Theseus

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Theseus was a hero from Greek mythology and a legendary king of Athens.

Birth

(CC) Photo: Marshall Astor
Theseus and the Minotaur. Bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye.

There were two versions concerning the identity of the father of Theseus: one makes him son of the Athenian king Aegeus, while another presents him as the child of the god Poseidon. In both cases his mother is the princess Aethra.

According to the myth, king Aegeus had unsuccessfully tried to have children, so he decided to consult the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to find an answer to his problem. The oracle, known for its enigmatic answers, advised him not to "loosen the wineskin's jutting foot" before he arrived at Athens. This wasn’t a warning against alcohol, but against sex. Ignoring the true meaning of the words, Aegeus visited Pittheus, king of Troizen, who laid him with his daughter Aethra. It was also said that on the same night Aethra had sexual intercourse with Aegeus, she traveled to an island to offer a sacrifice, where she was raped by Poseidon and became pregnant with his child.

When Aegeus learn that Aethra was pregnant with his child, he decided to hide a sword and a pair of sandals underneath a rock. Secretly, he instructed Aethra that if she gave birth to a boy, she should tell him, when he was strong enough, to lift the rock and recover the hidden items. Aethra should then send him to Athens with the tokens and there Aegeus would acknowledge him as his son and heir.

Theseus was born and raised in Troizen and had as tutor a man named Connidas, to whom the Athenians used to sacrifice a ram the day before the feast of Theseus was held. As a teenager, Theseus followed the tradition of traveling to Delphi to offer his hair to the god. However, he clipped only the fore part of his head, imitating the Abantes, a fierce people mentioned by Homer in the Iliad.

Journey to Athens and labors

When Theseus reached the age of sixteen, his mother decided to reveal the identity of his father and took him where the rock was, which he easily lifted, recovering the sword and the sandals. It was now time for him to travel to Athens, a journey Aegeus had advice he should take in secrecy because he feared that the Pallantides, his fifty nephews, might harm him before he arrived at Athens. Although his mother and grandfather begged him to take the safer sea route to Athens he decided to travel by the Peloponnesus, which was at that time infested with murderers and robbers.

The first bandit beaten by Theseus was Periphetes, who killed his victims with a club at the site of Epidaurus (for this reason he was also known as Corynetes, “Club-bearer”). Theseus liked Periphetes’ club and decided to keep it as his weapon. On the Isthmus of Peloponnesus, Theseus killed Sinnis, also known as the Bender of Pines. Sinnis captured travellers and tied them by their wrists to two pines bent to the ground. He would then let the trees go, tearing the victims apart. Theseus gave to Periphetes the same treatment he gave to his victims.

Next came the Crommyonian sow, a wild beast responsible for the death of many people. The animal, which Theseus killed using his sword, was also known as Phaea, after the name of the old woman who bred her.

Near Megara Theseus killed Sciron, a robber who convinced people to wash his feet. While people were performing this task for him, he kicked them off the cliffs that stood behind them, making them fall into the sea where they were eaten by a giant turtle.

The last villain destroyed by Theseus operated at Erineus and was named Damastes, but nicknamed Procrustes (“he who stretches”). He offered a special bed to travellers, which came with a sadistic twist: when people were lying on it, Procrustes stretched them or chopped their legs, so that they might fit exactly into the bed.

After these adventures, Theseus met near the river Cephisus men from the race of the Phytalidae, who purified him of all killings he had committed.

When Theseus arrived at Athens, he found the city living days of political turmoil. He decided not to reveal his true identity and was welcomed as a hero who had freed the highways from evildoers. His father, King Aegeus, was now living with the Colchian sorceress Medea, who had fled Corinth and promised to cure Aegeus of his sterility problems using her powers. Medea recognized Theseus with the help of her magic and persuaded Aegeus that the popular stranger had to be poisoned, otherwise he might take power in the city. By acting this way, Medea was in fact concerned to the threat that Theseus represented to the chances of her son Medeus succeeding Aegeus as ruler of Athens. Her plan to kill Theseus was put in action during a banquet offered by Aegeus to the stranger. When Theseus drew his sword to cut the meat that was on the table, Aegeus recognized the sword and quickly threw down the cup of wine with poison and acknowledged him as his son. Medea was banished from Athens and returned to Colchis with her son.

According to another version, Medea tried to kill Theseus by asking him to capture the Marathonian Bull. This was said to be the same bull that Heracles had capture in Crete and taken to the Peloponnesus, where the beast was ravaging the countryside. Theseus was again successful and sacrificed the bull to Apollo Delphinus. The day before Theseus killed the bull, he spent the night in the hut of an old lady named Hecale, who received him with great hospitality. Hecale vowed to offer a sacrifice to the god Zeus if Theseus returned in safety from his adventure. However, when Theseus arrived, Hecale had died. In her honour Theseus founded the cult of Zeus Hecaleius.

Minotaur

(CC) Photo: Emi Yañez
Theseus and Ariadne.
PD Image
Theseus killing the Minotaur. Detail from a kylix (drinking-cup) painted by Aison. National Archaeological Museum of Spain

Perhaps the most famous adventure of Theseus is the killing of the Minotaur, an act that ended the submission of the Athenians to a cruel tribute. During the celebration of games sponsored by Aegeus, the Athenians killed Androgeus, son of King Minos from Crete. To avenge the death of his son, Minos launched a war against Athens, which eventually ended with an agreement: every nine years the city had to send to Crete seven boys and seven girls to be locked in a maze, called the Labyrinth, where they were devoured by the Minotaur. Described as a half-man, half-bull creature, the Minotaur was son of Queen Pasiphae, Mino’s wife. When the time came to pay the tribute for a third time, discontent arose among the Athenians because Aegeus was exempted from the tribute. Theseus, aware of the criticism, decided to partake the sufferings of his fellow citizens and volunteered to be one of the fourteen sent to Crete.

