Learn more about Theseus
|Topics in Greek mythology|
Theseus (Greek Θησεύς) was a legendary king of Athens, son of Aethra, and fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, with whom Aethra lay in one night. Theseus was a founder-hero, like Perseus, Cadmus or Heracles, all of whom battled and overcame foes that were identified with an archaic religious and social order. As Heracles was the Dorian hero, Theseus was the Ionian founding hero, considered by Athenians as their own great reformer. His name comes from the same root as θεσμός ("thesmos"), Greek for institution. He was responsible for the synoikismos ("dwelling together")—the political unification of Attica, represented in his journey of labours—under Athens. Because he was the unifying king, Theseus built and occupied a palace on the fortress of the Acropolis that may have been similar to the palace excavated in Mycenae. Pausanias reports that after the synoikismos, Theseus established a cult of Aphrodite Pandemos ("Aphrodite of all the People") and Peitho on the southern slope of the Akropolis.
In The Frogs Aristophanes credited him with inventing many everyday Athenian traditions. If the theory of a Minoan hegemony<ref>Minoan cultural dominance is reflected in the ceramic history,but not necessarily political dominance </ref> is correct he may have been based on Athens' liberation from this political order rather than on a historical individual.
 Birth and the six 'labours' of Theseus
Aegeus, one of the primordial kings of Athens, found a bride at Troezen, a small city southwest of Athens, in Aethra, daughter of Troezen's king, Pittheus. On their wedding night, Aethra waded through the sea to the island Sphairia that rests close to the coast and lay there with Poseidon (god of the sea, and of earthquakes). By the understanding of sex in antiquity, the mix of semen gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics in his nature. When Aethra became pregnant, Aegeus decided to return to Athens. But before leaving, he buried his sandals and sword under a huge rock and told her that when their son grew up, he should move the rock, if he were hero enough, and take the weapons for himself as evidence of his royal parentage. At Athens, Aegeus was joined by Medea, who had fled Corinth after slaughtering the children she had borne Jason, and had taken up a new consort in Aegeus. Priestess and consort together represented the old order at Athens.
Thus Theseus was raised in the land of his mother. When Theseus grew up and became a brave young man, he moved the rock and recovered his father's arms. His mother then told him the truth about his father's identity and that he must take the weapons back to the king and claim his birthright. To get to Athens, Theseus could choose to go by sea (which was the safe way) or by land, following a dangerous path around the Saronic Gulf, where he would encounter a string of six entrances to the Underworld, each guarded by a chthonic enemy in the shapes of thieves and bandits. Young, brave and ambitious, Theseus decided to go by the land route, and defeated a great many bandits along the way.
At the first site, which was Epidaurus, sacred to Apollo and the healer Aesculapius, Theseus turned the tables on the chthonic bandit, the "clubber" Periphetes, who beat his opponents into the Earth, and took from him the stout staff that often identifies Theseus in vase-paintings.
At the Isthmian entrance to the Netherworld was a robber named Siris. He would capture travellers, tie them between two pine trees which were bent down to the ground, and then let the trees go, tearing his victims apart. Theseus killed him by his own method. He then raped Siris's daughter, Perigune, fathering the child Melanippus.
In another deed north of Isthmus, at a place called Crommyon, he killed an enormous pig, the Crommyonian sow, bred by an old crone named Phaea. Some versions name the sow herself as Phaea. It is also said that the pig would get in a rage upon seeing a traveler, and would trample the traveler.
Near Megara an elderly robber named Sciron forced travellers along the narrow cliff-face pathway to wash his feet. While they knelt, he kicked them off the cliff behind them, where they were eaten by a sea monster (or, in some versions, a giant turtle). Theseus pushed him off the cliff.
Another of these enemies was Cercyon, King at the holy site of Eleusis, who challenged passers-by to a wrestling match and, when he had beaten them, killed them. Theseus beat Cercyon at wrestling and then killed him instead. In interpretations of the story that follow the formulas of Frazer's The Golden Bough, Cercyon was a "year-King", who was required to do annual battle for his life, for the good of his kingdom, and was succeeded by the victor. Theseus overturned this archaic religious rite by refusing to be sacrificed.
The last bandit was Procrustes, who had a bed which he offered to passers-by in the plain of Eleusis. He then made them fit into it, either by stretching them or by cutting off their feet. Theseus killed him by his own method, although it is not said whether he cut Procrustes to size or stretched him to fit.
