THESEUS AND ARIADNE
BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
Near the king's throne stood his daughter Ariadne.
She was a beautiful and tender-hearted maiden,
and looked at these poor doomed captives with very
different feelings from those of the iron-breasted King
Minos. She really wept, indeed, at the idea of how much
human happiness would be needlessly thrown away by
giving so many young people, in the first bloom and rose-blossom
of their lives, to be eaten up by a creature who,
no doubt, would have preferred a fat ox, or even a large
pig, to the plumpest of them. And when she beheld
the brave-spirited figure of Prince Theseus bearing himself
so calmly in his terrible peril, she grew a hundred
times more pitiful than before. As the guards were
taking him away, she flung herself at the king's feet and
besought him to set all the captives free, and especially
this one young man.
"Peace, foolish girl!" answered King Minos. "What
hast thou to do with an affair like this? It is a matter
of state policy, and therefore quite beyond thy weak
comprehension. Go water thy flowers, and think no more
of these Athenian caitiffs, whom the Minotaur shall as
certainly eat up for breakfast as I will eat a partridge
for my supper."
So saying, the king looked cruel enough to devour
Theseus and all the rest of the captives himself, had
there been no Minotaur to save him the trouble. As he
would not hear another word in their favor, the prisoners
were now led away and clapped into a dungeon,
where the jailer advised them to go to sleep as soon as
possible, because the Minotaur was in the habit of calling
for breakfast early. The seven maidens and six young
men soon sobbed themselves to slumber. But Theseus
was not like them. He felt conscious that he was wiser
and braver and stronger than his companions, and that
therefore he had the responsibility of all their lives upon
him, and must consider whether there was no way to
save them, even in this last extremity. So he kept himself
awake, and paced to and fro across the gloomy dungeon
in which they were shut up.
Just before midnight the door was softly unbarred, and
the gentle Ariadne showed herself, with a torch in her
"Are you awake, Prince Theseus?" she whispered.
"Yes," answered Theseus. "With so little time to
live, I do not choose to waste any of it in sleep."
"Then follow me," said Ariadne, "and tread softly."
What had become of the jailer and the guards Theseus
never knew. But however that might be, Ariadne opened
all the doors and led him forth from the darksome prison
into the pleasant moonlight.
"Theseus," said the maiden, "you can now get on
board your vessel and sail away for Athens."
"No," answered the young man; "I will never leave
Crete unless I can first slay the Minotaur, and save my
poor companions, and deliver Athens from this cruel
"I knew that this would be your resolution," said
Ariadne. "Come, then, with me, brave Theseus. Here
is your own sword which the guards deprived you of.
You will need it; and pray Heaven you may use it
Then she led Theseus along by the hand until they
came to a dark, shadowy grove, where the moonlight
wasted itself on the tops of the trees, without shedding
hardly so much as a glimmering beam upon their pathway.
After going a good way through this obscurity,
they reached a high marble wall, which was overgrown
with creeping plants, that made it shaggy with their
verdure. The wall seemed to have no door, nor any
windows, but rose up, lofty and massive and mysterious,
and was neither to be clambered over nor, so far as
Theseus could perceive, to be passed through. Nevertheless,
Ariadne did but press one of her soft little
fingers against a particular block of marble and, though
it looked as solid as any other part of the wall, it
yielded to her touch, disclosing an entrance just wide
enough to admit them. They crept through, and the
marble stone swung back into its place.
"We are now," said Ariadne, "in the famous labyrinth
which Dædalus built before he made himself a pair of
wings and flew away from our island like a bird. That
Dædalus was a very cunning workman, but of all his
artful contrivances this labyrinth is the most wondrous.
Were we to take but a few steps from the doorway, we
might wander about all our lifetime and never find it
again. Yet in the very center of this labyrinth is the Minotaur,
and, Theseus, you must go thither to seek him."
"But how shall I ever find him?" asked Theseus, "if
the labyrinth so bewilders me, as you say it will?"
Just as he spoke they heard a rough and very disagreeable
roar, which greatly resembled the lowing of a fierce
bull, but yet had some sort of sound like the human
voice. Theseus even fancied a rude articulation in it, as
if the creature that uttered it were trying to shape his
hoarse breath into words. It was at some distance, however,
and he really could not tell whether it sounded most
like a bull's roar or a man's harsh voice.
"That is the Minotaur's noise," whispered Ariadne,
closely grasping the hand of Theseus, and pressing one
of her own hands to her heart, which was all in a tremble.
"You must follow that sound through the windings of
the labyrinth, and, by and by, you will find him. Stay!
take the end of this silken string; I will hold the other
end; and then, if you win the victory, it will lead you
again to this spot. Farewell, brave Theseus."
