t. To resume the history of Theseus: from Naxos he sailed to Delos, and there sacrificed to Apollo, celebrating athletic games in his honour. It was then that he introduced the novel custom of crowning the victor with palm-leaves, and placing a palm-stem in his right hand. He also prudently dedicated to the god a small wooden image of Aphrodite, the work of Daedalus, which Ariadne had brought from Crete and left aboard his ship – it might have been the subject of cynical comment by the Athenians. This image, still displayed at Delos, rests on a square base instead of feet, and is perpetually garlanded.23
u. A horned altar stands beside the round lake of Delos. Apollo himself built it, when he was only four years of age, with the closely compacted horns of countless she-goats killed by Artemis on Mount Cynthus – his first architectural feat. The foundations of the altar, and its enclosing walls, are also made entirely of horns; all taken from the same side of the victims – but whether from the left, or from the right, is disputed.24 What makes the work rank among the seven marvels of the world is that neither mortar nor any other colligative has been used. It was around this altar – or, according to another version, around an altar of Aphrodite, on which the Daedalic image had been set – that Theseus and his companions danced the Crane, which consists of labyrinthine evolutions, trod with measured steps to the accompaniment of harps. The Delians still perform this dance, which Theseus introduced from Cnossus; Daedalus had built Ariadne a dancing floor there, marked with a maze pattern in white marble relief, copied from the Egyptian Labyrinth. When Theseus and his companions performed the Crane at Cnossus, this was the first occasion on which men and women danced together. Old-fashioned people, especially sailors, keep up much the same dance in many different cities of Greece and Asia Minor; so do children in the Italian countryside, and it is the foundation of the Troy Games.25
v. Ariadne was soon revenged on Theseus. Whether in grief for her loss, or in joy at the sight of the Attic coast, from which he had been kept by prolonged winds, he forgot his promise to hoist the white sail.26 Aegeus, who stood watching for him on the Acropolis, where the Temple of the Wingless Victory now stands, sighted the black sail, swooned, and fell headlong to his death into the valley below. But some say that he deliberately cast himself into the sea, which was thenceforth named the Aegean.27
w. Theseus was not informed of this sorrowful accident until he had completed the sacrifices vowed to the gods for his safe return; he then buried Aegeus, and honoured him with a hero-shrine. On the eighth day of Pyanepsion [October], the date of the return from Crete, loyal Athenians flock down to the seashore, with cooking-pots in which they stew different kinds of beans – to remind their children how Theseus, having been obliged to place his crew on very short rations, cooked all his remaining provisions in one pot as soon as he landed, and filled their empty bellies at last. At this same festival a thanksgiving is sung for the end of hunger, and an olive-branch, wreathed in white wool and hung with the season’s fruits, is carried to commemorate the one which Theseus dedicated before setting out. Since this was harvest time, Theseus also instituted the Festival of Grape Boughs, either in gratitude to Athene and Dionysus, both of whom appeared to him on Naxos, or in honour of Dionysus and Ariadne. The two bough-bearers represent the youths whom Theseus had taken to Crete disguised as maidens, and who walked beside him in the triumphal procession after his return. Fourteen women carry provisions and take part in this sacrifice; they represent the mothers of the rescued victims, and their task is to tell fables and ancient myths, as these mothers also did before the ship sailed.28
x. Theseus dedicated a temple to Saviour Artemis in the market place at Troezen; and his fellow-citizens honoured him with a sanctuary while he was still alive. Such families as had been liable to the Cretan tribute undertook to supply the needful sacrifices; and Theseus awarded his priesthood to the Phytalids, in gratitude for their hospitality. The vessel in which he sailed to Crete has made an annual voyage to Delos and back ever since; but has been so frequently overhauled and refitted that philosophers cite it as a stock instance, when discussing the problem of continuous identity.29
1. Apollodorus: Epitome i. 5; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid viii. 294; First Vatican Mythographer: 47; Pausanias: i. 27. 9; Plutarch: Theseus 14; Hesychius sub Bolynthos.
2. Plutarch: loc. cit.; Callimachus: Fragment 40, ed. Bentley; Ovid: Remedies of Love 747.
3. Diodorus Siculus: iv. 61; Hyginus: Fabula 41; Apollodorus: iii. 1. 4; Pausanias. ii. 31. 1.
4. Plutarch: Theseus 17; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 7; Scholiast on Homer’s Iliad xviii. 590; Diodorus Siculus: loc cit.; Hellanicus, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 19.
