Chthonic Monsters — Theseus Meets the Minotaur

This is from a novel-in-progress, in which the characters tell one another many different stories, but I thought I would share here it here the blog. Alas, it it too long to put up in one post, so I’ll put up the last part tomorrow. The first part, Theseus Goes to Crete, is here.

The Labyrinth

Once they were married, Ariadne wanted Theseus to come with her and visit her brother, the Minotaur.

“You visit him?” Theseus said. “How is that possible?”

“It is simple. When I enter the Labyrinth tie one end of a ball of yarn to the door handle, and then I search through the maze until I find my brother. When it is time for me to leave, I use the string to find the way out.”

“But why hasn’t the Minotaur attacked you?”

“Because he is my brother, and a kindly person. He only hates Minos, and those who come down to the Labyrinth to kill him. You didn’t know that did you? The Oracle said that Minos could not have my brother killed, but he makes no secret of the fact that he would like him dead. Every once in a while some fool who considers himself a great hero tries to kill him. Most of them die when they face him, because my brother is stronger than any man alive. And those who do not find him die, forever lost in the maze.

“It is dark down there, and the darkness has a way of playing with your mind. You forget things. You forget yourself. And that is when my brother finds you, usually. Nobody stands a chance down there.”

“But you survive.”

“Because I bring him food, usually enough to get him through to my next visit. And he knows, in his fashion, that I am his sister. He loves me, I am sure of it.”

“I would like to come with you to meet him,” Theseus said, for as Ariadne told this story, he had an idea for how he could achieve Athenian vengeance on Minos.

“I don’t know,” Ariadne said.

“Please. Let us do this together. I want to know everything about your life here, if I am to rule after your father is gone.”

“Okay, but you must promise not to hurt him.”

“I will take no weapons,” Theseus promised, “if you can assure me he will not attack me when I appear.”

“No, he will listen to me.”

They went down to the Labyrinth the next day. There was only one entrance, and it was deep below the palace grounds. Daedelus had dug deep on the acropolis of Knossos, which was the capital of Crete. And then when he knew it was deep enough, he constructed the maze; a tangle of hallways and chambers so convoluted and cunning, that even he would be unable to find his way through it. To make it thoroughly impenetrable, he then reconstructed the magnificent palace of Knossos overtop the Labyrinth itself.

When the door opened, it creaked, and a puff of stale, rank air met them. Theseus thought how horrible it would be to spend your life in such a place, forever in darkness, lost. It would make anyone murderous.

Perhaps sensing his thoughts, Ariadne made sure that Theseus had no weapons, and asked him to hold the torch while she tied the end of her yarn to the handle of the portal. She unwound it as they walked, their steps echoing in the deepness of the Labyrinth. The sound was hollow, and bereft of hope. It seemed as though they were walking for hours, winding through short hallways, long passages, weaving passages, blind alleys, and the occasional open room. It was completely disorienting, and Theseus began to worry. The narrow bit of yarn could easily break anywhere along way, and they would be trapped there forever. But then they heard the beast approach.

Theseus had noted that Minos and Ariadne never named it “Minotaur”, the former calling it a “beast” or “creature”, while the latter always called it her “brother”, even though it was her half-brother at best. They were both wrong to do so. The Minotaur was not something to be denied, minimized, or rendered powerless by giving it lesser names. Despite its years of captivity in the dark hopelessness of its prison, it did not seem cowed or broken.

The Minotaur stepped into the pool of light given off by the torch. The beast was at least seven feet tall, more muscular and powerful than any man Theseus had ever seen, and that included Hercules. Its head was overly large for a human being, with thick, sharp, forward-pointing horns and a flat face that almost looked bovine. Instead of a nose, it had large nostrils in the middle of its face, and its eyes glistened blackly in the firelight.

“Sister,” it rumbled.

“Brother,” Ariadne said. “I have brought my new husband to meet you.”

“I have no wedding gift to give you, sister, except my forbearance. If it is your wish this puny man should live, I will not kill him.”

