22 May 2009
The skies were clear all the way from New York to Geneva to Athens, and finally for the short flight southeast across the Aegean Sea to Crete. The airport at Heraklion on the northern coast of Crete lies on the coast near the harbor, and as the jet descended in the evening light I caught a glimpse of Heraklion harbor crowded with shipping.
It was a sight that might have been glimpsed at almost any time over the past four thousand years or so. Heraklion was the port of Knossos, the royal and ceremonial center of the Cretan monarch that the modern world has decided to call “King Minos”: builder of the Labyrinth; stepfather of the fearsome Minotaur; judge in the underworld; and thalassocrat or “sea-ruler” during the Bronze Age, when the power of Crete was at its height.
The foundation myth of the Athenian navy was closely tied to the harbor at Heraklion. According to the myth, the young hero Theseus voyaged to Crete in a thirty-oared galley or triakontor in a bold attempt to end the oppressive overlordship that allowed King Minos to demand a grim tribute from the Athenians. The tribute was not gold but human lives: young men and women of Athens who were sent to Crete in the little galley every few years, and then conducted from Heraklion harbor to the door of the maze-like Labyrinth. Once the Athenian youths and maidens had become lost in the winding passage ways, they fell victim one by one to the fearsome monster, half man and half bull, that lurked at the heart of the maze.
With the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, Theseus managed to thread his way through the maze, kill the monster, free the Athenian captives, and make a dash back to the harbor, Ariadne in tow, for the escape to Athens. According to one version of the myth, before he boarded the triakontor for the voyage home, Theseus punched in the hulls of the Cretan ships, so that they could not follow him.
Yet another version of the myth claimed that “Taurus” was actually the name of King Minos’ admiral, and that Theseus defeated him in fighting his way out of Heraklion harbor. The battle in the waters off Crete, dating to the Bronze Age and the century before the Trojan War, would thus rank as the first exploit, and the first victory, of the mighty Athenian navy.