Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
(i) The Story of Theseus and the Minotaur
CHARLES KINGSLEY in "The Heroes" and Nathaniel Hawthorne in "Tanglewood Tales" have familiarised most English-speaking people with the story of the exploits of Theseus, and doubtless most folk have some acquaintance with the first volume of Plutarch's "Lives," but it will not be out of place here to recall the portions of the legend which are associated with our particular theme, the parts, that is to say, which concern the Labyrinth of Crete. In doing so we will follow the version given by Plutarch.
This Greco-Roman historian flourished in the latter half of the first century of our era. His information as to the deeds of Theseus, already for many centuries a staple ingredient in popular legendry, was drawn from the accounts of the early Greek writers Bacchylides (fifth century B.C.), Cleidemus (circ. 420-350 B.C.), Philochorus (circ. 306-260 B.C.), and others.
The Cretan exploit was perhaps the most romantic of the long series of heroic ads attributed to Theseus. Let us briefly recall it.
Aegeus, the father of Theseus, was King of Athens. At that time there reigned at Knossos, in Crete, a monarch called Minos, who held sway over what was then
the most powerful maritime state in the Mediterranean. Minos had a son named Androgeos, who, during his travels in Attica, was treacherously set upon and slain, or so his father was informed. In consequence of this Minos imposed a penalty on the Athenians in the form of a tribute to be paid once every nine years, such tribute to consist of seven youths and seven maidens, who were to be shipped to Knossos at the appointed periods.
There was at the court of Minos an exceedingly clever and renowned artificer or engineer, Daedalus by name, to whom all sorts of miraculous inventions are ascribed. This Daedalus had devised an ingenious structure, the "Labyrinth," so contrived that if anybody were placed therein he would find it practically impossible to discover the exit without a guide.
The Labyrinth was designed as a dwelling for, or at any rate was inhabited by, a hideous and cruel being called the Minotaur, a monstrous offspring of Queen Pasiphaë, wife of Minos. The Minotaur is described as being half man and half bull, or a man with a bull's head, a ferocious creature that destroyed any unfortunate human beings who might come within its power. According to report, the youths and maidens of the Athenian tribute were periodically, one by one, thrust into the Labyrinth, where, after futile wanderings in the endeavour to find an exit, they were finally caught and slain by the Minotaur.
When Theseus arrived at the court of Aegeus, having been brought up hitherto by his mother in a distant seclusion, he was distressed to find that his father's joy in the reunion was overcast by a deepening sadness. On inquiring the reason for this, he learned of the vindictive tribute laid upon the kingdom, and that the time for the third payment was approaching.
"Let me make one of the fourteen," said the valiant youth. "I will find a way to slay this Minotaur, and then there will be no further need for the tribute."
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Fig. 5. Cretan Labyrinth. (Florentine Picture Chronicle.)
After various attempts to dissuade him, Aegeus at length consented, but stipulated that if Theseus were successful in his design the tribute ship should, on its return voyage, hoist a white sail in place of the black one which it customarily bore.
In due course Theseus came to Knossos, where, shortly after his arrival, he attracted the attention of Ariadne, the fair-haired daughter of Minos. Youth and love conspired against age and rancour, and the fair damsel arranged to provide the hero with a clue of thread and a sword before he was cast into the Labyrinth. One end of this thread was to be fastened at the entrance and the rest unrolled as he advanced.
Theseus followed his instructions, met the Minotaur in its lair and, after a terrific combat, overcame and slew it, after which he retraced his steps by means of the thread and made his escape from the Labyrinth.
By some means or other he contrived to liberate the other prisoners and to obtain possession of the tribute ship. Then, with the fair Ariadne on board, they set sail for Athens.
They do not appear to have been too eager to reach their destination, however, for the party found time to celebrate their escape with dance and song on the islands en route. It is said that on the island of Delos they performed a peculiar dance called the Geranos, or "Crane Dance," in which they went through the motions of threading the Labyrinth, and that this dance was perpetuated by the natives of that island until fairly recent times.
