When I offered to do some story telling at a day camp about the gods of Greece. I was asked to tell the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. On a day when the theme was monsters, you could maybe call the tale “The minotaur and Theseus”, but that day was about heroes, and this story has two heroes. Ariadne belongs in the title. Just listen.
All Theseus did was get himself locked into a cell on Crete. I admit, it took courage to get there. He chose to put himself among the sacrifices from Athens. When the message came from King Minos of Crete that it was time to offer 10 young men and 10 young women as punishment for the death of the prince of Knossos, Theseus offered to be one of the men. That took guts. He put his life on the line. His hope: to free his city of this curse once and for all.
But all he did was get himself locked into up with no plan for defeating the minotaur. Sure the king had given them a room with soft cushions and plush sleeping rugs, but it would be the cell that held them captive until the day they were sent into the labyrinth for the minotaur to kill. Theseus had courage. When the other seventeen collapsed into fear-filled sleep, he ignored the paced the floor trying to think of a way to defeat the minotaur. How could he find his way in, and then back out of the labyrinth. And with no weapons how could even a strong warrior match a beast with the power of a bull and the brains of a man.
In the middle of the night, Theseus heard the rasp of metal on metal. The door opened to reveal a woman with a torch. The daughter of the king of Crete put a finger to her lips, then beckoned him.
Curious, he followed her out of the room. When she locked the door again, he objected.
“No one must know you left,” she whispered. “Come.”
“I will not run away,” said Theseus. He had met her eyes in the feast several times and thought perhaps she was making a way for him to escape.
“I am guiding you to the minotaur now. This is your one chance to defeat him.”
Theseus followed the princess through the corridors of the palace “How do I find my way to the minotaur?”
A tiny smile curved the corners of Ariadne’s mouth. “I am glad you did not ask how to find your way out. You may have enough courage for this.” She glanced at him and increased her pace as they left the palace and followed a path through the gardens. “The way in is easy: follow the roar of the beast.”
“They took my sword, as you well know.” Theseus looked at his hands. “I am strong, but for a man-bull?”
Ariadne pulled a sword from beneath her cloak. She handed him the blade hilt first. The sword fit his hand, and he swung it through the air.
“This is the blade I received from my father,” he said. Finding the sword had been an event in itself, but it comes in another story.
“Of course it is,” said Ariadne with a touch on impatience. She led the way through the city gates and down a long hill. She stopped beside a gap in a solid stone wall. Cold poured from the dark corridor.
“If…,” said Ariadne. She stood tall and looked directly into Theseus’ eyes. “Unwind this thread as you enter the labyrinth, and I will hold the end. When you defeat the minotaur, follow the thread to find your way out.
Theseus looked into the eyes of this beautiful and courageous princess. Love for her beat in his heart. He would return to her, he told himself. First, he must defend his people by defeating the beast.
Unravelling the thread as he went, he stepped into the maze. He felt the roar of the beast through the leather of his boots. At the first split in the corridor, he took one step to the right and waited. The roar came from behind him, so he returned to the junction and took the other turn, carefully unravelling the thread with each step. At the next split, he took two steps to the left. The roar of the beast was in front of him. He walked toward the one who made the horrible sound.
Deeper into the maze he travelled, and the minotaur’s roar grew till it became a blast of wind on his face. Carefully, he unravelled the thread, certain that Ariadne held firm the other end to guide him out. The walls vibrated with noise the monster made, then the sickening smell of the beast filled the air. He felt the wall and knew the corridor had opened into a chamber.
Theseus placed the spool of thread securely in a crevice in the rock. Then he stepped into the black chamber. The beast snorted. Its feet pounded the stone. A press of air told Theseus that he approached. He jumped aside, and the beast rushed past, roaring in fury that it had missed its prey. Again, Theseus felt the pounding of its feet and the gust of air. Again, just as the beast reached him, he slipped aside and the beast rushed past.
Now, Theseus had a plan. This time, when the bull-man raced toward him and he slipped to the side, he plunged the sword deep into the neck of the minotaur. He jerked the sword free, and the beast screamed in rage and pain. It turned quickly to attack him again, but again, Theseus slipped aside and plunged the sword into the beast. Once more the beast turned. Rage gave it strength as it pawed the stones. The smell of blood and the beast filled the cavern. Theseus felt it come toward him, and one more time he stabbed. The beast fell to its knees and crumpled to the floor.
Theseus’ chest heaved as he gathered his breath. It was time to leave, but where was the exit. Slowly, he walked to the cavern wall, and carefully he felt for the place he had stowed the spool. He began to roll up the thread, following it back through each confusing turn of the labyrinth.
Finally, he saw a tiny light like a star at the end of a long corridor. There Ariadne waited, with a torch in one hand and the end of the thread in the other. Despite the stains of blood on his tunic, she embraced him.
“We must hurry. You and your companions must take ship this very night. My father will rage,” Ariadne said.
At the shore, Theseus declared his love for Ariadne and asked her to take ship with him, but here a mist descends upon the story. Some say the Athenians slept on the beach by their ship waiting for dawn and the princess’ return; that the goddess Athena came and told Theseus to sail off immediately without Ariadne. Some say that Ariadne took ship with Theseus, but when they stopped to load their water jars at a nearby island, Dionysius saw her and deceived her into taking a cup of his concoction to make her forget Theseus and cling to the god. But, I have also heard it said that when Theseus begged Ariadne to come with them, she said this:
“I cannot abandon my people to the rage of my father. I must stay and come between them and the anger that will explode when he discovers his pet is dead. Each day, I will push him toward a more just use of power, but one day, when he is frail or gone, I will rule this land in his place. That day there will be peace in Crete.”
Theseus honoured her choice and took ship with his companions. But he mourned the sweet, wise, gentle Ariadne. His sadness made him forgetful, so that they sailed into the harbour of Athens without changing the sail from black to white, the sign they had been instructed to give if they survived.
The king of Athens, overwhelmed with sorrow at this sign that his son had been taken by the minotaur, threw himself in the ocean. So when Theseus and the others disembarked, the city was torn between sorrow and joy. Theseus mourned the father he hardly knew and became king of Athens on that day.