Once upon a time there was a Princess called Aithra. She had one fair son named Theseus, the bravest lad in all the land. And Aithra never smiled but when she looked at him, for her husband had forgotten her, and lived far away.
Aithra used to go up to the temple of the gods, and sit there all day, looking out across the bay, over the purple peaks of the mountains to the Attic shore beyond.
When Theseus was full fifteen years old, she took him up with her to the temple, and into the thickets which grew in the temple yard. She led him to a tall plane-tree, and there she sighed and said, "Theseus, my son, go into that thicket and you will find at the plane-tree foot a great flat stone. Lift it, and bring me what lies underneath."
Then Theseus pushed his way in through the thick bushes, and searching among their roots he found a great flat stone, all overgrown with ivy and moss.
He tried to lift it, but he could not. And he tried till the sweat ran down his brow from the heat, and the tears from his eyes for shame, but all was of no avail. And at last he came back to his mother and said, "I have found the stone, but I cannot lift it, nor do I think that any man could, in all the land."
Then she sighed and said, "The day may come when you will be a stronger man than lives in all the land." And she took him by the hand and went into the temple and prayed, and came down again with Theseus to her home.
And when a full year was past, she led Theseus up again to the temple and bade him lift the stone, but he could not.
Then she sighed again and said the same words again, and went down and came again next year. But Theseus could not lift the stone then, nor the year after.
He longed to ask his mother the meaning of that stone, and what might be underneath it, but her face was so sad that he had not the heart to ask.
So he said to himself, "The day shall surely come when I will lift that stone."
And in order to grow strong he spent all his days in wrestling and boxing, and hunting the boar and the bull and the deer among rocks, till upon all the mountains there was no hunter so swift as Theseus, and all the people said, "Surely the gods are with the lad!"
When his eighteenth year was past, Aithra led him up again to the temple and said, "Theseus, lift the stone this day, or never know who you are."
And Theseus went into the thicket and stood over the stone and tugged at it, and it moved.
Then he said, "If I break my heart in my body it shall come up." And he tugged at it once more, and lifted it, and rolled it over with a shout.
When he looked beneath it, on the ground lay a sword of bronze, with a hilt of glittering gold, and beside it a pair of golden sandals.
Theseus caught them up and burst through the bushes and leapt to his mother, holding them high above his head.
But when she saw them she wept long in silence, hiding her fair face in her shawl. And Theseus stood by her and wept also, he knew not why.
When she was tired of weeping Aithra lifted up her head and laid her finger on her lips, and said, "Hide them in your cloak, Theseus, my son, and come with me where we can look down upon the sea."
They went outside the sacred wall and looked down over the bright blue sea, and Aithra said, "Do you see the land at our feet?"
And Theseus said, "Yes, this is where I was born and bred."
And she asked, "Do you see the land beyond?"
And the lad answered, "Yes, that is Attica, where the Athenian people live!"
"That is a fair land and large, Theseus, my son, and it looks towards the sunny south. There the hills are sweet with thyme, and the meadows with violet, and the nightingales sing all day in the thickets. There are twelve towns well peopled, the homes of an ancient race. What would you do, Theseus, if you were king of such a land?"
Theseus stood astonished, as he looked across the broad bright sea and saw the fair Attic shore. His heart grew great within him, and he said, "If I were king of such a land, I would rule it wisely and well, in wisdom and in might."
And Aithra smiled and said, "Take, then, the sword and the sandals and go to thy father Ægeus, King of Athens, and say to him, 'The stone is lifted!' Then show him the sword and the sandals, and take what the gods shall send."
But Theseus wept, "Shall I leave you, O my mother?"
She answered, "Weep not for me." Then she kissed Theseus and wept over him, and went into the temple, and Theseus saw her no more.
So Theseus stood there alone, with his mind full of many hopes. And first he thought of going down to the harbor and hiring a swift ship and sailing across the bay to Athens. But even that seemed too slow for him, and he longed for wings to fly across the sea and find his father.
After a while his heart began to fail him, and he sighed and said within himself, "What if my father have other sons around him, whom he loves? What if he will not receive me? He has forgotten me ever since I was born. Why should he welcome me now?"
