The Greek Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus of Athens is one of the most famous heroes of Greek Mythology. His name evokes the perils of the deadly Labyrinth, the maze from which few ever emerged alive, and the terror of the man-eating Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, who dwelt in the heart of the Labyrinth.

This is also the story of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who risked everything for the love of a handsome stranger only to meet a very unexpected fate of her own.

Aegeus consulting the Oracle. A red figure kylix from 440-430 BCE by the Kodros Painter.
Aegeus consulting the Oracle. A red figure kylix from 440-430 BCE by the Kodros Painter. | Source

Who Was Theseus?

The mother of Theseus was Aithra, daughter of Pittheus, king of the small but ancient city of Troezen, which lay opposite Athens, across the Saronic gulf. She was related to Alcmene, mother of Heracles.

His father was said to be Aegeus, King of Athens. At the time the myth is set, around 1200 BCE, Athens was not yet a significant city, though bigger than Troezen. The Greek world was at that time dominated by the civilisation of Crete, ruled over by King Minos.

Troubled by his lack of a male heir, Aegeus travelled to Delphi to ask advice of the Oracle. The priestess answered in her usual riddling fashion, warning him not to open the mouth of the wineskin until he reached his homeland.

Aegeus stopped at Troezen and repeated this baffling riddle to his host Pittheus. Pittheus was able to interpret the riddle as meaning that Aegeus should not have intercourse with a woman until he reached his wife at home and could beget an heir. Deciding that he would like his own grandson to be King of Athens, he instructed his daughter Aithra to seduce Aegeus, which she did.

When Aegeus realised that Aithra was pregnant, he took her to a place where he laid his sword and his sandals under a great boulder. He told her that if her child was a son and grew up strong enough to be capable of lifting the boulder, she should take him to this place where he could collect these tokens and bring them to Athens where he would be recognised as Aegeus' son and heir. Aegeus then returned to Athens.

When Theseus was born, it was claimed that he was the son of Poseidon, God of the Sea, to avoid any embarrassment.

Thésée retrouve l'épée de son père, Nicolaus Poussin and Jean Lemaire, oil painting, 1638.
Thésée retrouve l'épée de son père, Nicolaus Poussin and Jean Lemaire, oil painting, 1638. | Source

Theseus Claims His Birthright

When Theseus came to manhood, his mother Aithra brought him to the stone under which his father Aegeus had left the tokens of his identity. Theseus was easily able to lift the stone and claim the sword and sandals that Aegeus had left for him. Once Theseus learned the truth about his origins he was eager to set out for Athens at once.

His mother urged him to travel there by ship across the Gulf, which was the quicker and easier way, but Theseus insisted on travelling the long way via land. He knew that the way was full of dangers with many robbers and wild beasts roaming the land unchecked but he wanted to arrive at his father's kingdom having proved himself with heroic deeds.

Along the way to Athens, Theseus defeated, amongst many others, the robber Procrustes, a charming character who was in the habit of waylaying travellers and then cutting bits off them until they fit his short and narrow bed. Theseus served Procrustes in the same fashion.

Theseus Arrives at Athens

After his many heroic adventures along the way, Theseus arrived at Athens and presented himself at his father's palace. Unfortunately, his father happened to be entertaining another guest at the time, namely Medea of Colchis who had claimed sanctuary with Aegeus after murdering her children by Jason and killing his new bride as revenge for being superceded.

Medea considered the arrival of this young stranger a threat and persuaded Aegeus that they should poison him at dinner. Just as Theseus was about to raise the poisoned goblet to his lips, Aegeus recognised the sword he was carrying as his own. Just in time, he knocked the cup out of his hand and, embracing Theseus, acknowledged him as his son. Theseus had Medea driven out of Athens.

Medea, Theseus, and Aegeus, by William Russell Flint, 1910
Medea, Theseus, and Aegeus, by William Russell Flint, 1910

King Minos' Tribute: Theseus Sets Sail for Crete

Theseus had not long to enjoy his new place in his father's kingdom, before he became aware that his father's subjects were afflicted by a great sorrow.

Some years previously, Androgeus, son of King Minos of Crete, had come to Athens to take part in the festival of the Panathenaia and had somehow lost his life. King Minos blamed King Aegeus and Athens for his son's death and called down a curse on the city so that many died of a terrible plague. When the Athenians asked the Oracle for advice, they were told they should offer Minos whatever recompense he demanded.

The price Minos asked was a high one: every nine years Athens must send a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they would be locked inside the Labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.

The time had come for the next tribute to be sent and Theseus insisted that he should be one of the seven youths sent to Crete, where he would attempt to kill the Minotaur with his bare hands.

Aegeus was distraught at the possibility of sending his son to certain death just after finding him again. When he was unable to dissuade Theseus, he gave him a set of white sails. Usually, the ship taking the youths and maidens to Crete wore black sails in token of mourning. If by chance Theseus was coming back alive, he was to change the black sails for white ones for Aegeus to see from afar as he sat watching out to sea.

Theseus promised to do as he had asked and with good cheer went aboard ship for Crete with the other youths and maidens who had been chosen that year.

