29. THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Theseus made up his mind to go in search of his father, the unknown king, and Medea, the wise woman, advised him to go to Athens. After the hunt in Calydon he set off. On his way he fought with and killed two robbers who harassed countries and treated people cruelly.
The first was Sinnias. He was a vicious robber who killed men by tying them to the strong branches of trees and letting the branches fly apart. Theseus had no mercy on him. The second was a robber also; Procrustes 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. Likewise, Theseus had no mercy on him. He killed Procrustes and freed his captives.
The King of Athens at the time was named Ægeus. He was father of Theseus, but neither Theseus nor he knew that. His mother was Aethra, the daughter of the King of Troezen. Before Theseus was born, his father left a great sword under a stone, telling Aethra that the boy was to have the sword when he was able to move that stone away.
King Ægeus was old and fearful now because there were wars and troubles in the city. Also in his palace there was an evil woman, a witch, to whom the king listened. This woman heard that a proud and fearless young man had entered Athens, and she at once decided to destroy him.
So the witch spoke to the fearful king, and she made him believe that this stranger had come into Athens to join 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 caused him to stand up and draw the sword that he carried. Frightened, the king looked at 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 Troezen. He questioned Theseus as to how he had come by the sword, and Theseus told him how Aethra his mother, had shown him where it was hidden, and how he had been able to take it from under the stone when he was just a boy. Ægeus questioned him more and more, and he came to realize that the youth before him was his son indeed. He knocked away 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 witch saw what had happened and climbing into a carriage pulled by dragons she flew from Athens.
The people of the city, discovering that it was he who had killed 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 killed the son of King Minos, and because Ægeus had not given him the protection that a king should have given a stranger on such an errand he was thought to be partly responsible for his death.
Minos, the great king, was furious, and so declared war on Athens, causing great destruction on the country and the people. Moreover, the gods themselves were angry 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 answered that they should make peace with Minos and fulfill all his demands.
Theseus heard all this, learning for the first time that behind the wars and troubles in Athens there was an act of evil that Ægeus, his father, had some part 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. These youths and maidens were not to just die, nor were they to be sent into slavery. They were to be devoured by a monster called the Minotaur.
Young men and women 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 terrified, for each man and woman thought that his or her son or daughter would be taken for the Minotaur.
The people of Athens, 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 Theseus speech, came down from his throne and pleaded with him, begging him not to go. But Theseus was determined. He would go with the others and face the Minotaur. 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 killed and the tribute to the Minotaur would have not been demanded. It was these things that had led to the war and troubles that Theseus found when he first arrived in Athens.
Also Theseus told his father and the people that he had hope in his hands—that the hands that were strong enough to kill Sinnias and Procrustes, the giant robbers, would be strong enough to kill the dreaded monster of Crete. His father at last agreed to his going. Theseus was able to convince the people that he would be able to overcome the Minotaur, and so put an end to the terrible tribute that they had to pay.
With six other youths and seven maidens Theseus went on board the ship that every year brought to Crete the terrible tribute. This ship always sailed with black sails. But before it sailed this time King Ægeus gave Nausitheus, the master of the ship, a white sail to take with him. He begged Theseus, that if he could overcome the monster, to hoist the white sail. 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 from Athens. And if the sail were white Ægeus would indeed have reason to rejoice.
The black-sailed ship arrived in Crete, and the youths and maidens of Athens looked from its deck on Knossos, the marvelous city that Daedalus the builder had built for King Minos. They saw the palace of the king, the red and black palace in which was the labyrinth, also made by Daedalus, where the dreaded Minotaur was hidden.
They looked at the city and palace in fear. But Theseus did not look in fear, 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. There Theseus met Minos. King Minos sat in a great red room on which was painted the sign of the axe.
He sat on a low throne, holding a scepter in his hand on which a bird was perched. Theseus looked, not in fear, but steadily at the king. He saw that Minos had the face of someone who has thought long on troublesome things, and that his eyes were strangely dark and deep. The king seeing that Theseus was watching nodded to an attendant and the attendant 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 killed, “Androgeus, Androgeus,” over and over again, and then spoke no more.
While he stood there beside the king three maidens came into the room. One of them, Theseus knew, was the daughter of Minos. The princess and her two attendants were not like the maidens of Greece. Instead of having on flowing garments and sandals and wearing their hair tied up, they had on dresses of gleaming fabric that were tight at the waists and bell-shaped. The hair that fell on their shoulders was wavy and they had on high-heeled shoes made of a substance that shone like glass. Theseus had never seen maidens who were so strange.
They spoke to the king in the strange Cretan language. Then Minos’s daughter bowed to her father, and then left the room. Theseus watched them as they went through a long passage, walking slowly on their high-heeled shoes.
Afterward the youths and maidens of Athens were brought through the same passage. 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 snake charming. Then they saw a boxing match, and afterward they all watched a wrestling match. Theseus looked past the wrestlers and saw, at the other end of the hall, the daughter of King Minos and her two attendant maidens.
One broad-shouldered and bearded man—defeated all the wrestlers who fought him. He stood there boastfully, and Theseus was angered by the man’s arrogance. Then, when no other wrestler would fight him, he turned to leave the arena.
But Theseus stood in his way and pushed him back. The boastful man grabbed him and pulled him into the arena. He tried to throw Theseus as he had thrown the others but soon found that the youth from Greece was a wrestler, too, and that he would have to try hard to defeat 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 arrogant wrestler. Those from Athens who looked at him now thought that they had never seen Theseus look so tall and so powerful before. Compared to the slender, dark-haired people of Crete he looked like a statue of one of the gods.
The Cretan wrestler was very skilful, and Theseus had to use all his strength to stay on his feet; but soon he mastered the tricks that the wrestler was using against him. Then the Cretan began to use all his strength to throw Theseus.
Theseus stood steadily and the Cretan wrestler was exhausted 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. Everyone was filled with wonder at the strength and power of this youth from over the sea.
Food and wine were served to the youths and maidens of Athens, and they with Theseus were allowed to wander through the grounds of the palace. But they could not 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 meet the monster and destroy it. The youths and maidens, remembering how he had overthrown the arrogant wrestler, were comforted a little, thinking that Theseus might indeed be able to destroy the Minotaur and so save all of them.