As historians squabble over what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Minoan empire has proved just as puzzling. Three and a half millenniums ago, life on Crete (the island residence of a mythical King and his man-eating beast) was disrupted by a volcanic eruption from neighboring Thera Island. Clay tablets unearthed by archaeologists revealed that instead of folding, Minoans carried on for another 50 years before finally packing it in. Theories of what finally did them in include a scenario in which a blanket of volcanic ash devastated crops and one where a weakened society was left vulnerable to an eventual Greek takeover.
When yet but a very young man, Ægeus, King of Athens, journeyed off to
Trœzene, where he fell in love with and married a pretty young
princess by the name of Æthra. For some reason, which mythologists do
not make known, the king was forced to return alone to Athens; but ere
he departed he concealed his sword and sandals beneath a stone,
bidding his wife remember, that, as soon as the strength of their son
Theseus permitted, he must raise the rock, appropriate sword and
sandals, and come and join him in Athens, where he should be
introduced to the people as his son and heir. These instructions
given, Ægeus bade a fond farewell to his wife and infant son, and
As the years passed by, they brought strength, beauty, and wisdom to
Theseus, whose fame began to be published abroad. At last Æthra deemed
him strong enough to raise the rock beneath which his father's trusty
weapon lay; and, conducting him to the spot where it was, she told him
the whole story, and bade him try his strength.
Theseus immediately obeyed. With a mighty effort he raised the rock,
and, to his great satisfaction, found the sword and sandals in a
perfect state of preservation. Sword in hand, he then set out for
Athens,--a long and dangerous journey. He proceeded slowly and
cautiously, for he knew that many dangers lurked along his pathway,
and that ere he reached his father's city he would have to encounter
both giants and monsters, who would strive to bar his way.
He was not at all mistaken in his previsions; for Trœzene was
scarcely lost to sight ere he came across the giant Periphetes, son of
Vulcan, who stood in the road and attacked with a huge club, whose
blows were generally fatal, all who strove to pass. Adroitly evading
the giant's first onslaught, Theseus plunged his sword deep into his
huge side ere he could renew the attack, and brought him lifeless to
Theseus then disarmed his fallen foe, and, retaining the club for
future use, continued his journey in peace, until he came to the
Isthmus of Corinth, where two adventures awaited him. The first was
with a cruel giant named Sinis, nicknamed The Pine-bender, whose usual
practice was to bend some huge pine until its top touched the ground,
and call to any unsuspecting passer-by to seize it and lend him a
helping hand for a moment. Then, as soon as the innocent stranger had
complied with his request, he would suddenly let go the pine, which,
freed from his gigantic grasp, sprang back to its upright position,
and hurled the unfortunate traveler way up in the air, to be dashed to
pieces against the rocky mountain side.
Theseus, who had already heard of the giant's stratagem, skillfully
eluded the danger, and finally caused Sinis to perish by the same
cruel death which he had dealt out to so many others.
In one place the Isthmus of Corinth was exceedingly narrow, and the
only practicable pathway led along a rocky ledge, guarded by a robber
named Sciron, who forced all who tried to pass him to wash his feet.
While the traveler was thus engaged, and knelt in the narrow pathway
to do his bidding, he would suddenly raise his foot, kick him over the
side, and hurl him down into the sea below, where a huge tortoise was
ever waiting with gaping jaws to devour the victims.
Instead of yielding to Sciron's exactions, Theseus drew his sword, and
by his determined bearing so terrified the robber, that he offered him
a free passage. This offer, however, did not satisfy Theseus, who
said he would sheathe his sword only on condition that Sciron
performed for him the menial office he had imposed upon so many
others. Sciron dared not refuse, and obeyed in fear and trembling; but
he was doomed never to molest any one again, for Theseus kicked him
over the precipice, into the breakers, where the tortoise feasted upon
his remains with as keen a relish as upon former victims.
[Sidenote: Cercyon and Procrustes.]
After disposing of another world-renowned robber, Cercyon (The
Wrestler), Theseus encountered Procrustes (The Stretcher), a cruel
giant, who, under pretext of entertainment, deluded travelers into
entering his home, where he had two beds of very different
dimensions,--one unusually short, the other unusually long. If the
unfortunate traveler were a short man, he was put to bed in the long
bedstead, and his limbs were pulled out of joint to make him fit it;
but if, on the contrary, he were tall, he was assigned the short bed,
and the superfluous length of limb was lopped off under the selfsame
pretext. Taking Procrustes quite unawares, Theseus gave him a faint
idea of the sufferings he had inflicted upon others by making him try
each bed in turn, and then, to avoid his continuing these evil
practices, put an end to his wretched existence.