Each of these sites was a sacred place already of great antiquity when the deeds of Theseus were first attested in ceramic art, predating the literary texts.
 Medea and the Marathonian Bull
When Theseus arrived at Athens, he did not reveal his true identity immediately. He was welcomed by Aegeus, who was suspicious of the stranger. Aegeus's wife Medea recognized Theseus immediately as Aegeus' son and worried that Theseus would be chosen as heir to Aegeus' kingdom instead of her son Medus. She tried to arrange to have Theseus killed by asking him to capture the Marathonian Bull, an emblem of Cretan power.
On the way to Marathon, Theseus took shelter from a storm in the hut of an ancient woman named Hecale. She swore to make a sacrifice to Zeus if Theseus was successful in capturing the bull. Theseus did capture the bull, but when he returned to Hecale's hut, she was dead. In her honor Theseus gave her name to one of the demes of Attica, making its inhabitants in a sense her adopted children.
When Theseus returned victoriously to Athens, where he sacrificed the Bull, Medea tried to poison him, but at the last second Aegeus recognized the sandals, shield, and sword and knocked the poisoned wine cup from Theseus's hand, and father and son were reunited.
King Minos of Crete had waged war on Athens and won. He then demanded that seven Athenian youths and seven maidens be sent every ninth year (some accounts say every year) to be devoured by the Minotaur. When the third sacrifice came round, Theseus volunteered to go to slay the monster. He promised to his father, Aegeus, that he would put up a white sail on his journey back home if he was successful. Ariadne, Minos' daughter, fell in love with Theseus and helped him get out of the maze by giving him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path. Theseus killed the Minotaur with his bare hands and led the other Athenians back out the labyrinth.<ref>Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 15—19; Diodorus Siculus,i. I6, iv. 61; Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke iii. 1,15.</ref> Theseus took Ariadne with him but on the return trip abandoned her on the island of Naxos. He also failed to fly white sails on his return journey, thus causing his father to throw himself into the Aegean sea, which is named after him.
 Ship of Theseus
According to some accounts, the ship Theseus took on his return to Athens was kept in service for many years. However, as wood wore out or rotted it was replaced until it was unclear how much of the original ship actually remained. Philosphical questions about the nature of identity in circumstances like this are sometimes refered to as a Theseus Paradox.
Theseus's best friend was Pirithous, prince of the Lapiths. Pirithous had heard stories of Theseus's courage and strength in battle but wanted proof, so he rustled Theseus's herd of cattle and drove it from Marathon, and Theseus set out in pursuit. Pirithous took up his arms and the pair met to do battle, but were so impressed with each other they took an oath of friendship and joined the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. In Iliad I, Nestor numbers Pirithous and Theseus "of heroic fame" among an earlier generation of heroes of his youth, "the strongest men that Earth has bred, the strongest men against the strongest enemies, a savage mountain-dwelling tribe whom they utterly destroyed." No trace of such an oral tradition, which Homer's listeners would have recognized in Nestor's allusion, survived in literary epic. Later, Pirithous was preparing to marry Hippodamia. The centaurs were guests at the wedding feast, but got drunk and tried to abduct the women, including Hippodamia. The Lapiths won the ensuing battle.
 Theseus and Pirithous meet Hades
Theseus and Pirithous pledged themselves to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen and together they kidnapped her, intending to keep her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus's mother, Aethra, and travelled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband, Hades. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and laid out a feast, but as soon as the two visitors sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them fast. In some versions, the stone itself grew and attached itself to their thighs.
When Heracles came into Hades for his twelfth task, he freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, and Pirithous had to remain in Hades for eternity. When Theseus returned to Athens, the Dioscuri had taken Helen and Aethra back to Sparta. When Heracles had pulled Theseus from the chair where he was trapped, some of his thigh stuck to it; this explains the supposedly lean thighs of Athenians.
