When the wife of King Minos of Crete developed an unhealthy passion for a bull, she clambered inside a mechanical cow fashioned by the craftsman Daedalus and promptly conceived the Minotaur. The monster was placed inside a labyrinth of Daedalus’s design and fed a tribute of Athenian youths once every nine years until, finally, Theseus arrived and killed it. The king’s daughter, Ariadne, fell for this stranger and gave him the thread he needed to wind his way out of the maze. Theseus repaid her by abandoning her while she slept.
Sir Arthur Evans described Knossos on Crete as ‘at once the starting point and the earliest stage in the highway of European civilisation’. The incredible Bronze Age remains of King Minos’s ancient kingdom sparked Charlotte Higgins’s fascination with labyrinths and, in particular, the myth of the Minotaur, which forms the central thread of her book. In the early pages she recalls visiting the site as a child and meeting museum guide Mrs Sofia Grammatiki, who gave her some postcards. After university, she writes, she stumbled upon the address of the inspiring museum guide, who became her pen pal and muse.