Then he thought a long while sadly, but at last he cried aloud, "Yes, I will make him love me. I will win honor, and do such deeds that Ægeus shall be proud of me though he had fifty other sons."
"I will go by land and into the mountains, and so round to Athens. Perhaps there I may hear of brave adventures, and do something which shall win my father's love."
So Theseus went by land and away into the mountains, with his father's sword upon his thigh. And he went up into the gloomy glens, up and up, till the lowland grew blue beneath his feet, and the clouds drove damp about his head. But he went up and up, ever toiling on through bog and brake, till he came to a pile of stones.
On the stones a man was sitting wrapped in a cloak of bear-skin. When he saw Theseus, he rose, and laughed till the glens rattled.
"Who art thou, fair fly, who hast walked into the spider's web?"
Theseus walked on steadily, and made no answer, but he thought, "Is this some robber? Has an adventure come to me already?"
But the strange man laughed louder than ever and said, "Bold fly, know thou not these glens are the web from which no fly ever finds his way out again, and I am the spider who eats the flies? Come hither and let me feast upon you. It is of no use to run away, for these glens in the mountain make so cunning a web, that through it no man can find his way home."
Still Theseus came steadily on, and he asked, "And what is your name, bold spider, and where are your spider's fangs?"
The strange man laughed again. "Men call me the Club-bearer, and here is my spider's fang," and he lifted off from the stones at his side a mighty club of bronze. "With this I pound all proud flies," he said. "So give me up that gay sword of yours, and your mantle, and your golden sandals, lest I pound you and by ill-luck you die!"
But Theseus wrapped his mantle round his left arm quickly, in hard folds, and drew his sword, and rushed upon the Club-bearer, and the Club-bearer rushed on him.
Thrice he struck at Theseus and made him bend under the blows like a sapling. And thrice Theseus sprang upright after the blow, and he stabbed at the Club-bearer with his sword, but the loose folds of the bear-skin saved him.
Then Theseus grew angry and closed with him, and caught him by the throat, and they fell and rolled over together. But when Theseus rose up from the ground the Club-bearer lay still at his feet.
So Theseus took the strange man's club and his bear-skin and went upon his journey down the glens, till he came to a broad green valley, and he saw flocks and herds sleeping beneath the trees. And by the side of a pleasant fountain were nymphs and shepherds dancing, but no one piped to them as they danced.
When they saw Theseus they shrieked, and the shepherds ran off and drove away their flocks, while the nymphs dived into the fountain and vanished.
Theseus wondered and laughed, "What strange fancies have folks here, who run away from strangers, and have no music when they dance." But he was tired and dusty and thirsty, so he thought no more of them, but drank and bathed in the clear pool, and then lay down in the shade under a plane-tree, while the water sang him to sleep as it trickled down from stone to stone.
And when he woke he heard a whispering, and saw the nymphs peeping at him across the fountain from the dark mouth of a cave, where they sat on green cushions of moss. One said, "Surely he is not the Club-bearer," and another, "He looks no robber, but a fair and gentle youth."
Then Theseus smiled and called them. "Fair nymphs, I am not the Club-bearer. He sleeps among the kites and crows, but I have brought away his bear-skin and his club."
They leapt across the pool, and came to him, and called the shepherds back. And Theseus told them how he had slain the Club-bearer, and the shepherds kissed his feet and sang, "Now we shall feed our flocks in peace, and not be afraid to have music when we dance. For the cruel Club-bearer has met his match, and he will listen for our pipes no more."
Then the shepherds brought him kids' flesh and wine, and the nymphs brought him honey from the rocks.
And Theseus ate and drank with them, and they begged him to stay, but he would not.
"I have a great work to do;" he said, "I must go towards Athens."
And the shepherds said, "You must look warily about you, lest you meet the robber, called the Pine-bender. For he bends down two pine-trees and binds all travelers hand and foot between them, and when he lets the trees go their bodies are torn in sunder."
But Theseus went on swiftly, for his heart burned to meet that cruel robber. And in a pine-wood at last he met him, where the road ran between high rocks.
