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Daedalus presents the artificial cow to Pasiphaë: Roman fresco in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii, 1st century CE.

In Greek mythology, Pasiphaë (English: /pəˈsɪfə.iː/; Greek: Πασιφάη Pasipháē), "wide-shining"[1] was the daughter of Helios, the Sun, by the eldest[2] of the Oceanids, Perse;[3] Like her doublet Europa, her origins were in the East, in her case at Colchis, the palace of the Sun; she was given in marriage to King Minos of Crete. With Minos, she was the mother of Ariadne, Androgeus, Glaucus, Deucalion, Phaedra, and Catreus. She was also the mother of "starlike" Asterion, called by the Greeks the Minotaur, after a curse from Poseidon caused her to experience lust for and mate with a white bull sent by Poseidon.[4] "The Bull was the old pre-Olympian Poseidon," Ruck and Staples remark.[5] In the Greek literalistic understanding of a Minoan myth,[6] in order to actually copulate with the bull, she had the Athenian artificer Daedalus[7] construct a portable wooden cow with a cowhide covering, within which she was able to satisfy her unnatural desire.[8] The effect of the Greek interpretation was to reduce a more-than-human female, daughter of the Sun itself, to a stereotyped emblem of grotesque bestiality and the shocking excesses of female sensuality and deceit.[9] Pasiphaë appeared in Virgil's Eclogue VI (45-60), in Silenus' list of suitable mythological subjects, on which Virgil lingers in such detail that he gives the sixteen-line episode the weight of a brief inset myth.[10] In Ovid's Ars Amatoria Pasiphaë is reduced to unflattering human terms: Pasiphae fieri gaudebat adultera tauri— "Pasiphaë took pleasure in becoming an adulteress with a bull."

In other aspects, Pasiphaë, like her niece Medea, was a mistress of magical herbal arts in the Greek imagination. The author of Bibliotheke (3.197-198) records the fidelity charm she placed upon Minos, who would ejaculate serpents and scorpions, killing any unlawful concubine; but Procris, with a protective herb, lay with Minos with impunity.[11] In mainland Greece, Pasiphaë was worshipped as an oracular goddess at Thalamae, one of the original koine of Sparta. The geographer Pausanias describes the shrine as small, situated near a clear stream, and flanked by bronze statues of Helios and Pasiphaë. His account also equates Pasiphaë with Ino and the lunar goddess Selene.

Cicero writes in De Natura Deorum that the Spartan ephors would sleep at the shrine of Pasiphaë, seeking prophetic dreams to aid them in governance. According to Plutarch,[12] Spartan society twice underwent major upheavals sparked by ephors' dreams at the shrine during the Hellenistic era. In one case, an ephor dreamed that some of his colleagues' chairs were removed from the agora, and that a voice called out "this is better for Sparta"; inspired by this, King Cleomenes acted to consolidate royal power. Again during the reign of King Agis, several ephors brought the people into revolt with oracles from Pasiphaë's shrine promising remission of debts and redistribution of land.


  1. ^ An attribute of the Moon, as Pausanias remarked in passing (i.43.96): compare Euryphaessa; if Pasipháē is an ancient conventional Minoan epithet translated into Greek, it would be a "loan translation", or calque.
  2. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 346.
  3. ^ Pasiphaë was thus the half-sister of Aeëtes and of Circe. Diodorus Siculus (4.60.4) made the mother of Pasiphaë the island-nymph Crete herself.
  4. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.1.4
  5. ^ Ruck and Staples 1994:213.
  6. ^ Specific astrological or calendrical interpretations of the mystic mating of the "wide-shining" daughter of the Sun with a mythological bull, transformed into an unnatural curse in Hellene myth, are prone to variability and debate.
  7. ^ Daedalus was of the line of the chthonic king at Athens Erechtheus.
  8. ^ Greek myth characteristically emphasizes the accursed unnaturalness of a mystical marriage conceived literally as merely carnal: a fragment of Bacchylides alludes to "her unspeakable sickness" and Hyginus (Fabulae 40) to "an unnatural love for a bull."
  9. ^ This was the commonplace of brief notices of Pasiphaë among Latin poets, too, Rebecca Armstrong notes, in Cretan Women: Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Phaedra in Latin Poetry (Oxford University Press) 2006:169. Armstrong falls into the trap of literalness: in discussing the list of candidates for children of Pasiphaë and Minos, she remarks, "It seems unlikely that Pasiphaë gave birth to these human children after her liaison with the bull." (172 note 9); but there is no chronologically coherent narrative before and after in myth or dream, the aspect of myth that Ruck and Staples (1994:9) call "the suspension of linear chronology", a feature which is remarked upon in all introductions to Greek myth.
  10. ^ Armstrong 2006:171.
  11. ^ See also the Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis, 41.
  12. ^ Plutarch, Lives of Agis and Cleomenes.


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