Theseus successfully accomplished a few more exploits of a similar
character, and finally reached Athens, where he found that his fame
had preceded him.
"In days of old, there liv'd of mighty fame,
A valiant prince, and Theseus was his name:
A chief, who more in feats of arms excell'd,
The rising nor the setting sun beheld."
[Sidenote: Medea's draught.]
The first tidings that there reached his ear were that Ægeus had just
married Medea, the enchantress; but, although these tidings were very
unwelcome, he hastened on to his father's court, to make himself
known, and receive the welcome promised so many years before. Medea,
seated by Ægeus' side, no sooner saw the young stranger draw near,
than she knew him, and foresaw that he had come to demand his rights.
To prevent his making known claims which might interfere with the
prospects of her future offspring, she hastily mixed a deadly poison
in a cup, which she filled with fragrant wine, and bade Ægeus offer it
to the stranger.
The monarch was about to execute her apparently hospitable purpose,
when his eye suddenly rested upon the sword at Theseus' side, which he
immediately recognized. One swift glance into the youth's open face
convinced him that Æthra's son stood before him, and he eagerly
stretched out his arms to clasp him to his heart. This sudden movement
upset the goblet, and the poisonous contents, falling upon a dog lying
at the king's feet, caused his almost instantaneous death. Seeing her
crime discovered and Theseus recognized, Medea quickly mounted her
magic dragon car, and fled to Media, whence she never returned.
[Sidenote: Tribute to the Minotaur.]
One day, some time after his arrival at Athens, Theseus heard a sound
of weeping and great lamentation throughout all the city, and in reply
to his wondering inquiries was told, that ever since an unfortunate
war between the Cretans and Athenians, the latter, who had been
vanquished, were obliged to pay a yearly tribute of seven youths and
as many maidens, destined to serve as food for the Minotaur. Further
questions evolved the fact that the Minotaur was a hideous monster,
the property of Minos, King of Crete, who kept it in an intricate
labyrinth, constructed for that express purpose by Dædalus, the
"There lived and flourished long ago, in famous Athens town,
One Dædalus, a carpenter of genius and renown;
('Twas he who with an augur taught mechanics how to bore,--
An art which the philosophers monopolized before.)"
[Illustration: DÆDALUS AND ICARUS.--Vien.]
[Sidenote: Dædalus and Icarus.]
This labyrinth was so very intricate, that those who entered could not
find their way out; and even Dædalus and his son Icarus, after many
days' attempt, found they could not leave it. Rather than remain
imprisoned forever, Dædalus then manufactured wings for himself and
for his son, and determined to make use of them to effect his escape.
"Now Dædalus, the carpenter, had made a pair of wings,
Contrived of wood and feathers and a cunning set of springs,
By means of which the wearer could ascend to any height,
And sail about among the clouds as easy as a kite."
After repeated cautions to his son not to venture too high, lest the
sun's heat should melt the wax fixing the feathers to the frame,
Dædalus bade Icarus don his plumage and fly to a country where they
would be free, promising to follow him thither very shortly.
"'My Icarus!' he says; 'I warn thee fly
Along the middle track: nor low, nor high;
If low, thy plumes may flag with ocean's spray;
If high, the sun may dart his fiery ray.'"
Ovid (Elton's tr.).
Delighted with this new mode of travel, Icarus flew swiftly along.
Little by little he forgot the danger and his father's caution, and
rose up higher and higher, until he could bask in the direct rays of
the ardent sun. The heat, which seemed so grateful after his chilly
flight, soon softened and melted the wax on his wings; and Icarus, no
longer supported by the light feathers, sank down faster and faster,
until he fell into the sea, where he was drowned, and which, in memory
of him, bears the name of Icarian to this day.
These varied details kindled Theseus' love of adventure, and still
further strengthened him in his sudden resolve to join the mournful
convoy, try his strength against the awful Minotaur, and, if possible,
save his country from further similar exactions.
"While Attica thus groan'd, with ills opprest;
His country's wrongs inflam'd brave Theseus' breast;
Instant his gen'rous soul resolv'd to save
Cecrops' great offspring from a timeless grave."
Even his father's tears and entreaties were powerless to move him
from his purpose, and, the hour having come, he embarked upon the
black-sailed vessel which was to bear the yearly tribute to Crete,
promising to change the black sails for snowy white ones if he were
fortunate enough to return victorious.
