Theseus and the Minotaur: Fearsome Fight or Sad Slaughter?

The fight between Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the most famous stories in Greek mythology. Theseus uses a thread of string supplied by Princess Ariadne in order to find his way in and out of the Labyrinth. In the center of the giant maze, he heroically overcomes the great and mighty beast, freeing the children of Athens once and for all. The valiant hero leaves with the princess, while the death of the monster signals the beginning of the end for Crete.

The problem with the story, of course, is that even the original myths themselves paint a different picture. While perhaps hideous, there is no indication that the Minotaur was a fighter, or even that he was anything more than a sad prisoner of King Minos. Theseus was the only one armed in the Labyrinth, and his behavior after the so-called “battle” does not paint the picture of a hero.

Perhaps it is time to re-examine the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, to understand the political motivations behind it, and ask, “was the Minotaur really that bad a guy?”

Unless otherwise referenced, you can find the details of the story in Plutarch’s “Life of Theseus,” which is considered the most reliable collection of the myth and its context.

Who Was Theseus in Greek Mythology?

The so-called “Hero-founder of Athens” is one of the most well-known adventurers in Greek mythology. Like Heracles, he faced many “labors” and was a mortal child of a god. Unlike Heracles, however, his ventures were often quite one-sided and eventually, he even needed to be saved himself.

Who Were the Parents of Theseus?

While Aegeus always believed he was the father of Theseus, and therefore was pleased when he turned up to claim the throne, the real father of Theseus was the sea-god Poseidon.

Specifically, Theseus is the son of Poseidon and Aethra. Aegeus was concerned that he would never have a child and asked the Oracle of Delphi for help. The Oracle was unsurprisingly cryptic but Pittheus of Troezen understood what she meant. Sending his daughter to Aegeus, the King slept with her. 

That night, Aethra had a dream from the goddess Athena, who told her to go to the beach and offer herself before the gods. Poseidon rose up and slept with Aethra, and she fell pregnant. Poseidon also buried Aegeus’ sword under a boulder and told the woman that when her child could lift the boulder, he was ready to become king of Athens.

READ MORE: Greek Gods and Goddesses

What Were the Labors of Theseus?

When it was time for Theseus to go to Athens and take his rightful place as king, he took the sword and planned his journey. Theseus was warned that to go by land would be to pass by the six entrances to the Underworld, each with its own dangers. His grandfather, Pittheus, told him that the trip by sea was much easier, but the young prince still went by land.

Why? According to Plutarch, the king-to-be had “been secretly fired by the glorious valor of Heracles” and wanted to prove he could do it too. Yes, the labors of Theseus were not labors he had to undertake but wanted to. The motivation for everything Theseus did was fame. 

The six entrances to the underworld, also known as the six labors were most efficiently described in Plutarch’s “Life of Theseus.” These six entrances were the following:

  • Epidaurus, where Theseus killed the lame bandit Periphetes and took his club as a reward.
  • The Isthmian entrance, guarded by the bandit Sinis. Theseus not only killed the robber but then seduced his daughter, Perigune. He left the woman pregnant and never saw her again.
  • At Crommyon, Theseus “went out of his way” to kill the Crommyonian sow, a giant pig. Of course, in other versions, the “sow” was an old woman with piggish manners. Either way, Theseus was seeking to kill, rather than having to.
  • Near Megera he killed yet another “robber,” Sciron. However, according to Simonides, “Sciron was neither a violent man nor a robber, but a chastiser of robbers, and a kinsman and friend of good and just men.”
  • In Eleusis, Theseus went on a spree, killing Cercyon the Arcadian, Damastes, surnamed Procrustes, Busiris, Antaeus, Cycnus, and Termerus. 
  • Only at the river Cephisus was violence avoided. When meeting men from Phytalidae, he “asked to be purified from bloodshed,” which apparently absolved him of all the needless killing.

The labors of Theseus ended as he reached Athens, King Aegeus, and the king’s consort Medea. Medea, sensing a threat, tried to have Theseus poisoned but Aegeus stopped the poisoning when he saw his own sword. Aegeus announced to all of Athens that Theseus would be his heir to the kingdom.

As well as foiling Medea’s plot, Theseus fought off the jealous sons of Pallas who attempted to assassinate him and captured the Marathonian Bull, the great white creature also known as the Cretan Bull. After capturing the beast, he brought it to Athens and sacrificed it to the gods.

Why Did Theseus Travel to Crete?

