Let’s Talk Mythology #9: Theseus And The Minotaur

Hello, everyone! Today, I wanted to talk about some assholes. Fictional assholes this time, I promise. In this post, I’ll be talking about “Theseus and the Minotaur” or as it should be really called “All Stories About Greek Heroes End In Tragedy So Why Should You Even Try?” If you’re interested in Greek mythology, I recommend reading D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths for their beautiful prose and stunning illustrations. Let’s get into it!

Oh No Omg GIF by Gods'School / The Olympian gods
Pretty much always.

Our story starts with a matter of real estate. Desperate to please his new wife Pasiphaë, the daughter of the sun god Helios, King Minos of Crete hires Daedalus, a master architect, to construct the new palace of Knossos. Plied with Cretan gold, Daedalus builds an enormous palace filled with “winding stairs and intricate passageways,” and everyone is very happy, especially Pasiphaë, who is used to the finer things in life. She comes from a family of notable Greek assholes, including her brother Aeëtes, whose immigration policy can be defined as “killing all foreigners,” and her sister, Circe, who has a fondness for turning men into pigs. Needless to say, Pasiphaë’s parents did not value raising children with strong moral fiber.

One day Poseidon sent a snow-white bull from the sea. Since the island was completely surrounded by Poseidon’s domain, the sea, he too wanted to be honored, and ordered King Minos to sacrifice the bull to him. But Pasiphaë was so taken by the beauty of the white bull that she persuaded the king to let it live. She admired the bull so much that she ordered Daedalus to construct a hollow wooden cow, so that she could hide inside it and enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range.

d’Aulaire, 149

There is really nothing Greek gods hate more than when mortals refuse to sacrifice animals in their honor, so as you can imagine, Poseidon was not pleased! As a punishment, he made the bull crazy, causing it to ravage the island, and as a second punishment, he made Pasiphaë give birth to a half-man, half-bull monster, because it’s not a suitable punishment if a woman isn’t forcibly impregnated. Another version of the story has Poseidon cursing Pasiphaë into lusting after the bull, and then mating with it, which, in my opinion, is even worse. Either way, Pasiphaë gives birth to a disgusting monster who only eats human flesh, which seems unfair to the poor monster, and Minos orders Daedalus to construct a labyrinth to imprison the poor baby monster who has become a pawn in a proxy battle between the egos of Pasiphaë and Poseidon.

Faced with a conundrum that even BabyCenter can’t solve, Minos decides to turn to the Hunger Games playbook and threatens to sack the city of Athens unless they send seven Athenian maidens and seven Athenian youths to Crete every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. For some reason, no one ever thought of letting the Minotaur die from starvation, because if there’s one lesson you can learn from Greek myths, it’s that the world is a heartless place and if you don’t sacrifice your children to the Minotaur, they’ll be sure to find certain death in other ways.

The Athenian king agrees to this proposition in order to save his city, and every nine years, he sends 14 children to Crete on a ship with black sails for mourning. Just before the third round of child sacrifices are due to be sent, the Athenian king hears rumors of a hero named Theseus from Troezen, who is jaunting around killing monsters left and right, because that’s what bored young men used to do before they had World of Warcraft.

When King Aegeus heard that, his old heart beat faster. Once in his youth he had visited Troezen and had been secretly married to Princess Aethra. He did not bring Aethra back to Athens with him, but before he left, he said to her, “Should You bear me a son, and should he grow up strong enough to lift this boulder under which I hide my sword and sandals, send him to me, for then he will be the worthy heir to the throne of Athens.”

d’Aulaire, 149-150

Immediately ignoring the sketchiness of Theseus’ conception, and the idea that you can determine a good king based on whether he can lift a boulder, everyone in Athens welcomes Theseus and proclaims him to be the rightful king. In a well-intended, but short-sighted first move as heir apparent, Theseus volunteers to take the place of one of the would-be child sacrifices, and even though King Aegeus begs him to reconsider, probably in the hopes that his son might have a grain of political acument in addition to his brawn, Theseus heads off for Crete, telling his father that “we sail with black sails, but we shall return with white sails as a signal of my success.”