Favorable winds soon wafted the galley to distant Crete, and as they
sailed along the coast, searching for the harbor, they were challenged
by the brazen giant Talus, who walked daily thrice around the whole
island, killing, by contact with his red-hot body, all who had no
business to land on that coast. Knowing, however, that the
black-sailed galley brought a fresh supply of youths and maidens for
the terrible Minotaur, Talus let it pass unharmed; and the victims
were brought into the presence of Minos, who personally inspected each
new freight-load, to make sure he was not being cheated by the
[Sidenote: Ariadne's clew.]
At the monarch's side stood his fair daughter Ariadne, whose tender
heart was filled with compassion when she beheld the frail maidens and
gallant youths about to perish by such a loathsome death. Theseus, by
right of his birth, claimed the precedence, and proffered a request to
be the first victim,--a request which the king granted with a sardonic
smile, ere he returned unmoved to his interrupted feast.
Unnoticed by all, Ariadne slipped out of the palace, and, under cover
of the darkness, entered the prison where Theseus was confined. There
she tremblingly offered him a ball of twine and a sharp sword, bidding
him tie one end of the twine to the entrance of the labyrinth, and
keep the other in his hand as a clew to find the way out again should
the sword enable him to kill the dreaded Minotaur. In token of
gratitude for this timely assistance, Theseus solemnly promised
Ariadne to take her with him to Athens as his bride, were he only
successful in his undertaking.
At dawn the next day Theseus was conducted to the entrance of the
labyrinth, and there left to await the tender mercies of the Minotaur.
Like all heroes, he preferred to meet any danger rather than remain
inactive: so, mindful of Ariadne's instructions, he fastened his
twine to the entrance, and then boldly penetrated into the intricate
ways of the labyrinth, where many whitening bones plainly revealed the
fate of all who had preceded him.
[Sidenote: Theseus and the Minotaur.]
He had not gone very far before he encountered the Minotaur,--a
creature more hideous than fancy can paint,--and he was obliged to use
all his skill and ingenuity to avoid falling a prey to the monster's
appetite, and all his strength to lay him low at last.
The Minotaur slain, Theseus hastily retraced his footsteps.
"And the slender clew,
Prepar'd in secret by th' enamor'd maid,
Thro' the curv'd labyrinth his steps convey'd."
[Sidenote: Theseus' escape.]
Arrived at the place where his ship rode at anchor, he found his
companions and Ariadne awaiting him, and, springing on board, bade the
sailors weigh anchor as quickly as possible. They were almost out of
reach of the Cretan shores, when Talus came into view, and, perceiving
that his master's prisoners were about to escape, leaned forward to
catch the vessel by its rigging. Theseus, seeing this, sprang forward,
and dealt the giant such a blow, that he lost his balance and fell
into the deep sea, where he was drowned, and where thermal springs
still bear witness to the heat of his brazen body.
[Sidenote: Ariadne forsaken.]
The returning vessel, favored by wind and tide, made but one port,
Naxos; and here youths and maidens landed to view the beautiful
island. Ariadne strayed apart, and threw herself down upon the ground
to rest, where, before she was aware of it, sleep overtook her. Now,
although very brave, Theseus was not very constant. He had already
grown weary of Ariadne's love; and, when he saw her thus asleep, he
basely summoned his companions, embarked with them, and set sail,
leaving her alone upon the island, where Bacchus soon came to console
her for the loss of her faithless lover (p. 181).
[Sidenote: Theseus' punishment.]
Theseus, having committed a deed heinous in the eyes of gods and men,
was doomed to suffer just punishment. In his preoccupation he entirely
forgot his promise to change the black sails for white; and Ægeus,
from Attica's rocky shore, seeing the sable sails when the vessel was
yet far from land, immediately concluded that his son was dead, and in
his grief cast himself into the sea since known as the Ægean, where he
"As from a mountain's snowy top are driv'n
The rolling clouds, by the rude blasts of heav'n;
So from the mem'ry of lost Theseus fled
Those dictates, which before his reason sway'd:
But now his father from the ramparts' height,
All bath'd in tears, directs his eager sight;
O'er the wide sea, distended by the gale,
He spies, with dread amaze, the lurid sail."
[Sidenote: Theseus' reign and marriage.]
