Gateway to the Classics: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by Padraic Colum
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by  Padraic Colum

Theseus and the Minotaur


dropcap image HEREAFTER Theseus made up his mind to go in search of his father, the unknown king, and Medea, the wise woman, counseled him to go to Athens. After the hunt in Calydon he set forth. On his way he fought with and slew two robbers who harassed countries and treated people unjustly.

The first was Sinnias. He was a robber who slew men cruelly by tying them to strong branches of trees and letting the branches fly apart. On him Theseus had no mercy. The second was a robber also, Procrustes: he had a great iron bed on which he made his captives lie; if they were too long for that bed he chopped pieces off them, and if they were too short he stretched out their bodies with terrible racks. On him, likewise, Theseus had no mercy; he slew Procrustes and gave liberty to his captives.

The King of Athens at the time was named Ægeus. He was father of Theseus, but neither Theseus nor he knew that this was so. Æthra was his mother, and she was the daughter of the King of Trœzen. Before Theseus was born his father left a great sword under a stone, telling Æthra that the boy was to have the sword when he was able to move that stone away.

King Ægeus was old and fearful now: there were wars and troubles in the city; besides, there was in his palace an evil woman, a witch, to whom the king listened. This woman heard that a proud and fearless young man had come into Athens, and she at once thought to destroy him.

So the witch spoke to the fearful king, and she made him believe that this stranger had come into Athens to make league with his enemies and destroy him. Such was her power over Ægeus that she was able to persuade him to invite the stranger youth to a feast in the palace, and to give him a cup that would have poison in it.

Theseus came to the palace. He sat down to the banquet with the king. But before the cup was brought something moved him to stand up and draw forth the sword that he carried. Fearfully the king looked upon the sword. Then he saw the heavy ivory hilt with the curious carving on it, and he knew that this was the sword that he had once laid under the stone near the palace of the King of Trœzen. He questioned Theseus as to how he had come by the sword, and Theseus told him how Æthra, his mother, had shown him where it was hidden, and how he had been able to take it from under the stone before he was grown a youth. More and more Ægeus questioned him, and he came to know that the youth before him was his son indeed. He dashed down the cup that had been brought to the table, and he shook all over with the thought of how near he had been to a terrible crime. The witchwoman watched all that passed; mounting on a car drawn by dragons she made flight from Athens.

And now the people of the city, knowing that it was he who had slain the robbers Sinnias and Procrustes, rejoiced to have Theseus amongst them. When he appeared as their prince they rejoiced still more. Soon he was able to bring to an end the wars in the city and the troubles that afflicted Athens.


The greatest king in the world at that time was Minos, King of Crete. Minos had sent his son to Athens to make peace and friendship between his kingdom and the kingdom of King Ægeus. But the people of Athens slew the son of King Minos, and because Ægeus had not given him the protection that a king should have given a stranger come upon such an errand he was deemed to have some part in the guilt of his slaying.

Minos, the great king, was wroth, and he made war on Athens, wreaking great destruction upon the country and the people. Moreover, the gods themselves were wroth with Athens; they punished the people with famine, making even the rivers dry up. The Athenians went to the oracle and asked Apollo what they should do to have their guilt taken away. Apollo made answer that they should make peace with Minos and fulfill all his demands.

All this Theseus now heard, learning for the first time that behind the wars and troubles in Athens there was a deed of evil that Ægeus, his father, had some guilt in.

The demands that King Minos made upon Athens were terrible. He demanded that the Athenians should send into Crete every year seven youths and seven maidens as a price for the life of his son. And these youths and maidens were not to meet death merely, nor were they to be reared in slavery—they were to be sent that a monster called the Minotaur might devour them.

Youths and maidens had been sent, and for the third time the messengers of King Minos were coming to Athens. The tribute for the Minotaur was to be chosen by lot. The fathers and mothers were in fear and trembling, for each man and woman thought that his or her son or daughter would be taken for a prey for the Minotaur.

They came together, the people of Athens, and they drew the lots fearfully. And on the throne above them all sat their pale-faced king, Ægeus, the father of Theseus.

