scraping the noble mask of the Bull God on the floor. I drew it off, and held it up to the people. ... I lifted the mask of Minos, and put it on. Through the eyes of thick curved crystal, everything looked little, far and clear; I had to pause awhile, to get the feel of it and judge my distance. Then I swung Labrys back, and brought her down, my head and shoulders and body coming round with the blow. The force of it tingled through my hands; and the voice at my feet was silent.

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    That Wikipedia link doesn't mention the Minotaur welding an axe, the only axe mentioned is the House of Axe. Do you have a passage from the books that states that, which you could put in your answer? – Greenonline May 30 '18 at 18:14
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    I have not read the book, but my understanding was that The King Must Die did not feature a minotaur. Per Wikipedia: "Rather than retelling the myth, Renault constructs an archaeologically and anthropologically plausible story that might have developed into the myth. She captures the essentials while removing the more fantastical elements, such as monsters and the appearances of gods." – Buzz May 30 '18 at 18:38
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    @Buzz There's no literal bull-man-monster, but Minos's son Asterion is referred to as the "Minotaur" (and as "Minos' bull") and wears a bull mask in the final showdown, hence "human Minotaur." The use of the double-bladed ax in Cretan art and ritual is an important motif in the story. – MissMonicaE May 30 '18 at 21:04
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    @swbarnes2 I added a couple more quotes, hope that's okay! – MissMonicaE May 30 '18 at 23:06
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    Please fix the typos. – jpmc26 May 31 '18 at 4:23
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You've answered your own question in the question itself!

Historically, the double axe was an important symbol for Crete. The word "labrys" as in "labyrinth" may also be associated with Crete and axes, although accounts vary.

The mythological Minotaur also came from Crete, the labyrinth in fact.

The association of Minotaurs and axes is derived from mythology via the fact that both are associated with Crete, as you mention.

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    As Cadence's answer points out, the idea that Minotaurs should carry battleaxes only appeared relatively recently. If it was derived directly from mythology as you suggest then surely it would be older than that? – Harry Johnston May 30 '18 at 8:51
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    The argument is that the ancient Greeks might not have known that much about Minoan culture. They might not have known that the double headed axe was an important symbol. – swbarnes2 May 30 '18 at 16:09
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The common imagery of a pair of bull horns and the double bladed axe seems like the likely culprit, it's the natural choice for a weapon for a large creature with horns.

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    What in your opinion makes it the natural weapon for a horned creature? – Bellatrix May 30 '18 at 4:11
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    Horns seem more like short spears... – Gregor May 30 '18 at 22:27
  • Purely from an aesthetic perspective, it seems a natural visual pairing, given the similarity between the twin curved horns of an axe and the horns of a bull. – Tex Andersen Jun 3 '18 at 23:39

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