Unlike many other events in the Theseus story, there was a good moral reason for prince Theseus to travel to Crete and confront King Minos. It was to save the children of Athens. 

A group of Athenian children was to be sent to Crete as a tribute in punishment for past conflict between King Minos and Aegeus. Theseus, believing it would make him famous and popular with the citizens of Athens “volunteered as tribute.” Of course, he was not planning to go as a tribute, but to fight and kill the Minotaur, who he believed would kill these children otherwise.

Who Was the Minotaur?

Asterion, the Minotaur of Crete, was a half-man, half-bull creature born as punishment. King Minos of Crete had offended the sea god Poseidon by refusing to sacrifice the great Cretan Bull. As punishment, Poseidon cursed Queen Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull.

Pasiphae ordered the great inventor Daedalus to create a hollow wooden cow that she could hide in. In this way, she slept with the bull and fell pregnant. She gave birth to a being with the body of a man but the head of a bull. This was “The Minotaur.” The monstrous creature, who Dante called “the infamy of Crete” was King Minos’ greatest shame. 

What Was the Labyrinth?

King Minos ordered Daedalus to create the world’s most complicated maze, known as The Labyrinth. This large structure was filled with winding passages that would double-back on themselves, and anyone who did not know the pattern would surely get lost. 

Ovid wrote that even “the architect, hardly could retrace his steps.” Until the arrival of Theseus, no one entered and came out again.

King Minos built the Labyrinth originally as a prison for the Minotaur, a place to hide the shame of his kingdom. However, after a particularly angry confrontation with King Aegeus, Minos found a different, darker purpose for the maze.

King Minos, Androgeus, and the War With King Aegeus

To properly understand the Minotaur myth, you need to know that King Minos was the leader of the Cretans, a kingdom as powerful as Athens, or any other European area. Minos was highly respected as King, especially as he was a son of Zeus and Europa.

Minos had a son, Androgeus, who was known as a great sportsman. He would travel to games all over the land, winning most of them. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, Androgeus was waylaid by competitors after having won every game at the Panathenaic Games. Diodorus Siculus wrote that Aegeus ordered his death for fear that he would support the sons of Pallas. Plutarch refrains from detail, and simply says that he “was thought to have been treacherously killed.”

Whatever the details, King Minos blamed Athens, and Aegeus personally. Plutarch wrote that “not only did Minos harass the inhabitants of that country greatly in war, but Heaven also laid it waste, for barrenness and pestilence smote it sorely, and its rivers dried up.” For Athens to survive, they had to submit to Minos and offer tribute.

Minos demanded the greatest sacrifice he could consider. Aegeus was bound by the gods themselves to “send [Minos] every nine years a tribute of seven youths and as many maidens.”

What Would Happen to the Children of Athens in the Labyrinth?

While the most popular tellings of the myth say that the children of Athens were killed, or even eaten, by the Minotaur, they were not the only ones.

Some tales talk of them getting lost in the Labyrinth to die, while a more reasonable telling of the story by Aristotle says that the seven young men were made slaves of Cretan households, while the maidens became wives.

The children would live out their adult days in service to the Minoan people. These more reasonable tales refer to the Labyrinth as only a prison for the Minotaur and imply that Theseus entering the maze was only to kill the beast, not to save anybody else. 

What Is the Story of Theseus and the Minotaur?

Theseus, in the search for more glory, and under the guise of helping the children of Athens, traveled with the latest tribute of youths and offered himself up. After seducing Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, he was able to traverse the Labyrinth safely, kill the Minotaur, and then find his way out once more.

How Did Theseus Conquer the Labyrinth?

The solution to the problem of the Labyrinth was quite simple. All you needed was a spool of string.

When Theseus arrived with the tributes, they were presented to the people of Crete in a parade. Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, was quite taken by the good looks of Theseus and met with him in secret. There she gave him a spool of thread and told him to affix one end to the entrance of the maze, and let it out as he traveled. By knowing where he had been, he could choose the right paths without doubling back, and find his way out again later. Ariadne also offered him a sword, which is eschewed in favor of the club he took from Periphetes. 

How Was the Minotaur Killed?

Using the thread, it was easy for Theseus to find his way into the maze and, meeting the Minotaur, immediately slew him with the knotted club. According to Ovid, the Minotaur was “crushed with his triple-knotted club and scattered o’er the ground.” In other tellings, the Minotaur was stabbed, beheaded, or even killed bare-handed. In no telling did the Minotaur himself have a weapon. 

