The Week of Theseus

As promised in my last post of the Autumn of Perseus, the week of 14 December 2015 is the ‘Week of Theseus’. This is the last week of the year that I put up some blog posts here and on the website of Ancient History Magazine, as we will all go on a break for the holidays. And what better way to ring out the old year than by spending another five days with an ancient Greek hero?

His story proper begins with his father, Aegeus, who was king of Athens. Being without heir, he went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask for advice. The response was cryptic, and so he visited Pittheus, ruler of Troezen, who was skilled at interpreting the words of the Oracle. Pittheus believed that his daughter, Aethra, should sleep with Aegeus and thus fed the Athenian king drunk.

Before returning home, Aegeus told Aethra that if she was to deliver a boy, he should come to Athens once he was strong enough to lift up a rock and retrieve the sandals and sword that the king had left there for him. (This obviously meant that if Aethra had given birth to a girl she needn’t have bothered to send the child to Athens!)

Aethra did indeed deliver a boy and called him Theseus. As the descendant of two regular mortals, he was quite a bit different from demigods like Perseus and Heracles, with whom he is often compared. Thus, later writers added that on the night that Aethra conceived of Theseus, she also waded through the sea near Troezen and thus managed to be inseminated by not just the mortal King Aegeus, but also by Poseidon, the god of sea. Some modern commentators have suggested that perhaps Poseidon alone may have conceived Theseus in some early variant of the story, but this seems unlikely to me (see Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth, p. 248).

Once Theseus had become a strong young man, his mother led him to the rock, which he lifted with ease, and retrieved the sandals and sword that his father had left there. On the advice of Aethra, he headed for Athens to present himself to Aegeus. Now, there were two routes he could have taken: one by sea, which was relatively safe, or the more dangerous journey on land. He naturally chose the later, wishing to build a name for himself.

The voyage to Athens was rich in adventure, and I will tell more about these tomorrow. For now, it’s sufficient to say that he did indeed arrive at Athens. There, he was invited to be a guest at Aegeus’ dinner table, though none knew who was as yet. Aegeus had, in the meantime, married Medea, who had fled Corinth after killing the children she had by Jason (of Argonaut fame) as retribution. Medea had even borne Aegeus a son, Medus.

Medea recognized Theseus immediately and feared for the fate of herself and her boy. She first asked Theseus to capture a wild and dangerous bull that had been roaming near Marathon, hoping that the task would kill him. Of course, he succeeded in slaying the creature. She next told Aegeus that Theseus was an assassin, and poisoned his food. But Aegeus recognized his son at the last moment on account of his sword, his sandals, or the two together. He expelled Medea and Medus and announced Theseus his son and heir.

There are some further details that I will omit for now. Athens at this time was at the mercy of Knossos. Minos, the ruler of that Cretan city, had once sent a son to Athens to take part in the Panathenaic games, where he was murdered. Since no one in the city knew who had committed the atrocity, Minos held the whole of Athens responsible. The Athenians had to send a certain number of young men and women (the usual number is seven each) to Knossos every few years (most commonly every seven years) as tribute.

Once at Knossos, the young men and women were led into the Labyrinth, where they would be killed and devoured by the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. Poseidon had once given a mighty bull to Minos to sacrifice, but instead, the king had kept it himself. The god then made the king’s wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with the bull. The Athenian inventor Daedalus constructed a wooden frame in the shape of a cow for the queen so that she could have sexual intercourse with the bull. In this way, she conceived and gave birth to the Minotaur, whose given name was Asterion.

When Theseus heard of the story, he asked his father to be sent as tribute to Knossos so that he might slay the Minotaur. His father reluctantly agreed and Theseus was shipped off to Crete. There, the king’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread so that he could find his way out of the Labyrinth. Eventually, Theseus found the Minotaur and after a struggle, decapitated him.

Theseus and the other young Athenians fled from the island, bringing with them Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra. On the island of Naxos, the god Dionysus appeared to Theseus in a dream and told him to abandon Ariadne, since he desired to marry her and make her a goddess. Theseus and his companions, including Phaedra, thus slipped away while Ariadne was sleeping, leaving her in the care of the god of the vine.

Now, Aegeus had been afraid that Theseus would not return safely from his trip. The ship that had taken him to Crete had black sails, and he had asked his son to fly white sails if he had been successful and was still alive. In all the consternation, however, Theseus forgot about this, and thus the ship still featured black sails. When Aegeus saw this, he feared the worst, and jumped into the sea and drowned. The sea is therefore named after him: the Aegean.

Theseus succeeded his father as king of Athens. Among other things, later Athenians claimed that he was responsible for the synoikismos of Athens, turning a conglomeration of small nuclei and villages into a proper city. I will return to this point when I discuss Plutarch’s Life of Theseus on Friday.

Theseus engaged in other adventures even after becoming king. One thing he did, for example, was kidnap the beautiful Helen when she was still too young to get married. He also fell in love with an Amazon queen and fought alongside Pirithous, prince of the Lapiths, against the Centaurs. His life ended in tragedy, however. His people had fallen out of love with him and he eventually retired to Skyros, where the local king, Lycomedes, would push him off a cliff, wrongly thinking he was doing the world a favour…

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