The semi-mythical, semi-historical Theseus was the great hero of ancient Athens. The numerous heroic deeds ascribed to him were seen by the ancient Athenians as the acts that led to the birth of democracy in the Attic city-state, the cradle of Greek democracy.
Since he is portrayed as the contemporary of Hercules, it can be assumed that he belonged to the generation previous to the Trojan War. His grand exploits against vicious villains and dreadful monsters are said to be an allegorical representation of how Theseus got rid of the tyrants, got the Athenians free from fear and brought an end to the burdensome tribute the city had to pay to foreign powers.
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Discover the myth of Theseus, the legendary king
Having two fathers
Aegeus, one of the prehistoric kings of Athens, although twice married, had no heir to the throne. So he made a pilgrimage to consult the celebrated oracle of Delphi. As he didn't get a clear-cut answer from the oracle, he sought advice from his wise friend Pittheus, king of Troezen (in Argolis). Pittheus happily gave away his daughter Aethra to his friend at a secret wedding.
Aethra, after having lain with her husband on her wedding night, decided to take a walk in the moonlight, which took her through the shallow waters of the sea to the Sferia island, on the opposite coast of Poros. There she found Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes. Aethra, in the middle of the night and under the moonlight, was seduced by Poseidon. Thus she got doubly impregnated with the seed of a mortal and a god, giving birth to our hero, Theseus, blessed to be born with both human and divine qualities.
King Aegeus apparently didn’t need a wife, only an heir. So, he decided to return to Athens after the birth of his son. Before his departure, however, he hid his sword and sandals beneath a huge rock in the presence of Aethra and told her to send Theseus to Athens when he was old enough and had the strength to roll away the rock and retrieve the evidence of his royal lineage.
Theseus grew up in Troezen under the care of his mother and grandfather. From a young age, the brave young man was fired up with ambition to emulate the awesome exploits of his hero, Hercules, who had also achieved fame by destroying many villains and monsters. When, at the right time, Aethra led her son to the rock of his destiny, he easily rolled it away and retrieved the sword and sandals of his father.
As Theseus was about to set out on his journey towards fate, Pittheus advised his grandson to avoid the robber-infested roads and travel by the shorter and safer sea-route to Athens. But our young hero would have none of it: he had already decided to make confronting and overcoming perils his lifetime hobby. So he chose the dangerous land-route around the Saronic Gulf on which he would shortly encounter a series of tremendous challenges.
Adventures on the way to Athens
It wasn't long before Theseus had his first adventure. At Epidaurus, a place sacred to the god Apollo and the legendary physician Asclepius, he met the famous Periphetes, son of Hephestus, who used to dash out the brains of travelers with an iron club. As his grandfather had already given him a description of Periphetes, Theseus immediately recognized him. In the savage encounter that followed Theseus paid back Periphetes in his own coin by dashing out the brains of the scoundrel with his own iron club. The brave youth kept the club as a trophy and soon reached the Isthmus of Corinth without further interruption.
The inhabitants at the Isthmus warned Theseus about another danger to face: Siris (or, Sinnis) the bandit, guarding the passage from Corinth to Athens, had a more interesting method of treating travelers than the previous villain. Siris would tie his helpless victim between two trees which he would bend to the ground and then abruptly release it. This improvised catapult would hurl the victims into the air and then onto the ground, dashing them to their deaths. Well, it didn't take much time for our hero to finish off this task, too. Then Theseus thought this was a good time to lose his virginity, so he raped the daughter of Siris, named Perigune, who would beget him a son, Melanippus.
The next adventure of Theseus occurred near the borders of Megara on a narrow trail leading to the edge of a cliff, where he found the evil bandit Scyron. This scoundrel would compel travelers to wash his feet with their backs to the sea, so that he could conveniently kick them into the waters below, where a sea monster or a giant turtle would eat them. This time, however, it was the villain Scyron who was eaten by the sea monster.