“Thank you, that is a wonderful gift,” Ariadne breathed, obviously relieved. Theseus realized that she had promised his safety, even though she could not guarantee it. “I do bring gifts. Some new clothes, and food. More food and drink than I usually can bring, because Theseus is with me.”

“That is good. Let us eat and toast your wedding.”

So they had an impromptu picnic in the inky depths of the Labyrinth, and Theseus was surprised by the intelligence of the Minotaur.

“You know I can sometimes hear people singing and playing music up above,” the Minotaur said as they drank wine and ate olives. “I imagine that was your wedding I heard not long ago.”

“It was,” Ariadne said. “I wish you could have been there.”

The Minotaur did not say anything, but arched an eyebrow. “Then why did you not come and fetch me?”

“You know that I cannot do that, silly.”

The Minotaur’s nostrils flared, and he snorted. Theseus knew this was dangerous territory, but this was precisely why he came.

“Why couldn’t we help him escape, my love?”

“Because he would surely kill my father.”

“I would,” the Minotaur said. “I would destroy all who had a hand in keeping me here these long years.”

“How have you stayed sane?” Theseus asked.

“I dream of my revenge,” the Minotaur said, stretching its enormous arms out, as if to show how wide its imagination ranged when it came to revenge. “I search the tunnels, hoping to find the way out of this nightmare. I think of Ariadne and my mother. I hunt rats and other vermin, so that I can eat and stay strong enough to have my revenge when I get my chance.”

“How do you know you’ll get a chance?” Theseus said.

The Minotaur looked at Theseus, as if to say, “who are we kidding?” It snorted, it’s hot breath washing over the newlyweds like a gust of wind in the Underworld. “I can’t think that way. That way lays madness. I’ve thought like that. I tried to imagine a world without this thing, this revenge. I tried to imagine a world in which I was a normal person, not trapped in this darkness, but it did not help me. I’m not normal. I’m trapped in this darkness. To state the facts does not weaken me. It does not make it true. The truth exists, even if I think otherwise. I know, I’ve tried. And that is madness. My choice is simple. I can live with the hope of revenge, or end the misery myself, somehow.”

Ariadne was quiet during this conversation, chewing on a curl of her hair. Theseus had noticed her doing it before, and he realized now that it was not because she was thinking, but because she was thinking that she did not like what she was hearing.

“Well, we have to get going, my dear brother. I’ll return again soon, and bring you more food. I thought I was coming often enough that you didn’t need anything else. I am sorry you’ve had to eat, uh . . .”

“Vermin.”

“Yes.” Ariadne leaned up and kissed the Minotaur on the cheek of its massive bull’s head. It was a tender gesture, and Theseus couldn’t be sure, but it looked like tears were forming in the black eyes of the beast. Underlying the sadness, though, was a baser emotion that Theseus knew well.

Ariadne turned to go, her hand cupped around yarn, as Theseus still held what was left of the ball of it.
Theseus held it up in front of the Minotaur’s face, and said, “you understand?”

“So that’s how she’s been doing it.”

“Yes,” Theseus whispered. “And when she left, she probably took the ball with her, wrapping the yarn as she went. But you’ve upset her, and she’s forgotten. And I will too, of course, because I’ve never done this before.”
Theseus held out the ball of yarn, and the Minotaur took it from him, his massive hands overlapping Theseus’s own. This close, Theseus realized that even if he had a spear and a shield, and the Minotaur was unarmed, he would have a hard time killing the beast. “I’ll make sure it remains tied to the door.”

And so Theseus caught up to Ariadne, who was quietly sobbing as she wound her way back to the surface of the maze, her right hand cupped around the lifegiving string. Theseus was content to follow behind her, holding the torch aloft. At the doorway to the Labyrinth, he made sure the sting was securely tied, and left it ajar.

He took Ariadne back to their chambers, where he comforted her, and made love to her, and then listened to the sounds of the night.

Continue reading…> Chthonic Monsters — Theseus Becomes King