Theseus and the Minotaur

Between the mountains and the purple sea
Lies Athens in the Plain of Attica.
The wide Aegean bathes its sacred shores
And soft the warm winds blow from Africa.

Here Aegeus was king, a well-loved prince,
And king to be was Theseus his son.
Athens was fair, its people lived in peace
Yet sadness filled the heart of everyone.

In far off Crete a cruel tyrant reigned,
Minos the King, whose might and law prevailed
In all the lands about. They tribute sent
Of corn and wool, of silver and of gold.

On Athens fell the hardest tax of all,
A yearly tribute of its finest youth,
Chosen by lot and sent in sacrifice
To Knossos on the distant Isle of Crete.

There in the palace of the tyrant king
A mighty labyrinth was built
To house, within its dank and gloomy walls,
A monstrous animal, half bull, half man.

This wretched beast, concealed from human eye
And from the light of day, its vengeance took
For its misshapen form and dreadful fate
Upon the children in its prison thrown.

Once more the time had come to pay the tax
And seven youths and seven maidens fair
By lot were named to leave their Athens home
And on the morrow sail away to die.

Loud was the wailing in the city’s streets,
Mothers and fathers for their children wept.
Those whom the lot had spared did not rejoice
But tears of mixed relief and horror shed.

Theseus the Prince, distressed to see their pain,
To Aegeus the King made heard this plea:
“Let me, my father, with the vessel sail,
To kill the beast and set these children free.”

The king at first refused. The risk was great
And fierce the reputation of the beast.
But Theseus’ pleading and his people’s plight
Made Aegeus relent and let him go.

The city prayed and sacrifices made
To beg Apollo to defend the prince.
At last it slept a fitful, tearful sleep,
Until dawn’s light announced the dreaded day.

Upon the shore the huddled parents stood,
Each kissed and blessed and stroked his precious child.
Aegeus too, his kingship laid aside,
Embraced his son and with this prayer took leave:

“May Aphrodite travel in your ship,
Her godly power become your constant guide;
Soft winds and calmest seas your route describe
To bring you safely homewards to my side.

The days which pass will each a lifetime seem,
All day and night a faithful watch will stand
Upon the headland, looking out to sea,
To bring me quickest warning when you land.”

The black-sailed ship was ready now to go
And Theseus his charges led aboard,
Each heart afflicted by its grief and fears
But bravely bearing all without a word.

“When you return,” the king cried to his son,
“If all is well, replace your mourning sail
By one of purest white. Thus from afar
I’ll know you are alive and will rejoice!”

“Fear not, my Father! We will all return
And will do as you ask! Till then, farewell!”
All vision blurred by tears on shore and boat,
They waited as the vessel rode the swell.

The rowers plied their oars and on the flood
The ship moved slowly from the harbour mouth.
The black sail filled, the helmsman turned her head
And held her course towards the distant south.

Fast flew the ship before the offshore wind,
Soon Athens in the haze was left behind.
The dolphins of Apollo swam before
To heal their hearts and still each anxious mind.

For many days they sailed before the wind,
Between the islands and the coral bars.
At night they anchored in the sheltered bays
And slept on shore beneath the watchful stars.

By games and tales Theseus sustained his friends,
He gave them heart and in adversity
His courage set a pattern for them all
And so they sailed, as one fraternity.

One day at last, among the morning mists,
An isle appeared upon the portside bow,
Its cliffs forbidding and its waters dark,
This then was Crete! All hope had vanished now.

They made for port and there upon the quay
Soldiers appeared and in their midst the king.
His daughter Ariadne walked behind
Among the nobles of the tyrant’s throng.

Minos was courteous and his manner grave,
He welcomed them ashore his Cretan isle,
Though prisoners they were and due to die,
Their final day would pass in princely style.

But Aphrodite, Queen Goddess of Love,
Had not forgotten in their time of need
The children and the prince so far from home,
In Ariadne’s heart she sowed a seed.

At sight of Theseus, Ariadne fell
Deeply in love with Athens’ handsome prince,
Her heart was sad to see this man enslaved
And she determined that he would not die.

That night, while Knossos slept, the princess came
And there confessed her passion and her plight.
She offered to release the captive prince
And flee with him from Crete that very night.

“I will not leave this island,” Theseus said,
“Before my task is finished and I know
That Athens’ youth will nevermore be slain
To pacify the monster here below.

I came to Crete to kill the Minotaur
And my companions from their sentence save,
Help me in this!” The princess was afraid
For no one from the maze had yet returned.

From his resolve Theseus would not be moved
And Ariadne’s love subdued her fear.
Her help she’d give and he in turn would take
The princess with him and her love hold dear.