So the young man took the end of the silken string in
his left hand, and his gold-hilted sword, ready drawn
from its scabbard, in the other, and trod boldly into the
inscrutable labyrinth. How this labyrinth was built is
more than I can tell you, but so cunningly contrived a
mizmaze was never seen in the world before nor since.
Theseus had not taken five steps before he lost sight of
Ariadne; and in five more his head was growing dizzy.
But he still went on, now creeping through a low arch,
now ascending a flight of steps, now in one crooked passage,
and now in another, with here a door opening
before him, and there one banging behind, until it really
seemed as if the walls spun round and whirled him along
with them. And all the while, through these hollow avenues,
now nearer, now farther off again, resounded the
cry of the Minotaur; and the sound was so fierce, so
cruel, so ugly, so like a bull's roar, and withal so like a
human voice, and yet like neither of them, that the brave
heart of Theseus grew sterner and angrier at every step;
for he felt it an insult to the moon and sky, and to our
affectionate and simple Mother Earth, that such a monster
should have the audacity to exist.
As he passed onward, the clouds gathered over the
moon, and the labyrinth grew so dusky that Theseus could
no longer discern the bewilderment through which he was
passing. He would have felt quite lost, and utterly hopeless
of ever again walking in a straight path, if every
little while he had not been conscious of a gentle twitch
at the silken cord. Then he knew that the tender-hearted
Ariadne was still holding the other end, and that she was
fearing for him, and hoping for him, and giving him just
as much of her sympathy as if she were close by his side.
But still he followed the dreadful roar of the Minotaur,
which now grew louder and louder, and finally so very
loud that Theseus fully expected to come close upon him,
at every new zigzag and wriggle of the path. And at
last, in an open space, in the very center of the labyrinth,
he did discern the hideous creature.
Sure enough, what an ugly monster it was! Only his
horned head belonged to a bull; and yet, somehow or
other, he looked like a bull all over, preposterously waddling
on his hind legs; or, if you happened to view him
in another way, he seemed wholly a man, and all the more
monstrous for being so. And there he was, the wretched
thing, with no society, no companion, no kind of a mate,
living only to do mischief, and incapable of knowing what
affection means. Theseus hated him, and shuddered at
him, and yet could not but be sensible of some sort of
pity; and all the more, the uglier and more detestable
the creature was. For he kept striding to and fro in a
solitary frenzy of rage, continually emitting a hoarse roar,
which was oddly mixed up with half-shaped words; and,
after listening awhile, Theseus understood that the Minotaur
was saying to himself how miserable he was, and
how hungry, and how he hated everybody, and how he
longed to eat up the human race alive.
Was Theseus afraid? By no means, my dear auditors.
What! a hero like Theseus afraid! Not had the Minotaur
had twenty bull heads instead of one. Bold as he was,
however, I fancy that it strengthened his valiant heart,
just at this crisis, to feel a tremulous twitch at the silken
cord, which he was still holding in his left hand. It
was as if Ariadne were giving him all her might and
courage; and, much as he already had, and little as she
had to give, it made his own seem twice as much. And
to confess the honest truth, he needed the whole; for now
the Minotaur, turning suddenly about, caught sight of
Theseus, and instantly lowered his horribly sharp horns,
exactly as a mad bull does when he means to rush against
an enemy. At the same time he belched forth a tremendous
roar, in which there was something like the
words of human language, but all disjointed and shaken
to pieces by passing through the gullet of a miserably
Theseus could only guess what the creature intended to
say, and that rather by his gestures than his words; for
the Minotaur's horns were sharper than his wits, and of
a great deal more service to him than his tongue. But
probably this was the sense of what he uttered:
"Ah, wretch of a human being! I'll stick my horns
through you, and toss you fifty feet high, and eat you
up the moment you come down."
"Come on, then, and try it!" was all that Theseus
deigned to reply; for he was far too magnanimous to
assault his enemy with insolent language.
Without more words on either side, there ensued the
most awful fight between Theseus and the Minotaur that
ever happened beneath the sun or moon. I really know
not how it might have turned out, if the monster, in his
first headlong rush against Theseus, had not missed him,
by a hair's-breadth, and broken one of his horns short
off against the stone wall. On this mishap he bellowed
so intolerably that a part of the labyrinth tumbled down,
and all the inhabitants of Crete mistook the noise for
an uncommonly heavy thunder-storm. Smarting with
the pain, he galloped around the open space in so ridiculous
a way that Theseus laughed at it long afterwards,
though not precisely at the moment. After this the two
antagonists stood valiantly up to one another, and fought
sword to horn, for a long while. At last, the Minotaur
made a run at Theseus, grazed his left side with his horn,
and flung him down; and thinking that he had stabbed
him to the heart, he cut a great caper in the air, opened
his bull mouth from ear to ear, and prepared to snap his
head off. But Theseus by this time had leaped up, and
caught the monster off his guard. Fetching a sword-stroke
at him with all his force, he hit him fair upon the
neck, and made his bull head skip six yards from his
human body, which fell down flat upon the ground.
