The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur: Lessons from the Ancient Greeks

The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the most tragic and fascinating myths of the Greek Mythology. Theseus, a Greek hero and the Minotaur, one of the most devastating and terrifying monsters face off in a myth that involves gods and monsters, heroes and kings and two of the main city–states in the ancient Greek world: Athens and Crete. There are many versions of the story however the underlying theme of the myth is the same in every version.

Son of King Minos of Crete, Androgeus, went to Athens, however he was accidently killed. Minos was infuriated, and demanded that Aegeus the king of Athens send seven men and women every year to the Minotaur which lived in a labyrinth in his kingdom to advert the war he would bring down on Athens.

Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete, in order to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster. King Aegeus tried to make him change his mind but Theseus was determined to slay the Minotaur. Theseus promised his father that he would put up white sails when coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.

Theseus announced to King Minos that he was going to kill the Monster, but Minos knew that even if he did manage to kill the Minotaur, he would never be able to escape the Labyrinth. Theseus then met Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who fell in love and decided to help him. She gave him a thread and told him to unravel it as he went deeper and deeper into the Labyrinth, so that he would know the way out after he killed the monster.

Theseus followed her suggestion and entered the labyrinth with the thread. Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur and save the Athenians, and with Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out.

Theseus took Princess Ariadne with him and left Crete sailing happily back to Athens with the other would be sacrifices. His boat stopped on an island and by accident or fate Princess Ariadne was left behind. Theseus figured out that Ariadne was not with them when it was too late and he was so upset that he forgot the promise made to his father and did not change the sails from black to white.

King Aegeus was waiting at Cape Sounion to see the sails of the boat. He saw the black sails from afar and presumed his son was dead. He threw himself to the waters, committing suicide and was dead before he could know his son had in fact returned safe.

The ancient Greeks used myths and stories much as we do today, to teach a lesson or moral in an interesting and entertaining way. So what is the moral of this particular myth? There is a two-fold lesson here, Theseus was upset by the loss of his Princess and forgot to change the colour of his sails. A minor offence and easily forgivable given his situation however the consequence of missing this small detail was the loss of his loving father. No matter your circumstances or the distractions that could pull your attention elsewhere, the details still matter. The smallest of details can make a large difference to the outcome, for yourself or for someone else, be it your family member, your friend or perhaps a client of your business.

The second lesson to this myth is King Aegeus jumping to his death before learning of his son’s safe return. Seeing the black sails on the ship he didn’t wait to have the news confirmed, didn’t wait to hear all of the details, he simply made his own conclusion and killed himself. Acting without all of the facts often results in mistakes being made and while the consequences in your own life may not be as dire as the story, not waiting to have a full picture before acting can result in a loss of time and effort that could have been better spent, or perhaps without waiting for all the facts you punish a child who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The lessons may be old, ancient even, but still just as applicable to modern life as they were to the Greeks who originally told the stories.