There the robber sat upon a stone by the wayside, with a young fir-tree for a club across his knees, and a cord laid ready by his side, and over his head, upon the fir-top, hung the bones of murdered men.
Then Theseus shouted to him, "Holla, thou valiant Pine-bender, hast thou two fir-trees left for me?"
The robber leapt to his feet and answered, pointing to the bones above his head, "My larder has grown empty lately, so I have two fir-trees ready for thee."
He rushed on Theseus, lifting his club, and Theseus rushed upon him, and they fought together till the greenwoods rang.
Then Theseus heaved up a mighty stroke and smote the Pine-bearer down upon his face, and knelt upon his back, and bound him with his own cord, and said, "As thou hast done to others, so shall it be done to thee." And he bent down two young fir-trees and bound the robber between them for all his struggling and his prayers, and as he let the trees go the robber perished, and Theseus went on, leaving him to the hawks and crows.
Clearing the land of monsters as he went, Theseus saw at last the plain of Athens before him.
And as he went up through Athens all the people ran out to see him, for his fame had gone before him, and every one knew of his mighty deeds, and they shouted, "Here comes the hero!"
But Theseus went on sadly and steadfastly, for his heart yearned after his father. He went up the holy stairs to the spot where the palace of Ægeus stood. He went straight into the hall and stood upon the threshold and looked round.
He saw his cousins sitting at the table, and loud they laughed and fast they passed the wine-cup round, but no Ægeus sat among them.
They saw Theseus and called to him, "Holla, tall stranger at the door, what is your will to-day?"
"I come to ask for hospitality."
"Then take it and welcome. You look like a hero and a bold warrior, and we like such to drink with us."
"I ask no hospitality of you; I ask it of Ægeus the King, the master of this house."
At that some growled, and some laughed and shouted, "Heyday! we are all masters here."
"Then I am master as much as the rest of you," said Theseus, and he strode past the table up the hall, and looked around for Ægeus, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The revelers looked at him and then at each other, and each whispered to the man next him, "This is a forward fellow; he ought to be thrust out at the door."
But each man's neighbor whispered in return, "His shoulders are broad; will you rise and put him out?" So they all sat still where they were.
Then Theseus called to the servants and said, "Go tell King Ægeus, your master, that Theseus is here and asks to be his guest awhile."
A servant ran and told Ægeus, where he sat in his chamber with Medeia, the dark witch-woman, watching her eye and hand.
And when Ægeus heard of Theseus he turned pale and again red, and rose from his seat trembling, while Medeia, the witch, watched him like a snake.
"What is Theseus to you?" she asked.
But he said hastily, "Do you not know who this Theseus is? The hero who has cleared the country from all monsters. I must go out and welcome him."
So Ægeus came into the hall, and when Theseus saw him his heart leapt into his mouth, and he longed to fall on his neck and welcome him. But he controlled himself and thought, "My father may not wish for me, after all. I will try him before I discover myself." And he bowed low before Ægeus and said, "I have delivered the King's realm from many monsters, therefore I am come to ask a reward of the King."
Old Ægeus looked on him and loved him, but he only sighed and said, "It is little that I can give you, noble lad, and nothing that is worthy of you."
"All I ask," said Theseus, "is to eat and drink at your table."
"That I can give you," said Ægeus, "if at least I am master in my own hall."
Then he bade them put a seat for Theseus, and set before him the best of the feast, and Theseus sat and ate so much that all the company wondered at him, but always he kept his club by his side.
But Medeia, the dark witch-maiden, was watching all the while, and she saw how the heart of Ægeus opened to Theseus, and she said to herself, "This youth will be master here, unless I hinder it."
Then she went back modestly to her chamber, while Theseus ate and drank, and all the servants whispered, "This, then, is the man who killed the monsters! How noble are his looks, and how huge his size! Ah, would he were our master's son!"
Presently Medeia came forth, decked in all her jewels and her rich Eastern robes, and looking more beautiful than the day, so that all the guests could look at nothing else. And in her right hand she held a golden cup, and in her left a flask of gold. She came up to Theseus, and spoke in a sweet and winning voice, "Hail to the hero! drink of my charmed cup, which gives rest after every toil and heals all wounds;" and as she spoke she poured sparkling wine into the cup.
