Theseus and the Legends of Athens
Early Kings of Attica The first king of Athens was Cecrops, who was sprung from the earth and half-serpent. Many other foundation stories (e.g. Thebes) begin with a foreign founder, but Athenians always emphasized that they were autochthonous, sprung from their native earth.
Early Kings of Attica Erichthonius was another earth-born king. Hephaestus tried to rape Athena, and when she repulsed him, his semen fall on the ground and fathered Erichthonius. The Erechtheum on Athens’ Acropolis is dedicated to another early king, Erechtheus.
Procne & Philomela As Tereus pursued the women, they were all turned into birds: Procne the nightingale, Philomela the swallow, and Tereus the hoopoe. Procne, daughter of Erichthonius, was given to Tereus in marriage. But when her sister Philomela came to visit her, Tereus raped her, imprisoned her, and cut out her tongue. Philomela wove the story into a tapestry and sent it to her sister. Procne and Philomela orchestrated a terrible revenge: they served up Procne and Tereus’ son Itys to Tereus for dinner.
Theseus References to Poseidon abound in Athenian myth: Poseidon and Athena competing for the city, plus references to Poseidon in the myths of Erechtheus and Aegeus (as in Aegean Sea). Posidon was also known as Theseus’ father. But Theseus was also the son of Aegeus. Hmmm. Aegeus, king of Athens, wondered why he was childless and asked at Delphi. They told him that if he wanted children, he should not open the wineskin’s neck until he reached home. The not-very-metaphorically inclined Aegeus swore off the drink, but in Troezen his clever host understood the oracle and arranged for his daughter Aethra to sleep with him. Aegeus left sandals, and a sword as tokens for his future son.
Theseus When Theseus was a young man, strong enough to lift the stone under which the tokens were hidden, Aethra told him of his heritage. Theseus decided to go to Athens. He took the coastal road, which put him in conflict with all of the local bandits. He proved his strength and heroism. These stories metaphorically represent synoikism, the political uniting of the areas around Athens into Athenian domination.
Theseus First he killed the bandit Corynetes (Club-Man) and took his club. So he, like Heracles, has this emblem. Then he killed the bandit Sinis, Pine-Bender, who tore his victims limb from limb with pine trees, by doing the same to him. Then he killed the sow of Crommyon . Theseus’ adventures are more oriented toward bandits but this is a definite parallel with Heracles (the Erymanthian Boar).
Theseus’ Journey He then killed Cercyon (also originally a local hero), who forced passersby to wrestle him to the death. He killed Sciron , who pushed people into the sea where a giant turtle ate them. Sciron was originally a hero – villainized in the Athenian re-write of mythology to reflect its new dominance of Attica.
Theseus’ Journey When Theseus arrived at Athens, his father’s new wife, Medea, a dangerous witch, recognized him as a rival to her own son. She determined to poison him (apparently with Aegeus’ knowledge). But Theseus showed his sword, Aegeus recognized it (and him), and prevented him from drinking the poison. Medea flew away in her dragon chariot. Aegeus recognized Theseus as his heir. Before phase 2, we have to look at Crete . . . Finally he killed Procrustes, who forced passersby to lie in his bed – stretching them if they were too short, lopping off extremities if they were too tall.
Minos and the Bull Minos, king of Crete, had prayed to Poseidon to send him a bull for sacrifice, but when the god did, Minos didn’t sacrifice the bull. Angered by this faithlessness, Poseidon caused Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull. She persuaded Minos’s master-builder, Daedalus, to build her a mechanical cow that she could get inside to seduce & mate with the bull. He complied.
The Minotaur From this union was born the Minotaur (bull of Minos), a half-human, half-bull monster. (Heracles later brought the bull from Crete to Eurystheus, then released it.) Minos was so horrified at the Minotaur that he had Daedalus build him a vast maze to hide the beast. the maze was called the labyrinth.
