Theseus Slew the Minotaur, But Was He a Hero or a Villain?

By: Robert Lamb  | 

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A statue of Theseus slaying the half-man, half-beast Minotaur by Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova stands in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images

From slaying the Minotaur to expanding the power of Athens, the Greek mythological hero Theseus has a lot going for him. But, as "Olympians" author and artist George O'Connor explains, Theseus is a hard character to like.

"When I was a kid, when I first got into Greek mythology, Theseus was my guy," O'Connor says. "I've always liked the underdog and I felt like Theseus had to struggle and work for what he got, but then he goes on to do a couple of things that are really hard to accept."

O'Connor is a New York-based author, illustrator and cartoonist, best known for his 12-volume "Olympians" series, which takes classic renditions of various Greek myths and retells them for readers of all ages. While the series allowed him to translate his lifelong passion for myth into dynamic and relatable form, it didn't come without its challenges.

"Greek mythology deals with a lot of subject matter that we would traditionally not consider very cool for kids," O'Connor says. "But I also feel like you can't remove the teeth from Greek mythology. You do it a disservice. You might as well not be doing Greek mythology. So, in my adaptations, I have very much decided just to put the stuff out there in a very matter of fact way, without much judgment, but also without being explicit."

While the "Olympians" series rarely features blood, O'Connor says that he made an exception when it came to the telling of classic tale Theseus and the Minotaur. To unwrap why, of course, we really have to dig into the myth itself.

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Who Was Theseus?

Theseus was, first and foremost, the mythical founder-hero of Athens, tied explicitly to the ancient city. He was described in glowing terms by Athenians to champion their values and power. He is often described as the Earthly son of King Aegeus, but he is also the son of the powerful sea god Poseidon. He was raised by his mother on the island of Sphairia, but his father left sandals and a sword for the boy beneath a great boulder. When Theseus grew older, he was able to move the rock and find the items, revealing his royal destiny.

In O'Connor's telling of the tale, this is a key moment. The young Theseus is able to lift the boulder, causing him to suspect his own divine lineage, but the items hidden beneath speak only to mortal kingship. It is the beginning of a life defined by both entitlement and endless grasping.

"His whole trip from there on in is to claim as much power as possible," O'Connor says.

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Is Theseus a Hero or a Villain?

When he discovers his connection to Aegeus, Theseus travels overland to Athens, overcoming six labors in the process. While these encounters bear all the hallmarks of heroic exploits, he also goes on to commit less wholesome acts — including kidnapping Helen of Troy as a child, so that he might marry her after she matures into the beauty of legend.

But Theseus' most famous adventure comes in his journey to the island of Crete, where Greek myths describe the tyrannical rule of King Minos, who hides his son, the Poseidon-cursed man-bull known as the Minotaur, in a vast subterranean maze. Minos throws Athenean tributes — human victims — into this maze, to be slaughtered by the monster. When Theseus himself comes in the place of one of the Athenian tributes, he sets himself up on a collision course with the mythic beast-man.

Naturally, Theseus overcomes the Minotaur — but he does so not through strength and bravery, but through secret knowledge and betrayal. It all begins with his seduction of Minos' daughter Ariadne, who is also secretly the Minotar's half-sister.

"Theseus shows up and he has the bearing of a god," O'Connor says. "He's beautiful. He's super strong. He's very tall. He looks like an Olympian. He seduces Ariadne and she betrays her family, her culture and everything by giving him the famous string that he uses to get out of the labyrinth. She also sneaks him a weapon in some versions of the story. Basically, he wouldn't have managed to kill the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth without her."

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Theseus stands, reflected in the blood of the slain Minotaur, in a panel from "Poseidon: Earth Shaker" by George O'Connor.
First Second, an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

Of course, it's easy to forgive a little underhanded cunning in the defeat of a monster — but what Theseus does next is much harder to accept.

"Afterward, Theseus and Ariadne leave Minoa on a ship and he literally just forgets about her. They set shore on the island of Naxos and he just abandons her there. This woman gave up everything in her life for him, but he just forgets her and goes on! It ends up being a happy story for her, as she eventually meets Dionysus, which is really a step up in my opinion. But yeah, he's just a use-them-and-leave-them type."

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The Minotaur Gets a Bad Rap?

If this were not bad enough, many later interpretations of the myth portray the Minotaur in a far more sympathetic light. After all, his monstrous state is not the result of his own doing, but Poseidon's punishment on Minos for his unwillingness to sacrifice a special white bull. Poseidon cursed Minos' wife with a monstrous birth and the Minoan maze became the Minotaur's prison.

O'Connor says that he doubts the Minotaur's bloodthirsty nature, given that neither bulls nor humans are known for eating people — plus he drew on such inspirations as Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The House of Asterion," which retells the myth from the monster's own point of view and uses his proper name: Asterion, which means "the starry one."

"I love that story," O'Connor says. "You don't realize that it's the Minotaur at first. It takes you a while to figure it out and then Theseus comes in and kills him. There's a great line in the story from Theseus that I quote in the book. He asks, 'Can you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur barely defended himself.'"

Once more, it's hard to get behind a hero whose most famous adversary can be interpreted as a prisoner who doesn't even fight back.

O'Connor depicts the death of the Minotaur as a bloody encounter, driving home the violence of the act, and during Theseus' final embrace with Ariadne, he depicts the hero gazing away from her, eyes already on the next conquest.

But Theseus has one last move of selfishness up his sleeve. According to the myth, he was instructed to hoist a white sail as he returned to Athens, to let his father King Aegeus know his struggle against Crete had been successful and he had survived. Instead, he flies a black flag and Aegeus throws himself from the palace walls in anguish.

Guess who is king of Athens now?

"I write him as a villain," O'Connor says. "I think he's a more sinister figure than a heroic one."

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