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King Minos of Crete was a powerful man, feared by the rulers of the lands around him. When he demanded goods or men for his great armies, they felt they had to agree. When he demanded they send tributes to honour him, they sent them without question. It was the only way they could stop him going to war with them. But his demands on Athens became too much for them to bear.
King Minos had a great palace built for himself. Inside this palace, Minos had built a giant maze, a Labyrinth, and, at the centre of the maze, he kept a terrifying creature, - the Minotaur. Now this was no ordinary animal; it was a monster, half man and half bull.
It was powerful, and savage and it loved to eat the flesh of the humans who had been shut into the labyrinth by King Minos. They would wander through the maze, completely lost, until at last they came face to face with the Minotaur. Not a great way to die really.
As for Athens, Minos demanded that every year the King send him seven young men and seven young women.
"Why do we send these young people to Crete every year?" Theseus asked his father, the King of Athens. "And why is it that none of them ever return?"
"Because if we did not send them, Minos would wage war on us and it is a war that we would not win," said King Aegeus. "And they do not return because they do not go to Crete as slaves. They go as food for the Minotaur."
"Father, this is terrible," shouted Theseus, "we cannot let this go on. We cannot sacrifice any more of our young citizens to this tyrant. When it is time to send the next tribute, I will go as one of them and I vow that it is the last time the Minotaur will be fed with the flesh of any of our people."
Try as he might, his father could not persuade him to change his mind. Aegeus reminded him that every year, other young men had sworn to slay this terrible beast and they had never been seen again.
Theseus insisted that he understood the dangers but would succeed. "I will return to you, father," cried Theseus, as the ship left the harbour wall, "and you will be proud of your son."
"Then I wish you good luck, my son," cried his father, "I shall keep watch for you every day. If you are successful, take down these black sails and replace them with white ones. That way I will know you are coming home safe to me."
As the ship docked in Crete, King Minos himself came down to inspect the prisoners from Athens. He enjoyed the chance to taunt the Athenians and to humiliate them even further.
"Is this all your king has to offer this year?" he jeered. "Such puny creatures. Hardly even a snack for the mighty creature within the labyrinth. Anyway, let's get on with it. I am not a hard-hearted man, so I will let you choose which one goes first into the Minotaur's den. Who is it to be?"
Theseus stepped forward.
"I will go first. I am Theseus, Prince of Athens and I do not fear what is within the walls of your maze."
"Those are brave words for one so young and so feeble. But the Minotaur will soon have you between its horns. Guards, open the labyrinth and send him in."
Standing behind the king, listening, was his daughter, Ariadne. From the moment she set eyes on Theseus, Ariadne fell in love with him. As she listened to her father goading and taunting the young prince, she decided that she would help him. As he entered the labyrinth and the guards walked away, she called softly to him.
"Theseus, take this," she whispered. "Even if you kill the Minotaur, you will never find your way out again."
She threw him a great ball of string and he tied one end of it to the entrance. He smiled at her, turned and began to make his way into the maze, the string playing out behind him as he went.
Theseus walked carefully through the dark, foul-smelling passages of the labyrinth, expecting at any moment to come face-to-face with the creature. He did not have long to wait. Turning a corner, with his hands held out in front of him feeling his way, he suddenly touched what felt like a huge bony horn.
In an instant his world turned upside-down, quite literally. He was picked up between the Minotaur's horns and tossed high into the air. When he landed on the hard cold stone, he felt the animal's huge hooves come down on his chest. Every last breath seemed to be knocked out of him and he struggled to stay alive in the darkness.
But Theseus was no ordinary man. He was the son of the King, he was brave and he was stubborn. As the Minotaur bellowed in his ear and grabbed at him with its hairy arms, Theseus found a strength which he did not know he possessed.
He grabbed the animal's huge horns, and kept on twisting the great head from side to side. As the animal grew weak, Theseus gave one almighty tug on the head, turning it almost right around. The creature's neck snapped, it gurgled its last breath and fell to the floor with an enormous thud.
It was over, he had done it. The Minotaur was dead. All he had to do was make his way out of...and then he realised the awful truth. In the struggle, he had let go of the string, his lifeline. Theseus felt all over the floor in the pitch darkness and kept thinking he had found it, only to realise that he all he had was a long wiry hair from the Minotaur.
Despair set in and Theseus wondered if this was where his life would end, down in the dark, all alone, next to the stinking body. Then, his hand brushed a piece of string and, with a whoop of delight, he knew he had found the thread which would lead him back out. As he neared the entrance of the labyrinth, the darkness began to fade and he made out the figure of Ariadne, waiting for his return.
"You must take me back to Athens with you," she cried, "My father will kill me when he finds out that I have helped you."
"But of course you must come with us," said Theseus, "it would be cruel to leave you here." Quickly and quietly, they unfurled the great black sails of their ship and headed for home.
"I cannot believe how my life as changed," said Ariadne, as they sailed across the calm seas towards Athens. "To think that I am free of my cruel father and that I will soon be married to a great prince."
