|Theseus and Periphetes|
|Theseus and Sinis|
|Theseus and Phaia|
|Theseus and Skiron|
|Theseus and Kerkyon|
|Theseus and Prokrustes|
|Theseus and the Marathonian Bull|
|Theseus and the Minotaur|
|Theseus and Ariadne|
|Theseus and the Amazons|
|Theseus and Phaedra|
|Theseus and Oedipus|
|Theseus and Peirithous|
|Theseus and Helen|
|Theseus's Enduring Legacy|
|Theseus in The Iliad (reference)|
|Theseus in The Odyssey (reference)|
|Other Text References|
|Images of Theseus|
The life and exploits of Theseus are eclipsed only by those of Herakles (Heracles). Whereas Herakles was a hero for all of Greece, Theseus was more of an Athenian hero.
Theseus was the son of the legendary Athenian king, Aegeus and his consort, Aethra of Troezen. Aegeus left Aethra before Theseus was born and instructed Aethra to place a sword and a pair of sandals under a boulder so that if and when Theseus was strong enough to move the boulder and remove the sword and sandals he would be manly enough to join his father in Athens and claim his royal inheritance. The sword and sandals were referred to as the gnorismata, i.e., the token by which a lost child is identified.
Theseus finding the sword and sandals as his mother looks on.
When Theseus left his mother he traveled by land instead of taking the easier sea route to Athens. His journey was punctuated by encounters with mortal and magical beings. He first encountered a son of Hephaistos (Hephaestus) named Periphetes near the coastal city of Epidauros. Periphetes would attack and kill travelers with his iron club; Theseus fought and killed Periphetes and kept his club as a symbol which mimics Herakles's weapon of choice.
When Theseus reached the Isthmus of Corinth he was confronted by a man named Sinis. Sinus was also called the Pine-Bender because he would bend pine trees, tie travelers to the trees and then either hurl them to their deaths or rip them to shreds. Theseus dispatched Sinis in the same manner that the villain used to kill the innocent travelers who fell into his clutches.
Also near Corinth, Theseus killed a fierce sow that was the offspring of the nymph-serpent Echidna and the snake-like Typhaon. The sow was named after her keeper, Phaia, and it appears that Theseus killed the beast for sport rather than necessity.
Skiron cowers from the attack of Theseus.
When Theseus came to the coastal city of Megara, he met the semi-divine man, Skiron (Sciron), who would force travelers to wash his feet and then kick them from a cliff into the sea to be eaten by a giant sea-turtle which waited on the rocky shore. Theseus threw Skiron to his death from the cliff.
At the city of Eleusis, Theseus was forced to wrestle a brutish man named Kerkyon (Cercyon). No one had ever survived a wrestling match with Kerkyon because of his imposing physical strength but Theseus overpowered him and beat Kerkyon to death.
Before he reached Athens, Theseus encountered the villain, Prokrustes (Procrustes), who had a home near Eleusis and would entice travelers with his hospitality and then bind them to his bed where he would then amputate or stretch them to fit the bed. Theseus turned the tables and forced Prokrustes to lie in his own bed, i.e. his death bed.
When Theseus arrived in Athens, his father, Aegeus did not immediately recognize him. In the intervening years, Aegeus had married the sorceress, Medeia (Medea). Medeia knew exactly who Theseus was and began devising plans to dispose of him. Medeia persuaded Aegeus to send Theseus to the plains of Marathon to capture a fierce bull which had been ravaging the countryside. Theseus successfully captured the bull and sacrificed it to Apollon. Medeia then tried to poison Theseus but Aegeus finally recognized the sword that Theseus carried and saved him from Medeia's plotting.
Theseus attacks the Minotaur as Ariadne looks on.
For reasons that are variously given, the city of Athens was required to send seven boys and seven girls to king Minos on the island of Crete as payment of a war-debt. Each year the Athenians would send the fourteen youths to be placed in the labyrinth where Minos kept the bull-man known as the Minotaur; each year the Minotaur would kill the sacrificial youths.
Theseus was either chosen or volunteered to face the Minotaur and sailed to the island of Crete with the other sacrificial victims; on the voyage to Crete, king Minos was bragging about his divine heritage and Theseus said that he was also descended from the Immortals. Minos took a ring from his finger and threw it overboard. Theseus jumped into the sea and, with the assistance of Poseidon's wife Amphitrite, retrieved the ring.
When Theseus and Minos arrived on the island of Crete, Minos's daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus. When Theseus and the other sacrificial youths were put into the labyrinth, Ariadne gave Theseus a roll of twine so that he could unroll the string and find his way out of the maze. Theseus fought and killed the Minotaur and escaped the labyrinth with the other Athenian youths.
After Theseus left Crete, Ariadne went with him but before they could reach Athens, the two were separated either because Theseus deserted her or because Dionysos (a.k.a. Bacchus, god of Wine) desired Ariadne.
