Minos, king of Crete in the age of legend, made war against Athens in revenge for the death of his son. This son, Androgeos by name, had shown such strength and skill in the Panathenaic festival that Ægeus, the Athenian king, sent him to fight with the flame-spitting bull of Marathon, a monstrous creature that was ravaging the plains of Attica. The bull killed the valiant youth, and Minos, furious at the death of his son, laid siege to Athens.
As he proved unable to capture the city, he prayed for aid to his father Zeus (for, like all the heroes of legend, he was a son of the gods). Zeus sent pestilence and famine on Athens, and so bitter grew the lot of the Athenians that they applied to the oracles of the gods for advice in their sore strait, and were bidden to submit to any terms which Minos might impose. The terms offered by the offended king of Crete were severe ones. He demanded that the Athenians should, at fixed periods, send to Crete seven youths and seven maidens, as victims to the insatiable appetite of the Minotaur.
This fabulous creature was one of those destructive monsters of which many ravaged Greece in the age of fable. It had the body of a man and the head of a bull, and so great was the havoc it wrought among the Cretans that Minos engaged the great artist Dædalus to construct a den from which it could not escape. Dædalus built for this purpose the Labyrinth, a far-extending edifice, in which were countless passages, so winding and intertwining that no person confined in it could ever find his way out again. It was like the catacombs of Rome, in which one who is lost is said to wander helplessly till death ends his sorrowful career. In this intricate puzzle of a building the Minotaur was confined.
Every ninth year the fourteen unfortunate youths and maidens had to be sent from Athens to be devoured by this insatiate beast. We are not told on what food it was fed in the interval, or why Minos did not end the trouble by allowing it to starve in its inextricable den. As the story goes, the living tribute was twice sent, and the third period came duly round. The youths and maidens to be devoured were selected by lot from the people of Athens, and left their city amid tears and woe. But on this occasion Theseus, the king's son and the great hero of Athens, volunteered to be one of the band, and vowed either to slay the terrible beast or die in the attempt.
There seem to have been few great events in those early days of Greece in which Theseus did not take part. Among his feats was the carrying off of Helen, the famous beauty, while still a girl. He then took part in a journey to the under-world,—the realm of ghosts,—during which Castor and Pollux, the brothers of Helen, rescued and brought her home. He was also one of the heroes of the Argonautic expedition and of an expedition against the Amazons, or nation of women warriors; he fought with and killed a series of famous robbers; and he rid the world of a number of ravaging beasts,—the Calydonian boar, the Crommyonian sow, and the Marathonian bull, the monster which had slain the son of Minos. He was, in truth, the Hercules of ancient Athens, and he now proposed to add to his exploits a battle for life or death with the perilous Minotaur.
The hero knew that he had before him the most desperate task of his life. Even should he slay the monster, he would still be in the intricate depths of the Labyrinth, from which escape was deemed impossible, and in whose endless passages he and his companions might wander until they died of weariness and starvation. He prayed, therefore, to Neptune for help, and received a message from the oracle at Delphi to the effect that Aphrodite (or Venus) would aid and rescue him.
The ship conveying the victims sailed sadly from Athens, and at length reached Crete at the port of Knossus, the residence of King Minos. Here the woeful hostages were led through the streets to the prison in which they were to be confined till the next day, when they were to be delivered to death. As they passed along the people looked with sympathy upon their fair young faces, and deeply lamented their coming fate. And, as Venus willed, among the spectators were Minos and his fair daughter Ariadne, who stood at the palace door to see them pass.
The eyes of the young princess fell upon the face of Theseus, the Athenian prince, and her heart throbbed with a feeling she had never before known. Never had she gazed upon a man who seemed to her half so brave and handsome as this princely youth. All that night thoughts of him drove slumber from her eyes. In the early morning, moved by a newborn love, she sought the prison, and, through her privilege as the king's daughter, was admitted to see the prisoners. Venus was doing the work which the oracle had promised.
Calling Theseus aside, the blushing maiden told him of her sudden love, and that she ardently longed to save him. If he would follow her directions he would escape. She gave him a sword, which she had taken from her father's armory and concealed beneath her cloak, that he might be armed against the devouring beast. And she provided him besides with a ball of thread, bidding him to fasten the end of it to the entrance of the Labyrinth, and unwind it as he went in, that it might serve him as a clue to find his way out again.
As may well be believed, Theseus warmly thanked his lovely visitor, told her that he was a king's son, and that he returned her love, and begged her, in case he escaped, to return with him to Athens and be his bride. Ariadne willingly consented, and left the prison before the guards came to conduct the victims to their fate. It was like the story of Jason and Medea retold.