"Married?" said Theseus, "Oh, yes, that will be...er... wonderful." But in truth, Theseus did not really find her attractive.
So, when their ship docked at an island on their way home, to collect fresh water, Theseus sent Ariadne off to find bread and fruit. The moment she was gone, he set sail and left her on the island. Now, you might think that this was a bad way to reward someone who had helped him and had saved him from certain death.
The Gods clearly thought the same thing, for they had a further horror in store for him, as a punishment for his ungrateful treatment of the young girl.
In his haste to get away, Theseus forgot to change his sails to white. King Aegeus, waiting on the headland, saw the ship approaching with its black sails flying in the wind.
"My son has failed and he is dead," he cried. And in despair, he flung himself from the cliff into the raging waters below. From that day on, the sea was named in memory of Theseus' father, and to this day, it is known as the Aegean Sea.
Download the audio of the Minotaur
This is an exciting story of a duel between a monster and a man which took place in a dark underground labyrinth. It also has touch of a romance and the bitter after-taste of a betrayal. A little history about about King Minos of Crete is woven into the story. You can still see the remains of his palace today, at Knossos.
Read by Natasha.
Adapted by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
A long time ago - almost before history began - King Minos ruled the lovely island of Crete. The father of Minos was none other than Zeus, lord of all the gods, and he made sure that his son’s wealth and power only grew and grew.
Minos built a navy, and his ships sailed far and wide, bringing back goods, taxes, and something even more important than those; knowledge. For instance, when Minos wanted to build a palace that would strike awe and wonder into all who laid eyes on it, he asked his sea captain, "Of all the palaces you have seen, on all your travels over the seas, which was the most magnificent?" To which the sea captain replied, "Your Majesty, the King of Athens' Palace of Aegeus surpasses all others for its beauty and grace. It was designed by Deadalus, and the Athenians boast that he is the most brilliant architect who has ever lived."
When he heard this, King Minos ordered the sea captain to fetch Deadalus to Crete. The sea captain sailed to Athens and told King Aegeus that Minos had need of his chief architect and as Minos was the most powerful leader of those times, King Aegeus could not deny him his wish.
So Daedalus brought his knowledge and great skill to Crete and there he designed a wonderful palace for Minos. It was built on three floors, which was very high for buildings of those days, and the bathrooms and kitchens had plumbing that was far ahead of their times. Everywhere you went inside, you saw the double headed axe of King Minos which was his symbol of power. Upstairs, the walls were covered with bright pictures of dances and festivities. On them, you could see the young men and women of Crete leaping over the horns of bulls. It is a dangerous sport indeed, but the Cretans loved to show off their skill and bravery.
The happiness of Minos was almost complete – there was but one sadness in his life. His wife gave birth to a child that was strange and unnatural. Although its face was human, it walked on four feet with hooves. Horns came out of his head, and in time it grew into a terrible monster – half man, half bull. When it bellowed the whole land of Crete shook, the walls of the palace trembled, and there were storms at sea. The people gossiped about this strange child of the King, whom they called the Minotaur. Minos wanted to have it killed, but he thought the gods would be angry with him if he killed his own son. Instead, he ordered Daedalus to build a maze, known as a labyrinth, where the Minotaur could live out of sight and out of mind.
Daedalus built a Labyrinth underground that was so intricate and cunning in its design, that even he himself had trouble finding the way out.
The Minotaur agreed to live in the labyrinth, but he demanded human beings to be sent into his maze at regular intervals, otherwise he would rage with hunger, even until the walls of the palace fell down. And so Minos ordered the kings of the nearby lands to send ships full of young people to sacrifice to the Minotaur. Every ninth year it was the turn of Athens to send its human tribute to Crete. Twice, King Aegeus agreed to this – for he was still afraid of Minos and the power of his navy – but on the third occasion his son, Prince Theseus said to him, "Father, this time let me sail to Crete, and I shall kill the Minotaur and end this misery for our people."
Aegeus was very reluctant to send his beloved son to chance his life against the Minotaur, but as he could see no other way out of the terrible situation for his people, he agreed.
It was decided that the ship of Theseus would carry two sets of sails. If the mission was successful, it would return to Athens under white sails, but if Theseus was killed by the Minotaur, it would sail back under black sails. That way, the people of Athens would receive the news of the outcome all the sooner.
Prince Theseus sailed to Crete and stayed with King Minos in his magnificent palace. There, on occasion, he caught sight of Princess Ariadne - the lovely daughter of King Minos. When Ariadne saw Theseus she felt great pity for him.
"Certainly, he looks very nice," she thought, "But what a shame that his life is about to end so soon and so terribly! Even if he succeeds in killing the Minotaur, he will never find his way out of the dark and winding labyrinth."
When Theseus saw Ariadne he thought, "Surely the King’s own daughter knows some of his secrets. If only she could be persuaded to help me, I might stand a better chance of killing the Minotaur and escaping from the labyrinth with my life."
