Bulls were in Minos’ blood. As the Tyrian princess Europa walked wide-eyed by the shore, she saw among her father’s herds a handsome bull. The second-century bc poet Moschus describes it: ‘Its body was tawny. In the middle of its forehead shone a dazzling white ring, and its grey eyes flashed with desire. Its horns curved upwards, the one the mirror image of the other, as if the rim of the horned moon had been divided into two rounded arcs. ?
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As Europa approached, captivated, the bull allowed her to pet it and then climb on to its back. Then, with Europa riding it, it ambled into the waves. Soon it was swimming out to sea. Afraid now, Europa tried to urge it back. In vain. Turning its head, it spoke and revealed the truth – it was Zeus, disguised, intent on being Europa’s lover.
They came ashore in Crete, where at Gortyn beneath an evergreen plane-tree, they made love. Europa bore three sons – Rhadamanthus, Sarpedon (who shared his name with a later Trojan hero) and Minos. Unable to wed Zeus, Europa married Asterius, the king of Crete, who accepted the boys as his own. But Minos quarrelled with Sarpedon over a young man’s love, and banished him; and, when Rhadamanthus, was forced into exile after spilling a kinsman’s blood, the arrogant Minos became undisputed king.
Boasting that the gods would grant whatever he asked, Minos erected an altar and prayed to Poseidon to send a bull from the sea that he might sacrifice it. As the crowds watched, a gleaming white bull rose out of the waves and walked proudly to the altar. Its beauty was so breathtaking, that -rather than destroy it – Minos ordered that it should be spared and kept among his herds, while another animal was slaughtered in its place. Deprived of his promised sacrifice, Poseidon seethed.