The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the most famous and enduring myths of ancient Greece. Among other things, the tale helped to inspire the central premise of one of the most popular series of dystopian novels and films of the twenty-first century (of which more below).
But as so often with Greek myths, the one about Theseus killing the Minotaur is even more interesting than we might first think. And, as we’ll reveal in our analysis of the Minotaur story below, there are a number of details in the story – including one of the most famous, the ball of thread – which don’t feature in some tellings of the myth.
There are many tales about Theseus, the brave Attic (or Athenian) hero who, in the course of a colourful and full life, sired two sons who fought in the Trojan War, joined Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, and fought the Amazons. The most detailed accounts of Theseus’ antics we have from antiquity are Apollodorus, the author of the wonderful The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World’s Classics) (which is well worth reading as the Greek precursor to Ovid’s more famous Metamorphoses) and Plutarch, the later Greek writer who lived under the Roman Empire.
Theseus and the Minotaur: plot summary
In the vast Labyrinth on the island of Crete, built by the cunning Daedalus for King Minos, there dwelt the Minotaur: a man with the head and tail of a bull. Every nine years (although the interval varies from telling to telling), Minos demanded seven Athenian men and seven Athenian maidens be given to the Minotaur as sacrifices. This is because Minos had defeated Athens in a war, and demanded the city offer up these tributes as, if you like, the spoils of Minos’ victory. This mythic story, by the way, inspired Suzanne Collins’s idea of ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games.
The Minotaur was a man with the head of a bull: the product of a rather twisted coupling between Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, and a ferocious bull that Poseidon had brought out of the sea so that Minos could sacrifice it to him. However, Minos was so taken by the bull – a handsome beast, and useful to have as stud for his cattle – that he sacrificed a different animal and hoped Poseidon wouldn’t notice.
It’s always a bad idea to hope that a god won’t notice your trickery, and sure enough, Poseidon wasn’t fooled. So he made the bull so savage that it was a menace to Minos, and Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, desired the bull. She asked Daedelus, her husband’s master craftsman, to help her with her dilemma, and he created a heifer made of wood and leather (not a wooden horse, then, but a wooden cow) into which Pasiphaë could climb and then … mate with the bull. Whatever floats your boat, eh?
The result of this rather bestial union was the Minotaur, a fierce creature who worried Minos, so he told Daedelus to build a vast palace comprising a maze-like network of corridors and rooms, and then he had the Minotaur placed inside this palace. The palace was named the Labyrinth, a name that has since been applied to countless other mazes, and one film starring David Bowie.
Theseus was a brave Athenian youth who put himself forward as one of the tributes. As he was leaving his home and setting sail for the island of Crete, his father Aegeus gave young Theseus two sets of sails, one black and one white, instructing his son to mount the black sails onto his ship as he sailed away (to reflect the solemn nature of his voyage) and telling him that, if he was successful, he should mount the white sails on his voyage home, so Aegeus would see the ship approaching and know his son had been successful in killing the Minotaur.
Theseus and the other tributes then travelled to Crete and were thrown in the Labyrinth, the palace of the Minotaur. When Theseus arrived on Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos and Pasiphaë, clapped eyes on him and promptly fell in love with the Athenian youth. She gave him a ball of thread (of which more below), so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth: as he weaved his way through its various corridors he would unravel the thread on the floor beneath him, allowing him to retrace his journey back out of the maze.
A ball of thread is known as a clew or, in an alternative spelling, a clue. To this day, we talk about following the ‘clues’ to discover something, and it’s all thanks to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Unfortunately, after Ariadne had helped him to accomplish his task, his abandoned her … because Dionysus made him (in some accounts), or because he was in love with someone else (in other accounts).
One final detail in the Theseus story involving the Minotaur concerns his journey home. Having killed the Minotaur, Theseus set sail for home – but forgot to change the black sails for the white ones, as his father had instructed. This meant that Aegeus, waiting at the top of the Acropolis for his son to return, saw the black-sailed ship returning and feared that his son was dead. Aegeus plunged himself into the sea below, and drowned – and this, the myth says, is why that sea is named the Aegean to this day.
Theseus and the Minotaur: analysis
This story has been told many times, and there are some interesting variations. For example, in one version, Ariadne doesn’t give Theseus a ball of thread but a luminous crown (a wedding gift from Dionysus, who desired Ariadne). This was, then, a glow-in-the-dark tool which Theseus could use to illuminate his way around the darkened Labyrinth. However, both Apollodorus and Plutarch mention only a ball of thread or wool, and this is the version that has taken hold. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, also has Ariadne give Theseus a ball of thread.
Similarly, although the majority of accounts state that the Minotaur had a bull’s head and a man’s body (putting it at odds with other half-human creatures, such as the centaur), some accounts are less specific: for instance, Ovid simply states that the Minotaur was half man and half bull, without telling us which half was which. Nevertheless, the Minotaur is usually depicted as bull-headed and man-bodied.
The story of Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur remains one of the best-known tales out of Greek mythology, with Theseus the archetypal classical hero and Ariadne’s devotion to him representing pure love. Set against this is the base lust of the Minotaur, with its ferocity and bullish instincts, to say nothing of its predatory nature. It was, after all, the product of a union founded on lust.
But Theseus’ subsequent abandonment of Ariadne, whether down to personal choice or not, shows how messy things could get even in the most archetypal myths. Even after she had helped him to defeat the Minotaur, putting herself at risk if her father discovered the truth, he is quick to cut himself loose of her. Even heroes have their flaws – indeed, the Greeks believed that a tragic flaw is what made a hero.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.
Image © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.