Although the word myth comes from 'mythos', an ancient Greek word that means 'a spoken or written story', a myth is more than a simple tale of villains, heroic deeds and damsels in distress. There is usually a message behind the story, often religious or social, and it is this message that is the difference between 'myth' and 'story'. Of course, the myth has to be a good story, because if it was uninteresting then it would not hold the listener's attention, or be remembered and repeated.
In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus battles a supernatural monster, and becomes the saviour of his people. Although, in keeping with the message that pride comes before a fall, when he abandons the person who helped him defeat the monster, he causes the death of his father.
It is not unusual to find many different variations of each myth; each retelling may leave out details that a previous version included, or add details not commonly found. This entry tells the tale that the Researcher learnt as a child.
Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens, although the rumour that he was the son of Poseidon was spread to protect him from enemies of his father. His mother was the daughter of Pittheus, King of Troezen, an old friend of Aegeus. Aegeus married her but had to go back to Athens shortly after, so left her in the hands of his old friend as she was pregnant. He asked that when his child was born, if it was a son, he should be sent to Athens to join his father when he was old enough.
When Theseus was 17 he left his mother to join his father. With him he took a sword and sandals that Aegeus had left under a huge rock. He had not been allowed to leave until he was strong enough to lift it, as a means of making sure that he would survive the journey.
Theseus was greeted with delight by his father when he arrived in Athens. He had endured many adventures on the way, and his father greeted him as a true hero, and declared him Prince of Athens and his heir. The Pallentids, the 50 giant nephews of Aegeus, were not happy at this news, as they were responsible for many dark deeds; they were hoping to inherit the throne one day, and they feared Theseus.
They plotted to overthrow Aegeus and Theseus, and split into two groups. One group was to march across the town to force them out, while the other group was to hide outside the town and ambush them as they left. After being told of these plans by a herald named Leos, Theseus crept out of town in the night, took them by surprise and destroyed the 25 men outside. By splitting themselves up, they had made themselves an easier target for Theseus. He came back in and killed the remaining men; the crown was safe. A great party was thrown to celebrate the arrival and victory of Theseus and all the poets and bards of the day sang his praises.
The Great Year
Before Theseus was born; there had been a tragedy in Athens. The son of King Minos of Crete had been killed during the Pan-Athenian games. The athletic young man had become a favourite of the court, and the Pallentids were jealous, and ambushed and murdered him as he walked back to his lodgings. Unable to find the killers and surrounded by the Cretan fleet, King Aegeus had to bow down to Minos's grief, and agree to hand over seven young men and seven young women to Crete at the end of every Great Year1 to pay for the crime. The people would not be seen again, and failure would mean that the Cretan fleet would return, and burn Athens to the ground.
Some years after Theseus arrived in Athens; the time to send the young people to Crete arrived. Aegeus became depressed and morose, and when Theseus asked why, the tribute was explained to him. He was indignant that the tribute still had to be paid, even though the Pallentids had been destroyed. Theseus begged his father to send him with the others, and vowed he would bring the Athenians home. His father allowed him to go, and gave him a white sail, which was to replace the standard black sail if he returned victorious, so that his father would know he was safe all the sooner.
When they arrived in Crete, the prisoners were brought in front of King Minos. He told them that they would be taken to the labyrinth, designed by Daedalus that was underneath the palace, and let go. They would never find their way out again, and the Minotaur, half man, half bull monster, born to Minos's wife as a punishment from the gods, that lived within the labyrinth would eventually find them. He counted them to make sure they were all there, and then ordered them into the prison cells. His daughter Ariadne could not take her eyes off Theseus.
She crept to his cell in the night, and gave him a sword and a ball of thread on his promise that he would make her his wife and take her away with him. He agreed, and she left him. In the morning, when the 14 prisoners were taken to the labyrinth, Theseus had the ball of thread hidden in his sleeve, and the sword hidden in his trouser leg.
The prisoners were abandoned in the labyrinth, and Theseus told them to stay by the entrance and tie his thread to the door. He crept into the labyrinth, all the time letting the thread unwind through his fingers. He crossed his own path many times before he heard the Minotaur breathing and moving ahead. He turned the corner, and there before him was the monster. It was huge and human right up to its neck, and then there was a bull's head. It carried a club, and it attacked Theseus. He fought back, and after a long and hard fight, he killed the Minotaur by stabbing it in the back of the neck where the man and the bull merged.
He followed the thread back to the entrance, to find that Ariadne had released the other prisoners and was helping them back to the boat. King Minos was so pleased that the Minotaur was dead that he let Theseus escape, not realising until it was too late that Ariadne had gone with them.
As Theseus sailed back to Athens; he grew tired of Ariadne, and abandoned her on the beautiful island of Naxos. As a punishment, the gods made him forget to change the sail to white, and on seeing the ship reappear with a black sail, King Aegeus threw himself off a cliff to his death. Theseus became King, but never forgave himself for causing his father's death.