Chthonic Monsters — Theseus Goes to Crete

This is from a novel-in-progress, in which the characters tell one another many different stories, but I thought I would share one of those stories here the blog. Alas, it it too long to put up in one post, so I’ll put up the other two parts over the next couple days.

The Mother of the Minotaur

Now, Theseus was already a great hero in Athens when this story begins, but still, a very young man. He was beloved by his father, King Aegeus, who founded the city. At this time Athens was not the powerful city you might imagine it to be — they had yet to invent democracy, or build the Acropolis. Before Theseus had even been born, Athens had been defeated by the Kingdom of Crete, and was forced to pay tribute to it every seventh year, in penance for starting the war.

Each seventh year, Athens had to send a seventh of the wealth the city had accrued. Even worse, it had to send its seven bravest young men and seven most beautiful young women to Crete. Twice this had happened, and none of the young men or women had ever been heard from again. There was a rumour amongst the people of Athens that these beautiful and brave youngsters were sacrifices to a beast kept by King Minos of Crete, a horrible creature that was half-man, half-bull.

Now, on the streets of Athens there was talk of the people finding another King to rule them, for if Aegeus could not protect them from King Minos and his terrible beast, then perhaps another could. Theseus knew of these rumours, and he told his father that he would go to Crete as one of the seven brave young men, and slay this beast. He promised that if he was successful, he would use a white sail on his ship. If the ship used a black sail, then Aegeus would know that Theseus was dead.

Aegeus did not want Theseus to go, but he let him, knowing that a man must make his own fate. And so, Theseus sailed with the others to Crete. When they arrived, Theseus was surprised that they were met with kindness and cordiality by the King of Crete himself. Minos was, at this time, an old man. There was no sign that he was cruel enough to sacrifice the young men and women of Athens to a monster. He was especially courteous when he learned that Theseus was the son of Aegeus himself.

“I’m surprised. I wouldn’t think your father would let you come here,” the King said. “He will miss you, but you shall have a place of honour in my house. I have heard the story of how you captured the Marathonian Bull, and how your father saved you from Medea. It is wonderful to have a hero in my house. Have you met my eldest daughter, Ariadne?”

She was the most beautiful woman Theseus had ever seen, and he was uncharacteristically speechless. Ariadne was older than Theseus, but still a maiden, and Minos watched them speculatively.

In Theseus’s mind, Ariadne was a prize greater than a kingdom, and he decided right then and there that he must have her. Ariadne was no meek thing though, and she had her own plans.

“Do you find me beautiful?” she asked Theseus.

“More beautiful than the sky at dawn,” Theseus replied. “You are as lovely as Aphrodite herself.”

“You must not say such things,” Ariadne said. “The gods are jealous and vengeful. That is why my brother is imprisoned in the Labyrinth.”

“Your brother?” Theseus had never heard of Minos having any sons.

“Yes. My half-brother, rather. They call him a horrible beast, and say that he eats human flesh, but it is not true. He is just misunderstood. My father angered the God of the Sea. Posideon sent my father the White Cretan Bull, a glorious gift, so that it would be known Minos he was favoured by the gods, and so, he won the throne. But Posideon expected Minos to sacrifice the bull to him in return. My father didn’t want to — it was so beautiful, and the people loved it, and surely another bull would do? I know, some are so foolish when it comes to the gods. So Posideon made my mother fall in love with the Cretan Bull, and she mated with it, and thus the Minotaur was born.

“My father wanted to kill the beast, but the Oracle said my father’s reign would end if he killed the child. Instead he had it imprisoned in the Labyrinth, built by Daedelus, never to escape or see the blue of sea or sky. He lives like an animal in the dark, forever trapped in the depths of the impenetrable maze below the palace.”

“That’s terrible,” Theseus said. “How could your father be so cruel? He does not seem like such a hard man.”

“Oh, he is a clever one,” Ariadne said. “He never seems to be what he is — a tyrant. He is the real monster.”

Theseus did not know what to think. He was taken with Ariadne, and he wanted to believe her, but he could see no evidence that Minos was the fiend she said. At that moment, Minos introduced the other Athenians who had been sent seven and fourteen years before — all 28 of them!

It certainly wasn’t what he expected. He spent most of the evening with Ariadne, but at one point, Minos asked Theseus to attend him on the palace balcony. No others came with them, but there were guards in attendance, and Minos waved them off, as they looked out at the dark skies of Crete. The palace faced north, towards the sea that spread between the two kingdoms like a deep, black mystery. The moon reflected over the water, which was calm and flat on the warm summer evening.

“I am not getting any younger,” the King of Crete said to Theseus, “and it is time for me to think of my successor. Would you be willing to marry my daughter, Ariadne, and rule with her when I am gone?”

Theseus did not know what to say. There was nothing he wanted more than to have Ariadne.

“I have only one condition,” Minos said, “you must promise to keep the beast that lives beneath this palace in its Labyrinth. Ariadne is a dutiful daughter, but I know she thinks I am cruel to keep her half-brother locked up in that maze. But if we don’t then the disaster will befall.”

“What disaster?” Theseus asked.

“When the creature was born — I’m sure Ariadne told you the story of its birth — I sent to the Oracle to know what I should do. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to simply slay the abomination, and have done with it. It was a reminder of my faithlessness to the gods. But my wife loved the thing, and I loved her so I promised to hear what the Oracle had to say before I did anything,” Minos explained.

“When my emissary returned from Delphi, he told me the Oracle said that if I had the beast killed, or let free to roam, Crete would be destroyed. So I had Daedalus build the Labyrinth. It was still unfinished when your father and his Athenians attempted an invasion. As you know, we won, and Athens has paid tribute ever since. But I grow nervous of its presence below the palace. Daedalus escaped, and I always worry that the creature will someday too.”

“But the Labyrinth is impossible to navigate,” Theseus objected. “Even Daedelus only escaped because he created wings and flew away.”

“You heard about that, did you? I’ve spent years searching for that damned inventor. But at least he has told no one about how the navigate the Labyrinth, and I suspect you are correct Theseus, it is impenetrable. I should stop worrying about the beast, and concentrate on the future. If you promise not to kill or release the beast, then I shall give you my daughter Ariadne, and our two great civilizations will be merged into one.”

Theseus was surprised. He did not think to find an ally here in Crete, let alone a wife and father-in-law. But at the same time, he shared the hatred all Athenians had for Minos and Crete. They had humiliated the people of Athens for 21 years, and Theseus would have retribution.

Ariadne said that she would marry him, on the condition that Theseus would one day take her far from Crete, where there were none to appreciate her beauty.

“Of course I’ll take you away from here,” Theseus promised. “You are too beautiful to stay locked away in this Palace.”

So later that month, he and Ariadne were wed.

Keep reading with part two …> Chthonic Monsters — Theseus Meets the Minotaur