Theseus seems to have marred his home-coming by two little displays of thoughtlessness that might be considered reprehensible in anybody but a Greek hero. In the first place, he left fair Ariadne behind on the island of Naxos; secondly, he entirely overlooked his father's request concerning the change of sail, with the result that poor old Aegeus, on the look-out for the returning ship,
saw the black sail in the distance, concluded that his son had failed in his encounter with the Minotaur, threw himself into the sea and was drowned. Hence that sea was called the Aegean, and is so called to this day.
In Fig. 5 we reproduce an early Italian drawing in which the various incidents in the story are seen simultaneously. This picture is one of a remarkable series, attributed to Baccio Baldini and known as the Florentine Picture Chronicle. The collection was for many years the property of John Ruskin, but is now jealously treasured by the British Museum. A contemporary engraving, of the school of Finiguerra, seems to be based on this picture (Fig. 6).
There are many versions of the legend, some of them greatly at variance with others. For instance, Philochorus, an eminent writer on the antiquities of Athens, gives in his "Atthis" a very rationalistic account of the affair, stating that the Labyrinth was nothing but a dungeon where Minos imprisoned the Athenian youths until such time as they were given as prizes to the victors in the sports that were held in honour of his murdered son. He held also that the monster was simply a military officer, whose brutal disposition, in conjunction with his name, Tauros, may have given rise to the Minotaur myth.
The Cretan poet Epimenides, who lived in the sixth century B.C., says that Theseus was aided in his escape from the dark Labyrinth by means of the light radiated by a crown of blazing gems and gold which Bacchus gave to Ariadne.
Aristotle, according to Plutarch, stated in a work which has not come down to us his belief that the Athenian youths were not put to death by Minos but were retained as slaves. Plutarch, moreover, deplores the abuse which Greek tradition had heaped upon the name of Minos, pointing out that Homer and Hesiod had referred to him in very honourable terms, and
that he was reputed to have laid down the principles of justice.
According to the classic faith, he was born of Zeus, the supreme God of the Greeks, and Europa, daughter of man, both marriage and birth taking place in the Dictaean Cave, not far from Knossos. He received the
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FIG. 6.—Cretan Labyrinth. (Italian Engraving; School of Finiguerra.)
laws, like another Moses, direct from God, and after administering them during his life on earth continued to do so in the underworld after his death.
The probability is, as Professor Murray has suggested, that Minos was a general name, like "Pharaoh" in Egypt, or "Caesar" in Rome, bestowed upon each of a number of Cretan kings of a certain type. A mark either of the respect in which the name was held or of the colonising power of the monarch or monarchs in
question is seen in the application of the name Minoa to several towns and villages scattered along the northern shores of the eastern Mediterranean.
The name Daedalus has likewise been thought by some to have been applied indiscriminately to various artificers and inventors of unusual ingenuity. The principal feats associated with this name are, in addition to the planning of the Labyrinth, the construction of a Choros, or dancing-place, for Ariadne, the modelling of a great hollow cow for Pasiphaë, wife of Minos, in order that she might interview the great white bull for which she had conceived an unnatural affection (the outcome being, in the words of Euripides, "A form commingled, and a monstrous birth, half man, half bull, in twofold shape combined"), and the invention of wings, wherewith Daedalus escaped from the Labyrinth when imprisoned there by Minos for his share in the Pasiphaë episode. Daedalus was also credited with the invention of the auger, the plumb-line and other tools, and of masts and sails for ships.
The Theseus-Minotaur incident has been often celebrated in ancient and mediaeval art, instances of which we shall later have occasion to mention. Modern artists, also, have not disdained the theme; a particularly fine example is the colossal marble group by Canova (1819), now at the Museum of Art History at Vienna, formerly in the Theseus Temple in the Volksgarten.
The question naturally arises: Was there actually such a thing as the Labyrinth, and, if so, where was it and what was its nature?