Little farther away from Eleusina, by the banks of the river Cephissus, Theseus encountered his final adventure on the journey to Athens. The last bandit to play dice with his life against our hero was the giant Procrustes, nicknamed "the Stretcher". This amiable scoundrel had an imaginative way of showing his hospitality to travelers, for whom he always kept ready two iron beds, one too long and the other too short. He would offer the too short bed to the tall ones and, to help them to fit comfortably into the bed, would cut off their limbs.
The same happened with the unlucky short men in the long bed: he would stretch their limbs to make a perfect fit, the victims dying in terrible agony when their limbs were ripped off. Theseus gave the Stretcher the same treatment, the giant Procrustes expiring in the short bed like his unfortunate victims. Today, Procrustes is known by the phrase "the Procrustean Bed".
The Marathonian Bull
Theseus finally arrived at his destination, Athens, without encountering any further challenge. He decided to delay the meeting with his father Aegeus until he had a hold on the surroundings. Being a smart and a tough hero, he did some research about the city and its king and gathered some disturbing news, including the intelligence that king Aegeus was in the helpless clutches of the evil sorceress Medea. So, when he came face to face with his father for the first time, he kept the sword and sandals, the tokens of his paternity, hidden.
Medea, however, knew the true identity of the strange young newcomer through her occult powers. That didn't sit well with the sorceress who wanted her own son, Medus, to succeed to the kingdom of Athens. So, she conspired to poison the aged king's mind against the stranger, and suggested, in all innocence, to send the youth to capture the dreadful Marathonian Bull, a menace to the farmers of the countryside, so she could get rid of him easily, without resorting to the usual method on such occasions, murder.
The Marathonian Bull proposal revived the flagging spirit of our hero who was getting rather bored in the absence of any real challenges to face. On his way to Marathon, Theseus had to seek refuge during a storm in the humble abode of an aged woman called Hecale. She promised the brave youth to make a sacrifice to Zeus, chief of the gods, if he succeeded in capturing the bull.
Well, capturing the Marathon Bull was no big deal for our intrepid hero. But Hecale was dead when Theseus returned to her hut with the captured bull. Remembering her kindness to him, he would later name one of the regions of Attica "Hecale" to honor the old woman. This region exists with the same name till today, as Hecalei (Ekali, in modern Greek) in a luxurious area to the north side of Athems close to Kifisia.
When the victorious Theseus returned to Athens with the dead body of the Marathon Bull, Aegeus, goaded on by Medea, became still more suspicious of him. So he had to assent to the plan of the sorceress to poison Theseus during the feast to celebrate his victory.
However, as our hero was about to drink the poisoned wine, the eyes of Aegeus fell upon the sword and sandals the young stranger had just worn. Recognizing his son, Aegeus knocked the cup of poisoned wine off his hand and, embracing the youth with great joy and emotion, named Theseus as his son and successor before his subjects. Evil Medea was perpetually banished from Athens.
Set sail to kill the Minotaur
However, the adventures of Theseus did not end at this point. Soon, the young man learned that Athens was facing a great tragedy. For the past couple of decades, Aegeus had been paying a barbarous tribute to King Minos of Crete after he had been defeated in a long-running war, launched by the Cretans to avenge the murder of Androgens, the younger son of the Cretan king, by the Athenians.
The tribute consisted of seven boys and seven maidens from the noblest families of Athens to be sent at every nine years to Crete to be devoured by Minotaur, the fearful half-man half-beast, who lived in the Labyrinth, an impressive construction with crossed paths from which no man could escape.
Despite his father's objections, Theseus was determined to embark upon the perilous mission as one of the nine boys on the occasion of the third tribute. Before he set sail, he promised his father Aegeus that, should he return victorious from this task, the ship carrying him and the others would hoist white sails instead of the normal black sails.
Theseus set sail with his fellow boys and maidens only after taking some wise precautions. He consulted an oracle which told him to make Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, his patroness. After making the necessary sacrifices to the goddess, he embarked on his fateful journey to confront the dreadful Minotaur.
