• Theseus was now the recognized heir to the kingdom ofAthens. Thus he was on hand when King Minos of Cretearrived to collect his periodic tribute of young men andmaidens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Because his sonhad died while in the safekeeping of the Athenians, Minosexerted the power of the Cretan navy to enforce thisonerous demand. The Minotaur was a monster, half-man, half-bull, that lived in the center of a maze called theLabyrinth. The beast had been born to Minoss wifePasiphae as a punishment from the gods. Minos had beenchallenged to prove that he was of divine parentage, so hecalled on the sea god Poseidon to send him a sign. The godobliged, and a beautiful white bull emerged from the sea.
• Minos liked the bull so much that he neglected tosacrifice it to the gods as he should have done. As apunishment, Poseidon caused the kings wife to fall in lovewith the bull. She had the master craftsman Daedalus buildher a hollow cow in which to approach the beast. As aresult, the Minotaur was born. The monster is generallydepicted as having the head of a bull and the body of aman. But in the Middle Ages, artists portrayed a manshead and torso on a bulls body. Some say that Theseusexpressed his solidarity with his fellow citizens of Athens byvolunteering to be one of the victims. Others maintain thatMinos noticed the handsome young prince and chose himto be sacrificed. In any case, Theseus became one of thefated fourteen who embarked with the Cretan fleet.
• The sea upon which they sailed was the domain ofPoseidon, who together with his brothers Zeus and Hadeswere the three most powerful gods of the Greek pantheon.They divided up creation, Zeus taking the sky, Hades theunderworld and Poseidon the sea. But there were otherdeities of the watery depths, notably the "Old Man of theSea", with his fifty daughters known as the Nereids. WhenTheseus was en route to Crete, he encountered one ofthese divinities. King Minos had made rude advances toone of the Athenian maidens and Theseus sprang to herdefense, claiming this was his duty as a son of Poseidon.(Theseus, of course, was also the son of King Aegeus, but atrue hero required an immortal father, so Theseus hadboth.)
• Minos suggested that if Theseuss divine parentage were anythingbut a figment of his imagination, the gods of the sea would sponsorhim. So Minos threw his signet ring overboard and challengedTheseus to dive in and find it. Not only did the hero retrieve the ringfrom the underwater palace into which it had fallen, but he wasgiven a jewelled crown by one of the Nereids, either Thetis orAmphitrite. Not long after he arrived in Crete Theseus encounteredanother sponsor in the form of Princess Ariadne, daughter of KingMinos. She fell in love with him at first sight. It was Ariadne whogave Theseus a clew which she had obtained from the mastercraftsman Daedalus. In some versions of the myth it was anordinary clew, which is to say a simple ball of thread. It was to proveinvaluable in the quest to survive the terrors of the Labyrinth.
• The Labyrinth was a maze so cleverly and intricatelycontrived by its builder Daedalus that once throwninside, a victim could never find the way out again.Sooner or later, he or she would round a corner andcome face to face with the all-devouring Minotaur. Thiswas the fate which awaited Theseus. It is clear from themyth that the Labyrinth was a maze from which nonecould escape because it was so diabolicallymeandering. Hence the Minotaur was not just itsmonster but its prisoner. But how exactly this workedas a practical matter with regard to the victims is lessclear. Some versions of the myth have it that they were"enclosed" in the Labyrinth, as if it were a box
• But surely if the procedure were simply to push the victimsin and then slam the door behind them, they would havecowered by the entrance rather than proceed into theterrors of the maze. Even if the guards threatened themwith swords, it seems likely that some would havepreferred the known death to being devoured alive by amonster. Nor could the guards have escorted the victimsdeep into the maze without getting lost themselves, orrisking a run-in with the Minotaur. Maybe Daedalus built aroof over his invention, so that the victims could bedropped through a trap door into the very center. Butperhaps on the whole its better not to inquire too closelyinto the mechanics of the mythological.
• When Theseus first entered the maze he tied off one end ofthe ball of thread which Ariadne had given him, and heplayed out the thread as he advanced deeper and deeperinto the labyrinthine passages. Many artists have depictedTheseus killing the Minotaur with his sword or club, but it ishard to see how he could have concealed such bulkyweapons in his clothing. More probable are the versions ofthe tale which have him coming upon the Minotaur as itslept and then, in properly heroic fashion, beating it todeath with his bare fists. Or maybe he broke off one of thecreatures horns and stabbed him to death with it. Then hefollowed the thread back to the entrance. Otherwise hewould have died of starvation before making his escape.
• Theseus now eloped with Ariadne, pausing only longenough to put holes in the bottom of her fathers shipsso that he could not pursue. But Theseus soonabandoned the princess, either because he wasbewitched by a god or because he had fallen in lovewith her sister Phaedra. Some say that he left Ariadneon the island of Naxos, but others maintain that suchwas his haste that he left her on the small island ofDia, within sight of the harbor from which they hadsailed. The deserted and pining Ariadne has been afavorite theme of artists down through the ages. Shewas eventually rescued by the god Dionysus, whomade her his wife.
• As the ship bearing Theseus and his liberated fellowAthenians approached the promontory on which KingAegeus watched daily for his return, Theseus forgot thesignal which he had prearranged with his father. Thevessels sails were to be black only if the expeditionconcluded as on all previous occasions, with the death ofthe hostages. In the exultation of triumph, or in anguishover the loss of Ariadne, Theseus neglected to hoist a sail ofa different hue, and King Aegeus threw himself from theheights in despair. Theseus was now both king and bonafide hero, but this did not put an end to his adventuring. Onone occasion he visited the Amazons, mythological warriorwomen who lived on the shores of the Black Sea.