Theseus and the Minotaur

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Plutarch's "Life of Theseus"

Old Greek Stories by James Baldwin

King Minos

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Aegeus was the king of Athens. And although his reign was largely peaceful and successful, he had no heir. He did, however, have 50 awful nephews who all felt entitled to the throne. The ate and drank in the palace, and constantly squabbled amongst themselves. The people of Athens dreaded the day that Aegeus might die and one of the rotten nephews became king.


Weary of the drama, Aegeus arranged for the Elders of Athens to take care of the city while he journeyed across Saronic Sea to visit his childhood friend Pittheus, who was also a King of the City of Troezen. 


Aegeus and Pittheus were overjoyed to see each other and spent many a long night recounting stories from their youth. Aegeus was happy and decided to remain in Troezen longer than he anticipated and continue entrusting Athens to the Elders. And so, the ship that carried him to Troezen went back to Athens without him. It also happened that Aegeus had become attracted to Pitthius daughter, Aethra and she was also attracted to him. 


In time, Aegeus and Aethra were married in the great hall of King Pitthius, though Aegeus kept the ceremony a secret, fearing that his envious nephews might plot against him and his new wife. 


Meanwhile in Athens, the city was preparing for the Panathenaic Games played in tribute to the goddess Athena. Contestants had to demonstrate their skill in a series of events ranging from musical competitions, to horse and boat racing, to wrestling and track racing. 


Androgeus, the favorite son of Minos, the king of Crete arrived in Athens for the games and quickly became a crowd favorite and beat all of the Athenian competitors. Aegeus’s nephews sought to capitalize on this moment to their advantage and hatched a plot to get some jealous athletes to ambush and murder Androgeus, and make it seem as though Aegeus himself gave the order. They hoped to provoke a conflict that would get Aegeus removed from his throne by force if nothing else…


News of Androgeus’s death reached his father Minos on Crete and set him on the warpath against Athens. 


Panathenaic Stadium, by Meister Eiskalt, CC BY SA 3.0

Back in the city of Troezen, Aethra gave birth to a son. But soon after some of the Elders of Athens arrived and told Aegeus of the coming conflict with Crete and begged him to return to Athens and prepare for battle. Aegeus was torn and struck with grief, but he ultimately decided that he could no longer hide from his duty as king. He hid a fine bronze sword, and a pair gold sandals in a hollow and covered the entrance with a large stone. He instructed Aethra to keep their relationship a secret out of fear of his scheming nephews, and to not tell Theseus who his father was until the day he was strong enough to lift the stone and recover the sword and sandals for himself. And on that day, when he would be able to defend himself, she should send him to Athens to claim his place as Heir to the throne.  Aegeus then set off to Athens, and Aethra raised Theseus in secret.

Aegeus arrived back at Athens just in time to prepare to meet the Armies of King Minos.


Minos’s men burned all the Athenian ships  in the harbor, and soon overwhelmed the countryside, destroying villages and  farms until they finally came to Athens itself and made camps just outside its walls. Minos threatened that the next morning they would invade the city, tear it down and set it on fire. 


Desperate to end the lopsided war, Aegeus himself along with the Elders of Athens rode out to Minos’s camp to attempt to come to terms. 


“What have I done to provoke this war?” Aegeus asked. 


A Furious Minos responded, “What do you mean what have you done?” I had an only son, Androgeus by name, and he was dearer to me than all the cities of Crete and the thousand islands of the sea over which I rule. Three years ago, he came to Athens to take part in the games in honor of Athena. You know how he bested all of your men in the competition, and how your people honored him with song and dance and a laurel crown. But when you king, Aegeus, who stands before me now, saw how everybody ran after him and praised his valor, you were filled with envy and plotted to kill him. You had him murdered on the road to Thebes, or some say, sent him against a wild bull to be slain, I do not know which it was, but you cannot deny that my only son’s life was taken from him through the plotting you, Aegeus King of Athens”


“It isn’t true” the Elders of Athens pleaded. “Aegeus our King had been in Troezen, across the Saronic Sea for some time, we have discovered that the plot against Androgeus was carried out by some of Aegeus’s jealous nephews hoping you would remove Aegeus from his throne.”


Eyeing a distraught Aegeus, Minos considered this and said to the aldermen, “do you swear to me that this is true”? 


“It is true” they replied. 


“Athens has taken something from me greater than any treasure, and in exchange for your city, I require that which is most important to you to be treated as cruelly as my Androgeus was treated, Does king Aegeus have a son?”