5. Plutarch: loc. cit.; Simonides, quoted by Plutarch: loc. cit.
6. Plutarch: Theseus 18; Demon’s History, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 23.
7. Philochorus, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 17; Simonides, quoted by Plutarch: loc. cit.; Pausanias: i. 1. 2.
9. Plutrach: loc cit.; Scholiast on Aristophanes’s Knights 725.
10. Pausanias: i. 42. 1; Hyginus: Poetic Astronomy ii. 5; Plutarch: Theseus 29.
11. Pausanias: i. 17. 3; Hyginus: loc. cit.
12. Plutarch: Theseus 29; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 8.
13. Scholiast on Homer’s Odyssey xi. 322, quoted by Pherecydes; Homer: Iliad xviii. 590; Eustathius on Homer’s Odyssey xi. 320; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 9; Ovid: Heroides iv. 115; Pausanias: iii. 18. 7.
14. Pausanias: ii. 31. 1; Pherecydes, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 19; Demon, quoted by Plutarch: loc cit.
15. Scholiast on Theocritus’s Idylls ii. 45; Diodorus Siculus: iv. 61. 5; Catullus: lxiv. 50 ff.; Plutarch: Theseus 29; Hyginus: Fabula 43.
16. Pausanias: x. 29. 2; Diodorus Siculus. v. 51. 4; Scholiast on Theocritus: loc.cit.
17. Pausanias: i. 20.2; Catullus: lxiv. 50 ff.; Hyginus: Poetic Astronomy ii. 5.
18. Plutarch: Theseus 20; Bacchylides: xvi. 116.
19. Plutarch: Romulus and Theseus Compared; Philochorus, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 15; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid vi. 14; Philochorus, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 19.
21. Cleidemus, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 19.
22. Hesychius sub Aridela; Paeonius, quoted by Plutarch: Theseus 21; Contest of Homer and Hesiod 14.
23. Plutarch: loc. cit.; Pausanias: viii. 48.2 and ix. 40.2; Callimachus: Hymn to Delos 312.
24. Callimachus: Hymn to Apollo 60 ff.; Plutarch: loc. cit. and Which Animals Are the Craftier? 35.
25. Plutarch: Theseus 21; Callimachus: Hymn to Delos 312 ff.; Homer: Iliad xviii. 591–2; Pausanias: ix. 40. 2; Pliny: Natural History xxxvi. 19; Scholiast on Homer’s Iliad xviii. 590; Eustathius on Homer’s Iliad p. 1166; Virgil: Aeneid v. 588 ff.
26. Catullus: lxiv. 50 ff.; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 10; Plutarch: Theseus 22.
27. Catullus: loc. cit.; Pausanias: i. 22. 4–5; Plutarch: loc. cit. and Romulus and Theseus Compared; Hyginus: Fabula 43.
28. Pausanias: i. 22. 5; Plutarch: Theseus 22 and 23; Proclus: Chrestomathy, quoted by Photius: 989.
29. Pausanias: iii. 31. 1; Plutarch: loc cit.
1. Greece was Cretanized towards the close of the eighteenth century B.C., probably by an Hellenic aristocracy which had seized power in Crete a generation or two earlier and there initiated a new culture. The straightforward account of Theseus’s raid on Cnossus, quoted by Plutarch from Cleidemus, makes reasonable sense. It describes a revolt by the Athenians against a Cretan overlord who had taken hostages for their good behaviour; the secret building of a flotilla; the sack of the unwalled city of Cnossus during the absence of the main Cretan fleet in Sicily; and a subsequent peace treaty ratified by the Athenian king’s marriage with Ariadne, the Cretan heiress. These events, which point to about the year 1400 B.C., are paralleled by the mythical account: a tribute of youths and maidens is demanded from Athens in requital for the murder of a Creta
n prince. Theseus, by craftily killing the Bull of Minos, or defeating Minos’s leading commander in a wrestling match, relieves Athens of this tribute; marries Ariadne, the royal heiress; and makes peace with Minos himself.
