Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But Theseus stood in his way and pushed him back. The
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
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
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
"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
 "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
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
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.
 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
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,
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
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
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
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
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