Greek hero, especially national hero of Athens;
slayer of the Minotaur.
was by lifting a boulder that Theseus, grandson of the king of Troezen, first
proved himself a hero. Theseus was sixteen at the time. He had been raised by
his grandfather and his mother, Princess Aethra. One day the princess called
Theseus to her side. It was time, she said, that he learned of his father, who
was ruler of a mighty kingdom. This was news to Theseus, who had been under
the impression that his father was one of the gods.
"Before I divulge his identity,"
said the princess, "you must meet the challenge your father has set you."
Years ago, the king had hefted a
mighty stone. Underneath he had placed something for his son to find - if he
could lift the weight. Aethra guided Theseus to a forest clearing, in the
midst of which was a boulder. Theseus proceeded to lift the stone easily, or
so the myth-tellers generally assume. But like most myths, this one is vague
about the details. According to one theory, Theseus would have had trouble
with a task involving brute strength.
This theory was advanced by Mary
Renault in her novel The King Must Die. It is based on the tradition that
Theseus invented "scientific" wrestling. This is the discipline by which even
a lightweight can beat a stronger adversary by fancy footwork, trick holds and
using the opponent's momentum to advantage. Theseus would have had little
cause to invent such tactics if he'd been capable of beating his adversaries
by sheer physical strength. Therefore one may deduce that the hero was a
lightweight. So when it came to lifting boulders, Theseus was at a
disadvantage. Resourcefulness, another heroic trait, must have come to his
aid. He would have looked for some mechanical means to multiply his physical
Beneath the stone Theseus found
certain tokens left by his father. His name, Aethra now revealed, was King
Aegeus of Athens. Prompted by a sense of heroic destiny, Theseus set out
forthwith to meet this parent he had never known. He determined to journey to
Athens by land, although his mother argued for the safer route by sea. And in
fact the landward route proved to be infested by an unusual number of
villains, thugs and thieves. Theseus quickly adopted the credo of doing unto
these bad guys what they were in the habit of doing to others.
Setting out from Troezen, his
birthplace, the first community of any size through which he passed was
Epidaurus. Here he was waylaid by the ruffian Periphetes. Periphetes was
nicknamed Corynetes or "Club-Man", after his weapon of choice, a stout length
of wood wrapped in bronze to magnify its impact upon the skulls of his
victims. Theseus merely snatched this implement from Periphetes and did him in
with it. Some say that this incident was manufactured to account for
depictions of Theseus carrying a club like his cousin Heracles, one of a
number of instances on Theseus's part of heroic imitation.
The next malefactor who received a
dose of his own medicine was a fellow named Sinis, who used to ask passers-by
to help him bend two pine trees to the ground. Why the wayfarers should have
wanted to help in this activity is not disclosed. Presumably Sinis was
persuasive. Once he had bent the trees, he tied his helper's wrists - one to
each tree. Then he took a break. When the strain became too much, the victim
had to let go, which caused the trees to snap upright and scatter portions of
anatomy in all directions. Theseus turned the tables on Sinis by tying his
wrists to a couple of bent pines, then letting nature and fatigue take their
Then, not far from Athens, Theseus
encountered Sciron. This famous brigand operated along the tall cliffs which
to this day are named after him. He had a special tub in which he made each
passing stranger wash his feet. While they were engaged in this sanitary
activity, Sciron kicked them over a cliff into the ocean below, where they
were devoured by a man-eating turtle. Theseus turned the tables on Sciron,
just as he had turned them on Pine-Bender.
Perhaps the most interesting of
Theseus's challenges on the road to adventure came in the form of an evildoer
called Procrustes, whose name means "he who stretches." This Procrustes kept a
house by the side of the road where he offered hospitality to passing
strangers. They were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night's rest in his
very special bed. If the guest asked what was so special about it, Procrustes
replied, "Why, it has the amazing property that its length exactly matches
whomsoever lies upon it."
What Procrustes didn't volunteer
was the method by which this "one-size-fits-all" was achieved, namely as soon
as the guest lay down Procrustes went to work upon him, stretching him on the
rack if he was too short for the bed and chopping off his legs if he was too
long. Theseus lived up to his do-unto-others credo, fatally adjusting
Procrustes to fit his own bed.
When at last Theseus arrived in
Athens to meet his father King Aegeus for the first time, the encounter was
far from heartwarming. Theseus did not reveal his identity at first but was
hailed as a hero by the Athenians, for he had rid the highway of its terrors.
In honor of his exploits, he was invited to the palace for a banquet. Serving
as hostess was his father's new wife, Medea.
This was the same Medea who had
helped Jason harvest a crop of armed warriors and steal the Golden Fleece out
from under the nose of the dragon that guarded it. Jason had eventually
abandoned Medea, and she had grown understandably bitter. Now she sized up
Theseus and decided that he was a threat to her own son's prospects of ruling
Athens after King Aegeus. In fact, Medea's magic disclosed the identity of
Theseus. Years before, she had aided Aegeus, who was desperate for an heir. It
was Medea's power that ensured the birth of Theseus to Princess Aethra of
Troezen. Though he left instructions with Aethra should a child be born,
Aegeus had either forgotten the incident or despaired of a birth.