Aegeus’s heart sank as he thought of his newborn son, and he couldn’t speak, so an Elder, unaware of Theseus existence spoke up “our king has no son of his own, this is why his nephews were so eager to see him gone” 


Minos thought for a moment and said “…I don’t care for these nephews, you may do as you wish with them, what I demand as tribute is this, every spring from here after you will send to me the 7 noblest sons and the 7 fairest maidens in all of Athens. You send them to me in a ship with black sails that you will build, and if even once you fail to meet this demand my soldiers will return and raze Athens to the ground, leave no man alive, and take all your women and children as slaves”


After a pause the Elders of Athens spoke up, “We will do this, as it seems we have no choice, but tell us, what will you do with these tributes?”


Minos replied, “They will be placed in the Labyrinth, a placed the likes of which you have never seen or imagined with a thousand winding halls and rooms from which there is no escape.”


“To be your prisoners and starve to death?” they asked


“No” said Minos, “To be devoured by a monstrous beast of Poseidon’s doing that we call the Minotaur”


Shocked by this, but left with no other choice, Aegeus and his Elder men returned to Athens to begin preparing for the first tribute, and Minos armies began the retreat back to the island of Crete.  


Minotaur, by Ebanghelyo,

Years passed, and Aegeus and Aethra’s son, whom Aethra had named Theseus, was growing into a fine young man with a spotless reputation. He was handsome, brave, and courteous, and he spent nearly all of his free time training by jumping and running and lifting heavy stones, and every year on his birthday he went to the hollow with his mother and tried to move the stone, but each year he had failed to do so. And So, he had not been able to get his mother to tell him who his father was. 


By his 18th birthday, Theseus was very skilled with a variety of weapons, and had quite the physic, more than a few people compared him to the legendary Hercules. And when he went to the hollow with is mother, he was finally able to lift the stone. He gazed upon the fine sword and sandals and handed them to his mother.


“Mother, tell me about my Father” Said an awestruck Theseus


Aethra, proud and crying tears of joy for her son, buckled the sword to his belt and put the sandals on his feet and told him how he was the son of the Great King Aegeus of Athens, and the sole heir to his throne. She told him why he had to leave him when he was baby, the fear of his murderous nephews, and about the war between Athens and Crete. but that when the day came that he was able to claim the sword that he should set off for Athens and claim his place. 


“I will leave for Athens today mother!” He said as they headed down to visit with his grandfather, King Pitthius.


Pitthius, remembering the plight of his old friend Aegeus, but fearing for his grandson said “Theseus, you can’t go to Athens now. It’s too dangerous, there are pirates at sea, and the route to Athens to Athens is a very long one. The roads could be quicker but  are full of bandits and thieves 10 times the number at sea. And to avoid them you would have to cross mountains and marshes inhabited by all manner of wild beasts and dragons and giants, and  Besides, what about Aegeus’s nephews, the reason he left you here in the first place was to protect you.”


Theseus, with resolve in his eyes responded to his grandfather “Then I shall take the road if it is faster”


“Then Theseus, I will send at least 50 men with you”


Theseus smiled at his concerned and caring grandfather, “No grandfather, I will go alone, this is my task” and at that he kissed his mother and grandfather goodbye and set off to Athens.


Statue of Theseus, Athens

Along the road to Athens, Theseus did encounter many thieves and bandits. And one by one he bested them all. Even the cruelest of murderers and tricksters were no match for him. And with every victory won, and every captive freed his reputation in the nearby towns grew and soon word had traveled that a great hero named Theseus was ridding the entire world of evil doer’s, many of whom were legendary in their own terrible ways.


When Theseus arrived at the gates of Athens, he found that his reputation had preceded him, and everyone was whispering about him everywhere he went. As he walked towards the palace, he came across some butchers moving freshly slaughtered Oxen towards the palace.


“You there, you’re the great Theseus we keep hearing about?”


“Ha, that finely groomed hair and spotless golden sandals, and you’re the one who’s ridding the mountainside of the likes of old Sciron, and Procrustes the Pitiless?” They laughed

“ You’d look more at home in a song hall with a face as pretty as that, I’d wager you’ve never lifted more than ten pounds in your entire life”


Theseus wasn’t angered by this, instead he found it amusing. He smirked, and when the butchers finally stopped jeering him, he turned and picked up the entire oxen off the cart and over his head and hurled it off. The butchers were dumbfounded, and Theseus continued towards the palace.