With hidden sword and clue Theseus followed the guards, in the midst of his fellow-prisoners. They were led into the depths of the Labyrinth and there left to their fate. But the guards had failed to observe that Theseus had fastened his thread at the entrance and was unwinding the ball as he went. And now, in this dire den, for hours the hapless victims awaited their destiny. Mid-day came, and with it a distant roar from the monster reverberated frightfully through the long passages. Nearer came the blood-thirsty brute, his bellowing growing louder as he scented human beings. The trembling victims waited with but a single hope, and that was in the sword of their valiant prince. At length the creature appeared, in form a man of giant stature, but with the horned head and huge mouth of a bull.
Battle at once began between the prince and the brute. It soon ended. Springing agilely behind the ravening monster, Theseus, with a swinging stroke of his blade, cut off one of its legs at the knee. As the man-brute fell prone, and lay bellowing with pain, a thrust through the back reached its heart, and all peril from the Minotaur was at an end.
This victory gained, the task of Theseus was easy. The thread led back to the entrance. By aid of this clue the door of escape was quickly gained. Waiting until night, the hostages left the dreaded Labyrinth under cover of the darkness. Ariadne was in waiting, the ship was secretly gained, and the rescued Athenians with their fair companion sailed away, unknown to the king.
But Theseus proved false to the maiden to whom he owed his life. Stopping at the island of Naxos, which was sacred to Dionysus (or Bacchus), the god of wine, he had a dream in which the god bade him to desert Ariadne and sail away. This the faithless swain did, leaving the weeping maiden deserted on the island. Legend goes on to tell us that the despair of the lamenting maiden ended in the sleep of exhaustion, and that while sleeping Dionysus found her, and made her his wife. As for the dream of Theseus, it was one of those convenient excuses which traitors to love never lack.
Meanwhile, Theseus and his companions sailed on over the summer sea. Reaching the isle of Delos, he offered a sacrifice to Apollo in gratitude for his escape, and there he, and the merry youths and maidens with him, danced a dance called the Geranus, whose mazy twists and turns imitated those of the Labyrinth.
But the faithless swain was not to escape punishment for his base desertion of Ariadne. He had arranged with his father Ægeus that if he escaped the Minotaur he would hoist white sails in the ship on his return. If he failed, the ship would still wear the black canvas with which she had set out on her errand of woe.
The aged king awaited the returning ship on a high rock that overlooked the sea. At length it hove in sight, the sails appeared, but—they were black. With broken heart the father cast himself from the rock into the sea,—which ever since has been called, from his name, the Ægean Sea. Theseus, absorbed perhaps in thoughts of the abandoned Ariadne, perhaps of new adventures, had forgotten to make the promised change. And thus was the deserted maiden avenged on the treacherous youth who owed to her his life.
The ship—or what was believed to be the ship—of Theseus and the hostages was carefully preserved at Athens, down to the time of the Macedonian conquest, being constantly repaired with new timbers, till little of the original ship remained. Every year it was sent to Delos with envoys to sacrifice to Apollo. Before the ship left port the priest of Apollo decorated her stern with garlands, and during her absence no public act of impurity was permitted to take place in the city. Therefore no one could be put to death, and Socrates, who was condemned at this period of the year, was permitted to live for thirty days until the return of the sacred ship.
There is another legend connected with this story worth telling. Dædalus, the builder of the Labyrinth, at length fell under the displeasure of Minos, and was confined within the windings of his own edifice. He had no clue like Theseus, but he had resources in his inventive skill. Making wings for himself and his son Icarus, the two flew away from the Labyrinth and their foe. The father safely reached Sicily; but the son, who refused to be governed by his father's wise advice, flew so high in his ambitious folly that the sun melted the wax of which his wings were made, and he fell into the sea near the island of Samos. This from him was named the Icarian Sea.
There is a political as well as a legendary history of Theseus,—perhaps one no more to be depended upon than the other. It is said that when he became king he made Athens supreme over Attica, putting an end to the separate powers of the tribes which had before prevailed. He is also said to have abolished the monarchy, and replaced it by a government of the people, whom he divided into the three classes of nobles, husbandmen, and artisans. He died at length in the island of Scyrus, where he fell or was thrown from the cliffs. Ages later, after the Persian war, the Delphic oracle bade the Athenians to bring back the bones of Theseus from Scyrus, and bury them splendidly in Attic soil. Cimon, the son of Miltiades, found—or pretended to find—the hero's tomb, and returned. with the famous bones. They were buried in the heart of Athens, and over them was erected the monument called the Theseium, which became afterwards a place of sanctuary for slaves escaping from cruel treatment and for all persons in peril. Theseus, who had been the champion of the oppressed during life, thus became their refuge after death.