Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 39 Scylla and Minos, and the Minotaur

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), The Minotaur (1885), oil on canvas, 118.1 x 94.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the artist 1897), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Ovid completed Book 7 of his Metamorphoses with the wonderful but tragic story of Cephalus and Procris, an aside to his thread about Minos, King of Crete, waging war against the Greeks. He opens Book 8 by returning to that war, and to the ill-fated life of Minos.

The Story

Cephalus and his party return to Athens, by which time King Minos is already laying waste to Megara, and the city of Alcathous, ruled by King Nisus. The latter has a lock of purple hair on his head, a talisman which ensures the safety of his kingdom.

Nisus’ daughter, Scylla, regularly watches the forces of Minos from her royal tower, and has got to know many of the Cretan commanders, including Minos himself. From watching him, she feels that she has fallen in love with him, and has an impulse to go to him to bring the fighting to an end, hoping also to marry him.

That night, she is determined to act. She sneaks into her father’s bedroom, and cuts off his lock of purple hair, ending its protection over the kingdom. She then makes her way out of the city, through the Cretan lines, until she meets King Minos. She tells him what she has done, and gives him the lock of hair.

She is shocked that, far from winning Minos’ love and hand in marriage, he calls on the gods to curse her, and refuses to let her enter Crete. Nevertheless, Minos conquers the city before setting sail once more in his ships.

Scylla lets loose a long tirade of insults at Minos, and calls on her father Nisus to punish her for her treachery. With a final insulting reference to Minos’ wife Pasiphae and her mating with a bull, Scylla announces that she will cling to Minos’ ship and follow him over the sea:
And as she spoke, she leaped into the waves,
and followed the receding ships — for strength
from passion came to her. And soon she clung
unwelcome, to the sailing Gnossian ship.
Meanwhile, the Gods had changed her father’s form
and now he hovered over the salt deep,
a hawk with tawny wings. So when he saw
his daughter clinging to the hostile ship
he would have torn her with his rending beak; —
he darted towards her through the yielding air.
In terror she let go, but as she fell
the light air held her from the ocean spray;
her feather-weight supported by the breeze;
she spread her wings, and changed into a bird.
They called her “Ciris” when she cut the wind,
and “Ciris” — cut-the-lock — remains her name.

Nisus is thus transformed into an osprey, which pursues Scylla, who is transformed into a seabird, probably a shearwater.

Ovid then gives a short summary of the story of Minos and the Minotaur of Crete. He tells of Minos’ return, and his sacrifice of a hundred bulls to Jupiter. But he could not escape the shame of his wife Pasiphae’s bestial adultery with a bull, which had resulted in the birth of a beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man – the Minotaur.

Minos had the architect and artificer Daedalus design and build a maze, within which the Minotaur was confined. Every nine years, the monster was fed on Athenian victims, but at the third such feeding, Minos’ daughter Ariadne had helped Theseus kill the Minotaur. Theseus then abducted Ariadne and took her to the island of Naxos, where he abandoned her.

Ariadne met Bacchus, who comforted and married her. Theseus took Ariadne’s wedding diadem and set it in the heavens as the constellation Corona Borealis.

The Paintings

Although once again a visual story told vividly by Ovid, Scylla’s betrayal of Nisus and her failed attempt to run away with Minos, appears never to have been depicted in a painting of significance (before the twentieth century). Even the well-known story of Pasiphae and the Minotaur has been told in remarkably few paintings, although the issues of bestiality probably encouraged artists to keep well clear.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Pasiphaé (1880s), oil on canvas, 195 x 91 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau appears to have started to paint Pasiphaé (1880s) but then to have abandoned it.

Maître des Cassoni Campana (dates not known), The Legend of Crete (detail) (1500-25), oil on panel, dimensions not known, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

This detail of a wonderful painted cassone The Legend of Crete from around 1500-25 shows what has become a popular image of the labyrinth constructed by Daedalus. At its centre, Theseus has just decapitated the Minotaur, while Ariadne waits, holding the thread which enables him to retrace his steps to the exit.

The Minotaur 1885 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), The Minotaur (1885), oil on canvas, 118.1 x 94.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the artist 1897), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

George Frederic Watts was apparently driven to paint The Minotaur (1885) as a response to a series of articles in the press revealing the industry of child prostitution in late Victorian Britain; those articles referred to the myth of the Minotaur, so early one morning he painted this image of human bestiality and lust. His Minotaur has crushed a small bird in its left hand, and gazes out to sea, awaiting the next shipment of young men and virgin women from Greece.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Athenians Being Delivered to the Minotaur (1855), oil, dimensions not known, Musée de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Much earlier in his career, Gustave Moreau had painted this scene of Athenians Being Delivered to the Minotaur (1855). Wearing laurel wreaths to mark their distinction and sacrifice, the young men and women hold back while Theseus crouches, waiting to do battle with the beast, seen at the right.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Ariadne Watching the Struggle of Theseus with the Minotaur (1815-20), brown wash, oil, white gouache, white chalk, gum and graphite on moderately thick, moderately textured, beige wove paper, 61.6 x 50.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Fuseli captured some of the dynamics of the situation, in his spirited mixed-media sketch of Ariadne Watching the Struggle of Theseus with the Minotaur (1815-20). Theseus appears almost skeletal as he tries to bring his dagger down to administer the fatal blow, and Ariadne looks like a wraith or spirit.

Charles-Édouard Chaise (1759-1798), Theseus, Victor over the Minotaur (c 1791), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

Theseus, Victor over the Minotaur (c 1791) is one of only three paintings by Charles-Édouard Chaise known to survive. With its crisp neo-classical style, it shows Theseus standing in triumph over the lifeless corpse of the Minotaur. He is almost being mobbed by the young Athenian women whose lives he has spared. At the left, his thread rests on a wall by an urn, which suggests that the young woman by it may be Ariadne; she is being helped by a young man.

From so few paintings, Ovid’s story, and the well-known legend of the Minotaur, is told well. In its historical and social context, Watts’ painting stands out as an important work even among the Tate’s many great paintings.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.