Concealing his sword, he approached the palace gates.


“You there, pretty stranger, what do you want”


Theseus replied “I am Theseus of Troezen here to ask for your hospitality, which is never refused by men of our race”


“Theseus? The Theseus who defeated Cercyon the wrestler and rid the mountains of robbers? Well Very well, you may enter”


“I will enter! And I will be a guest of the king, where is he?”


“ahhhh Don’t bother with the king, he’s old and depressed, we’re his nephews, we’re the ones who really run Athens now, come and dine with us instead”


Theseus entered the Palace, but he ignored the nephews at their tables and instead walked straight for the king, keeping his sword hidden. 


Theseus looked at his father and saw a withered old man with much sadness on his mind.


“What do you want young man?”


“Your hospitality, I am Theseus of Troezen.


“…..Troezen! Troezen!....and you’re the Theseus, the hero we all keep hearing about?” “Well of course, you will have the food and shelter of the King of Athens so long as I can give it!”


Then Medea, the king’s sorceress, stepped in and had a servant usher Theseus to his guest chamber. 


Medea, who had gained considerable influence over Aegeus, had been paying attention and was secretly aware that Theseus was indeed the rightful heir to the throne. Fearing she may lose her influence, she whispered to Aegeus that this Theseus was in fact not the hero he claimed to be, but rather an imposter hired by his nephews who were plotting to have him murdered. Aegeus was terrified, but Medea calmed him by saying she had already thought of a way to handle it, they would offer him poisoned wine at the evening’s dinner.


Medea offering wine to Theseus and Aegeus, by William Russel Flint 1910

When Theseus came to the table, he and the king began discussing his travels and the stories that seemed to follow Theseus. Aegeus was drawn to the young man, but still thought that it may all be a plot. When the roasted meat was brought to the table, Theseus smiled and stood up and drew his sword to carve it…


Aegeus immediately recognized the sword he had hidden for his son now almost 20 years ago, knocked the poisoned wine to the floor and embraced his long-lost son. 

The sorceress Medea immediately ran from the hall never to be seen again.


 Partenon de Atenas.jpg, By Steve Swayne, CC BY 2.0

The next day Aegeus let it be known to all of Athens that Theseus was his rightful son and the true heir. The Nephews, long jealous and plotting for the throne surrounded Theseus, but the men of Athens long tired of the brutal nephews stood by Theseus side, and one by one the murderous nephews of Aegeus until none were left. 


Theseus and Aegeus spent many days catching up, until one day, Heralds from the island of Crete arrived outside the gates.


“Three days Athens, your tribute is due in 3 days, or you will face the wrath of Armies of Crete” the heralds shouted in the streets as panicked citizens locked themselves inside and the streets emptied.


Theseus turned to his father whose face was full of shame, “What’s this all about, what right does a Cretian herald have to come to Athens and demand a tribute?”


Aegeus told Theseus the full story, and of the sacrifice to the Minotaur that was required every spring to avoid a full-scale war with Crete that they could not win.


When the day came for the Tribute to be offered, Theseus volunteered himself. Aegeus was shocked and horrified.


“Don’t worry father, I intend to kill this monster and rescue everyone I can. And When I return from Crete, I will do so with a white sail rather than the black sail so that you know of my success before I arrive”


Aegeus, aware of his sons own legendary prowess reluctantly agreed.


And when the ship with black sails disappeared from view, he spent the following days awaiting the return of the ship flying white sails of Theseus’s victory.

King Aegeus awaits Theseus, by Panaiotis Kruklidis


When Theseus and the other tributes arrived at Crete, they were paraded through the streets in from of King Minos and his daughter, Ariadne.


Theseus caught her eye, he was the most handsome heroic looking man she had ever seen, and it reminded her of the stories shed heard of a Hero named Theseus. 


“Father, this group of tributes is the noblest we have ever seen, far too noble to be sacrificed to that monster”


“The nobler the better, and no tribute will ever be as noble as our lost Androgeus” Minos scoffed.


That night Ariadne lay awake, wondering about the young man shed seen with the tributes. She got out of bed and headed off to the prison, as she was the king’s daughter she was allowed in and she found Theseus along with the other 13 tributes who looked hopeless and terrified. 


“You are Theseus!”


“I am.”


“I am Ariadne, daughter of Minos” And then she told Theseus of a plan she had to allow them to escape from the labyrinth.