So now the battle was ended. Immediately the moon
shone out as brightly as if all the troubles of the world,
and all the wickedness and the ugliness that infest human
life, were past and gone forever. And Theseus, as he
leaned on his sword, taking breath, felt another twitch
of the silken cord; for all through the terrible encounter
he had held it fast in his left hand. Eager to let Ariadne
know of his success, he followed the guidance of the
thread, and soon found himself at the entrance of the
"Thou hast slain the monster," cried Ariadne, clasping
"Thanks to thee, dear Ariadne," answered Theseus,
"I return victorious."
"Then," said Ariadne, "we must quickly summon thy
friends, and get them and thyself on board the vessel
before dawn. If morning finds thee here, my father will
avenge the Minotaur."
To make my story short, the poor captives were
awakened, and hardly knowing whether it was not a
joyful dream, were told of what Theseus had done, and
that they must set sail for Athens before daybreak.
Hastening down to the vessel, they all clambered on
board, except Prince Theseus, who lingered behind them,
on the strand, holding Ariadne's hand clasped in his own.
"Dear maiden," said he, "thou wilt surely go with
us. Thou art too gentle and sweet a child for such an
iron-hearted father as King Minos. He cares no more
for thee than a granite rock cares for the little flower
that grows in one of its crevices. But my father, King
Ægeus, and my dear mother, Æthra, and all the fathers
and mothers in Athens, and all the sons and daughters
too, will love and honor thee as their benefactress. Come
with us, then; for King Minos will be very angry when
he knows what thou hast done."
Now, some low-minded people, who pretend to tell
the story of Theseus and Ariadne, have the face to say
that this royal and honorable maiden did really flee away,
under cover of the night, with the young stranger whose
life she had preserved. They say, too, that Prince
Theseus (who would have died sooner than wrong the
meanest creature in the world) ungratefully deserted
Ariadne on a solitary island, where the vessel touched
on its voyage to Athens. But had the noble Theseus
heard these falsehoods, he would have served their
slanderous authors as he served the Minotaur! Here is
what Ariadne answered, when the brave Prince of Athens
besought her to accompany him:
"No, Theseus," the maiden said, pressing his hand and
then drawing back a step or two, "I cannot go with you.
My father is old, and has nobody but myself to love him.
Hard as you think his heart is, it would break to lose me.
At first King Minos will be angry; but he will soon forgive
his only child; and, by and by, he will rejoice, I
know, that no more youths and maidens must come from
Athens to be devoured by the Minotaur. I have saved
you, Theseus, as much for my father's sake as for your
own. Farewell! Heaven bless you!"
All this was so true, and so maiden-like, and was
spoken with so sweet a dignity, that Theseus would
have blushed to urge her any longer. Nothing remained
for him, therefore, but to bid Ariadne an affectionate
farewell, and go on board the vessel and set sail.
In a few moments the white foam was boiling up
before their prow, as Prince Theseus and his companions
sailed out of the harbor, with a whistling breeze behind
On the homeward voyage the fourteen youths and
damsels were in excellent spirits, as you will easily suppose.
They spent most of their time in dancing, unless
when the sidelong breeze made the deck slope too much.
In due season they came within sight of the coast of
Attica, which was their native country. But here, I
am grieved to tell you, happened a sad misfortune.
You will remember (what Theseus unfortunately forgot)
that his father, King Ægeus, had enjoined it upon
him to hoist sunshiny sails, instead of black ones, in case
he should overcome the Minotaur, and return victorious.
In the joy of their success, however, and amidst the
sports, dancing, and other merriment with which these
young folks wore away the time, they never once thought
whether their sails were black, white, or rainbow colored,
and, indeed, left it entirely to the mariners whether they
had any sails at all. Thus the vessel returned, like a
raven, with the same sable wings that had wafted her
away. But poor King Ægeus, day after day, infirm as he
was, had clambered to the summit of a cliff that overhung
the sea, and there sat watching for Prince Theseus,
homeward bound; and no sooner did he behold the fatal
blackness of the sails, than he concluded that his dear
son, whom he loved so much, and felt so proud of, had
been eaten by the Minotaur. He could not bear the
thought of living any longer; so, first flinging his crown
and scepter into the sea (useless baubles that they were to
him now!) King Ægeus, merely stooped forward, and
fell headlong over the cliff, and was drowned, poor soul,
in the waves that foamed at its base!
This was melancholy news for Prince Theseus, who,
when he stepped ashore, found himself king of all the
country, whether he would or no; and such a turn of
fortune was enough to make any young man feel very
much out of spirits. However, he sent for his dear
mother to Athens, and, by taking her advice in matters
of state, became a very excellent monarch, and was
greatly beloved by his people.