This week I’m posting the second installment in my retold story: Theseus and the Minotaur. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.
In this section, Ariadne enters as a full-fledged supporting character. She may be the most intriguing figure in the myth in that, unlike the famous romances of Paris and Helen, and Perseus and Andromeda, her relationship with the hero Theseus is curiously unfulfilled. Did she help Theseus because she loved him? If so, why didn’t she continue with him to Athens? Did he abandon her at an island along the way to get rid of her, or thinking he would protect her (as described in conflicting stories, neither of which seems true to Theseus’s character)? Or did something happen to sour their relationship? The accounts of that part of her story are strangely unclear, and good fodder for the imagination.
THAT NIGHT, a troop of slaves brought a feast on railed beds down to the beach where the Athenians had decamped. A man in officious robes preceded them to say the meal was courtesy of the king.
The prince’s countrymen sneered at first as they looked upon the many platters of foods that had been carted down from the palace. Theseus beseeched them to forsake their doubts and prejudices, to enjoy the king’s bounty. Minos had no reason to poison him. If he did, he would not enjoy the spectacle of sending Theseus to his labyrinth of death. Besides, he told them, there was no dishonor in helping themselves to what the king had provided. True, it as a false gesture of friendship designed to show off his wealth, to rub their noses in it. But never did a starving man avenge a richer enemy by starving himself.
Theseus said it in a jolly way. It had never been in his nature to play the cynic, but the dilemma he had created was peeling open layers of himself, or perhaps forcing a rapid maturation of his sensibilities. The sailors, who looked to the prince with perhaps more deference than was his due, shrugged and peeked at the meal. The truth was: they would otherwise be dining on ropes of salted meat and stale bread.
They brought the foods to their bonfire and gathered round, reaching over one another to grab at dishes of fish in sauce, roasted lamb, ears of fried breads, pickled vegetables, olives, nuts, and candied dates. There were even urns of a light red wine, which they all agreed was inferior to that of their homeland, but they drank it anyway.
The mood turned merry in the manner of bested men who could do no more than laugh about their misfortune. They joked about the pompous king, his tiresomely grand reception, and his queen who favored sharing her bed with a bull rather than her dull, bombastic husband! They even laughed about the king’s feast being a ploy to fatten up Theseus for the Minotaur’s dinner, and then they jested over which parts of Theseus the monster might prefer to devour first and which parts they might bring back to Athens (his cock and balls were the most popular guesses in both cases). Some wondered aloud if they all might be sent back to their country as charred corpses or odd and ends from a butcher’s table. Who could trust a man who hurled firebombs at fishing villages for fun?
Theseus chuckled along with his shipmates while the sand crusted cold, the night air turned crisp, and a universe of stars twinkled overhead. He would never have imagined he would feel so loose and gay the night before he was to be thrown into a pit to fight a man-bull to the death. Yet why should it not be so? He gained nothing by sulking or pacing about with worries.
In quieter, somber moments, his companions suggested strategies – dodging his opponent until it tired out, aiming his blade for the brisket, which was known to contain the bovine heart – but no man among them had ever fought such a beast. Would it charge at him on all fours or would it stand as a man in hand-to-hand combat? They could only speculate. No man who had faced the Minotaur had lived to speak of its nature, its tendencies, its weakness.
Theseus figured he would use his speed and his dexterity as he did with any martial challenge. In his brief time in Athens, he had outfought most of his contemporaries in skirmishes, and around the gymnasium, he was praised as a fine boxer and a wrestler. Though he had never seen battle. He did not know how it felt to be face-to-face with man who sought to kill him, nor how to steel his heart to strike out for death. It was said that instinct was borne in every man, that it would come to him when he needed it. Theseus surely hoped it would be so. He knew of hunting and had not hesitated to slash the neck of an arrow-struck stag, at least after the first time his father had urged him forward to do so. But that was hardly the challenge he could expect with the Minotaur.
Yes, he would need to be quick and clever and merciless, and otherwise, he imagined he would need some luck, which only the goddess could provide.