The love affair with Ariadne: truth or trick?
Theseus and his fellow sacrificial lambs were given an audience by King Minos at the palace where Ariadne, daughter of the Cretan king, fell madly in love with our hero, instigated by Aphrodite. Ariadne somehow managed to meet the noble youth alone where they swore eternal love and fidelity to each other. She also provided him with a sharp sword (to slay the Minotaur) and a skein of thread (to find his way back within the complex maze). Thus armed, Theseus and his company entered the inscrutable Labyrinth.
Following the advice of Ariadne, Theseus fastened the end of the thread at the entrance to the Labyrinth and continued to carefully unwind the skein as he was looking for the great beast. After a while, the brave youth finally found Minotaur in his lair. Their ensued a long and fierce battle which came to an end when Theseus killed the monster with the sword Ariadne had given him.
Following the line of the thread, Theseus and his companions safely came out of the Labyrinth where an anxious Ariadne was waiting for him. Then, the two quickly embarked on the ship to Athens, before king Minos learnt that Minotaur was killed and his own daughter had helped Theseus.
However, the happiness of the young lovers was to live short. At the island of Naxos, where the ship had touched, Theseus had a dream in which the wine-god Dionysus told him that Ariadne had been reserved by the Fates to be his bride and also warned him of innumerable misfortunes if he didn't give up the maiden. Although he had no fear of any monster or villain, Theseus had great respect for the gods and wanted to have their favour. So, Theseus and Ariadne took a tearful farewell of each other and the ship set sail to Athens.
Unfortunately, everyone in the ship was distraught at parting from Ariadne and forgot to change the ship's sails to white. Another more credible version of the story says that Theseus pretended to be in love with Ariadne in order to obtain her help. After they left Crete safely, our hero abandoned the lovely maiden at Naxos, as he had no more use for her. The heartbroken Ariadne cursed Theseus and his companions and they all forgot to change the ship's sail from black to white.
In any case, after Ariadne was abandoned to Naxos, god Dionysus made her his bride, lived together and had three sons, Thoas, Oenopion and Staphylus. Later on, Dionysus brought Ariadne to Mt Olympus to live with the other gods.
In the meanwhile, Aegeus was waiting in anxiety for his son to come back from Crete. Every evening, he was going to Cape Sounion, the southernmost area of Attica, to see the ship coming from Crete. However, months had passed and his son had not returned. One day, as he was standing on a cliff, at Sounion, he finally saw the ship but the sails were black! He immediately thought that his son was dead and, in total despair, he fell into the sea and got drowned. From then on, the Athenians named the sea, the Aegean Sea, in memory of their beloved king.
Becoming the king of Athens
As the eligible heir, Theseus became King of Athens in the place of his father. He won the approval and admiration of the Athenian citizens who saw in him a wise and far-sighted ruler as well as a brave and fearless warrior.
Theseus peacefully unified the disparate Attic communities into one powerful centrally-administered state. Agriculture and commerce flourished and Athens became a prosperous and important maritime port, as Theseus rightfully believed that the sea would give power to Athens. He also established the Isthmian Games to commemorate the tasks he had performed during his journey from Troizen to Athens and inaugurated many new festivals, including the Panthenaea festivals, dedicated to goddess Athena, the protector of the city.
The Amazon Antigone, his first wife
The next adventure of the restless Theseus got him into a lot of trouble and imperiled the safety of his kingdom. On a voyage of exploration, his ship set ashore on Lemnos, the land of the legendary female warriors, the Amazons. The lovely Antigone, sister of the Queen of the Amazons was sent as an emissary to find out whether the intentions of the strangers were peaceful or not.
Theseus took one look at the beautiful emissary and forgot all about diplomatic affairs. He immediately set sail to Athens with the dumbfounded Antigone. The warrior-lady must have been impressed with the intrepid king of Athens, as she apparently didn't object to her own abduction. When they reached Athens, Theseus made her his queen and Antigone bore her husband a son, Hippolytus.