2. Theseus’s killing of the bull-headed Asterius, called the Minotaur, or ‘Bull of Minos’; his wrestling match with Taurus (‘bull’); and his capture of the Cretan bull, are all versions of the same event. Bolynthos, which gave its name to Attic Probalinthus, was the Cretan name for ‘wild bull’. ‘Minos’ was the title of a Cnossian dynasty, which had a sky-bull for its emblem – ‘Asterius’ could mean ‘of the sun’ or ‘of the sky’ – and it was in bull-form that the king seems to have coupled ritually with the Chief-priestess as Moon-cow (see 88. 7). One element in the formation of the Labyrinth myth may have been that the palace at Cnossus –the house of the labrys, or double-axe – was a complex of rooms and corridors, and that the Athenian raiders had difficulty in finding and killing the king when they captured it. But this is not all. An open space in front of the palace was occupied by a dance floor with a maze pattern used to guide performers of an erotic spring dance (see 92. 4). The origin of this pattern, now also called a labyrinth, seems to have been the traditional brushwood maze used to decoy partridges towards one of their own cocks, caged in a central enclosure, which uttered food-calls, love-calls, and challenges; and the spring dancers will have imitated the ecstatic hobbling love-dance of the cock-partridges (see 92. 2), whose fate was to be knocked on the head by the hunter (Ecclesiasticus xi. 30).
3. An Etruscan wine-jar from Tragliatella (see 104. 4), showing two mounted heroes, explains the religious theory of the partridge-dance. The leader carries a shield with a partridge device and a death-demon perches behind him; the other hero carries a lance, and a shield with a duck device. To their rear is a maze of a pattern found not only on certain Cnossian coins, but in the British turf-cut mazes trodden by schoolchildren at Easter until the nineteenth century. Love-jealousy lured the king to his death, the iconographer is explaining, like a partridge in the brushwood maze, and he was succeeded by his tanist. Only the exceptional hero – a Daedalus, or a Theseus – returned alive; and in this context the recent discovery near Bosinney in Cornwall of a Cretan maze cut on a rock-face is of great importance. The ravine where the maze was first noticed by Dr Renton Green is one of the last haunts of the Cornish chough; and this bird houses the soul of King Arthur – who harrowed Hell, and with whom Bosinney is closely associated in legend. A maze dance seems to have been brought to Britain from the eastern Mediterranean by neolithic agriculturists of the third millennium B.C., since rough stone mazes, similar to the British turf-cut ones, occur in the ‘Beaker B’ area of Scandinavia and North-eastern Russia; and ecclesiastic mazes, once used for penitential purposes, are found in South-eastern Europe. English turf-mazes are usually known as ‘Troy-town’, and so are the Welsh: Caer-droia. The Romans probably named them after their own Troy Game, a labyrinthine dance performed by young aristocrats in honour of Augustus’s ancestor Aeneas the Trojan; though, according to Pliny, it was also danced by children in the Italian countryside.
4. At Cnossus the sky-bull cult succeeded the partridge cult, and the circling of the dancers came to represent the annual courses of the heavenly bodies. If, therefore, seven youths and maidens took part, they may have represented the seven Titans and Titanesses of the sun, moon, and five planets (see 1. 3 and 43. 4); although no definite evidence of the Titan cult has been found in Cretan works of art. It appears that the ancient Crane Dance of Delos – cranes, too, perform a love dance – was similarly adapted to a maze pattern. In some mazes the dancers held a cord, which helped them to keep their proper distance and execute the pattern faultlessly; and this may have given rise to the story of the ball of twine (A. B. Cook: Journal of Hellenic Studies xiv. 101 ff., 1949); at Athens, as on Mount Sipylus, the rope dance was called cordax (Aristophanes: Clouds 540). The spectacle in the Cretan bull ring consisted of an acrobatic display by young men and girls who in turn seized the horns of the charging bull and turned back-somersaults between them over his shoulders. This was evidently a religious rite: perhaps here also the performers represented planets. It cannot have been nearly so dangerous a sport as most writers on the subject suggest, to judge from the rarity of casualties among banderilleros in the Spanish bull ring; and a Cretan fresco shows that a companion was at hand to catch the somersaulter as he or she came to earth.