The men called out for him to challenge Kallinos, a veteran in their company and the tallest and thickest-built man among them. Theseus had spent day and night in practice bouts ever since he had declared himself to face the Minotaur. Only a fool would not. One last exercise to sharpen his skills certainly seemed advisable. The two men gathered wooden swords and walked up the beach into a pool of shadow, which might in some respect simulate the contest the prince must win in the darkened passages of King Minos’s battleground.
Theseus tried to hone his vision, hold back the bigger man’s attack, and Kallinos did not spare the prince any pity, quickly bullying him farther down the beach, forcing him to exert all of his strength. It was not enough. A series of clashes enfeebled Theseus’s wrists and had his legs wobbly from absorbing the assault. He tried to back away and lost his balance, toppling on his bottom. Kallinos pounced upon him, socking the breath from his lungs, pressing the length of his blade into his neck.
Kallinos helped him to his feet, and they sparred a second and then a third and a fourth time. The results were the same by and large. Theseus could not find a way out of a defensive posture, batting back the bigger man’s thrusts and swipes, ceding ground, wearing through his limbs’ endurance. If there was a lesson to be learned, he would have to avoid challenging the beast directly. His only chance was to use the creature’s habitat to his advantage: find hiding places, stalk the predator and ambush him. Yet how to do it when the beast knew those hiding spots much better than he?
He would need every gift the goddess could grant him.
They returned to the center of the camp, and Theseus called everyone together. He led his company in lifting their goblets of wine and spilling a bit onto the earth before they drank in tribute to wise Athena. Afterward, they tossed branches of her sacred olive tree into the fire and sang the anthem of their country with hearty voices to be heard far inland, hopefully as far as the king’s bedchamber.
The hour was late. Theseus told the men he needed sleep lest he be crawling to the labyrinth in the morning, though truly he was not tired. Each man came around to grip arms with him, look him grimly, firmly in the eye, share words of encouragement. Then Theseus went to bed himself in his captain’s tent.
HE HAD just stripped off his cuirass and shoes when he hearkened to a curious commotion around the camp. Voices travelled in a mixture of tones, some defensive, some ribald and taunting, but too indistinct to decipher the words. Theseus drew up to the flap of his tent, endeavoring to overhear what drunken intrigue had broken out.
It sounded mild and light-hearted at first. Then the voices, the heckling fell away, and he heard instead a scuffle of footsteps in the sand. Hairs stood up on his neck. Unless he was mistaken, that footfall was gaining up on his tent. It was one steady plod through the sand and then a lighter patter. Some of his sailors trying to catch him by surprise, to play a prank? Though they could see he had not yet extinguished his lamp for the night. An enemy instead?
Theseus thought about retrieving his blade from the floor, but before he could do so, he heard the voice of Padmos, first admiral in the company, just beyond the lip of his tent.
“You’ve a visitor.”
The man sounded sober. Resigned? Who would visit him? He was a stranger in a foreign country.
Theseus shook out his tunic, tried smoothing it out. The garment was gritty from his spar with Kallinos on the beach and soaked through with his sweat. There was no method to amend that. He wiped his hands, drew open the flap of the tent, and peered into the night.
He perceived the silhouette, the dutifully bowed head of the admiral. There were two others. Each one scarcely decipherable. They were shorter than the admiral and covered from head to toe in hooded cloaks.
Padmos gestured to one of the hooded strangers. “The Princess Ariadne,” he said.
Theseus was deeply astounded. He was astounded even more to see the foreign princess curtsey and to hear her lovely voice.
“May I come in, Your Grace?”
She barely waited for him to nod and make way for her. Her covered head turned to her companion, who must have been her lady escort, and she told the woman to wait for her. Then she brushed past Theseus and went into his tent. Theseus and his admiral exchanged sheepish shrugs. Certainly he could handle himself alone with a young woman.