Now Medea played on the king's
insecurity. Surely the stranger at the banquet was too popular for the good of
the throne. With the people behind him, he might well seize it for himself.
Medea persuaded King Aegeus to serve Theseus poisoned wine. And the hero,
unawares, would have drunk it had he not paused first to carve his dinner.
This, at any rate, is the prosaic version of the myth. Romantics claim that
Theseus drew his sword not to mince his boar's meat but because he had chosen
the dramatic moment to reveal his identity.
In any case, Aegeus recognized the
pattern on the sword's hilt. This was his own weapon, which he had left under
a rock for his son to discover. Aegeus dashed the poisoned cup to the ground.
Medea, meanwhile, stormed out and made her escape in a chariot pulled by
Theseus was now the recognized
heir to the kingdom of Athens. Thus he was on hand when King Minos of Crete
arrived to collect his periodic tribute of young men and maidens to be
sacrificed to the Minotaur. Because his son had died while in the safekeeping
of the Athenians, Minos exerted the power of the Cretan navy to enforce this
The Minotaur was a monster,
half-man, half-bull, that lived in the center of a maze called the Labyrinth.
It had been born to Minos's wife Pasiphae as a punishment from the gods. Minos
had been challenged to prove that he was of divine parentage, so he called on
the sea god Poseidon to send him a sign. The god obliged, and a beautiful
white bull emerged from the sea. Minos liked it so much that he neglected to
sacrifice it to the gods, as he should have done. As a punishment, Poseidon
caused the king's wife to fall in love with the bull. She had the master
craftsman Daedalus build her a hollow cow in which to approach the beast. As a
result, the Minotaur was born. The monster is generally depicted as having the
head of a bull and the body of a man. But in the Middle Ages, artists
portrayed a man's head and torso on a bull's body.
Some say that Theseus expressed
his solidarity with his fellow citizens of Athens by volunteering to be one of
the victims. Others maintain that Minos noticed the handsome young prince and
chose him to be sacrificed. In any case, Theseus became one of the fated
fourteen who embarked with the Cretan fleet.
The sea upon which they sailed was
the domain of Poseidon, who together with his brothers Zeus and Hades were the
three most powerful gods of the Greek pantheon. Between them they divided
creation, Zeus taking Mount Olympus and the sky, Hades the Underworld and
Poseidon the sea. But there were other deities of the watery depths, notably
the "old man of the sea", the god Nereus, with his fifty daughters, the
Nereids. When Theseus was en route to Crete, he encountered one of these
As the tribute ship drew near to
harbor, King Minos made rude advances to one of the Athenian maidens and
Theseus sprang to her defense, claiming this was his duty as a son of
Poseidon. (Theseus, of course, also claimed to be the son of King Aegeus, but
a true hero could be inconsistent in such matters.) Minos suggested that if
Theseus's divine parentage were anything but a figment of his imagination, the
gods of the sea would sponsor him. So Minos threw his signet ring overboard
and challenged Theseus to dive in and find it.
This Theseus did, being abetted
indeed by the deities of the depths. Not only did he retrieve the ring from
the underwater palace into which it had fallen, but he was given a jewelled
crown by one of the Nereids, either Thetis or Amphitrite.
It was not long after he arrived
in Crete that the hero encountered Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos.
She fell in love with him at first sight. It was Ariadne who gave Theseus a
clew which she had obtained from Daedalus. In some versions of the myth it was
an ordinary clew, a simple ball of thread. It was to prove invaluable in his
quest to survive the terrors of the Labyrinth.
The maze had been so cleverly and
intricately contrived by the master builder Daedalus that once thrown inside,
a victim could never find the way out again. Sooner or later, he or she would
round a corner and come face to face with the all-devouring Minotaur. This was
the fate which awaited Theseus.
It is clear from the myth that the
Labyrinth was a maze from which none could escape because it was so
diabolically meandering. Hence the Minotaur was not just its monster but its
prisoner. But how exactly this worked as a practical matter with regard to the
victims is less clear. Some versions of the myth have it that they were
"enclosed" in the Labyrinth, as if it were a box.
But surely if the procedure were
simply to push the victims in and then slam the door behind them, they would
have cowered by the entrance rather than proceed into the terrors of the maze.
Even if the guards threatened them with swords, it seems likely that some
would have preferred the known death to being devoured alive by a monster. Nor
could the guards have escorted the victims deep into the maze without getting
lost themselves, or risking a run-in with the Minotaur.
Maybe Daedalus built a roof over
his invention, so that the victims could be dropped through a trap door into
the very center. But perhaps on the whole it's better not to inquire too
closely into the mechanics of the mythological.
When Theseus first entered the
maze he tied off one end of the ball of thread which Ariadne had given him,
and he played out the thread as he advanced deeper and deeper into the
labyrinthine passages. Many artists have depicted Theseus killing the Minotaur
with his sword or club, but it is hard to see how he could have concealed such
bulky weapons in his clothing. More probable are the versions of the tale
which have him coming upon the Minotaur as it slept and then, in properly
heroic fashion, beating it to death with his bare fists. Then he followed the
thread back to the entrance. Otherwise he would have died of starvation before
making his escape.