Before the first lot was drawn Theseus turned to all of them and said, "People of Athens, it is not right that your children should go and that I, who am the son of King Ægeus, should remain behind. Surely, if any of the youths of Athens should face the dread monster of Crete, I should face it. There is one lot that you may leave undrawn. I will go to Crete."

His father, on hearing the speech of Theseus, came down from his throne and pleaded with him, begging him not to go. But the will of Theseus was set; he would go with the others and face the Minotaur. And he reminded his father of how the people had complained, saying that if Ægeus had done the duty of a king, Minos's son would not have been slain and the tribute to the Minotaur would have not been demanded. It was the passing about of such complaints that had led to the war and troubles that Theseus found on his coming to Athens.

Also Theseus told his father and told the people that he had hope in his hands—that the hands that were strong enough to slay Sinnias and Procrustes, the giant robbers, would be strong enough to slay the dread monster of Crete. His father at last consented to his going. And Theseus was able to make the people willing to believe that he would be able to overcome the Minotaur, and so put an end to the terrible tribute that was being exacted from them.

With six other youths and seven maidens Theseus went on board of the ship that every year brought to Crete the grievous tribute. This ship always sailed with black sails. But before it sailed this time King Ægeus gave to Nausitheus, the master of the ship, a white sail to take with him. And he begged Theseus, that in case he should be able to overcome the monster, to hoist the white sail he had given. Theseus promised he would do this. His father would watch for the return of the ship, and if the sail were black he would know that the Minotaur had dealt with his son as it had dealt with the other youths who had gone from Athens. And if the sail were white Ægeus would have indeed cause to rejoice.


And now the black-sailed ship had come to Crete, and the youths and maidens of Athens looked from its deck on Knossos, the marvelous city that Dædalus the builder had built for King Minos. And they saw the palace of the king, the red and black palace in which was the labyrinth, made also by Dædalus, where the dread Minotaur was hidden.

In fear they looked upon the city and the palace. But not in fear did Theseus look, but in wonder at the magnificence of it all—the harbor with its great steps leading up into the city, the far-spreading palace all red and black, and the crowds of ships with their white and red sails. They were brought through the city of Knossos to the palace of the king. And there Theseus looked upon Minos. In a great red chamber on which was painted the sign of the axe, King Minos sat.

On a low throne he sat, holding in his hand a scepter on which a bird was perched. Not in fear, but steadily, did Theseus look upon the king. And he saw that Minos had the face of one who has thought long upon troublesome things, and that his eyes were strangely dark and deep. The king noted that the eyes of Theseus were upon him, and he made a sign with his head to an attendant and the attendant laid his hand upon him and brought Theseus to stand beside the king. Minos questioned him as to who he was and what lands he had been in, and when he learned that Theseus was the son of Ægeus, the King of Athens, he said the name of his son who had been slain, "Androgeus, Androgeus," over and over again, and then spoke no more.

While he stood there beside the king there came into the chamber three maidens; one of them, Theseus knew, was the daughter of Minos. Not like the maidens of Greece were the princess and her two attendants: instead of having on flowing garments and sandals and wearing their hair bound, they had on dresses of gleaming material that were tight at the waists and bell-shaped; the hair that streamed on their shoulders was made wavy; they had on high shoes of a substance that shone like glass. Never had Theseus looked upon maidens who were so strange.

They spoke to the king in the strange Cretan language; then Minos's daughter made reverence to her father, and they went from the chamber. Theseus watched them as they went through a long passage, walking slowly on their high-heeled shoes.

Through the same passage the youths and maidens of Athens were afterward brought. They came into a great hall. The walls were red and on them were paintings in black—pictures of great bulls with girls and slender youths struggling with them. It was a place for games and shows, and Theseus stood with the youths and maidens of Athens and with the people of the palace and watched what was happening.

They saw women charming snakes; then they saw a boxing match, and afterward they all looked on a bout of wrestling. Theseus looked past the wrestlers and he saw, at the other end of the hall, the daughter of King Minos and her two attendant maidens.

One broad-shouldered and bearded man overthrew all the wrestlers who came to grips with him. He stood there boastfully, and Theseus was made angry by the man's arrogance. Then, when no other wrestler would come against him, he turned to leave the arena.

