Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Theseus and the Minotaur

The legend of the hero Theseus is matched only by the infamy of the beast he slew - the Minotaur. When the city's hour of need was at its greatest, the hero came forth to face the threat beyond the sea...

Theseus discovers the sword
Painting by Antonion Balestra
Long ago, before the days of Hellenic greatness, before even the Trojan War, there sat Aegeus on the throne of Athens, eighth in line since great Cecrops had received the olive from the goddess Athena and founded the city which forever honours her name. As a young man, Aegeus had sought a Queen to secure the still fragile Athenian dynasty, and came to the city of Troezen, a power in the nearby Eastern Peloponnese. Smitten with Aethra, daughter to King Pittheus, the humble Aegeus pledged himself to her. When the night of their betrothal came, and the wedding was consummated, a god's will compelled Aethra out of the Palace and into the night. Drawn far from the walls, her foot touched the glassy waters of the ocean, as she waded to the island of Sphairia. There, embraced in Poseidon's realm, she was embraced too by the god of the watery realm. Thus was her son to have two fathers, one a mortal man, the other a god, a son of Kronos. When Dawn arrived, and the enchantment lifted, Aethra was racked with guilt, and confessed to Aegeus. Distraught, the Athenian King resolved to return to Athens. But before he did, he left a trial for his yet unborn son. Taking his own sword and sandals, he dug a ditch just wide enough, and concealed the regalia within, and sealed them in their earthen tomb below a mighty boulder such that no man who lacked royal or divine blood could lift. Aegeus told Aethra that when the time came, the boy might come to him bearing the sword and sandals, and his birthright would then be his.

Thus was the infant boy, who was gifted the name of Theseus, raised in the land of his mother. With royal blood of both mortal and immortal kind flowing in his veins, a strong young lad he became, the envy of all in his company. Then one day he asked his mother of his father, for rumours had he heard of his mystical parentage. Aethra told the boy of the boulder, and that he should take what he found beneath it to King Aegeus of Athens, and follow his path there. Finding the great stone, in the grip of vines and of moss, Theseus placed his strong hands on either side, and heaved. Royal blood and divine sinew strained, and the pinnacle was torn from the ground. A flash of sunlight shone from below, and there no more tarnished than the day they were lain there, the sword glinted, and the sandals too. Taking them, a warmth in his fingers, Theseus set out on the long road to Athens.

When at last the Acropolis appeared on the horizon, Theseus arrived in a city of misery, for Athens was submit to the will of the wrathful King of Crete - Minos. Long ago, enraged by the assassination of his son at the hands of jealous Athenians, Minos had warred down Athens to the point of capitulation. In desperation, the Athenians begged the Oracle of Delphi for advice. Her words were unsually unambiguous - submit to Minos' wish. The ambassadors of Athens came before the Cretan King, and offered surrender, if he would spare their city. Minos offered them peace, but on one terrible condition. Every nine years, Athens must send to Crete the seven most promising young boys, and the seven most beautiful young girls, where they were to be thrown deep into the labryinthine dungeons of Knossos. Rumours abounded in the courts of the world, terrible stories of unspeakable horror. Long ago, the great architect Daedalus had designed the Labyrinth for one grisly purpose, to contain the monstrous brood of Queen Pasiphae and the Cretan Bull, a creature both man in body and beast in head, the bloodthirsty Minotaur. The Ambassadors balked. The choice that lay between King Aegeus now, either humiliation or destruction. Resigned to his fate, a grieving Aegeus had accepted the cruel tribute that was demanded of him, to sacrifice the few for the survival of the many. The day Theseus arrived in Athens was the third time the emissary of Crete had arrived to exact the tribute, and Athens mourned her third loss.

Theseus, alone happy in a sea of mourning, approached the broken King ahead, holding high the shining sword, and clad in the fine sandals of the House of Erechtheus. A glint of sunlight, the King raises his head. He sees the blade he cast beneath the earth so long ago, and for the first time in many long years,a  ray of happiness pierced his life, for well did he know that there was but one person who could have claimed them. A rare smile breaks his face, as he runs to give his child his first embrace, just as many others around wail as they give their last. Tomorrow will be the day when the ships sail for Crete's dark domain, and the last victims are yet to be chosen to meet their fate. Aegeus welcomed Theseus to the city, and honoured him as a citizen of Athens, and the people cheered, momentarily distracted from the dark day ahead.