The outraged Amazons did not waste their time and launched their attack towards Athens. Their attack was so strong that they managed to penetrate deep into the Athenian territory. Theseus soon organized his forces and unleashed a vicious counterattack that forced the Amazon warriors to ask for peace. The unfortunate queen Antigone, however, who had courageously fought alongside Theseus against her own people, died in the battlefield and was deeply mourned by her husband.
The next great episode in the life of Theseus was his celebrated friendship with Prithious, prince of the Lapiths, a legendary people from Mt Pelion, Thessaly. Prithious had heard lots of stories about the brave deeds and awesome adventures of Theseus and he wanted to test the renowned hero.
So he made an incursion into Attica with a band of followers and decamped with Theseus' herds of cattle. When our hero, along with his armed men, encountered Prithious, both of them were suddenly struck by an inexplicable admiration for each other. They swore eternal friendship and became inseparable friends.
According to legend, the new friends were said to have taken part together in the famed hunt for the Calydonian Boar as well as the battle against the Centaurs, creatures who were part-human, part-horse. The latter event occurred when one among the Centaurs invited to Prithious' wedding feast got drunk and tried to rape the bride Hippodamia, joined by the other Centaurs, all of whom also tried to rape any woman that was in the celebration. Prithious and his Lapiths, with the help of Theseus, attacked the Centaurs and recovered the honour of their women.
The abduction of Helen
Later on, the two friends decided to assist each other to abduct a daughter of Zeus each. The choice of Theseus was Helen, who was later to become famous as Helen of Troy. The fact that Helen was only nine years old at that timed didn't deter our hero, as he wanted to abduct her and keep her safe until her time to get married would come. The duo kidnapped Helen first and Theseus left her in the safe custody of his mother, Aethra, at Troizen for a few years. However, the brothers of Helen, Castor and Pollux, rescued the girl and took their sister back to Sparta, their homeland.
Phaedra, his second wife
After the death of his Amazonian wife Antigone, Theseus had married Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne, the woman he had once betrayed. Phaedra, a young woman that was to have a tragic fate, gave her husband two sons, Demophone and Acamas. Meanwhile Theseus' son by Antigone, Hippolytus, had grown into a handsome youth. When he turned twenty, he chose to become a devotee of Artemis, the goddess of hunting, hills and forests, and not of goddess Aphrodite, as his father had done.
The incensed Aphrodite decided to take her revenge, for this caused Phaedra to fall madly and deeply in love with her handsome stepson. When Hippolytus scornfully rejected the advances of his mother-in-law, she committed suicide from her despair. However, she had before written a suicide note saying that Hippolytus had raped and dishonored her, which is why she decided to kill herself.
The enraged Theseus prayed to the sea-god Poseidon, one of his fathers, to punish Hippolytus. Indeed, Poseidon sent a monster that frightened the horses drawing the chariot of Hippolytus. The horses went mad overturning the chariot dragging along the youth who had been trapped in the reins. Theseus, in the meanwhile, had learned the truth from an old servant of Phaedra. He rushed to save his son's life, only to find him almost dead. The poor Hippolytus expired in the arms of his grief-stricken father.
This great tradedy has inspired many authors and artists along centuries, starting from Hippolytus, the ancient tragedy of Euripides, till the numerous movies and plays that have been written based on this story.
An end unsuitable for a hero
This incident was the beginning of end for Theseus, who was gradually losing his popularity among the Athenians. His former heroic deeds and services to the state were forgotten and rebellions began to surface all around against his rule. Theseus finally abdicated his throne and took refuge on the island of Skyros.
There Lycomedes, the king of the island, thought that Theseus would eventually want to become king of Skyros. Thus, in the guise of friendship, he took Theseus at the top of a cliff and murdered him, pushing him off the cliff into the sea. This was the tragic end of the life of one of the greatest Greek heroes and the noblest among the Athenians.