Classical Mythology: A Lot of Bull

A Lot of Bull

Having rid the isthmus and its surrounding regions of all monsters and highwaymen, Theseus finally arrived at Athens. The Athenians, who traditionally wore short tunics, at first ridiculed the stranger, calling him a girl because he wore a long robe. But Theseus, not taking kindly to having his masculinity questioned, silenced his critics by hurling two oxen higher than a roof.

King Aegeus, unaware that the stranger was his son, nonetheless welcomed him as the conqueror of the Isthmian terrors. The king arranged for a lavish banquet to celebrate the triumphs of the young hero. Aegeus, adhering to rules of hospitality, asked no questions of his guest; Theseus, in turn, offered no hint of who he was.

Maternal Instinct Gone Wild

What a Life!

The enormous Marathonian bull was the same one captured by Heracles in the course of his labors (see The Labors of Heracles). After Heracles released what was then called the Cretan bull, it wandered to Marathon, a coastal plain 26 miles south of Athens, and roamed the countryside there, trampling fields and creating havoc. (This is the first occasion on which Theseus and Heracles cross paths.)

The sorceress Medea, however, who had married Aegeus shortly after Theseus was born, recognized her stepson through sorcery. Medea seethed, seeing the young hero—rightly so—as a threat to the future reign of her own son, Medus (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts). Her whispers soon made Aegeus suspicious of the stranger. (Aegeus was already wary of a possible uprising led by his rebellious brother, Pallas, who had an army of 50 sons.)

To rid himself of the stranger, Aegeus sent Theseus out to kill the Marathonian bull. Aegeus knew well the danger of the chore he had assigned this young hero. Years earlier, Aegeus had rid himself of Androgeus—an athletic champion and the son of King Minos of Crete—by asking him to perform the same task.

Bound by the laws of hospitality and his own thirst for adventure, Theseus could not refuse his host. Theseus went to Marathon, literally caught the bull by the horns, and forced it to the ground. Tying a rope around its neck, Theseus led the bull back to Athens and presented it to Aegeus to sacrifice. Aegeus was amazed at this feat of daring; Medea was enraged.


Our word marathon comes from the name of the Greek plain 26 miles south of Athens. Marathon footraces—today a standard 26 miles and 385 yards—commemorate the legendary run of a Greek soldier from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the Greek victory over Persian invaders in 490 B.C.E.

In a fury, Medea stirred deadly poison into a cup of wine and talked her husband into offering it to Theseus to toast his victory. But as Theseus reached for the cup, Aegeus suddenly recognized the sword hanging from his guest's belt. After a quick glance at the young man's sandals, Aegeus dashed the cup from Theseus's lips—and embraced him as his son.

Furious at the unmasking of this new heir to the throne, Pallas and his 50 sons openly rebelled. But Theseus, defending his own claim to the throne as well as his father's, killed many of the rebels and forced Pallas and his sons to flee the city. Medea and Medus also left Athens, banished by Aegeus for plotting to kill his son.

Birth of a Beast: The Minotaur

The happy reunion of Theseus and Aegeus did not last long. Eighteen years earlier, King Minos of Crete had attacked Athens to avenge the death of his son Androgeus. Athens, weakened by a plague, had succumbed to Minos or had averted the invasion by agreeing to pay a terrible price. Every nine years, Minos came to Athens to collect his awful payment: seven boys and seven virginal girls to be offered as food for the savage Minotaur. Now, the time came for the third tribute.

The Minotaur, a monster with a bull's head and a man's body, was the offspring of Minos's wife, Pasipha, and a handsome bull. At the beginning of Minos's reign, the king wanted to discourage any challenges to the throne by proving his divine right to rule Crete. He prayed to Poseidon to send him a sign: a bull, which he promised to sacrifice. When the beast emerged from the sea, Minos admired it so much that he substituted another for the sacrifice.

Poseidon avenged this insult by making Pasipha fall in love with the bull. The queen secretly petitioned Daedalus, a brilliant inventor, to help her consummate her love. Daedalus constructed a hollow wooden cow and covered it with cow hides. The fake cow was so convincing that it fooled the magnificent beast. Pasipha, who had hidden herself inside, conceived a monstrous child: the Minotaur.

Daedalus then designed the Labyrinth, a mazelike prison in which the Minotaur lived. No one—except Daedalus himself—had ever entered the Labyrinth and then found a way out.

No Way Out: The Maze and the Minotaur

Despite his father's protests, Theseus volunteered for the sacrifice to the Minotaur. He planned to kill the beast and thus end the tribute forever. Justifiably concerned about his son, Aegeus made Theseus promise that if he escaped death and was returning safely to Athens, he would signal his survival by replacing his ship's black sail with a white one.

On the voyage to Crete, Minos became enamored of Theseus's cousin (once removed) Periboea, the daughter of Megarian King Alcathous (a son of Pelops). Rushing to her assistance, Theseus provoked an argument with Minos in which each questioned the other's divine paternity. Minos prayed to his father (or, according to some, his grandfather) and Zeus answered with a show of thunder and lightning.

The Cretan king then tore off his signet ring, threw it into the sea, and dared Theseus to prove his paternity by retrieving it. Without hesitation, Theseus dived into the water, where dolphins led him to the home of the Nereids. The sea nymphs returned the ring to Theseus—and the sea goddess Thetis also gave him her jeweled crown, a wedding present from Aphrodite. Theseus swam back to the ship, triumphantly gave Minos his ring, and kept the crown himself.

When the shipload of Athenian sacrifices arrived in Crete, Ariadne—a daughter of Minos—became enamored with Theseus. She resolved to help him escape.

Ariadne gave Theseus a spool of thread and a sword. When Theseus entered the Labyrinth, he attached one end of the thread to the entrance. He then unraveled the ball as he explored the maze. Eventually, he found his way to the center of the maze, where he slew the Minotaur with the sword Ariadne had provided. Then he wound the thread back onto the ball, following its trail back to the entrance.

Loss and/or Abandonment

Mythed by a Mile

Not all storytellers agreed that Theseus was such a cad. Some insisted that when the Athenians stopped at Dia, the god Dionysus appeared, stole Ariadne away from Theseus, and made her his bride. Still another version suggested that Ariadne, pregnant with the hero's child, stopped to rest on Cyprus, where a storm carried Theseus and the other Athenians away. Ariadne wasted away and died from her grief.

After escaping the Labyrinth, Ariadne, Theseus, and the other 13 Athenians battled their way back to the ship. Having put holes in the hull of the Cretan ships, the Athenians set sail. On the return voyage, Theseus stopped on the island of Dia, also called Naxos. While Ariadne slept, Theseus slipped away in his ship, abandoning the girl on the desert island.

Ariadne awoke, saw the departing Athenian ships, and cursed Theseus. She called upon the gods to punish Theseus for neglecting her. Because he had forgotten his debt to Ariadne, the gods made him forget his promise to his father, too.

Neglecting to change the sails of his ship, Theseus sailed on to Athens. Aegeus, who had long been waiting for word of his son's fate, saw the black-sailed ship approaching the harbor, assumed Theseus was dead, and leaped from the cliffs to his death. The sea that claimed his body was thereafter named the Aegean Sea in his honor.

The triumphant return of Theseus was thus steeped in sorrow. His brief reunion with his father had come to a sudden and tragic end.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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