But Theseus stood in his way and pushed him back. The boastful man laid hands upon him and pulled him into the arena. He strove to throw Theseus as he had thrown the others; but he soon found that the youth from Greece was a wrestler, too, and that he would have to strive hard to overthrow him.

More eagerly than they had watched anything else the people of the palace and the youths and maidens of Athens watched the bout between Theseus and the lordly wrestler. Those from Athens who looked upon him now thought that they had never seen Theseus look so tall and so conquering before; beside the slender, dark-haired people of Crete he looked like a statue of one of the gods.

Very adroit was the Cretan wrestler, and Theseus had to use all his strength to keep upon his feet; but soon he mastered the tricks that the wrestler was using against him. Then the Cretan left aside his tricks and began to use all his strength to throw Theseus.

Steadily Theseus stood and the Cretan wrestler was spent and gasping in the effort to throw him. Then Theseus made him feel his grip. He bent him backward, and then, using all his strength suddenly, forced him to the ground. All were filled with wonder at the strength and power of this youth from overseas.


Food and wine were given the youths and maidens of Athens, and they with Theseus were let wander through the grounds of the palace. But they could make no escape, for guards followed them and the way to the ships was filled with strangers who would not let them pass. They talked to each other about the Minotaur, and there was fear in every word they said. But Theseus went from one to the other, telling them that perhaps there was a way by which he could come to the monster and destroy it. And the youths and maidens, remembering how he had overthrown the lordly wrestler, were comforted a little, thinking that Theseus might indeed be able to destroy the Minotaur and so save all of them.


Theseus was awakened by some one touching him. He arose and he saw a dark-faced servant, who beckoned to him. He left the little chamber where he had been sleeping, and then he saw outside one who wore the strange dress of the Cretans.

When Theseus looked full upon her he saw that she was none other than the daughter of King Minos. "I am Ariadne," she said, "and, O youth from Greece, I have come to save you from the dread Minotaur."

He looked upon Ariadne's strange face with its long, dark eyes, and he wondered how this girl could think that she could save him and save the youths and maidens of Athens from the Minotaur. Her hand rested upon his arm, and she led him into the chamber where Minos had sat. It was lighted now by many little lamps.

"I will show the way of escape to you," said Ariadne.

Then Theseus looked around, and he saw that none of the other youths and maidens were near them, and he looked on Ariadne again, and he saw that the strange princess had been won to help him, and to help him only.

"Who will show the way of escape to the others?" asked Theseus.

"Ah," said the Princess Ariadne, "for the others there is no way of escape."

"Then," said Theseus, "I will not leave the youths and maidens of Athens who came with me to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur."

"Ah, Theseus," said Ariadne, "they cannot escape the Minotaur. One only may escape, and I want you to be that one. I saw you when you wrestled with Deucalion, our great wrestler, and since then I have longed to save you."

"I have come to slay the Minotaur," said Theseus, "and I cannot hold my life as my own until I have slain it."

Said Ariadne, "If you could see the Minotaur, Theseus, and if you could measure its power, you would know that you are not the one to slay it. I think that only Talos, that giant who was all of bronze, could have slain the Minotaur."

"Princess," said Theseus, "can you help me to come to the Minotaur and look upon it so that I can know for certainty whether this hand of mine can slay the monster?"

"I can help you to come to the Minotaur and look upon it," said Ariadne.

"Then help me, princess," cried Theseus; "help me to come to the Minotaur and look upon it, and help me, too, to get back the sword that I brought with me to Crete."

"Your sword will not avail you against the Minotaur," said Ariadne; "when you look upon the monster you will know that it is not for your hand to slay."

"Oh, but bring me my sword, princess," cried Theseus, and his hands went out to her in supplication.

"I will bring you your sword," said she.

She took up a little lamp and went through a doorway, leaving Theseus standing by the low throne in the chamber of Minos. Then after a little while she came back, bringing with her Theseus's great ivory-hilted sword.

"It is a great sword," she said; "I marked it before because it is your sword, Theseus. But even this great sword will not avail against the Minotaur."

"Show me the way to come to the Minotaur, O Ariadne," cried Theseus.