5. ‘Ariadne’, which the Greeks understood as ‘Ariagne’ (‘very holy’), will have been a title of the Moon-goddess honoured in the dance, and in the bull ring: ‘the high, fruitful Barley-mother’, also called Aridela, ‘the very manifest one’. The carrying of fruit-laden boughs in Ariadne’s honour, and Dionysus’s, and her suicide by hanging, ‘because she feared Artemis’, suggests that Ariadne-dolls were attached to these boughs (see 79. 2). A bell-shaped Boeotian goddess-doll hung in the Louvre, her legs dangling, is Ariadne, or Erigone, or Hanged Artemis; and bronze dolls with detachable limbs have been found in Daedalus’s Sardinia. Ariadne’s crown made by Hephaestus in the form of a rose-wreath is not a fancy; delicate gold wreaths with gemmed flowers were found in the Mochlos hoard.
6. Theseus’s marriage to the Moon-priestess made him lord of Cnossus, and on one Cnossian coin a new moon is set in the centre of a maze. Matrilinear custom, however, deprived an heiress of all claims to her lands if she accompanied a husband overseas; and this explains why Theseus did not bring Ariadne back to Athens, or any farther than Dia, a Cretan island within sight of Cnossus. Cretan Dionysus, represented as a bull – Minos, in fact – was Ariadne’s rightful husband; and wine, a Cretan manufacture, will have been served at her orgies. This might account for Dionysus’s indignation, reported by Homer, that she and the intruder Theseus had lain together.
7. Many ancient Athenian customs of the Mycenaean period are explained by Plutarch and others in terms of Theseus’s visit to Crete: for instance, the ritual prostitution of girls, and ritual sodomy (characteristic of Anatha’s worship at Jerusalem (see 61. 1), and the Syrian Goddess’s at Hierapolis), which survived vestigially among the Athenians in the propitiation of Apollo with a gift of maidens, and in the carrying of harvest branches by two male inverts. The fruit-laden bough recalls the lulab carried at the Jerusalem New Year Feast of Tabernacles, also celebrated in the early autumn. Tabernacles was a vintage festival, and corresponded with the Athenian Oschophoria, or ‘carrying of grape clusters’; the principal interest of which lay in a foot race (Proclus: Chrestomathia 28). Originally, the winner became the new sacred king, as at Olympia, and received a fivefold mixture of ‘oil, wine, honey, chopped cheese, and meal’ – the divine nectar and ambrosia of the gods. Plutarch associates Theseus, the new king, with this festival, by saying that he arrived accidentally while it was in progress, and exculpates him from any part in the death of his predecessor Aegeus. But the new king really wrestled against the old king and flung him, as a pharmacos, from the White Rock into the sea (see 96. 3). In the illustrative icon which the mythographer has evidently misread, Theseus’s black-sailed ship must have been a boat standing by to rescue the pharmacos; it has dark sails, because Mediterranean fishermen usually tan their nets and canvas to prevent the salt water from rotting them. The kerm-berry, or cochineal, provided a scarlet dye to stain the sacred king’s face, and was therefore associated with royalty. ‘Hecalene’, the needy old spinster, is probably a worn-down form of ‘Hecate Selene’, ‘the far-shooting moon’, which means Artemis.
8. Bean-eating by men seems to have been prohibited in pre-Hellenic times – the Pythagoreans continued to abstain from beans, on the ground that their ancestors’ souls could well be resident in them and that, if a man (as opposed to a woman) ate a bean, he might be robbing an ancestor of his or her chance to be reborn. The popular bean-feast therefore suggests a deliberate Hellenic flouting of the goddess who imposed the taboo; so does Theseus’s gift of a male priesthood to the Phytalids (‘growers’), the feminine form of
whose name is a reminder that fig-culture, like bean-planting, was at first a mystery confined to women (see 24. 13).
9. The Cypriots worshipped Ariadne as the ‘Birth-goddess of Amathus’, a title belonging to Aphrodite. Her autumn festival celebrated the birth of the New Year; and the young man who sympathetically imitated her pangs will have been her royal lover, Dionysus. This custom, known as couvade, is found in many parts of Europe, including some districts of East Anglia.
10. Apollo’s horn temple on Delos has recently been excavated. The altar and its foundations are gone, and bull has succeeded goat as the ritual animal in the stone decorations – if it indeed ever was a goat; a Minoan seal shows the goddess standing on an altar made entirely of bulls’ horns.
11. Micon’s allegorical mural of Thetis presenting a crown and ring to Theseus, while Minos glowers in anger on the shore, will have depicted the passing of the thalassocracy from Cretan to Athenian hands. But it may be that Minos had symbolically married the Sea-goddess by throwing a ring into the sea, as the Doges of Venice did in the middle ages.