When Ægeus, prince of Athens, was a young man he traveled in other countries, in one of which he met and married a young woman.
They were very happy until word came that Ægeus must go to Athens and be king. His father was dead, and the people called for him.
His wife and little boy went a short way on the journey with him. The prince took off his sword and shoes and hid them under a heavy stone by the roadside.
"When our boy is strong enough to lift that stone, let him bring the sword and shoes to me at Athens," he said and went forward. The wife and child turned back to their own city.
The little boy's name was Theseus. When he had grown up his mother took him to the stone and said, "My son, do you think that you could roll away that stone?"
He did so easily. There lay a sword and shoes. "What are these?" he asked.
His mother said, "They are yours. Once they belonged to your father. Take them to him in Athens, and he will know that you are his son."
Theseus went overland and met and overcame many dangers. At one place he found a strong and cruel man called Procrustes, which means the "Stretcher." He had an iron bedstead on which he made every passer-by lie down. If any were too short, he stretched their legs to make them long enough. When any were too long, he cut off their feet and ankles until they just fitted. Only those who were exactly the right length could go unharmed.
Theseus conquered this wretch, broke up the bedstead, and threw the pieces into the sea.
At Athens he showed the sword and shoes to the king, who asked, "How did you get these?"
"My mother showed me where they were hidden under a stone. I lifted it and took them," was the answer.
"These were mine before they were yours. I am your father, and you are my princely son," said the king.
Theseus found the Athenians in great trouble. At that season in every year they had to send to Crete seven young men and seven maidens to feed the Minotaur. This was a monster with the body of a bull, the head of a man, and the teeth of a lion. He was kept in a place called a labyrinth, which had so many rooms, doors and passages that no one who went in could ever find the way out without help. Minos, the king of Crete, loved this monster and fed him on human beings.
When the ship was ready to carry the young people away, Theseus went on board as one of the victims. The sails were black because everybody was mourning. Theseus had a set of white sails with him, and said to the king, "Father, watch for the ship. If she comes home in black you will know I have failed. If she carries white sails you may be sure that I have succeeded."
When they reached Crete the young people were taken up to the palace that the king might see them. His daughter, Ariadne, was sorry for them all, but most sorry for Theseus. She liked him and determined to save him. That night, she carried him a sword and a ball of thread.
She told him, "You must go first into the labyrinth; the others must follow you. Take the sword with you, and keep the ball of thread in your left hand, so that it will unwind as you go. I will hold one end outside the labyrinth. When you wish to come out, wind the thread up carefully, and follow it to the outer door."
In the morning Theseus did exactly as she had said. He went far into the labyrinth and saw the Minotaur coming toward him. He gave the ball of thread to one of the young men and said, "Keep out of this fight. If I am killed run as fast as you can, winding up the thread as you go. You and the others may escape in that way. If I win, stand still and give me back the ball. I will lead you out."
By this time the Minotaur came up, bellowing, and pawing the ground.
The battle began, and the young Athenians trembled as they watched the fight. The monster was strong and quick, but Theseus was quicker, and his sword was very sharp. After an hour or so of hard fighting the Minotaur was weakened, and fell to his knees. Theseus with one swift blow cut off his head, and the danger was over.
He wound up the clew, as the ball of thread was called, and it led him and his young friends out into freedom. Ariadne was waiting for them.
"You must hurry to your ship and get away," she said. "My father will be very angry, and you are not safe one moment while you stay."
"Will you go with us?" asked Theseus.
"Yes," she said, "for my father will be just as angry with me."
They reached their ship and were soon on the open sea. They stopped at the island of Naxos and left Ariadne there. She afterwards married Dionysus, the god of wine.
When the ship drew near the shore of Attica, the old king was watching from the top of a high rock directly above the sea. He saw a vessel coming, but, alas, her sails were black! In his joy, Theseus had forgotten to change the sails from black to white. The poor father thought his son was dead, and fell fainting into the sea. Ever afterward it was called, in memory of him, the Ægean Sea.
AEgeus, Watching for the Ship