He knew that she did not think that he would deem himself able to strive with the Minotaur, and that when he looked upon the dread monster he would return to her and then take the way of his escape.

She took his hand and led him from the chamber of Minos. She was not tall, but she stood straight and walked steadily, and Theseus saw in her something of the strange majesty that he had seen in Minos the king.

They came to high bronze gates that opened into a vault. "Here," said Ariadne, "the labyrinth begins. Very devious is the labyrinth, built by Dædalus, in which the Minotaur is hidden, and without the clue none could find a way through the passages. But I will give you the clue so that you may look upon the Minotaur and then come back to me. Theseus, now I put into your hand the thread that will guide you through all the windings of the labyrinth. And outside the place where the Minotaur is you will find another thread to guide you back."

A cone was on the ground and it had a thread fastened to it. Ariadne gave Theseus the thread and the cone to wind it around. The thread as he held it and wound it around the cone would bring him through all the windings and turnings of the labyrinth.


She left him, and Theseus went on. Winding the thread around the cone he went along a wide passage in the vault. He turned and came into a passage that was very long. He came to a place in this passage where a door seemed to be, but within the frame of the doorway there was only a blank wall. But below that doorway there was a flight of six steps, and down these steps the thread led him. On he went, and he crossed the marks that he himself had made in the dust, and he thought he must have come back to the place where he had parted from Ariadne. He went on, and he saw before him a flight of steps. The thread did not lead up the steps; it led into the most winding of passages. So sudden were the turnings in it that one could not see three steps before one. He was dazed by the turnings of this passage, but still he went on. He went up winding steps and then along a narrow wall. The wall overhung a broad flight of steps, and Theseus had to jump to them. Down the steps he went and into a wide, empty hall that had doorways to the right hand and to the left hand. Here the thread had its end. It was fastened to a cone that lay on the ground, and beside this cone was another—the clue that was to bring him back.

Now Theseus, knowing he was in the very center of the labyrinth, looked all around for sight of the Minotaur. There was no sight of the monster here. He went to all the doors and pushed at them, and some opened and some remained fast. The middle door opened. As it did Theseus felt around him a chilling draft of air.

That chilling draft was from the breathing of the monster. Theseus then saw the Minotaur. It lay on the ground, a strange, bull-faced thing.

When the thought came to Theseus that he would have to fight that monster alone and in that hidden and empty place all delight left him; he grew like a stone; he groaned, and it seemed to him that he heard the voice of Ariadne calling him back. He could find his way back through the labyrinth and come to her. He stepped back, and the door closed on the Minotaur, the dread monster of Crete.

In an instant Theseus pushed the door again. He stood within the hall where the Minotaur was, and the heavy door shut behind him. He looked again on that dark, bull-faced thing. It reared up as a horse rears and Theseus saw that it would crash down on him and tear him with its dragon claws. With a great bound he went far away from where the monster crashed down. Then Theseus faced it: he saw its thick lips and its slobbering mouth; he saw that its skin was thick and hard.

He drew near the monster, his sword in his hand. He struck at its eyes, and his sword made a great dint. But no blood came, for the Minotaur was a bloodless monster. From its mouth and nostrils came a draft that covered him with a chilling slime.


Then it rushed upon him and overthrew him, and Theseus felt its terrible weight upon him. But he thrust his sword upward, and it reared up again, screaming with pain. Theseus drew himself away, and then he saw it searching around and around, and he knew he had made it sightless. Then it faced him; all the more fearful it was because from its wounds no blood came.

Anger flowed into Theseus when he saw the monster standing frightfully before him; he thought of all the youths and maidens that this bloodless thing had destroyed, and all the youths and maidens that it would destroy if he did not slay it now. Angrily he rushed upon it with his great sword. It clawed and tore him, and it opened wide its most evil mouth as if to draw him into it. But again he sprang at it; he thrust his great sword through its neck, and he left his sword there.