Theseus and his father had devised a signal by which Aegeus would be able to tell by the color of the ship's sails whether Theseus had defeated the Minotaur and was returning safely to Athens. Aegeus saw the ship in the distance and misinterpreted the signal. Thinking that Theseus was dead, he threw himself into the sea and drowned. Theseus was now the king of Athens.
The remainder of Theseus's life was as convoluted as that of Herakles. Theseus's marriage to the Amazon, Antiope (or Hippolyte), started a war with the Amazons which the Athenians won. Theseus and Antiope had a son named Hippolytus (Hippolytos) who became the subject of sorrow in Theseus's later life. The fate of Antiope is unclear but Theseus went on to marry another woman named Phaedra. She was the sister of Ariadne and a daughter of king Minos of the island of Crete.
Phaedra and Theseus had two sons named: Akamas (Acamas) and Demophon. Phaedra became infatuated with her stepson, Hippolytus, and instead of surrendering to her passions she hanged herself but left a suicide note stating that Hippolytus had tried to force himself upon her. Theseus was enraged and prayed to Poseidon (lord of the Sea) to avenge the insult his son had perpetrated against his wife. Poseidon sent a bull from the sea and frightened the horses that drew Hippolytus's chariot. The chariot overturned and killed Hippolytus.
The years following Phaedra's suicide were perhaps less exciting than Theseus's youthful adventures but he still managed to become involved in some of the most interesting adventures that defined the development of Attica. Theseus was the last man to see the cursed king of the city of Thebes, Oedipus, alive. Theseus gave asylum to Oedipus and accompanied him to his final resting place.
Peirithoos (Peirithous) was the legendary king of the Lapithae in Thessaly near Mount Pelion.
Peirithoos had heard of the reputation of Theseus and was compelled to test him. Peirithoos stole some of Theseus's cattle from the plain of Marathon and when Theseus came after him, Peirithoos did not try to escape but rather stood his ground and faced the hero. The two men were impressed with each other and, instead of fighting, Peirithoos extended his hand in friendship and swore that he would accept any punishment that Theseus deemed appropriate. Theseus opted for forgiveness instead of punishment and the two men sealed their friendship with an oath.
Peirithoos invited Theseus to a wedding feast and, one way or another, the two men led the Lapithae in a war against the Centaurs. There are at least two versions of how the Centaurs disrupted the wedding feast:
1) The wedding was for Peirithoos and Diedamia and the Centaurs were invited guests. The Centaurs became intoxicated and began to harass the Lapithae women; or
2) The wedding was for Peirithoos's daughter, Hippodamia, and the neighboring Centaurs raided the festivities and tried to kidnap Hippodamia.
Regardless of the motivation, Peirithoos, Theseus and the Lapithae men began to fight with the Centaurs and a bitter war ensued. The Lapithae eventually drove the Centaurs from the area of Mount Pelion.
The Lapithai at war with the Centaurs.
Theseus also accompanied king Peirithoos to the House of Hades in order to kidnap Persephone but was rescued by Herakles and escaped eternal imprisonment in the Underworld.
Peirithoos and Theseus went to the town of Aphidnus where they planned to kidnap the daughter of Aidoneus, Kore (Core). When Aidoneus realized what the two plotters were planning, he turned his dog loose on Peirithoos. In this way, a man of renown and responsibility, died the death of a scoundrel.
Peirithoos and Theseus were responsible for the kidnapping of Helen when she was a young girl. While in the city of Sparta, the two men saw Helen dancing in the temple of the goddess Artemis. They were captivated by her beauty and took the girl against her will. After they had successfully escaped their pursuers, the two villains drew lots to see who would be allowed to marry Helen. The winner would help the loser find another wife. Theseus won the draw and his plan was to hide Helen with his mother until she was of marrying age.
Helen's brothers, Kastor (Castor) and Polydeukes (Polydeuces or Pollux) rescued her but not before Helen became pregnant. Helen was returned to her family before the child was born and persuaded her sister Klytemnestra (Clytemnestra), who was already married, to raise the child as her own.
Theseus was eventually driven from Athens and forced to take refuge on the island of Skyros (Scyros) where he died. Using the lives of King Minos and Herakles as a time reference, this would mean that Theseus died circa 1260 BCE.
Theseus was a brave and resourceful man but one of his most enduring contributions was of a political nature. The city of Athens had been, like all Greek cities, an independent city with its own laws, foreign policies and system of government. From the time of the first kings of Athens to the time of Theseus (circa 1270 BCE) there had been periods of cooperation and periods of contention amongst the cities of Attica but Theseus changed all that with an innovative solution. Theseus united the entire area under one central Athenian government and the agriculturally poor region gradually became an important international trading hub as well as a formidable colonial and military power. The unification of Athens was called the Synoikismos which means Living Together or Marriage. A public feast was initiated to commemorate this event and was called the Synoikia (Synoikiera) and was celebrated on the seventeenth day of the month of Hekatombaion (which would be early September by our calendar).
(Loeb Classical Library vol. 57, Hesiod)
(Loeb Classical Library vol. 503, Hesiod II)