What Happened to Theseus After the Death of the Minotaur?

According to most tellings, Theseus escaped Crete with the help of Ariadne, who went with him. However, in almost every case, Ariadne is soon after abandoned. In some myths, she is left on Naxos to live out her days as a priestess of Dionysus. In others, she is abandoned only to kill herself in shame. Whichever myth you believe is most true, Princess Ariadne is left behind by the “hero,” to fend for herself.

The Creation of the Aegean Sea

Theseus returned to Athens to take his place as King. However, on his return, Theseus forgot something very important. When arranging to go with the Athenian boys and girls, Theseus promised Aegeus that, on his return, he would raise white sails to signal victory. If the ship returned with a black sail, that would mean that Theseus had failed to protect the young Athenians, and was dead.

Excited over his victory, Theseus forgot to change the sails, and so the black sailed ship entered Athens harbor. Aegeus, seeing the black sails, was overwrought at the loss of his son, and threw himself off a cliff. From that moment on, the waters would be known as the Aegean sea.  

Theseus is to have many other adventures, including a trip to the underworld which kills his best friend (and requires saving by Heracles himself). Theseus married another of Minos’ daughters and eventually died by being thrown off a cliff during an Athenian revolution. 

Is the Story of Theseus and the Minotaur Real?

While the story most commonly known, that of the maze and the thread and the half bull half man, is unlikely to be true, even Plutarch discusses the possibility that the myth is based on historical facts. In some accounts, the Minotaur was a general known as “Taurus of Minos.” 

Plutarch describes the general as “not reasonable and gentle in his disposition, but treated the Athenian youth with arrogance and cruelty.” It might be that Theseus attended funeral games held by Crete and asked to fight the general, beating him in combat. The Labyrinth may have been a prison for the youths, or even a complex arena in which the games were held. 

The most interesting idea, however, is that Minos (and Crete) were not the bad guys at all. Hesiod referred to King Minos as “most royal,” and Homer as “a confidant of Zeus.” Plutarch notes that it would be good for Athenians to view Minos as evil, “yet they say that Minos was a king and lawgiver, […] and a guardian of the principles of justice defined by him.”

In perhaps the strangest story relayed by Plutarch, Cleidemus says that the fight was a naval battle between Minos and Theseus, which included the general Taurus. “The Gate of the Labyrinth” was the entry to the harbor. As Minos was at sea, Theseus snuck into the harbor, kill the guards protecting the palace, and then negotiated with Princess Ariadne to end the war between Crete and Athens. Such a story sounds realistic enough that it may very well have been true. Was Theseus a king of ancient Greece, who simply won an important war against the Minoans?

The palace of Minos is a real place, with archeologists uncovering more of it every year. No one is entirely sure what caused the eventual downfall of the Minoan civilization, and the idea of it being a great war with Greece is not out of the question.

What Is the Symbolic Meaning Behind Theseus and the Minotaur?

Plutarch readily admits in “The Life of Theseus” that his tale is in response to the Roman myths of Romulus, the founder of Rome. He wanted to tell the tale of the man most saw as the heroic founder of Athens, and brought together all the stories of the young prince from classical mythology in the hope of providing a sense of patriotic pride for Greece. 

For this reason, the myths of Theseus are very much about proving the worth of Athens as a city, and capital of the world. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is less about the destruction of a monster and more about showing how Athens conquered the city that was previously the capital of the world. 

The Minoan civilization was at one time even greater than the Greeks, and King Minos was likely a real king. While the Minotaur as half-bull, half-man, did not exist, historians still argue about the existence of a labyrinth or what the true story behind the myth was.

Knowing that the Minoans were so powerful while Greece was a fledgling community gives us some idea about the meaning behind the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. A fight between “hero” and “creature” soon shows itself as a patriotic tale of “Athens conquering Crete,” or the Greek civilization over-running the Minoan.

Crete is rarely mentioned in the mythology of Greece after this story. Minos is said to have chased after the escaped Daedalus, and his quest for revenge ended in his death. No myth covers what happened to Crete or its Kingdom without Minos and his rule.

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is often offered up as a heroic tale of a great moral prince killing a child-eating monster. Even the original mythology, however, tells a very different tale. Theseus was an arrogant heir to the throne who lusted after fame more than anything else. The Minotaur was a poor child of punishment, imprisoned for life before being slaughtered unarmed.

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