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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 Athenian founding hero, considered by them 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 emblematically in his journey of labours, subduing ogres and monstrous beasts. 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 that was 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.
Plutarch's vita (a literalistic biography) of Theseus makes use of varying accounts of the death of the Minotaur, Theseus' escape, and the love of Ariadne for Theseus. Plutarch's sources, not all of whose texts have survived independently, included Pherecydes (mid-fifth century BC), Demon (ca 400 BC), Philochorus, and Cleidemus (both fourth century BC).
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 of Sphairia that rests close to the coast and lay there with Poseidon (god of the sea and earthquakes). The mix gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics in his nature; such double paternity, with one immortal and one mortal father, was a familiar feature of Greek heroes. After Aethra became pregnant, Aegeus decided to return to Athens. Before leaving, however, he buried his sandals and sword under a huge rock and told Aethra that when their son grew up, he should move the rock, if he were heroic enough, and take the tokens for himself as evidence of his royal parentage. In Athens, Aegeus was joined by Medea, who had left Corinth after slaughtering the children she had born, and had taken Aegeus as her new consort. Priestess and consort together represented the old order in Athens.
Thus Theseus was raised in his mother's land. When Theseus grew up and became a brave young man, he moved the rock and recovered his father's tokens. His mother then told him the truth about his father's identity and that he must take the sword and sandals back to king Aegeus to claim his birthright. To journey 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. Young, brave, and ambitious, Theseus decided to go alone by the land route and defeated a great many bandits along the way.
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, fled to Asia.
When Theseus appeared in the town, his reputation had 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 succeeding the apparently childless Aegeus would be lost if they did not get rid of Theseus (the Pallantides were the sons of Pallas and nephews of King Aegeus, who were then living at the royal court in the sanctuary of Delphic Apollo). 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 after 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.
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 four years. Being strong and skillful, he did very well, winning some events outright. He soon became a crowd favorite, much to the resentment of the Pallantides, 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 the assassins were, King Aegeus surrendered the whole town to Minos' mercy. His retribution was that, at the end of every Great Year (seven solar years), the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens were to board a boat and be sent as tribute to Crete, never to be seen again.
In another version, King Minos of Crete had waged war with the Athenians and was successful. He then demanded that, at nine-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 to stop this horror. 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, Ariadne, King Minos' daughter, fell in love with Theseus and, on the advice of Daedalus, gave him a ball of thread or clue, so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth. 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 kept hidden 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. The beast awoke and a tremendous fight then occurred. Theseus overpowered the Minotaur with his strength and stabbed the beast in the throat with his sword (according to one scholium on Pindar's Fifth Nemean Ode, Theseus strangled it).
After decapitating the beast, Theseus used the string to escape the Labyrinth and managed to escape with all of the young Athenians and Ariadne as well as her younger sister Phaedra. Then he and the rest of the crew fell asleep on the beach. Athena woke Theseus and told him to leave early that morning. Athena told Theseus to leave Ariadne and Phaedra on the beach. Stricken with distress, Theseus forgot to put up the white sails instead of the black ones, so the king committed suicide, in some versions throwing himself off a cliff and into the sea, thus causing this body of water to be named the Aegean. Dionysus later saw Ariadne crying out for Theseus and took pity on her and married her.
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place...
The ship had to be maintained in a seaworthy state, for, in return for Theseus's successful mission, the Athenians had pledged to honour Apollo every year henceforth. Thus, the Athenians sent a religious mission to the island of Delos (one of Apollo's most sacred sanctuaries) on the Athenian state galley — the ship itself — to pay their fealty to the god. To preserve the purity of the occasion, no executions were permitted between the time when the religious ceremony began to when the ship returned from Delos, which took several weeks.
To preserve the ship, any wood that wore out or rotted was replaced; it was, thus, unclear to philosophers how much of the original ship actually remained, giving rise to the philosophical question whether it should be considered "the same" ship or not. Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the Ship of Theseus Paradox.