He followed her into the tent, let the flap resettle behind him. His reckoning of the situation was several steps behind the shock of the king’s daughter abandoning the palace in the middle of the night to walk among enemies, the respect that was due to the daughter of a king who held the future of Athens in his hands. She pulled back her hood, removed her veil, and unfastened the collar of her bounteous cloak. Her thick, dark brown hair had been pulled back and braided so as to be concealed in her hood. She was fragrant with violet and some kind of appealing, musky spice. She wore just a touch of onyx on the lashes and brows of her warm, chestnut colored eyes, and a hint of some rare cosmetic that brought a sheen to her cheeks. He liked her this way more so than when he had seen her on the king’s stage.
“It must be true that Attica breeds the most brave and honorable men,” she told him.
This, another surprise from the princess. Theseus did not know what to say.
“Do not be humble on my account,” she said. She eased up closer, leaving only a narrow gap between them. “I saw how you stood up to my father. I have never seen a man be so bold.”
“I had no choice,” he told her. “Your king would have my country hand over children for slaughter.”
His pointed declaration returned no rebuke. Instead, Ariadne gazed at him with admiration.
“Yes, you are a man of valor and nobility. You must have no shortage of women vying for your companionship. Even more so when you return to Athens, a savior of the children.”
Theseus was not sure what she meant. He was only eighteen years old. Female companionship had only crossed his mind in a distant, hypothetical manner. He supposed, like all men, he would marry some day and raise sons, though it was hard to picture it for himself. The princess confused him. Her people had declared war on Athens, yet her bearing, her words were kind and adoring, almost making him forget they stood on separate sides.
The princess closed the space between them, clasped one of his hands to her bosom and groped to find him between the legs. She breathed in his ear, “Would you take me with you before you leave?”
Many things happened to Theseus at once. He gasped and squirmed from her touch, and his face broke out in a searing blush. He had no experience with women. No hand had ever touched him there besides his own, and then, well, this situation thrust upon him had not been what he had pictured in those private moments.
Though while her warm body was pressed against his, he felt like he was melting, and his worries scattered from his head. His body responded on its own volition. He cupped her breast, squeezed gently, merely because he could, and it did feel nice. Then the strangeness of it all halted him.
He quieted her hand, backed away, made her raise her eyes to his. “What did you say?”
She held his shoulders, stepped closer, jostled her hair. “Take me with you. You have captured my heart.”
He snorted absurdly and steadied her hands before she could go at him again. He told her, “That presumes quite a lot, don’t you think? I’m to face the Minotaur in the morning.”
Ariadne picked at the frayed collar of his tunic. A coy glance. “I can help you,” she said. A firmer look. “But you must promise you will take me away on your ship.”
Help was useful. That was certain. Though was this some kind of trick? A plot she was enacting for her father to hamper his performance at the contest? It occurred to him, later than it should have, the king would surely have him killed if he discovered him carrying on so intimately with his daughter.
Theseus drew a breath and backed away from her. He needed to understand.
“We’ve just met. Why would you want to run away with me?”
Ariadne’s expression shifted. Perhaps she had seen he was too smart to be plied by her advances. “Because I must,” she said. She skirted his gaze. “My father is a monster.” Her pretty eyes returned to him. “You stand for justice. You stand for those, like the children of your country, who haven’t any way to avoid their plight. I am no more than my father’s prisoner. You have doubtless heard the stories of what goes on in his palace, and you can believe they are only fragments of the truth. Help me escape from this place of madness.”
He could see her point. Her father was a cruel tyrant. Her mother was unspeakably deranged. Her half-brother was a man-beast. Yes, she had perceived he had a sympathetic heart, but he sealed himself in stone. He owed her nothing. They were from warring countries, sworn to different gods. Her misfortunes were her own.
His doubt must have shown on his face. She fixed on him again. “Take me away. If not for me, then to save your own life. You will not survive my brother’s lair on your own. No man ever has.”
This he had heard many times, though to hear it spoken by the princess, who must have seen scores of men sent to their deaths, it gave the words a crushing weight. Theseus did not want to be eaten alive by a man-beast. For a delicate moment, he thought it might be best to sit down on his bed.
Ariadne pried out his gaze. “Yes, you want to live. Let me help you. All I ask in return is my safe passage. To another land. I care not where.”
Well, what harm in listening? He swiped his face, which had begun to perspire. He nodded to her eagerly.