Cute baby Minotaur with mother Pasiphae. From a Greek Kylix (bowl).
Cute baby Minotaur with mother Pasiphae. From a Greek Kylix (bowl). | Source

King Minos of Crete and the Minotaur

King Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa, along with his brothers Sarpedon and Rhadamanthys. Zeus had abducted Europa from Phoenica and brought her to Crete, where she married King Asterios.

After the death of Asterios, Minos claimed the throne of Crete and in order to demonstrate that the Gods supported his claim, he prayed to Poseidon to send him a bull from the sea, promising to offer the bull to him in sacrifice. Poseidon accordingly sent him a magnificent great white bull that stepped ashore from the midst of the waves.

Foolishly, Minos so admired this bull that, although he got his wish and was accepted as king, he kept the bull among his own herds, offering another in sacrifice. Poseidon was naturally angered at Minos going back on his word. He not only turned the bull savage, but caused Pasiphae, Minos' wife, to fall in love with him.

Desperate to consummate her passion for the bull, Pasiphae turned to Daedalus, the master craftsman for help. Daedalus constructed a lifelike hollow wooden cow, covered in a real cow pelt. The fake cow was brought to where the bull habitually grazed and Pasiphae climbed inside it. Deceived, the bull mated with the wooden cow and Pasiphae concieved. The son she bore had a human body but the head of a bull. He was known as the Minotaur or Bull of Minos.

In order to contain this unfortunate child who had seemingly inherited his father's maneating savagery, Daedalus' ingenuity was called upon again. He constructed the Labyrinth, a huge maze with innumerable passageways and dead ends. The Minotaur was left in the heart of the Labyrinth and anyone who went in there was either eaten by the bull headed boy or lost forever.

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Edward Burne-Jones, 1861
Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Edward Burne-Jones, 1861 | Source

Ariadne and the Labyrinth

When the ship reached Crete from Athens, King Minos was surprised to learn that Aegeus' own son Theseus had come as part of the tribute. He received him to the palace as a courtesy, and there Theseus met Ariadne, daughter of King Minos and Pasiphae. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus at first sight and resolved to betray not only her father but her bull-headed brother to save him.

She gave Theseus a ball of thread, one end of which was to be fastened to the entrance of the Labyrinth, while Theseus kept hold of the other. When Theseus and the other boys and girls were locked in the Labyrinth, Theseus ventured down the mazy pathways to its very heart. There in the darkness he heard the snorting and bellowing of the enraged and hungry Minotaur. After a fierce battle Theseus slew the Minotaur with heavy punches and then, using the thread he still had tied about him, guided the terrified youths and maidens back to the light.

Pompeian fresco of Theseus standing over the body of the Minotaur.
Pompeian fresco of Theseus standing over the body of the Minotaur. | Source

Flight From Crete: Ariadne at Naxos

Having killed the Minotaur, Theseus took ship back to Athens with the rescued boys and girls and brought Ariadne with him, as he had promised her.

In the course of the voyage, they stopped overnight at the island of Naxos and there Theseus abandoned Ariadne, still sleeping, and set off for Athens without her.

Ariadne awakened and found herself alone on the deserted seashore, the sails of Theseus' ship still to be seen, far out to sea. Ariadne wept and cried out in despair, calling on the Gods to witness this breaking of Theseus' promise to her. She had betrayed her own family, given up everything to be with Theseus and he had left her alone to die on this small island.

Suddenly, Ariadne heard the rhthymic beating of drums and timbrels, of voices raised in joyful singing. Turning round, she was brought face to face with the God Dionysus himself, accompanied by his riotous train of Bacchants, Satyrs, and Sileni. He addressed the confounded girl kindly, bidding her put the faithless mortal Theseus from her heart and joyfully take her place as the wife of Dionysus, God of the Vine, for he had fallen in love with her. Ariadne dried her tears soon enough and became the God's bride and joined the ranks of the Immortal Gods.

Pompeian fresco of Theseus stealing aboard ship, leaving Ariadne sleeping.
Pompeian fresco of Theseus stealing aboard ship, leaving Ariadne sleeping. | Source
Greek red figure Kalix Crater showing Dionysus and Ariadne. 400-375 BCE
Greek red figure Kalix Crater showing Dionysus and Ariadne. 400-375 BCE | Source

Theseus Returns to Athens

Theseus meanwhile, continued to sail back to Athens. Whether it was because he was distraught at having left Ariadne behind, or because this was the Gods vengeance on Ariadne' behalf or whether Theseus was simply very absent-minded, he forgot to change the black sails of the ship for white ones as he had promised his father in token of his safe return.

Each day King Aegeus, now an old man, had watched and waited from the top of the rock where the Acropolis now stands, hoping for a sign that his only son was returning home to him. When he saw the ship approaching, the black sails of mourning billowing in the wind, he gave a great cry of despair and flung himself to his doom from the top of the Acropolis.

Thus it was with mingled grief and rejoicing that Theseus was welcomed home. While he mourned for his father, the parents of the boys and girls they believed had gone to their deaths were overcome with joy and hailed Theseus as their saviour. Soon after, Theseus was crowned King of Athens.

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    Sarah has a PhD in Classical Civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write and research on the Ancient World.

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