One version of the myth says that Minos had gone in person to Athens to choose the captives and that during the voyage to Crete made advances to Periboea, one of captive girls. Theseus protected her, claiming that this was his duty as son of Poseidon. Minos, who was said to be the son of Zeus, decided to test his claim by throwing his ring to the ocean and asking him to bring it back. Theseus immediately dived and was welcomed by Poseidon on his underwater palace, who gave him the ring.

When the ship arrived at Crete, one of the daughters of King Minos, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus. She gave him a sword and a ball of string to find his way back through the maze. After Theseus slew the Minotaur, he sailed back to Athens, bringing the youths and Ariadne. Before the departure, he made sure the Cretans couldn’t pursue them by opening holes in the bottom of their ships.

Theseus's ship had left Athens with a black sail - because the expedition was sinister in nature - promising to change it to a white sail if they returned in safety. However, when the ship was approaching the coast of Attica, Theseus and the pilot forgot to change it. In despair, Aegeus threw himself into the sea. Tradition cited this episode to explain the origins of the name Aegean Sea.

After the death of his father, Theseus became the new king of Athens. His first measure was to create a state that resulted from the unification of the independent communities of Attica under the leadership of Athens. He instituted the festivals of the Panathenaea, Oschophoria and Metoecia and divided the Athenians into three ranks: noblemen, husbandmen and artificers. The famous coin of Athens, stamped with the effigy of an ox, was said to have been struck by him. After annexing Megara to Athens, he set up a pillar on the Isthmus, which served as a boundary between the country of the Dorians and the country of the Ionians. Finally, Theseus was also credited with the creation of Isthmian games, which honoured Poseidon.

War with the Amazons

Once established as the king of Athens, Theseus continued with his adventures and went on an expedition against the Amazons, a tribe of woman warriors. According to some versions, Theseus went on the expedition of Heracles and received one of the Amazons, Antiope, as a reward for the bravery he displayed; other accounts state that Theseus went on his own and abducted Antiope, after she came aboard his ship. Whatever the case, the Amazons invaded Attica and camped in Athens, holding the Pnyx and the Museum. The Athenians and the Amazons fought a battle near the Acropolis that resulted in a victory of the Amazons. It was however a week victory and both parties signed a peace treaty. Their queen, Hippolyta, married Theseus and gave him a son, Hyppolytus. After her death, Theseus married Phaedra, a sister of Ariadne, who developed a passion for her stepson that led them both to death. The legendary battle between the Athenians and the Amazons became a theme of Greek art, known as the [Amazonomachy]).

Theseus and Pirithous

(CC) Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen
A centaur tries to kidnap Hippodamia during her wedding to Pirithous. Detail from an Apulian red-figure calyx-krater, ca. 350-340 BC., British Museum

The final adventures of Theseus are the result of his friendship with Pirithous, King of the Lapiths. Pirithous had heard of Theseus’s reputation of bravery and strength and decided to check if it was true. He did this by driving Theseus’s cattle away from Marathon, to which Theseus responded by following him. When Pirithous realized that he was being pursued by Theseus, he decided not to run, but to confront him. When the two met, they were so impressed by each other qualities that they refrained from attacking each other. Pirithous also submitted himself to Theseus, asking him to judge his robbery. Instead of punishing him, Theseus invited him to be his friend and brother in arms.

Now his friend, Theseus was one of the guests at the wedding feast of Pirithous. Unfortunately, Pirithous also invited the Centaurs, a race of creatures who were part human, part horse, known for the trouble they caused when drunk. During the feast the Centaurs tried to rape the bride, Hippodamia, an act that led to a war between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. Theseus took part in the war that led to the annihilation of the race of the Centaurs.

One day, when Theseus was already fifty years old, he and Pirithous decided to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus decided to marry Helen and so he traveled with Pirithous to Sparta, where Helen was caught while she dancing in the temple of Artemis Orthia. After the two friends passed through the Peloponnesus, Theseus and Pirithous drew lots to see who would marry Helen - the result favoured Theseus. However, because she was still too young to marry, Helen was taken to Aphidnae, where Aethra looked after her.

Meanwhile, the brothers of Helen, Castor and Pollux, invaded Attica with an army in order to liberate their sister. At first, the twin brothers (also known as the Dioscuri) avoided using violence against the people of Athens, but when the inhabitants of the city informed them that they knew nothing about the girl they started an attack. However, a certain Academus, who had learned about the whereabouts of Helen, revealed to the Dioscuri that she was being held at Aphidnae. For this reason, during the several invasions that the Spartans made to Attica in the historical period the grove of Academus was always spared as a gesture of gratitude for his act.

Bibliography

  • Mills, Sophie. Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire. Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0198150636
  • Neils, Jenifer. The Youthful Deeds of Theseus. Bretschneider, 1987. ISBN 8876890068
  • Walker, Henry J. Theseus and Athens. Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0195089081

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