Seems Legit Martin Freeman GIF

Locked in a the dungeon of Knossos with the other thirteen sacrifices, Theseus meets Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, who instantly falls in love with his handsomeness and begs Daedalus to help her save him. Daedalus gives Ariadne a magic ball of string and tells her to take Theseus through the labyrinth when the Minotaur is sleeping. If he can overpower the Minotaur, the string will lead him out of the maze. Like her mother, Ariadne is easily entranced by beautiful things, and tells Theseus that she will help him escape the Minotaur if he marries her and takes her away from Crete. Theseus agrees because he’s literally trapped in a dungeon, and tying the thread to the gate of the labyrinth, travels to the Minotaur, who is passed out in a cannibal food coma. It makes me wonder what his plan would have been if he hadn’t been hot enough to catch the eye of a princess, but since all Greek heroes are hot by definition, I guess he never needed a Plan B.

Theseus sprang at the Minotaur. It roared so loudly that the whole palace of Knossus shook, but the monster was taken by surprise, and so strong was Theseus that, with his bare hands, he killed the cruel Minotaur.

d’Aulaire, 150

So it was really that easy? Anyone strong enough to lift a boulder could kill the Minotaur with their bare hands, but instead of doing that, Minos really just went with sacrificing 14 children instead. Also, is the Minotaur really the cruel one here if he never asked to be born and it’s not his fault that he can only eat human flesh? The Minotaur is merely a bug in the cruel Cretan political system but like typical politicians, they would rather blame him than deal with their systemic failings. Recall Minos!

After killing the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne free the other child sacrifices and head for their ships. In a surprising moment of forethought, they bore holes in Minos’ fleet, but are forced to abandon the rest of their sabotage when the bronze robot Talos starts to pursue them. Don’t ask me how the ancient Greeks have a sentient robot because I don’t know! In their haste to escape the robot, they forget to replace the black sail with a white sail, and even though they have robots, they don’t have phones, so they can’t text King Dad and tell him that they made it off the island. No matter, though, because Theseus is high on life. He killed the monster, he got the girl, and everything is good. Right? Right??

In the middle of the night, the god Dionysus appeared to Theseus and spoke: “I forbid you to marry Ariadne. I myself have chosen her for my bride. You must set her ashore on the island of Naxos.” Theseus could not oppose an Olympian god. When they came to Naxos, he ordered everyone to go ashore and rest. There, Ariadne fell into a heavy slumber, and while she slept, Theseus led the others back to the ship and they sailed off without her.

d’Aulaire, 152

Did anyone ask Ariadne if she wanted to marry Dionysus? Of course not! They just left her to be raped by an Olympian god on an island and went about their day. What I hate most about this is that Ariadne risked her neck to save Theseus by defying her father, but at the first sign of inconvenience, he abandons her. He’s a class-A asshole. Even though Ariadne does get a “happy” ending in her forced marriage to the god Dionysus, still it seems like a bad bargain to me. Why didn’t Dionysus rescue her from Crete if he wanted to marry her so badly, instead of letting Theseus do his dirty work and then stealing her at the last moment? Typical political bullshit, I tell ya!

“Devastated” from losing Ariadne, Theseus once again forgets to hoist the white sail, and when he returns to Athens, King Aegeus is so distraught at the sight of the black sails that he throws himself into the ocean. Maybe if he had waited ONE SECOND he would have seen that his son had saved everyone and was still alive, but you can’t have a story of Greek heroism without some needless tragedy. But all’s well that ends well, because now Theseus gets to be king, and he even throws poor ol’ Dad a bone by naming the sea in which he drowned the Aegean. Which makes me wonder…did Theseus plan this all along? Was every move he made just another step in his long-con to steal his father’s throne and become the new king of Athens? We’ll never know, but if you ask me, I think it was all an act. Theseus was an industry plant.

The dubious moral: Don’t obsess over bulls. Don’t have sex with bulls. Just avoid bulls at all costs, okay?

bullshit bull GIF

6 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Mythology #9: Theseus And The Minotaur

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