Theseus, on entering the city, heard of his father's death; and when
he realized that it had been caused by his carelessness, he was
overwhelmed with grief and remorse. All the cares of royalty and the
wise measures he introduced for the happiness of his people could not
divert his mind from this terrible catastrophe: so he finally resolved
to resign his authority and set out again in search of adventures,
which might help him forget his woes. He therefore made an excursion
into the land of the Amazons, where Hercules had preceded him, and
whence he brought back Hippolyte, whom he married. Theseus was now
very happy indeed, and soon all his hopes were crowned by the birth of
a son, whom he called Hippolytus. Shortly after this joyful event, the
Amazons invaded his country under pretext of rescuing their kidnapped
queen, and in the battle which ensued Hippolyte was accidentally
wounded by an arrow, and breathed her last in Theseus' arms.
Theseus next set out with an Athenian army to fight Pirithous, king of
the Lapithæ, who had dared to declare war; but when the armies were
face to face, the two chiefs, seized with a sudden liking for each
other, simultaneously cast down their weapons, and, falling on each
other's necks, embraced, and swore an eternal friendship.
[Sidenote: Centaurs and Lapithæ]
To show his devotion to this newly won friend, Theseus consented to
accompany him to the court of Adrastus, King of Argos, and witness his
marriage to Hippodamia, daughter of the king. Many guests were, of
course, present to witness the marriage ceremony, among others
Hercules and a number of the Centaurs. The latter, struck with
admiration for the bride's unusual beauty, made an attempt to kidnap
her, which was frustrated by the Lapithæ, seconded by Theseus and
Hercules. The terrible struggle which ensued between the conflicting
parties has ever been a favorite subject in art, and is popularly
known as the "Battle between the Centaurs and Lapithæ."
[Sidenote: Theseus in Hades.]
The hotly contested bride did not, however, enjoy a very long life,
and Pirithous soon found himself, like Theseus, a disconsolate
widower. To avoid similar bereavement in future, they both resolved to
secure goddesses, who, being immortal, would share their thrones
forever. Aided by Pirithous, Theseus carried off Helen, the daughter
of Jupiter (p. 311), and, as she was still but a child, intrusted her
to the care of his mother, Æthra, until she attained a suitable age
for matrimony. Then, in return for Pirithous' kind offices, he
accompanied him to Hades, where they intended to carry off Proserpina.
While they were thus engaged, Helen's twin brothers, Castor and
Pollux, came to Athens, delivered her from captivity, and carried her
home in triumph. As for Theseus and Pirithous, their treacherous
intention was soon discovered by Pluto, who set the first on an
enchanted rock, from which he could not descend unassisted, and bound
the second to the constantly revolving wheel of his father, Ixion.
[Illustration: THESEUS.--Canova. (Volksgarten, Vienna.)]
When Hercules was in Hades in search of Cerberus (p. 229), he
delivered Theseus from his unpleasant position, and thus enabled him
to return to his own home, where he now expected to spend the
remainder of his life in peace.
[Sidenote: Phædra and Hippolytus.]
Although somewhat aged by this time, Theseus was still anxious to
marry, and looked about him for a wife to cheer his loneliness.
Suddenly he remembered that Ariadne's younger sister, Phædra, must be
a charming young princess, and sent an embassy to obtain her hand in
marriage. The embassy proved successful, and Phædra came to Athens;
but, young and extremely beautiful, she was not at all delighted with
her aged husband, and, instead of falling in love with him, bestowed
all her affections upon his son, Hippolytus, a virtuous youth, who
utterly refused to listen to her proposals to elope. In her anger at
finding her advances scorned, Phædra went to Theseus and accused
Hippolytus of attempting to kidnap her. Theseus, greatly incensed at
what he deemed his son's dishonorable behavior, implored Neptune to
punish the youth, who was even then riding in his chariot close by the
shore. In answer to this prayer, a great wave suddenly arose, dashed
over the chariot, and drowned the young charioteer, whose lifeless
corpse was finally flung ashore at Phædra's feet. When the unfortunate
queen saw the result of her false accusations, she confessed her
crime, and, in her remorse and despair, hung herself.
[Sidenote: Death of Theseus.]
As for Theseus, soured by these repeated misfortunes, he grew so stern
and tyrannical, that he gradually alienated his people's affections,
until at last they hated him, and banished him to the Island of
Scyros, where, in obedience to a secret order, Lycomedes, the king,
treacherously slew him by hurling him from the top of a steep cliff
into the sea. As usual, when too late, the Athenians repented of their
ingratitude, and in a fit of tardy remorse deified this hero, and
built a magnificent temple on the Acropolis in his honor. This
building, now used as a museum, contains many relics of Greek art.
Theseus' bones were piously brought back, and inhumed in Athens, where
he was long worshiped as a demigod.