The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur

Ancient Greek mythology is most known for having many epic tales involving all kinds of heroes with superhuman strengths and abilities taking on very vicious creatures and monsters. One of such tale that often comes to the fore is the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The later was a half bull, half man creature that resided in the giant Labyrinth beneath the palace of King Minos of Crete. Seeking to halt the killings perpetuated by the Minotaur, Minos ordered his chief engineer to build a labyrinth so that he could keep the Minotaur hidden at the center of the maze.

What is the origin story of the Minotaur? And how did the path of Athenian hero Theseus cross with that of the Minotaur?

Below WHE takes a quick look at the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in Greek mythology.

The Minotaur – an offspring of the Queen Pasiphae of Crete

The Minotaur in Greek mythology is flesh-devouring beast that terrorized King Minos’s kingdom. From the feet as far up the waist, the Minotaur was a man; however, from the waist upward it was a huge black massive horned bull.| Image: The Minotaur, tondo of an Attic bilingual kylix.

In a fierce competition for the throne of Crete between Minos and his brothers, the former prayed to the Greek god of the sea Poseidon to come to his aid. Poseidon answered Minos’s prayer and sent him a white, spotless bull as a sign to the people that Minos was favored by the gods. Minos, who had been ordered by Poseidon to sacrifice the bull to the gods, decided to keep the bull since he had grown attached to the bull.

Incensed by King Minos’s action, Poseidon placed a charm on Minos’s wife Pasiphae which made the Queen sleep with the bull. Out of this unnatural union came forth the Minotaur, a half man half bull creature. As the Minotaur grew older, so did its thirst for human flesh and blood become uncontrollable.

Minos orders Daedalus and his son Icarus to build a giant maze

Unable to keep the crazed creature from killing people, King Minos sought the counsel of the Oracle of Delphi. The King was advised to build a labyrinth – a giant maze – just beneath his large palace in order to keep the Minotaur away from the public. Minos did as the Oracle had asked him to do; he ordered the famed Cretan engineer and inventor Daedalus and his son Icarus to build a labyrinth that could hold the Minotaur. The labyrinth was so intricately designed that once inside, escape was virtually impossible.

King Minos’s chief engineer Daedalus was tasked to create the labyrinth, a web of winding tunnels mixed with dead ends. The King’s men then lured the Minotaur into the maze, leaving it trapped inside as the beast could not fight his way back to the entrance. Image: Minotaur at center of labyrinth, on a 16th-century gem

Crete’s regional dominance

The ancient city of Crete was at the time so powerful that it had succeeded in bringing the city of Athens under its control, The myth goes on to say that King Minos fed the Minotaur with the young men and women he took from Athens. Image: Palace of Minos

Under the rulership of King Minos, Crete rose to regional dominance kind courtesy to the works of its great inventor Daedalus and his son Icarus. The kingdom became the mightiest island because of the very powerful instrument of war it possessed. Those terrifying inventions resulted in the neighboring city states like Athens being forced to pay heavy tributes to King Minos.

The death of Androgeus, the son of King Minos

Androgeus, the only son of King Minos, travelled to Athens to partake in the Panathenaic Games. During the Marathon, Androgeus was accidentally killed by the bull that mated with his mother Pasiphae. Heartbroken and raging mad over the death of his son, King Minos decided to inflict a very steep punishment on the Athenians. The Cretan king demanded Athens send seven young men and women to Crete as annual tribute. In a different variation of the myth, the Athenians sent their tributes – i.e. seven boys and seven girls – to Crete every nine years.

Those youth were then sacrificed to the Minotaur. The Athenian ruler, King Aegeus, could not say no to the demands of Minos as Athens had become a kind of vassal state of Crete.

Theseus sets out to kill the Minotaur

Determined to save the lives of the 13 other youth, Theseus is said to have volunteered to be the first youth to make his way into the giant maze.

The practice of sacrificing 14 Athenian youth to the Minotaur would continue for a number of years. Having gotten fed up of this practice, Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, decided to take action. The young Athenian hero convinced his father to include him in the fourteen youth that were sent to Crete that year. Theseus told his father that would raise a white sail on his return to Athens if he was successful. However, if he was unsuccessful, his crew would fly black sails.

Ariadne and Theseus

While in Crete, and as he prepared to be offered to the Minotaur, Theseus found out that Ariadne and Phaedra – the two beautiful daughters of King Minos – had fallen deeply in love with him. As she did not want to see her love interest Theseus devoured by her half-brother the Minotaur, Princess Ariadne went to Daedalus. The princess successfully convinced Daedalus to divulge the secret path out of the labyrinth. Just before Theseus entered the labyrinth, Ariadne secretly handed the Athenian youth a ball of thread. She told him that the thread would help him find his way after he had slain the beast.

Theseus goes toe to toe with the Minotaur

After a hectic search in the labyrinth, Theseus was able to find the beast at the center of the maze. The two then had a go at each other in a fierce fight. Ultimately Theseus was able to come out victorious, killing the Minotaur with his bare hands. In some accounts however, the Athenian hero slew the beast with his sword, a weapon given to him by Princess Ariadne.

In any case, Theseus followed the trailing thread and retraced his steps through the labyrinth until he found his way back to the entrance.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur do battle with each other

Theseus abandons Ariadne

Due to her betrayal, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra were unable to go back to their father’s palace. The two sisters then decided to elope with Theseus on his way back to Athens. | Image: The Vatican Sleeping Ariadne, a Roman marble in late Hellenistic style

With the Minotaur dead, Theseus took out the ball of thread that had be given to him by Ariadne and then used it make his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus, along with Ariadne and her sister Phaedra, set sail back to Athens.

Because Theseus favored Phaedra more than Ariadne, the Athenian hero abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. In a different variation of the story, Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was the one who convinced Theseus to abandon Ariadne. In that account Dionysus and Ariadne get married after the Greek god is said to have fallen head over heels with the Minoan princess.

The white sail that was never hoisted

It is safe to say that Theseus overjoyed, having killed the Minotaur and with his new wife Phaedra. As a result, Theseus completely forgot about the promise he made to his father King Aegeus. He forgot to change his ship sails from black to white.

Seeing that his son’s ship had black sail and presuming that his son was dead, King Aegeus was overcome with an immense grief. The devastated Athenian king flung himself of the balcony of his palace and into the sea, killing himself on the spot.

Theseus, with his new bride Phaedra by his side, succeeds his father and ascends to the throne of Athens.

Did you know: The ancient Greeks named the Aegean Sea after the spot where King Aegeus is believed to have taken his life?

Moral of the story

From another angle, the Minotaur symbolizes humanity’s arrogance to the gods. Had King Minos not reneged on his promise to Poseidon, he would not have suffered the punishment of the gods. Hence, the gods decide to punish man. These sorts of themes are quite common in Greek mythology. A very honorable mention can be seen in Prometheus gifting mankind fire, which ultimately incurs the wrath of Zeus, who sends a box (i.e. Pandora’s box) that unleashes all manner of evil upon mankind.

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Other interesting myths and facts about Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur on 6th-century black-figure pottery.

  • In a different account, rather than the tributes being paid annually, King Minos demanded the seven young boys and seven young girls from Athens every nine years.
  • It’s also been said that King Minos was elevated to the position of judge of the dead in the underworld. This came after his death. He occupied that position with his brothers – Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon.
  • Although some accounts claim that Theseus was the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon, it was commonly believed that the Athenian hero was the son of Aegeus, king of Athens.

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