Long ago King Aegeus had decreed that there was only one way to decide fairly, and that was a lottery of all the citizens of Athens, with no exceptions. Evening came, and the lottery of death could be delayed no more. Athenian fathers and mothers wept as their children placed their tokens in the vessel. Woe that the King should see his son return on this day, for Theseus too honoured the pact, and placed his own mark within. Tense was the atmosphere, and grievous the anticipation. All men felt as though the gallows awaited, the base dread of every parent incarnate, present, and inevitable. Seven stones were chosen from the girl's ballot box, seven families broken, and the palace groaned beneath their cries. The screams had barely abated when seven more were chosen from the boy's box. Six rolled out, and six mothers screamed, yet when the seventh rolled out, it was the King himself who joined them, for there, unambiguously, was the stone that poor Theseus had cast within. Never had a father known such joy and such terror in one day. Aegeus embraced the prodigal son, but his rules were absolute, and Aegeus was a just ruler. Theseus would be joining his thirteen fellow citizens on their final voyage. But Theseus, no stranger to danger, filled with valour and bravado in equal measure, vowed to slay the monster that lurked below the King's Palace. With such longing, anything to distract him from clear logic, Aegeus dared to trust in him.

Dawn arrived, Light and impending doom both carried in her wake. The ferrymen readied black sails upon the ships, for it seemed a funeral sail. But it was then that Theseus, son of two fathers, who boldly commanded the black be cast aside in favour of white. He vowed before the men and women of Athens that he would conquer the Minotaur, and that the dark days would soon be at an end. Fresh hope filled the hearts of the Athenians, and people dared to wonder. Aegeus took the boy aside and asked him one thing, that should he succeed against the odds, to fly the white sail on his return, so that Athens may know in advance of his fate. Theseus agreed, and father and son embraced for what all around believed the last time. Sails white as the snow on Olympus' lofty heights billowed, and the voyage was begun. Twice before the ferrymen had made this journey, twice before had they steeled themselves against the soft weeping of yore. This time however, a different atmosphere prevailed. Buoyed by the limitless reserve of fortitude that Theseus seemed to possess, the thirteen clung to the one thing Pandora had saved so long ago - hope.

Dolphin Fresco
Image taken from the Queen's Megaron, Palace of Knossos
When at last the ferrymen hurled their ropes on Cretan docks, fear lanced through the Athenians more terrible than ever, for no mere emissary stood to await them, but Minos himself and his daughter, Ariadne. Now Minos was no simpleton nor ignorant fool. News reached his ears from far and wide. Least of all could Crete escape the stories of the twice fathered son. Yet there was one part of the legend the King, himself a son of Zeus and Europa, longed to know. Thus he cried:

                     " You, if Troezenian Aethra bore you to Poseidon the earth shaker,
                      bring this splendid gold ornament on my hand back from the depths
                      of the sea, casting your body boldy down to your father's home... "
                                - KING MINOS CHALLENGES THESEUS

From his finger the King took his sovereign's ring, and cast it into the azure sea, a tiny flash of gold against the ripples of blue. The spirit of Theseus within held no fear, as without a moment's fear, he dived from the Athenian prow into the waves. Out of the murky blackness of the deep a dolphin soared, and beckoned Theseus to follow. Down and down into the foot of the ocean they went, until the halls of Poseidon they reached, bright with the spirit of gods. Shining Nereids played hither and thither, hippocampi wallowing in the surf. There ahead sat enthroned Amphitrite, the consort of the god himself upon the coral throne. There at the foot of it all sat the ring, an insignificant band before the lady of the ocean herself.

High above the Cretans and Athenians sat anxiously, the Minoans smiling, the Athenians tense. But then, the surface of the Ocean was rent asunder, as a powerful hand burst forth from the azure waves, clasping a sovereign's ring. Behind it came the body of Theseus, the twice fathered son if Poseidon. The Athenians shouted with joy, hope sprang anew. Even the Cretans were struck dumb. But Minos, himself heaven born, was not swayed. He saw now a mere equal, yet Theseus was son to the god of the sea, whereas he was son to the god of gods himself. To him he summoned his guards, and bade them cast the Athenians into gaol.