She took him to the entrance of the maze
And gave him there a magic ball of thread.
“Let this white wool unwind, its course it knows,
To Minotaur’s deep lair you will be led.

You need no sword, the Minotaur can die
If human hands alone its might assail.
Here I will watch till your return and pray
That in this fight your strength and faith prevail.”

The wool securing to a metal ring
High on the lintel of the oaken door,
Theseus released the ball and let it roll
Along the gloomy tunnel’s stone-flagged floor.

The tortuous way led down to granite vaults
From where more tunnels ran, each black as night.
With burning torch held high, Theseus pressed on,
Keeping the ball of wool within his sight.

Deep in its maze the sleeping monster stirred,
Senses alerted by the cool night air
Which from the entrance came and distant noise
Which echoed down the tunnels to its lair.

Its huge, unwieldy, disproportioned shape
Slowly arose and moved across the floor.
It smelt intrusion, its resentment flared
And found expression in a lonely roar.

Its thunder echoed in the labyrinth
And Theseus knew the Minotaur was near,
The roars grew louder as the thread rolled on,
The prince stayed steadfast and his purpose clear.

The path led downwards to a rocky pit
With steps descending to a sandy floor.
There at the bottom crouched the angry beast,
Half-blinded by the torch which Theseus bore.

There then began a contest fierce and long,
Unparalleled in Cretan history.
From their Olympian thrones the Gods looked down
In horror at the combat’s savagery.

Never was human strength so sorely tried
Nor courage called to stand a greater strain.
As Theseus wore the mighty monster down,
Its roars of anger turned to roars of pain.

In noise and fury both their utmost gave,
But in the end the higher motive won.
Within its pit of death the monster died,
By Theseus’ courage and the Gods outdone.

There in the bowels of the Cretan hills,
So far from Athens’ shore its fate was cast.
No more would Athens pay its yearly toll
And all its youth could live in peace at last.

Theseus rewound the thread with joyful heart,
His route retracing back towards the light.
From death and darkness, the victorious prince
Came out and upwards to the starry night.

Few words were spoken as the princess took
His hand in hers and through the trees they sped,
Down to the dungeon where their charges watched
And from imprisonment the captives led.

Once freed, the children to the harbour ran,
With furtive haste their vessel they prepared
And ropes cast off. All hands worked willingly
And Theseus himself no effort spared.

Before the moon had set and first birds sang
Among the olive trees to greet the day,
The south wind filled the sail, while on their oars
The rowers sped the vessel on its way.

Only at daybreak did they pause to rest
And watch the sun rise through the golden haze.
With hearts elated, they resumed their route,
While Crete’s dark shadow vanished from their gaze.

With flocks of seabirds soaring in its wake,
The vessel ploughed the waves and made for home.
The wind was fair and so the future seemed
For Ariadne and King Aegeus’ son.

But fate cannot be trusted nor foreseen,
While time plays tricks on gratitude and love,
The Gods are fickle and make sport with Man
Whom nobler motives do not always move.

That night they beached on Naxos. There the prince,
For reasons which the story does not say,
Abandoned Ariadne on the shore,
Asleep, alone, and shameless, sailed away.

Divine Poseidon, Lord of all the Seas,
Was moved to anger by this heartless flight.
He swore to punish Theseus and to take
Revenge for Ariadne’s grievous plight.

Meanwhile the bark continued on its course,
Until at last the Athens’ coast appeared.
Great was the joy in every homesick heart
As Theseus himself the vessel steered.

High on the cliffs above the rocky shore
Came Aegeus the King, each day at dawn,
Peering with anxious eyes far out to sea
To catch first sight of his returning son.

Each morn its hope produced, each night despair,
Until at last, on one predestined day,
The vessel hove in sight with jet-black sails
And slowly plied its course across the bay.

In all their joy, they had not thought to change
The mourning sail for one as white as snow.
In black despair, Aegeus threw himself
Down from the cliff-top to the waves below.

O cruel Gods to break a father’s heart
In payment for the failings of his son!
O bitter welcome! Homecoming no more
When from the home the head and light are gone!

Theseus returned to find that he was King
And Athens found, within a few weeks’ span
The youthful prince had suddenly become
A sadder, wiser and repentant man.

Between the mountains and the purple sea,
Lies Athens in the Plain of Attica.
The wide Aegean bathes its sacred shores
And soft the warm winds blow from Africa.

If seas are haunted, this one surely is!
Although the Heroes sail its routes no more,
An old man’s ghost arises from the waves
And Ariadne weeps on Naxos shore.