Theseus travels to the court of King Minos to fight the Minotaur - the half-man, half-bull monster living under the palace.
3. Theseus and the Minotaur
Hermes tells how Crete was once all-powerful because of the instruments of war created by Deadalus for King Minos. But King Minos and his people had a problem - the Minotaur - a creature part-man, part-bull, which rampaged throughout the palace killing those it caught. Deadalus creates a labyrinth - a maze - under the palace and the Minotaur is lured inside, where it can never find its way out again. The only problem is how to feed the creature. Minos determines to demand tribute from the peoples he has conquered in the form of humans - young men and women to be fed to the Minotaur.
The scene switches to Athens. Fourteen young Athenians are being selected for the journey to Crete Theseus persuades his father to allow him to go to Crete, with the aim of killing the Minotaur. And if he kills the creature he will signal his success by flying a white sail on the return journey. Theseus and the others arrive in Crete.
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That evening King Minos's daughter - Ariadne - comes to their cell to offer assistance. She gives Theseus a sword and a ball of thread.
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Our editors will review what you've submitted, and if it meets our criteria, we'll add it to the article. Please note that our editors may make some formatting changes or correct spelling or grammatical errors, and may also contact you if any clarifications are needed. Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. Again, the legend of the Minotaur a being part human, part bull could have arisen from exaggerated accounts of bull leaping in ancient Crete. Minos too turned to Daedalus, requesting him to build a Labyrinth, from which the Minotaur could not escape.
Myth, a symbolic narrative, usually of unknown origin and at least partly traditional, that ostensibly relates actual events and that is especially associated with religious belief. It is distinguished from symbolic behaviour cult, ritual and symbolic places or objects temples, icons. Myths are…. History at your fingertips. Sign up here to see what happened On This Day , every day in your inbox!
Origins of Theseus and the Minotaur
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Theseus & the Minotaur: More than a Myth?
When Theseus appeared in the town, his reputation had preceded him, as a result of his having travelled along the notorious coastal road from Troezen and slain some of the most feared bandits there. It was not long before the Pallantides ' hopes of succeeding the apparently childless Aegeus would be lost if they did not get rid of Theseus the Pallantides were the sons of Pallas and nephews of King Aegeus , who were then living at the royal court in the sanctuary of Delphic Apollo .
So they set a trap for him. One band of them would march on the town from one side while another lay in wait near a place called Gargettus in ambush. The plan was that after Theseus, Aegeus, and the palace guards had been forced out the front, the other half would surprise them from behind. However, Theseus was not fooled. Informed of the plan by a herald named Leos, he crept out of the city at midnight and surprised the Pallantides.
Thereupon the party with Pallas dispersed," Plutarch reported. The eldest of these, Androgeos , set sail for Athens to take part in the Panathenaic Games , which were held there every four years. Being strong and skilful, he did very well, winning some events outright. He soon became a crowd favourite, much to the resentment of the Pallantides who assassinated him, incurring the wrath of Minos. When King Minos heard what had befallen his son, he ordered the Cretan fleet to set sail for Athens.
Minos asked Aegeus for his son's assassins, and if they were to be handed to him, the town would be spared. However, not knowing who the assassins were, King Aegeus surrendered the whole town to Minos' mercy. His retribution was that, at the end of every Great Year , which occurred after every seven cycles on the solar calendar, the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens were to board a boat and be sent as tribute to Crete, never to be seen again.
In another version, King Minos had waged war with the Athenians and was successful. He then demanded that, at nine-year intervals, seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls were to be sent to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur , a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in the Labyrinth created by Daedalus.
On the third occasion, Theseus volunteered to talk to the monster to stop this horror. He took the place of one of the youths and set off with a black sail, promising to his father, Aegeus , that if successful he would return with a white sail. On his arrival in Crete, Ariadne , King Minos' daughter, fell in love with Theseus and, on the advice of Daedalus, gave him a ball of thread a clew , so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth. As soon as Theseus entered the Labyrinth, he tied one end of the ball of string to the door post and brandished his sword which he had kept hidden from the guards inside his tunic.
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Theseus followed Daedalus' instructions given to Ariadne; go forwards, always down and never left or right. Theseus came to the heart of the Labyrinth and also upon the sleeping Minotaur. The beast awoke and a tremendous fight then occurred. Theseus overpowered the Minotaur with his strength and stabbed the beast in the throat with his sword according to one scholium on Pindar's Fifth Nemean Ode, Theseus strangled it. After decapitating the beast, Theseus used the string to escape the Labyrinth and managed to escape with all of the young Athenians and Ariadne as well as her younger sister Phaedra.
Then he and the rest of the crew fell asleep on the beach of the island of Naxos, where they stopped on their way back, looking for water. Athena woke Theseus and told him to leave early that morning and to leave Ariadne there for Dionysus, for Naxos was his island. Stricken with distress, Theseus forgot to put up the white sails instead of the black ones, so his father, the king, believing he was dead, committed suicide, throwing himself off a cliff of Sounio and into the sea, thus causing this body of water to be named Aegean Sea. According to Plutarch 's Life of Theseus , the ship Theseus used on his return from Crete to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbour as a memorial for several centuries.
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus ,  for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place The ship had to be maintained in a seaworthy state, for, in return for Theseus's successful mission, the Athenians had pledged to honour Apollo every year henceforth.
Thus, the Athenians sent a religious mission to the island of Delos one of Apollo's most sacred sanctuaries on the Athenian state galley — the ship itself — to pay their fealty to the god. To preserve the purity of the occasion, no executions were permitted between the time when the religious ceremony began to when the ship returned from Delos, which took several weeks. To preserve the ship, any wood that wore out or rotted was replaced; it was, thus, unclear to philosophers how much of the original ship actually remained, giving rise to the philosophical question whether it should be considered "the same" ship or not.
Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the Ship of Theseus Paradox. Regardless of these issues, Athenians preserved the ship. Their belief was that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure and the ship gave them a tangible connection to their divine providence. Theseus's best friend was Pirithous , prince of the Lapiths. Pirithous had heard stories of Theseus's courage and strength in battle but wanted proof so he rustled Theseus's herd of cattle and drove it from Marathon and Theseus set out in pursuit.
Pirithous took up his arms and the pair met to do battle but were so impressed with each other they took an oath of friendship and joined the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. In Iliad I, Nestor numbers Pirithous and Theseus "of heroic fame" among an earlier generation of heroes of his youth, "the strongest men that Earth has bred, the strongest men against the strongest enemies, a savage mountain-dwelling tribe whom they utterly destroyed. Later, Pirithous was preparing to marry Hippodamia.
The centaurs were guests at the wedding feast, but got drunk and tried to abduct the women, including Hippodamia. The Lapiths won the ensuing battle. In Ovid 's Metamorphoses Theseus fights against and kills Eurytus , the "fiercest of all the fierce centaurs"  at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia.
Theseus, a great abductor of women, and his bosom companion, Pirithous, since they were sons of Zeus and Poseidon, pledged themselves to marry daughters of Zeus. Pirithous chose Persephone. On Pirithous' behalf they travelled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband Hades. As they wandered through the outskirts of Tartarus , Theseus sat down to rest on a rock.