Theseus looked up into her fair face and into her deep dark eyes, and as he looked he shrank and shuddered, for they were dry eyes like the eyes of a snake.
Then he rose and said, "The wine is rich, and the wine-bearer fair. Let her pledge me first herself in the cup that the wine may be sweeter."
Medeia turned pale and stammered, "Forgive me, fair hero, but I am ill and dare drink no wine."
Theseus looked again into her eyes and cried, "Thou shalt pledge me in that cup or die!"
Then Medeia shrieked and dashed the cup to the ground and fled, for there was strong poison in that wine.
And Medeia called her dragon chariot, and sprang into it, and fled aloft, away over land and sea, and no man saw her more.
Ægeus cried, "What have you done?"
But Theseus said, "I have rid the land of one enchantment, now I will rid it of one more."
And he came close to Ægeus and drew from his cloak the sword and the sandals, and said the words which his mother bade him, "The stone is lifted."
Ægeus stepped back a pace and looked at the lad till his eyes grew dim, and then he cast himself on his neck and wept, and Theseus wept, till they had no strength left to weep more.
Then Ægeus turned to all the people and cried, "Behold my son!"
But the cousins were angry and drew their swords against Theseus. Twenty against one they fought, and yet Theseus beat them all, till at last he was left alone in the palace with his new-found father.
But before nightfall all the town came up, with dances and songs, because the King had found an heir to his royal house.
So Theseus stayed with his father all the winter through, and when spring drew near, he saw all the people of Athens grow sad and silent. And he asked the reason of the silence and the sadness, but no one would answer him a word.
Then he went to his father and asked him, but Ægeus turned away his face and wept.
But when spring had come, a herald stood in the market-place and cried, "O people and King of Athens, where is your yearly tribute?" Then a great lamentation arose throughout the city.
But Theseus stood up before the herald and cried, "I am a stranger here. Tell me, then, why you come?"
"To fetch the tribute which King Ægeus promised to King Minos. Blood was shed here unjustly, and King Minos came to avenge it, and would not leave Athens till the land had promised him tribute—seven youths and seven maidens every year, who go with me in a black-sailed ship."
Then Theseus groaned inwardly and said, "I will go myself with these youths and maidens, and kill King Minos upon his royal throne."
But Ægeus shrieked and cried, "You shall not go, my son, you shall not go to die horribly, as those youths and maidens die. For Minos thrusts them into a labyrinth, and no one can escape from its winding ways, before they meet the Minotaur, the monster who feeds upon the flesh of men. There he devours them horribly, and they never see this land again."
And Theseus said, "Therefore all the more will I go with them, and slay the accursed Minotaur."
Then Ægeus clung to his knees, but Theseus would not stay, and at last he let him go, weeping bitterly, and saying only this last word, "Promise me but this, if you return in peace, though that may hardly be. Take down the black sail of the ship, for I shall watch for it all day upon the cliffs, and hoist instead a white sail, that I may know afar off that you are safe."
And Theseus promised, and went out, and to the market-place, where the herald stood and drew lots for the youths and maidens who were to sail in that sad ship.
The people stood wailing and weeping as the lot fell on this one and on that, but Theseus strode into the midst and cried, "Here is one who needs no lot. I myself will be one of the seven."
And the herald asked in wonder, "Fair youth, do you know whither you are going?"
"I know," answered Theseus boldly; "let us go down to the black-sailed ship."
So they went down to the black-sailed ship, seven maidens and seven youths, and Theseus before them all. And the people followed them, lamenting. But Theseus whispered to his companions, "Have hope, for the monster is not immortal."
Then their hearts were comforted a little, but they wept as they went on board; and the cliffs rang with the voice of their weeping.
And the ship sailed slowly on, till at last it reached the land of Crete, and Theseus stood before King Minos, and they looked each other in the face.
Minos bade take the youths and the maidens to prison, and cast them to the Minotaur one by one.
Then Theseus cried, "A boon, O Minos! Let me be thrown first to the monster. For I came hither, for that very purpose, of my own will and not by lot."
"Who art thou, thou brave youth?" asked the King.