Theseus now eloped with Ariadne,
pausing only long enough to put holes in the bottom of her father's ships so
that he could not pursue. But Theseus soon abandoned the princess, either
because he was bewitched by a god or because he had fallen in love with her
sister Phaedra. Some say that he left Ariadne on the island of Naxos, but
others maintain that such was his haste that he left her on the small island
of Dia, within sight of the harbor from which they had sailed. The deserted
and pining Ariadne has been a favorite theme of artists down through the ages.
As the ship bearing Theseus and
his liberated fellow Athenians approached the promontory on which King Aegeus
watched daily for his return, Theseus forgot the signal which he had
prearranged with his father. The vessel's sails were to be black only if the
expedition concluded as on all previous occasions, with the death of the
hostages. In the exultation of triumph, or in anguish over the loss of
Ariadne, Theseus neglected to hoist a sail of a different hue, and King Aegeus
threw himself from the heights in despair.
Theseus was now both king and bona
fide hero, but this did not put an end to his adventuring. On one occasion he
visited the Amazons, mythological warrior women who lived on the shores of the
Black Sea. The Amazons were renowned horseback riders and especially skilled
with the bow. They lived apart from men and only met with them on occasion to
produce children for their tribe.
Some say that Theseus had
encountered the Amazons before, on another post-Minotaur adventure in the
company of Heracles. Heracles had been challenged to bring back the belt of
the Amazon queen. The queen, for all her reputation of man-hating, had
willingly given it to him. But the goddess Hera, who despised Heracles,
stirred up trouble. A great battle ensued in which many Amazons were killed.
Now Theseus visited the Amazons on
his own. Their leader, fearless and hospitable, came aboard his ship with a
gift. Theseus immediately put to sea and kidnapped her. Unfortunately, the
dubious nature of this achievement was matched if not exceeded in another of
the hero's quests.
It was the custom in early Greek
historical times for the younger sons of noble houses to embark, in the fine
sailing months of autumn, upon the honorable occupation of piracy. When
Theseus received word that one such pirate and his crew were making off with
the royal Athenian herds at Marathon, he raced to the seaside plain. He
grabbed the miscreant by the scruff and spun him around to give him what for.
But the moment king and pirate laid eyes upon one another, their enmity was
"You've caught me fair and
square," said Peirithous, for this was the pirate's name, and he was of the
royal house of the Thessalian Lapiths. "Name your punishment and it shall be
done," said he, "for I like the looks of you."
The admiration being mutual,
Theseus named as penance an oath of perpetual friendship, and the two clasped
hands upon it. And so, in the fullness of time, when Theseus decided to carry
off young Helen of Sparta, Peirithous agreed to lend a hand. This was the same
Helen whose face would "launch a thousand ships" when, as Helen of Troy, the
lover and captive of the Trojan Paris, she caused the allies of her husband
Menelaus to wage the Trojan War to bring her home.
At the time of Theseus's
contemplated abduction, however, she was a mere lass of thirteen. And Theseus,
having succeeded in spiriting her off with Peirithous's assistance, left her
with his mother for safekeeping while he went about his business and she grew
of marriageable age. But before this had come to pass she was rescued by her
brothers, the hero twins, Castor and Pollux, whose conjoined starry
constellation still brightens the night sky between fellow heroes Orion and
One day not long after this
escapade, Peirithous drew Theseus aside and spoke to him earnestly. "Remember
when I agreed to help you with Helen?" he inquired, "and you pledged to help
me in turn in any little outing of a similar nature?"
Theseus nodded and muttered yes.
"Good," responded Peirithous.
"Spoken like a true pal. Well, I've picked my little exploit. I've decided to
make off with Persephone, wife of Hades, King of the Dead."
Theseus was speechless at the very
idea of this sacrilege, but a pledge is a pledge. And so the two set off for
the Underworld via one of the convenient caverns leading thereto. And at
length they fetched up before the throne of Hades. Lacking any false modesty,
Peirithous boldly stated his business, adding that he was sure the god would
concede that Persephone would be happier with himself.
Hades feigned consent. "Very
well," he said. "If you love her that much and you're sure the feeling's
mutual, you may have Persephone. But first, join me in a cordial. Please, take
He gestured at a bench nearby, and
the two heroes, little thinking it was bewitched, seated themselves upon it.
And here they stuck like glue. Meanwhile, Hades loosed a flock of torments
upon them in the form of serpents and Furies and the fangs of the hellhound
Cerberus, not to mention the infamous water of Tartarus that recedes as
parched lips draw near.
And here the
two heroes would be stuck today, were it not that Heracles happened to be
passing by in furtherance of one of his Labors. Seeing his cousin Theseus's
plight he freed him with one heroic yank, leaving only a small portion of his
hindparts adhering to the bench. But Heracles couldn't or wouldn't free
Peirithous. And so Theseus's pal pays for eternity the price of his heroic