“The labyrinth is vast, and it is not only my brother you need to mind. The passages are riddled with many dead ends and trap doors to deeper pits where a man can fall and break his limbs, or land on a bed of nails. Many have perished in its deadly snares or simply gotten lost in its cold, dark veins, sealed forever beneath the ground at nightfall. My father sent his engineer through a secret hatch this night to make sure all of the labyrinth’s devices were oiled and armed to entrap you.”
She reached inside her cloak, brought out something fist-sized from her pocket. Theseus could not see it clearly at first in the dim light of his tent. She took his hand and placed the item in his palm. “I have brought this to help you.”
He raised his hand to his face and beheld a bobbin of string. Useful for fishing. Theseus looked back at the princess blankly.
“It is a method for minding your path, finding your way out,” she explained. Theseus blinked, following now. “Keep to the sides of the walls.” The princess added: “Mainly. There are spikes and traps on every surface of the maze, but not as many on the walls as on the floor. The Minotaur keeps to the very heart of the maze. You will find it there.” A moment’s hesitation, and then her expression hardened. “Kill it, and you will be able to retrace your way back to the entrance.”
The Minotaur, she called it. Not her brother as she had said before. Their kinship counted as a flimsy allegiance, which Theseus supposed he could not fault her for. Or had she just now forsworn their bond in resignation to her brother’s fate? She believed he could kill the monster? That was the most encouraging news he had heard all night.
“And how am I to repay you?” he asked her. “To smuggle you aboard?”
She glanced over her shoulder, came back to him. “There is a cave on the north side of the beach. Go there before you launch to sea. I will be waiting, hidden in a cedar chest. You will receive a bounty of them when you win the contest. You only have to load the chest on your boat as though it were another trove of gifts for your victory.”
A daring ploy. He wondered how she would accomplish it, but he decided he did not need to know. There was however a stark flaw in her plan.
“Your father will send his warships after me as soon as he discovers you’re gone,” he said.
“No. He will never notice.”
Theseus screwed up his face. Her gaze drifted away, and she held herself speechless for a private moment. He sensed there were grave thoughts on her mind, not merely lies to lead him into doing a foolish thing. Yes, something grave had overcome her, something that brought her shame.
At last, she asked him. “You have heard of moppets?”
He had. In stories. They were dolls, which could be inspirited by dark magic. He had never seen one, only heard of them from sailors who had travelled to the Orient. Though sailors spoke of many outlandish things.
“My father’s high priest has created one of me,” Ariadne said. “So that my father will believe I have taken ill and cannot leave my bed.” She impressed on him in her assured manner, “It is a powerful sorcery. Though the moppet is only wood and cloth, my father will believe it is me, languishing, beyond the cure of medicine.”
Theseus remembered Minos’s priest. He had certainly looked capable of sorcery, and in a house that worshipped a dark god, in which a queen had been enraptured to lie with a bull and bear a monster, well, it did not seem so hard to believe such magic could be done. Theseus was afraid for a moment to be part of it. Would the goddess damn him for consorting with such dark arts?
On the other hand, the circumstances tempted a more benevolent superstition. He had prayed to wise Athena to provide him with some way to survive the contest. And now the princess had materialized to offer him precisely that, just hours before dawn.
He looked to the bobbin of string, and then he faced Ariadne. “If I survive, I will bear you away.”
She smiled and pulled him into an embrace again, burying her head in his chest. Theseus found himself less enchanted on the second round. However just her cause, however generous she had been with him, he could not help but wonder if she might try enticing one of his countrymen in the same way. She had, after all, approached him, a stranger, and she might buy herself insurance from another man if he should not survive tomorrow.
Maybe it was unfair to despise her for that, yet he did for a moment, like a child who demands the sole attentions of his mother. And his desire for the princess was all vanity, not love nor lust, whereas a different kind of man, like many of his sailors to hear them talk, would want to horde her for her plunder.
What a strange world he had entered. Ariadne in her own way no less dangerous than her father or her brother. She could lead his crew into a mutiny, killing one another to claim her. Theseus gently broke off their embrace and sent her out into the night.