With the last of his strength he pulled open the heavy door and he went out from the hall where the Minotaur was. He picked up the thread and he began to wind it as he had wound the other thread on his way down. On he went, through passage after passage, through chamber after chamber. His mind was dizzy, and he had little thought for the way he was going. His wounds and the chill that the monster had breathed into him and his horror of the fearful and bloodless thing made his mind almost forsake him. He kept the thread in his hand and he wound it as he went on through the labyrinth. He stumbled and the thread broke. He went on for a few steps and then he went back to find the thread that had fallen out of his hands. In an instant he was in a part of the labyrinth that he had not been in before.

He walked a long way, and then he came on his own footmarks as they crossed themselves in the dust. He pushed open a door and came into the air. He was now by the outside wall of the palace, and he saw birds flying by him. He leant against the wall of the palace, thinking that he would strive no more to find his way through the labyrinth.


That day the youths and maidens of Athens were brought through the labyrinth and to the hall where the Minotaur was. They went through the passages weeping and lamenting. Some cried out for Theseus, and some said that Theseus had deserted them. The heavy door was opened. Then those who were with the youths and maidens saw the Minotaur lying stark and stiff with Theseus's sword through its neck. They shouted and blew trumpets and the noise of their trumpets filled the labyrinth. Then they turned back, bringing the youths and maidens with them, and a whisper went through the whole palace that the Minotaur had been slain. The youths and maidens were lodged in the chamber where Minos gave his judgments.


Theseus, wearied and overcome, fell into a deep sleep by the wall of the palace. He awakened with a feeling that the claw of the Minotaur was upon him. There were stars in the sky above the high palace wall, and he saw a dark-robed and ancient man standing beside him. Theseus knew that this was Dædalus, the builder of the palace and the labyrinth. Dædalus called and a slim youth came—Icarus, the son of Dædalus. Minos had set father and son apart from the rest of the palace, and Theseus had come near the place where they were confined. Icarus came and brought him to a winding stairway and showed him a way to go.

A dark-faced servant met and looked him full in the face. Then, as if he knew that Theseus was the one whom he had been searching for, he led him into a little chamber where there were three maidens. One started up and came to him quickly, and Theseus again saw Ariadne.

She hid him in the chamber of the palace where her singing birds were, and she would come and sit beside him, asking about his own country and telling him that she would go with him there. "I showed you how you might come to the Minotaur," she said, "and you went there and you slew the monster, and now I may not stay in my father's palace."

And Theseus thought all the time of his return, and of how he might bring the youths and maidens of Athens back to their own people. For Ariadne, that strange princess, was not dear to him as Medea was dear to Jason, or Atalanta the Huntress to young Meleagrus.

One sunset she led him to a roof of the palace and she showed him the harbor with the ships, and she showed him the ship with the black sail that had brought him to Knossos. She told him she would take him aboard that ship, and that the youths and maidens of Athens could go with them. She would bring to the master of the ship the seal of King Minos, and the master, seeing it, would set sail for whatever place Theseus desired to go.

Then did she become dear to Theseus because of her great kindness, and he kissed her eyes and swore that he would not go from the palace unless she would come with him to his own country. The strange princess smiled and wept as if she doubted what he said. Nevertheless, she led him from the roof and down into one of the palace gardens. He waited there, and the youths and maidens of Athens were led into the garden, all wearing cloaks that hid their forms and faces. Young Icarus led them from the grounds of the palace and down to the ships. And Ariadne went with them, bringing with her the seal of her father, King Minos.

And when they came on board of the black-sailed ship they showed the seal to the master, Nausitheus, and the master of the ship let the sail take the breeze of the evening, and so Theseus went away from Crete.


To the Island of Naxos they sailed. And when they reached that place the master of the ship, thinking that what had been done was not in accordance with the will of King Minos, stayed the ship there. He waited until other ships came from Knossos. And when they came they brought word that Minos would not slay nor demand back Theseus nor the youths and maidens of Athens. His daughter, Ariadne, he would have back, to reign with him over Crete.

Then Ariadne left the black-sailed ship, and went back to Crete from Naxos. Theseus let the princess go, although he might have struggled to hold her. But more strange than dear did Ariadne remain to Theseus.