Regardless of these issues of the originality of the ship's structure, for Athenians the preserved ship kept fresh their understanding that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure — which none then doubted — and gave them a tangible connection to their divine providence.
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, a great abductor of women, and his bosom companion, Pirithous, since they were sons of Zeus and Poseidon, pledged themselves to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus, in an old tradition, 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 at Aphidna, whence she was rescued by the Dioscuri.
On Pirithous' behalf they travelled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband, Hades. As they wandered through the outskirts of Tartarus, Theseus sat down to rest on a rock. As he did so he felt his limbs change and grow stiff. He tried to rise but could not. He was fixed to the rock on which he sat. Then, as he turned to cry out to his friend Pirithous, he saw that he himself was crying out too. Around him was standing the terrible band of Furies with snakes in their hair, torches and long whips in their hands. Before these monsters the hero's courage failed and by them was led away to eternal punishment.
For many months in half darkness, Theseus sat immovably fixed to the rock, mourning both for his friend and for himself. In the end he was rescued by Heracles who had come down to the underworld for his 12th task. There he persuaded Persephone to forgive him for the part he had taken in the rash venture of Pirithous. So Theseus was restored to the upper air but Pirithous never left the kingdom of the dead, for when he tried to free Pirithous, the Underworld shook. When Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the Dioscuri had taken Helen and Aethra to Sparta.
Theseus, believed either to be in the company of Heracles, or of his own accord, had journeyed to the land of the Amazons, a race of all-female warriors who had with men for reproduction but killed or banished any male children born. Sensing no trouble or malice from Theseus, the Amazons decided to welcome him by having the queen Hippolyta go aboard his ship bearing gifts. After boarding the ship, Theseus left for Athens, claiming Hippolyta as his bride. This sparked a war between the Amazons and the Athenians. Hippolyta eventually bore a son for Theseus, whom they named Hippolytus (Ἱππόλυτος). Theseus lost his love for Hippolyta, however, after he had seen Phaedra.
Plutarch's Life places Hyppolyta's Amazonian sister, Antiope, as the Amazonian kidnapped by Theseus. In this account, Antiope is the mother of Hyppolytus.
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' 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 version by Seneca, the Roman playwright, entitled Phaedra, 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 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. Both statements are inconsistent with Medea being Aegeus' wife by the time Theseus first came to Athens. 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). The remains found by Cimon were reburied in Athens. The early modern name Theseion (Temple of Theseus) was mistakenly applied to the Temple of Hephaestus which was thought to be the actual site of the hero's tomb.
Theseus is a prominent character as the Duke of Athens in William Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Hippolyta also appears in both plays. Theseus likewise appears as a major character in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale.
Mary Renault's The King Must Die (1958) is a dramatic retelling of the Theseus legend from his childhood in Troizen until 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.
Stephen Dobyns, wrote the poem Theseus within the Labyrinth (1986) which provides a retelling of the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the minotaur, in particular the feelings of Ariadne.
John Dempsey's Ariadne's Brother: A Novel on the Fall of Bronze Age Crete (1996, ISBN 960-219-062-0) tells the Minoan Cretan version of these events based on both archaeology and myth.
British comedian Tony Robinson wrote a version of the Theseus story entitled Theseus: Super Hero.
Author Tracy Barrett wrote a novel titled Dark of the Moon, published in 2011, which is a re-write of the Theseus myth.
A 1971 Soviet cartoon, "The Labyrinth", covers the titular adventure as well as Theseus's encounters with the Crommyonian sow and Procrustes.
In 1990, the television show "The StoryTeller: Greek Myths" featured a story about Theseus and the Minotaur in its first episode Theseus and the Minotaur.
In the 2003 miniseries Helen of Troy, Theseus, played by Stellan Skarsgård, kidnaps Helen with Pirithous and waits for her to reach marriageable age; however, he is slain by Pollux and she is returned to Sparta.
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