"I am the son of Ægeus, the King of Athens, and I am come here to end the yearly tribute."
And Minos pondered a while, looking steadfastly at him, and he thought, "The lad means to atone by his own death for his father's sin;" and he answered mildly, "Go back in peace, my son. It is a pity that one so brave should die."
But Theseus said, "I have sworn that I will not go back till I have seen the monster face to face."
At that Minos frowned and said, "Then thou shalt see him."
And they led Theseus away into the prison, with the other youths and maidens.
Now Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, saw Theseus as she came out of her white stone hall, and she loved him for his courage and his beauty, and she said, "It is shameful that such a youth should die." And by night she went down to the prison and told him all her heart, and said, "Flee down to your ship at once, for I have bribed the guards before the door. Flee, you and all your friends, and go back in peace, and take me with you. For I dare not stay after you are gone. My father will kill me miserably, if he knows what I have done."
And Theseus stood silent awhile, for he was astonished and confounded by her beauty.
But at last he said, "I cannot go home in peace till I have seen and slain this Minotaur, and put an end to the terrors of my land."
"And will you kill the Minotaur? How then will you do it?" asked Ariadne in wonder.
"I know not, nor do I care, but he must be strong if he be too strong for me," said Theseus.
Then she loved him all the more and said, "But when you have killed him, how will you find your way out of the labyrinth?"
"I know not, neither do I care, but it must be a strange road if I do not find it out before I have eaten up the monster's carcass."
Then Ariadne loved him yet more, and said, "Fair youth, you are too bold, but I can help you, weak as I am. I will give you a sword, and with that perhaps you may slay the monster, and a clue of thread, and by that perhaps you may find your way out again. Only promise me that if you escape you will take me home with you."
Then Theseus laughed and said, "Am I not safe enough now?" And he hid his sword, and rolled up the clue in his hand, and then he fell down before Ariadne and kissed her hands and her feet, while she wept over him a long while. Then the Princess went away, and Theseus lay down and slept sweetly.
When evening came the guards led him away to the labyrinth. And he went down into that doleful gulf, and he turned on the left hand and on the right hand, and went up and down till his head was dizzy, but all the while he held the clue. For when he went in he fastened it to a stone and left it to unroll out of his hand as he went on, and it lasted till he met the Minotaur in a narrow chasm between black cliffs.
And when he saw the Minotaur, he stopped a while, for he had never seen so strange a monster. His body was a man's, but his head was the head of a bull, and his teeth were the teeth of a lion. When he saw Theseus, he roared and put his head down and rushed right at him.
But Theseus stepped aside nimbly, and as the monster passed by, cut him in the knee, and ere he could turn in the narrow path, he followed him, and stabbed him again and again from behind, till the monster fled, bellowing wildly.
Theseus followed him, holding the clue of thread in his left hand, and at last he came up with him, where he lay panting, and caught him by the horns, and forced his head back, and drove the keen sword through his throat.
Then Theseus turned and went back, limping and weary, feeling his way by the clue of thread, till he came to the mouth of that doleful place, and saw waiting for him—whom but Ariadne?
And he whispered, "It is done," and showed her the sword. Then she laid her finger on her lips, and led him to the prison and opened the doors, and set all the prisoners free, while the guards lay sleeping heavily, for Ariadne had drugged them with wine.
So they fled to their ship together, and leapt on board and hoisted up the sail, and the night lay dark around them, so that they escaped all safe, and Ariadne became the wife of Theseus.
But that fair Ariadne never came to Athens with her husband. Some say that, as she lay sleeping on the shore, one of the gods found her and took her up into the sky, and some say that the gods drove away Theseus, and took Ariadne from him by force. But, however that may be, in his haste or his grief, Theseus forgot to put up the white sail.
Now Ægeus his father sat on the cliffs and watched day after day, and strained his old eyes across the waters to see the ship afar. And when he saw the black sail he gave up Theseus for dead, and in his grief he fell into the sea and was drowned, and it is called the Ægean Sea to this day.
Then Theseus was King of Athens, and he guarded it and ruled it well, and many wise things he did, so that his people honored him after he was dead, for many a hundred years, as the father of their freedom and of their laws.