And all this time his father, Ægeus, stayed on the tower of his palace, watching for the return of the ship that had sailed for Knossos. The life of the king wasted since the departure of Theseus, and now it was but a thread. Every day he watched for the return of the ship, hoping against hope that Theseus would return alive to him. Then a ship came into the harbor. It had black sails. Ægeus did not know that Theseus was aboard of it, and that Theseus in the hurry of his flight and in the sadness of his parting from Ariadne had not thought of taking out the white sail that his father had given to Nausitheus.


Joyously Theseus sailed into the harbor, having slain the Minotaur and lifted for ever the tribute put upon Athens. Joyously he sailed into the harbor, bringing back to their parents the youths and maidens of Athens. But the king, his father, saw the black sails on his ship, and straightway the thread of his life broke, and he died on the roof of the tower which he had built to look out on the sea.

Theseus landed on the shore of his own country. He had the ship drawn up on the beach and he made sacrifices of thanksgiving to the gods. Then he sent messengers to the city to announce his return. They went toward the city, these joyful messengers, but when they came to the gate they heard the sounds of mourning and lamentation. The mourning and the lamentation were for the death of the king, Theseus's father. They hurried back and they came to Theseus where he stood on the beach. They brought a wreath of victory for him, but as they put it into his hand they told him of the death of his father. Then Theseus left the wreath on the ground, and he wept for the death of Ægeus—of Ægeus, the hero, who had left the sword under the stone for him before he was born.

The men and women who came to the beach wept and laughed as they clasped in their arms the children brought back to them. And Theseus stood there, silent and bowed; the memory of his last moments with his father, of his fight with the Minotaur, of his parting with Ariadne—all flowed back upon him. He stood there with head bowed, the man who might not put upon his brows the wreath of victory that had been brought to him.


There had come into the city a youth of great valor whose name was Peirithous: from a far country he had come, filled with a desire of meeting Theseus, whose fame had come to him. The youth was in Athens at the time Theseus returned. He went down to the beach with the townsfolk, and he saw Theseus standing alone with his head bowed down. He went to him and he spoke, and Theseus lifted his head and he saw before him a young man of strength and beauty. He looked upon him, and the thought of high deeds came into his mind again. He wanted this young man to be his comrade in dangers and upon quests. And Peirithous looked upon Theseus, and he felt that he was greater and nobler than he had thought. They became friends and sworn brothers, and together they went into far countries.

Now there was in Epirus a savage king who had a very fair daughter. He had named this daughter Persephone, naming her thus to show that she was held as fast by him as that other Persephone was held who ruled in the Underworld. No man might see her, and no man might wed her. But Peirithous had seen the daughter of this king, and he desired above all things to take her from her father and make her his wife. He begged Theseus to help him enter that king's palace and carry off the maiden.

So they came to Epirus, Theseus and Peirithous, and they entered the king's palace, and they heard the bay of the dread hound that was there to let no one out who had once come within the walls. Suddenly the guards of the savage king came upon them, and they took Theseus and Peirithous and they dragged them down into dark dungeons.

Two great chairs of stone were there, and Theseus and Peirithous were left seated in them. And the magic powers that were in the chairs of stone were such that the heroes could not lift themselves out of them. There they stayed, held in the great stone chairs in the dungeons of that savage king.

Then it so happened that Heracles came into the palace of the king. The harsh king feasted Heracles and abated his savagery before him. But he could not forbear boasting of how he had trapped the heroes who had come to carry off Persephone. And he told how they could not get out of the stone chairs and how they were held captive in his dark dungeon. Heracles listened, his heart full of pity for the heroes from Greece who had met with such a harsh fate. And when the king mentioned that one of the heroes was Theseus, Heracles would feast no more with him until he had promised that the one who had been his comrade on the Argo  would be let go.

The king said he would give Theseus his liberty if Heracles would carry the stone chair on which he was seated out of the dungeon and into the outer world. Then Heracles went down into the dungeon. He found the two heroes in the great chairs of stone. But one of them, Peirithous, no longer breathed. Heracles took the great chair of stone that Theseus was seated in, and he carried it up, up, from the dungeon and out into the world. It was a heavy task even for Heracles. He broke the chair in pieces, and Theseus stood up, released.

Thereafter the world was before Theseus. He went with Heracles, and in the deeds that Heracles was afterward to accomplish Theseus shared.

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