Theseus

Theseus was the mythical king and founder-hero of Athens.

Parents: Aegeus and Aethra
Siblings: Clymene
Consort: Ariadne

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Roman mosaic of Thesues slaying the Minotaur

The Minotaur

Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, slept with the Cretan bull sent by Zeus, and gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature half man and half bull. King Minos was embarrassed, but did not want to kill the Minotaur, so he hid the monster in the Labyrinth constructed by Daedalus at his palace at Knossos.

Daedalus presents the artificial cow to Pasiphae. Roman fresco in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii, 1st c. AD.

Minos’ son, Androgeus, went to Athens to participate to the Panathenaic Games, but he was killed during the Marathon by the same bull that his mother had loved. Minos was infuriated, and demanded Aegeus, King of Athens, send seven men and women every year to feed the Minotaur in repayment.

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Bust of the Minotaur, Athens.

One year, Theseus, son of King Aegeus, decided that he would travel to Crete as one of the sacrificees to kill the Minotaur set Athens free. His father tried to change his mind but Theseus was determined to follow his plan through.

Theseus promised his father that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, telling him in advance that he was alive. The ship would return with the black sails if Theseus had been killed.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Once he arrived, Theseus announced to King Minos that he was going to kill the Minotaur but Minos knew that even if he did manage to kill the Minotaur, he would never be able to find his way out of the Labyrinth.

Theseus met Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who fell madly in love with him and decided to help Theseus. She gave him a ball of string and told him to unravel it as he went deeper and deeper into the Labyrinth, so that he knew the way out when he had slain the Minotaur.

Related image
Theseus slaying the Minotaur. Attic Black Figure kylix, c. 550 BC. Toledo Museum.

Theseus took her advice and entered the Labyrinth with the string. Theseus killed the Minotaur and saved the other Athenians. With Ariadne’s string he managed to retrace his steps out of the Labyrinth.

Theseus took Princess Ariadne with him and left Crete sailing happily back to Athens.

Related image
Theseus slaying the Minotaur. Attic Black Figure amphora, c. 550 BC. Getty Museum.

Voyage Back to Athens

They stopped at the island of Naxos and the Athenians held a long celebration dedicated to Theseus and Ariadne. After long hours of feasting and drinking, Ariadne fell asleep on the shore and either Theseus was ordered by the gods to leave her there Dionysus or he abandoned her there. In his excitement of freeing Athens, Theseus forgot to hoist the white sails and left them black.

King Aegeus was waiting at Cape Sounion to see the sails of Theseus’ ship. He saw the black sails from afar and presumed his son was dead. He jumped off the cliff and committed suicide and from that moment on that sea has been called the Aegean Sea.