Theseus Kills the Minotaur
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Theseus Kills the Minotaur

Theseus
Theseus and the Minotaur
Athenian black-figure vase, ca. 550 BC

According to the Greek story, Prince Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens, not too long before the Trojan War (so maybe around 1300 BC). At this time the Minoans, who lived on the island of Crete, had a very strong navy. The Minoan king, King Minos, used to send his navy to attack Greek cities, including Athens. Everyone was afraid of King Minos and his soldiers.

King Aegeus had an agreement with King Minos that if Minos would leave Athens alone, Aegeus would send seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls to Crete every nine years, to be eaten by a monster that lived on Crete, the Minotaur. The Athenians had been doing this for a long time, but of course the boys and girls who had to go be eaten and their moms and dads hated it!

a woman and a man facing each other
Ariadne and Theseus

One day it was once again time to send the children to Crete. Everyone was crying. Prince Theseus said that he was going to go with them and kill the Minotaur, to save these children and all the ones who might be sent in the future. His dad, King Aegeus, begged him not to go. Aegeus was afraid that the Minotaur would get Theseus too! But Theseus said he was, too, going to go, and he got on the boat.

The boat had a black sail, to show how sad everyone was. King Aegeus made Theseus promise to change to a white sail if he lived to come home, to announce that he had won, and Theseus promised.

When the Athenians got to Crete, King Minos and his daughter Princess Ariadne (arr-ee-AD-nee) came out of their palace to see Theseus and the other Athenian children. King Minos just said to throw them in to the Minotaur the next day, but Ariadne fell in love with Theseus (yes, just like that!) and she wanted to help him.

man standing by dead minotaur
Theseus after he kills the Minotaur
(Pompeii, ca. 79 AD)

So late that night Ariadne gave Theseus a sword and a ball of string. She told him to tie the string to the door of the Labyrinth where the Minotaur lived (a big maze) and unroll it behind him as he went so he could find his way back out, and to use the sword to kill the Minotaur. Theseus thanked Ariadne very much and promised to marry her if he escaped without being eaten by the Minotaur.

The next morning all the Athenians went into the Labyrinth. The others were afraid, but Prince Theseus tied the string to the door and went to find the Minotaur. Finally he did find the Minotaur and there was a big fight, but then Theseus killed the Minotaur with his sword and followed the string back to the door. The other Athenians were very happy to see him and to hear that he had killed the Minotaur!

Princess Ariadne opened the door and let them out, and they all ran away to their ship and sailed away: Theseus, Ariadne, and all the other Athenians.

Learn by doing: try some computer-based mazes
Theseus goes home

Bibliography and further reading about Theseus,

Monster in the Maze: The Story of the Minotaur (All Aboard Reading), by Stephanie Spinner and Susan Swan. A beginning reader book.

D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire.

At the Palaces of Knossos: A Novel, by Nikos Kazantzakis (1988). The story of Theseus retold.

The King Must Die : A Novel, by Mary Renault (1958). Not specifically for kids. There are some romantic scenes in the book, but not very explicit ones.

Heroes in Mythology: Theseus, Prometheus, Odin, by Jim Weiss. Audio tapes to listen to in the car...

Theseus and Athens, by Henry J. Walker (1995). An analysis of the Theseus myth in Athens by a specialist, for specialists.

Theseus goes home
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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