One day, when for a very short time Theseus found himself alone with Ariadne, he went down on his knees and begged her for any help that she could give him.
Ariadne promised to do what she could and that evening she asked the advice of Daedalus, for if anyone knew the way out of the maze, it would surely be its architect. Daedalus too wanted to help Theseus for they were both from the City of Athens, and so he gave Ariadne his secret plan of the labyrinth – but she was dismayed when she examined it and saw the numerous twists and turns in the underground passageways. Even with a map it would be impossible to find one’s way through such a maze.
Later on she found Theseus walking alone in the gardens and she gave him the map. When he unfurled the map and saw its complexity he said, "Oh Princess, I trust in my courage and my skill with my spear and my sword, but I doubt that I shall ever find my way out of a maze such as this." However, Ariadne had thought of a second way to help Theseus; she gave him a ball of thread, and told him to unwind it as he went through the dark labyrinth. On the way back he should gather the wool up, and follow it back to the daylight.
Theseus was pleased with the plan, and he kissed the hand of the princess, thanking her for all her help. The next day he said to King Minos, "Your Majesty, I have been honoured to be your guest for one whole week. Now I am ready to complete my mission, and meet either death or glory."
King Minos would have been happy for the foreign prince to rid him of the Minotaur, but he thought he stood little chance. He led Theseus to the entrance of the labyrinth and wished him goodbye - for he never expected to see him again. Theseus ventured into the maze, and a little way in he tied one end of the ball of thread to a beam. He went further and soon he was in complete darkness. He had to feel his way along the walls, and around the twists and turns of the labyrinth. All the while he unwound the ball of wool that Ariadne had given him. Somewhere deep inside, the bull was stamping and snorting, impatient to meet its latest sacrifice.
At last, deep within, Theseus could hear that the Minotaur was close by. He found a passageway that led to a dead end, as many of them did, but what made this one different was that there was a sudden turning just before the end. He had seen this passage on the map, and it was just the place he was looking for.
Theseus hid himself around this final twist and called out to the Minotaur. It heard him and came charging down the passage, but it could not slow down before the turning and charged straight into the wall. While it was still stunned from the impact Theseus thrust his spear into the beast’s neck and killed it, though it did not give up its life before letting out a terrible bellow.
The walls of the palace shook and trembled, and King Minos said, "Thank Zeus! It seems that Prince Theseus has rid us of the terrible monster - but he will never find his way out of the labyrinth and will surely die there."
Theseus began to gather up the ball of thread until at last he reached the exit where Ariadne was eagerly waiting for him.
"Princess, how can I thank you?" said Theseus, "For without your help I would never have found my way out of that terrible place."
Ariadne replied, "Take me back to Athens with you, and I shall be your bride."
Now these were far from the words that Theseus had been hoping to hear. For although Ariadne was extremely beautiful, he was due to marry a different princess on his return to Athens. However, he could not quite find the words to explain this to Ariadne, and so he replied in haste, "Come, we must leave right away before your father discovers the truth." Leading her by the hand, he led her down to his ship that was ready and waiting.
They set sail immediately for Athens, and in her heart Ariadne was overjoyed because she would soon marry her hero - or so she believed - but he had different plans. On the way back, they stopped at the island of Naxos to gather supplies. Ariadne walked to the end of the beach, paddling in the waves, and Theseus told the sea captain to set sail as fast as he could. Poor Ariadne was marooned on the island of Naxos abandoned by her faithless lover. She stood high up on the cliffs and watched his sail disappear over the horizon. As she shed bitter tears, Bacchus, the god of wine, heard her weeping and decided to cheer her up as best as he could. He led his procession to her; wild animals and dancing servants banging on drums and sounding trumpets. He took her crown from her head, and cast it up into the sky. It soared up to the heavens and its jewels turned into stars and formed a constellation in the shape of a crown.
As Theseus sailed away, he was laughing with the sea captain about the trick they had played. Poseidon, the god of the seas, heard them and was angry with Theseus for his betrayal of the princess - he sent a storm to toss his ship. The white sales were ripped and torn and fell into the raging seas. The ship survived the storm, but the captain was forced to repair his ship and use the second set of sails – the black ones which were meant to signal failure.
As they approached Athens, they were spotted by fishermen who raced back home to report the dreaded news.
The ship of Theseus, the hope of Athens, was returning under black sails. When this news reached the ears of the old king he ordered his chariot to take him down to the harbour to see the ship return. When he saw that it was indeed returning under black sails, he was filled with uncontrollable grief and threw himself from the top of the harbour tower and into the sea where he drowned.
And that is the story of how Theseus betrayed Ariadne who had helped him escape death in the labyrinth of the Minotaur.
Bertie says that if you ever visit the National Gallery in London, you can see a famous picture of Ariadne and Bacchus on the island of Naxos – it’s by an Italian painter called Titian.
And that was not quite the end of the tale, because there is another story about what happened to Daedalus, the architect of the famous Labyrinth. Bertie says it’s a much shorter story, but it’s a good one - with a moral to it.