See A. G. Ward et al., The Quest for Theseus (1970).
Theseus killing the Minotaur, detail of a vase painting by the Kleophrades Painter, 6th century elipsis
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For other uses, see Theseus (disambiguation)
Theseus (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 under Athens, represented in his journey of labours. 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 Acropolis.
In The Frogs, Aristophanes credited him with inventing many everyday Athenian traditions. If the theory of a Minoan hegemony is correct he may have been based on Athens' liberation from this political order rather than on an historical individual.
Plutarch's vita of Theseus, makes use of varying accounts of the death of the Minotaur, Theseus' escape and the love of Ariadne for Theseus, in order to construct a literalistic biography, a vita. Plutarch's sources, not all of whose texts have survived independently, included Pherecydes (mid-sixth century), Demon (ca 300), Philochorus and Cleidemus (both fourth century).
Aegeus, one of the primordial kings of Athens, found a bride, Aethra who was the daughter of king Pittheus at Troezen, a small city southwest of Athens. 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 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; such double fatherhood, one father immortal, one mortal, was a familiar feature of Greek heroes. 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 tokens 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 alone 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.
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 turned the tables on Procrustes, although it is not said whether he cut Procrustes to size or stretched him to fit.
Each of these sites was a very sacred place already of great antiquity when the deeds of Theseus were first attested in painted ceramics, which predate the literary texts.
When Theseus arrived at Athens, he did not reveal his true identity immediately. Aegeus gave him hospitality but was suspicious of the young, powerful stranger's intentions. 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 were 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 victorious to Athens, where he sacrificed the Bull, Medea tried to poison him. At the last second, Aegeus recognized the sandals, shield, and sword, and knocked the poisoned wine cup from Theseus's hand. Thus father and son were reunited, and Medea, it was said, was exiled.
In another version, Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, had several children before the minotaur. The eldest of these, Androgeus, set sail for Athens to take part in the Pan-Athenian games which were held there every five years. Being strong and skillful, he did very well, winning some events outright. He soon became a crowd favourite, much to the resentment of the Pallantids, sons of Pallas and nephews of King Aegeus, who were then living at the royal court in the sanctuary of Delphic Apollo, and they assassinated him, incurring the wrath of Minos.
When King Minos had heard of what befell his son, he ordered the Cretan fleet to set sail for Athens. Minos asked Aegeus for his son's assassins, and if they were to be handed to him, the town would be spared. However, not knowing who they were, King Aegeus surrendered the whole town to Minos' mercy. His retribution was that, at the end of every Great Year (seven years), the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens were to board a boat and sent as tribute to Crete, never to be seen again.
When Theseus appeared in the town, his reputation preceded him, having travelled along the notorious coastal road from Troezen and slain some of the most feared bandits there. It was not long before the Pallantides' hopes of suceeding the apparently childless Aegeus would be lost if they did not get rid of Theseus. So they set a trap for him. One band of them would march on the town from one side while another lay in wait near a place called Gargettus in ambush. The plan was that once Theseus, Aegeus and the palace guards had been forced out the front, the other half would surprise them from behind. However, Theseus was not fooled. Informed of the plan by a herald named Leos, he crept out of the city at midnight and surprised the Pallantides. "Theseus then fell suddenly upon the party lying in ambush, and slew them all. Thereupon the party with Pallas dispersed," Plutarch reported.
King Minos of Crete had waged war with the Athenians and was successful. He then demanded that, at seven-year intervals, seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls were to be sent to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in the Labyrinth created by Daedalus.
On the third occasion, Theseus volunteered to slay the monster. He took the place of one of the youths and set off with a black sail, promising to his father, Aegeus, that if successful he would return with a white sail. Like the others, Theseus was stripped of his weapons when they sailed. On his arrival in Crete, King Minos' daughter Ariadne, out of love for Theseus gave Theseus a ball of string so he could find his way out. That night, Ariadne escorted Theseus to the Labyrinth, and Theseus promised that if he returned from the Labyrinth he would take Ariadne with him. As soon as Theseus entered the Labyrinth, he tied one end of the ball of string to the door post and brandished his sword which he had hid from the guards inside his tunic. Theseus followed Daedalus' instructions given to Ariadne; go forwards, always down and never left or right. Theseus came to the heart of the Labyrinth and also upon the sleeping Minotaur. A tremendous fight then occurred. Theseus beat the Minotaur with his fists, until death.
Theseus used the string to escape the Labyrinth and managed to escape with all of the young Athenians and Ariadne. On the return journey Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. The next day Ariadne cursed him to forget to change the black sail to white. In other versions of the story, the god Dionysus appeared to Theseus and told him that he had already chosen Ariadne for his bride, and to abandon her on Naxos, a favorite island. In another version, Ariadne died from illness on the journey home. In Theseus' grief, he forgot to change the sails, and seeing the black sail, Aegeus committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea (hence named Aegean). Theseus and the other Athenian youths returned safely.
According to Plutarch, the ship Theseus used on his return to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbor as a memorial for several centuries. As the wood of the ship wore out or rotted it was replaced, until it was unclear how much of the original ship actually remained and giving rise to the philosophical question of whether it should be considered "the same" ship or not. Philosophical questions about the nature of identity in circumstances like this are sometimes referred to as the Ship of 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.
On Pirithous' behalf they 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 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. When Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the Dioscuri had taken Helen and Aethra back to Sparta.
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 Hippolyta. 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. Alternatively, in Euripides' version, Hippolytus, 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.
According to some sources, Theseus also was one of the Argonauts, although 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 plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare draws on Geoffrey Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseida, whence the use of the anachronistic term "Duke": when Boccaccio and Chaucer were writing in the fourteenth century, there was an actual Duke of Athens. Hippolyta also appears in both plays.
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.
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
Jorge Luis Borges also presents an interesting variation of the myth, from the Asterion's point-of-view, in a short story, "La Casa de Asterion" ("The House of Asterion"), which depends for its full effect on the reader's not knowing the identity of the narrator.
The Cretan Chronicles are an alternative, interactive version of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. The reader controls Theseus's brother Altheus, who learns from Hermes Theseus was killed by the Minotaur and takes up his brother's quest to slay the beast.
Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which is set in the distant future, contains a retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, about a student who makes a son from dreams and sends him off to fight an ogre who, unlike the minotaur, has a head like a castle and a body like a ship. In order to save a young maiden, the young man of dreams defeats the ogre by blinding him with burning tar and then returns to the island where the student lives. Sadly the student sees the sails, blackened by the burning tar, and, thinking his created son is dead, throws himself from his bed, for "no man lives long when his dreams are not here."