Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

Theseus and the Minotaur

T HESEUS was the son of King Aegeus of Athens, who ruled over the city in very ancient times But although Theseus was the son of the king, he was not brought up at Athens He lived with his mother and grandfather far from his father's country, and grew to be a lad of sixteen before he even knew that he was a king's son. When he reached that age he was a strong and handsome boy. His mother looked upon him proudly and yet sadly, for she knew that the time had come when he must leave her.

One day she led him to a great stone, and told him a story that left him breathless with excitement. "Under this stone," she said, "are hidden a sword and a pair of sandals, placed there long ago by your father. When you are strong enough to lift the stone, you are to place the sword at your side, and strap the sandals on your feet, and go to Athens to claim the place of prince of the city. Will you try to lift the stone now?"

Without a word, Theseus put his shoulder to the rock, and using all his strength he rolled it from its place. Then he snatched the sword and sandals which he found in the hollow beneath the stone, and prepared to set out upon his journey to his father's kingdom. In those long-ago days a journey by land was very dangerous because of the robbers and wild beasts that might attack the traveler; besides, Theseus was still only a lad; so his mother and grandfather urged him to go to Athens by sea. But Theseus would not listen to this. He wished to take the hardest road, and prove himself to be really as brave as he felt that he was. So he set out by land, and before he reached Athens he had almost as many adventures as Heracles

One of these adventures was with a robber called Procrustes. This man did not kill the people whom he captured in any ordinary way, as by shooting them to death with arrows or cutting off their heads. He had a bed upon which he laid his prisoners; and if they were not just the right length for it, he would either cut them off or stretch them out until they should exactly fit it. When Theseus heard of him, he at once set out to punish him. With his great strength he easily captured him; and then he treated him as Procrustes had so often treated others, and let him find out for himself how it felt to lie upon his bed.

After many adventures with wicked men and fierce wild beasts, Theseus at last reached Athens. His father, King Aegeus, did not know that he was on the way; and it was so long since he had hidden the sword and sandals under the rock for his son, that he had almost forgotten it. He had grown to be a sad and lonely man, who was afraid that even his best friends and nearest relatives were trying to get his kingdom from him. He had been told by the oracle at Delphi to beware of the many who should come before him with but one sandal. HE was always looking for this man; and when one day Theseus came to his palace wearing only one sandal, having lost the other on the way, he felt at once that he had found his worst enemy.

He gave a feast that very night, to which Theseus was asked to come; and he made ready a cup of poison which he meant to have him drink. But, before the cup was offered to Theseus, the meat was passed at the table. Now, in those days they did not have table-knives as we do. Each guest was expected to use whatever he had with him in the way of a knife. When the turn of Theseus came to cut his piece from the meat, he drew his father's sword, which he had brought carefully through all of his adventures on the way. King Aegeus saw it and recognized it, and knew in an instant that this young man must be his son. The cup of poison was thrown away; and, even though Theseus had come to his father with but one sandal, he was welcomed, and made price of the city.

He had not been long in Athens when he found something to do more difficult than anything he had met with on the journey. Not far from the city there was an island where a cruel king named Minos lived. This king had once crossed the sea to Greece, and burned the town of Athens. Before he left the Athenians in peace, he made them promise to send an offering to his island every nine years of seven youths and seven maidens. These prisoners Minos fed to a monster called the Minotaur, which lived in a cave that had so many windings and turnings in its passageways that a stranger who had once gone in could never find the way out again.

Soon after Theseus came, the offering to Minos was prepared. The boys and girls were to be chosen by lot from among the noblest families in the city, and every father and mother was in fear lest their son or daughter might be chosen. All the people were angry at King Aegeus for allowing such a thing to be done; and they were whispering among themselves that they ought to choose a stronger and braver king, who would be able to protect their city, and not send their children to a dreadful death. Then Theseus came among them and offered of his own free will to go with the youths and maidens. King Aegeus objected to this, and begged his son not to leave him; but Theseus was determined to seek out the Minotaur and kill him. So when the vessel left the town, with its black sails and its burden of weeping young men and women, the Prince Theseus was upon it.

King Aegeus was very sorrowful as he saw his strong young son leave him. He had not much faith that Theseus would succeed in killing the Minotaur. But, before the vessel left, he had given to the captain a white sail, and ordered him to hoist that instead of the black sail as he returned to the city, if Theseus had been successful and had killed the monster. But if he had not succeeded, the captain was to raise the black sail, and then all the people would know as soon as they saw the ship that their children would return to them no more.

When Theseus arrived at the island of Minos he found unexpected help to aid him in his fight with the Minotaur. The king's daughter took pity on him, and gave him a thread to guide him out again through the winding passages. Holding this in his hand, he went bravely in, and killed the monster with his father's sword. Then, still holding fast to his slender thread, he found his way out as he had come in, and set sail joyfully for Greece.

But he and his companions were too excited over their happy escape from King Minos and his Minotaur to think of changing their sail from black to white, as King Aegeus had told them to do. So they came in sight of Athens with the funeral sails under which they had started. The king was watching for them from a high cliff; and when he saw the black sails of the vessel, he was sure that his son had failed and would never return again. In his grief and despair he threw himself from the top of the steep hill and was killed.

Thus Theseus by his thoughtlessness did his father the greatest harm, and the people all said that the Delphic oracle had spoken truly when it told King Aegeus to beware of the man who came before him with but one sandal. But the Athenians did not grieve long for King Aegeus. They were too glad to receive their children back, and to learn that the Minotaur was at last dead. They made Theseus their king in his father's place, and under his long rule Athens became a great and powerful city.

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