Properly speaking, the name of the son of Pasiphaë (wife of King Minos of Crete) who had mated with a bull. The word "minotaur" – which has become a generic term for any such beast – translates as "bull son of King Minos", which is not biologically valid.
It is a sad story. King Minos asks Poseidon for a token to demonstrate his legitimacy as king in a dispute with his brothers, and Poseidon sends him a beautiful white bull, demanding that Minos sacrifice it to him immediately. But Minos values the animal too highly, and substitutes another. Poseidon, enraged, intoxicates Pasiphaë with lust for the bull. She has Daedalus construct a hollow cow, into which she positions herself for intercourse. The bull mounts her, and she gives birth to the Minotaur, a Monster with a human body and the head and tail of a bull. Minos then has Daedalus construct the Labyrinth beneath Knossos, and hides the Minotaur at its heart, where as a Liminal Being the creature opens the Portal only to death. And here – as a profound metaphor of Bondage, of stalled Metamorphosis – it remains eternally.
The rest of the story is central to Greek Mythology. It turns out that the Minotaur can eat only human flesh, and that the anguish of its cry of hunger terrifies all of Crete, broadcasting the bondage of its state into the social world. So Minos feeds it the human tribute he receives yearly from Athens. The story now becomes that of the Hero Theseus, who threads his way into the maze and kills the Minotaur.
The Minotaur is perhaps too complete an image of tragic bondage to be of much direct use in fantasy narratives, unless the figure is extricated from its defining situation, as Thomas Burnett Swann did in his Minotaur sequence (1966-1977), which sentimentalizes the central figure into an emblem of the Arcadia on Earth that precedes the Thinning of things as history bites. In the Saga/Heroes track of the DragonLance Game enterprise, bull-headed warrior Minotaurs – in tales like Richard A Knaak's Kaz, the Minotaur * (1990) – are capable of gaining sagacity points. John Farris's Minotaur (1985) is Horror. The figure of the Minotaur has occasioned some literary fantasies, most notably perhaps MacDonald Harris's Bull Fire (1973), though Robert Sheckley's Minotaur Maze (1990) transforms the figure into a victim – sometimes disguised as a Paris taxicab, "its tires whispering of atrocious pain and meaningless retribution" – in a labyrinth that encompasses the Universe. Most often, though, the Minotaur is seen as the adversary and victim of the Hero, as in "The Tale of the Student and his Son", embedded into Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983), or in Dave Duncan's A Rose-Red City (1987), where the hero must fight a Minotaur in a Faerie full of Underlier figures reawakened (as it seems) for Agon.
In the graphic arts of the 20th century, the Minotaur came to be identified with the work (and the self-projection as artist and male force) of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973); Michael Ayrton also incorporated the Minotaur into his overarching obsession with Daedalus. [JC]