Ariadne gifts the twine to Theseus
Painting by Niccolo Bambini
In the dungeons of Knossos, a city whose beauty concealed a secret spattered with blood, the Athenians were sealed for their final night, one last night Minos granted them before they gazed upon the face of death. But it was not only Minos who had noticed something about Theseus, for in the moment she first saw him, Ariadne, struck by the barb of Cupid, had been drawn to the young prince. Well did she know of the horror with the Labyrinth's walls, and great was her pity for the young Prince. Coming to his cell, she bore a gift, a simple gift which no guard would question. A simple ball of string. Through the bars she passed the invaluable twine, instructing Theseus to tie one end at the entrance to the unconquerable maze, and hold the other at all times, so that he might see the light of day again should he prevail against the odds. She gave to him one further thing, a piece of knowledge great Daedalus himself had once told her. "Go forwards, always down and never left nor right". Theseus, overwhelmed, gave thanks to Ariadne, and swore to come for her if he triumphed. With a smile she withdrew into the night.

Dawn arrived to a blood red sky over the idyllic island of Crete, as the jailer arrived to unlock the cells. Black were the omens, grieving the moods. Just one among the Athenian party looked straight ahead. Theseus, heart pounding, gazed into the dark entrance of the Labyrinth. A torch burned in a bracket in the dark tunnel ahead. Fumbling, his hand found the ball of twine, and wisely did he fix one end upon the bracket. The thirteen followed close behind him, daring not to be without him in the house of death. Bold Theseus led the way, and faithful was he to Ariadne's word, for onward he strode, never a branch in the dark path did he take.

Theseus victorious
Painting by Charles-Edouard Chaise
For an age, or so it seemed, this strange procession took place, the presence of the twice fathered heir to the throne the only thing preventing the thirteen falling into ruinous panic. A shattered human bone came into view from the darkness, a race of pulses. Further in and further down they went, when soon a most nauseating stench rose to their nostrils. The stink of death, and rotting cadavers. The pounding hearts dared to shake the walls, matched only by the unearthly sound of snoring in the darkness beyond, as Theseus bade his kin remain silent, lest their presence be revealed. Further in and further down, as though down the throat of Hell they went now, until a clearing suddenly opened up before them. There, in the heart of the great Labyrinth atop a mound of mangled bones spattered with blood, lay the dealer of so many Athenian deaths. "A mingled form and hybrid birth of monstrous shape... two different natures, man and bull, were joined in him...". The monstrous brood of the Cretan Queen and the Cretan Bull lay stretched out, snoring loudly as it slept, gorged on human flesh. Then the courage of one of them failed, the sight of so many of their kin cruelly slaughtered, and a scream. A heavily lidded taurian eye wrenched open, and snores turned to roars. Theseus moved quick as a flash, and leaped onto the creature's back, swift as an arrow, before it found its feet. Nerves racing, Poseidon and Aegeus' son summoned all his might, divine and royal blood thundering through his veins, and flung his arms around Asterion's mighty neck. More than once the Minotaur's lethal horns near pierced his chest, as the crew of Athens gasped, their own lives on the line now. Tighter was the hero's iron grip, fiercer the monster's rage, wakened from its nine year slumber. Slammed against the great Labyrinth's walls, no other man could have held on, but no other man was Theseus. Seeing the terror on the faces of his kin, he had all the motivation he needed, and Theseus wrenched one last time with all his strength, forcing the creatures on one knee. The Minotaur snorted loudly, and breath left its body. With a loud crunch, the massive form fell upon the bones of its victims, cast down to the Inferno, never again to rise and trouble the realm of men. Blood still pounding in his ears, Theseus did not at first hear the screams all around, but no screams of fear were they, but sheer relief mingled with joy...

United Kingdom

The Life of Theseus:
Plutarch's Lives: Theseus and Romulus, Lycurgus and Numa, Solon and Publicola (Loeb Classical Library): Vol 1
(A series of well written biographies of great men of ancient Greece and Rome, including Theseus, and the most complete and in depth source for him. Fun to read and not at all academic or dull!)

United States

The Life of Theseus:
Plutarch Lives, I, Theseus and Romulus. Lycurgus and Numa. Solon and Publicola (Loeb Classical Library®) (Volume I)
(A series of well written biographies of great men of ancient Greece and Rome, including Theseus, and the most complete and in depth source for him. Fun to read and not at all academic or dull!)

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