“Take this silk thread, and tie it near the doorway to the labyrinth, you’ll be able to follow if back out”


Theseus told her in response that he intended to kill the minotaur and that that is why he came all this way. Hearing this Ariadne gave him back his sword and he hid it under his cloak.


In exchange for helping him, Theseus promised Ariadne that he would take her back to Athens with him once they escaped the Labyrinth.


Theseus and Ariadne, by IdelProdigy, DeviantArt

When the night of the tribute came Theseus, and the prisoners were marched to the entrance of the labyrinth and forced to enter with the door closing behind them. Theseus quickly and quietly tied one end of the thread near the doorway and unraveled more and more thread as they proceeded nervously through the labyrinth. 


It wasn’t long and they began to hear heavy breathing and growling, far away at first, but steadily getting closer. The other tributes began to sob in terror. 


“Stay behind me” said Theseus, as he drew his sword, surprising the other tributes “It’s getting closer, it’s almost here” and he dropped the end of the thread just behind him and prepared to face the Minotaur.


“This is where we fight, be ready to run, he’s here” 


Rounding a corner, the Minotaur revealed itself. More than twice the height of a man, with the muscular body and torso of a giant, but the horned head of a massive horned fighting bull it snorted and stamped its feet at them, raised its arms and prepared to charge. 


Theseus froze for a moment, and the Minotaur charged with deafening roar. Theseus roared back and charged at the beast himself. At the last moment he jumped to the side and swung his sword with all of his strength, he cut one of the monsters legs off at the knee, it backwards and writhed in pain and anger as it swung its arms wildly in an effort to defend itself, Theseus jumped on top of the beast and plunged his sword into its chest, grabbed it by the horns and started beating it. The Minotaur died at the hands of Theseus, and he along with the tributes he had saved followed the thread back to the doorway where they found Ariadne waiting. 


Theseus and the Minotaur by Justin Gerard

They headed for the boats and boarded the ship with the black sail and set off for Athens.


King Minos awoke the next day to find his daughter missing, the labyrinth door open, and that the mighty  Minotaur had brutally been slain. Minos collapsed in despair. 


King Aegeus had spent days anxiously waiting by the sea hoping to catch a glimpse of his son’s victorious white sails. 


But Theseus, overwhelmed with what had just happened, had forgotten all about switching the sails from black to white. 


When Aegeus saw the black sails on the horizon, his mind went dark. His son had died at the hands of the minotaur he thought, and all he had done these past 20 years was in vain. He jumped from the cliffs, into the sea and died. 

Death of Aegeus

Theseus arrived in Athens only to find that his father had died, and he lived with the guilt that it was quite likely his fault. To this day, it is called the Aegean Sea after his father Aegeus. And 

Theseus became King of Athens, though he refused the role and ultimately established Athens as the first functional democracy where the people would rule themselves……….


That is the end of the Story of Theseus and the Minotaur. There are a few versions of this story out there with some minor differences, I’ll have links at


What do you think of that story? It’s a pretty bittersweet ending isn’t it. In a lot of Ways, this story reminds me of Game of Thrones, and the character of John Snow. A good guy who doesn’t know his father who ends up on a personal journey of growth while he is on the proverbial road to his destiny. He does everything right along the way, gets the support of the men of Athens despite hardly knowing them, and even manages to kill a superhuman monster, but in the end a seemingly random minor mistake robs him of some the luster of his success and he never really assumes the role he spent his whole life being prepared for one way or another. And while he never becomes king, a new structure is established in Athens that can operate peacefully without him, and the only role he maintains is that of commander of the army, kind of like John Snow smirking at the end of Game of Thrones as he heads north if the wall, forever free of Westeros. 


It’s a classic hero’s journey. 


I also think a lot about the Minotaur, and the concept of a dark monster hidden in an inescapable maize. 


To me, it sort of represents the dark parts of the human mind, the monsters we might all have or need to face but are generally too afraid to do so. And if you aren’t careful, you can get lost, and those monsters or demons can then consume you. In this story those demons especially haunt Aegeus and Minos, in different ways for sure, but in both cases leading to their downfall.  The heroes of the story are of Theseus and Ariadne, who both overcome the demons of their fathers. Ariadne by setting up Theseus to kill the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth and end the vengeful blood lust of her father, and Theseus who is literally going into the dark maze that haunts his father’s whole life and exorcising the demon. It’s a story of growth, and overcoming, I think.   


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