 Phaedra and Hippolytus
Phaedra, Theseus's second wife, bore Theseus two sons, Demophon and Acamas. While these two were still in their infancy, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's son by Hippolyte. According to some versions of the story, Hippolytus had scorned Aphrodite to become a devotee of Artemis, so Aphrodite made Phaedra fall in love with him as punishment. He rejected her out of chastity. In Euripides' version, Phaedra's nurse told Hippolytus of her mistress's love and he swore he would not reveal the nurse as his source of information. To ensure that she would die with dignity, Phaedra wrote to Theseus on a tablet claiming that Hippolytus had raped her before hanging herself. Theseus believed her and used one of the three wishes he had received from Poseidon against his son. The curse caused Hippolytus's horses to be frightened by a sea monster (usually a bull) and drag their rider to his death. Artemis would later tell Theseus the truth, promising to avenge her loyal follower on another follower of Aphrodite. In a third version, after Phaedra told Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her, Theseus killed his son himself, and Phaedra committed suicide out of guilt, for she had not intended for Hippolytus to die. In yet another version, Phaedra simply told Theseus Hippolytus had raped her and did not kill herself, and Dionysus sent a wild bull which terrified Hippolytus's horses.
A cult grew up around Hippolytus, associated with the cult of Aphrodite. Girls who were about to be married offered locks of their hair to him. The cult believed that Asclepius had resurrected Hippolytus and that he lived in a sacred forest near Aricia in Latium.
 Other stories and his death
According to some sources, Theseus also was one of the Argonauts though Apollonius of Rhodes states in the Argonautica that Theseus was still in the underworld at this time. With Phaedra, Theseus fathered Acamas, who was one of those who hid in the Trojan Horse during the Trojan War. Theseus welcomed the wandering Oedipus and helped Adrastus to bury the Seven Against Thebes. Lycomedes of the island of Skyros threw Theseus off a cliff after he had lost popularity in Athens. In 475 BC, in response to an oracle, Cimon of Athens, having conquered Skyros for the Athenians, identified as the remains of Theseus "a coffin of a great corpse with a bronze spear-head by its side and a sword." (Plutarch, Life of Cimon, quoted Burkert 1985, p. 206)
Mary Renault's The King Must Die (1958) is a dramatic retelling of the Theseus legend through the return from Crete to Athens. While fictional, it is generally faithful to the spirit and flavor of the best-known variations of the original story. The sequel is The Bull from the Sea (1962), about the hero's later career. Theseus is also a prominent character as the Duke of Athens in William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ultimately marrying the Amazon known in Greek mythology as Hippolyta. John Dempsey's "Ariadne's Brother: A Novel on the Fall of Bronze Age Crete" (Athens, Greece: Kalendis 1996, 679pp., ISBN 960-219-062-0) tells the Minoan Cretan version of these events based on both archaeology and myth. http://ancientgreece-earlyamerica.com. Steven Pressfield's "Last of the Amazons" is a fictional account of Theseus meeting and subsequent marriage to Antiope and the ensuing war. Theseus also appears as a major character in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to:|
- Plutarch, Theseus online version
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985
- Kerenyi, Karl, The Heroes of the Greeks 1959
- Ruck, Carl A.P. and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, ch. IX "Theseus: making the new Athens 1994, pp. 203-222.
|King of Athens||Succeeded by:|
|Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans|
|Alcibiades and Coriolanus - Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar - Aratus & Artaxerxes and Galba & Otho - Aristides and Cato the Elder|
|Crassus and Nicias - Demetrius and Antony - Demosthenes and Cicero - Dion and Brutus - Fabius and Pericles - Lucullus and Cimon|
|Lysander and Sulla - Numa and Lycurgus - Pelopidas and Marcellus - Philopoemen and Flamininus - Phocion and Cato the Younger - Pompey and Agesilaus|
|Poplicola and Solon - Pyrrhus and Gaius Marius - Romulus and Theseus - Sertorius and Eumenes|
|Tiberius Gracchus & Gaius Gracchus and Agis & Cleomenes - Timoleon and Aemilius Paullus - Themistocles and Camillus|
cs:Théseus da:Theseus de:Theseus et:Theseus el:Θησέας es:Teseo fr:Thésée gl:Teseo it:Teseo he:תזאוס la:Theseus lb:Theseus lt:Tesėjas hu:Thészeusz nl:Theseus ja:テセウス no:Thesevs pl:Tezeusz pt:Teseu ro:Tezeu ru:Тесей sl:Tezej sr:Тезеј fi:Theseus sv:Theseus tr:Theseus uk:Тесей ur:تھیسیس zh:忒修斯