The Labyrinth Labrys means “double-ax,” and labyrinth means “house of the double-ax.” The labrys was a sacred symbol on Crete; many have been found as dedications in sanctuaries. The idea of the “labyrinth” as a maze may have resulted from Greek impressions of the complex palaces of Crete, with many underground rooms, very different from Greek architecture.
Daedalus & Icarus Daedalus was tired of working for Minos and wanted to leave, but Minos wouldn’t let him. So Daedalus made wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son,Icarus, so they could fly away. Although he warned Icarus to steer a middle course, the boy flew too near the sun, melted the wax on his feathers, and fell to his death.
The Bull of Marathon Theseus’ next heroic deed after he came to Athens was to capture the Bull (formerly from Crete) which was ravaging the nearby plain of Marathon. He sacrificed it to Poseidon (as Minos should have).
Theseus & Crete Due to a past crime by the Athenians, Minos had the right to levy a tribute of seven young men and seven young women from Athens every year. He used them to feed the Minotaur. Theseus volunteered to be one of this number. When he arrived in Crete, he volunteered to be first to meet the Minotaur. Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, fell in love with the hero. She brought him the tools he would need: a sword to kill the monster, and a ball of twine to find his way back.
The Labyrinth Theseus killed the Minotaur, thus liberating the Athenians from the deadly tribute. Theseus left with the Athenians – and Ariadne.
Ariadne Ariadne was probably originally a divine figure. Hesiod describes her as “the wife of Dionysus.” Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos, perhaps for leaving him for Dionysiac rituals.
Theseus in Athens Theseus had arranged with his father that if he was able to escape death, he would change the sail color of the ship he was sailing home in. But he forgot. When Aegeus saw the ship come in, he took it for news that Theseus was dead, and threw himself in the Aegean sea (which bears his name). Theseus was now king of Athens. His adventures continue, sometimes taking parallel form to adventures of Heracles; and sometimes involving Heracles himself. He went on an expedition against the Amazons on the Black Sea, either with Herakles or with his friend Pirithous.
Theseus killed Antiope when she attacked the wedding party when he married Phaedra • The Amazons attacked Athens to get Antiope back, and she was killed by Theseus in that battle • She was accidentally killed by an Amazon, Molpadia The Amazons Theseus either captured the Queen, Antiope -- or she fell in love with him and betrayed her city to run off with him. The different versions continue:
Amazons in Athens: Almost all stories of Amazons set them far away, at the borders of civilization. This Athenian story is one of the very few that show the Amazons attacking a Greek country, rather than experiencing raids or conquests by Greeks, or fighting in far off locales such as Troy. The Amazons reached the Areopagus (hill of Ares on the Acropolis) and Theseus either defeated them or made a treaty with them. Antiope was the mother of Hippolytus, who was devoted to Artemis and rejected sex and love (appropriate son for an Amazon)! Hippolytus was cursed by Theseus through Aphrodite’s manipulations – when Phaedra falsely accused him of rape.
The Amazons “[The Amazons] were considered men for their high courage, rather than women for their sex; for they seemed to outdo men in their spirit more than to be at a disadvantage in their form. . . [But after they tried to conquer Athens,] having met with valiant men, they came to possess spirits suitable to their own nature . . .and by their disasters rather than their bodies they were deemed to be women. And so those women, by their unjust greed for others’ land, justly lost their own.” • Theseus’ exploits were often used in a symbolic way in Athenian political discourse (as in synoikism) • Metaphorically, the defeat of Amazons showed Athenian superiority over (feminized, foreign-ized) enemies of the current day. Defeat of Amazons is often used for such purposes in Greek culture.
Perithoos Amazons symbolize one sort of challenge to masculine, civilized authority – nature, as represented by figures like Centaurs, is another. Theseus and Pirithous (king of the Lapiths) feature in the most famous centauromachy in Greek myth: the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs, which broke out at Perithous’ wedding. The Centaurs got drunk and started trying to rape the Lapith women; but the humans won.
Underworld Raid Heracles rescued Theseus, but Pirithous never returned. Theseus finally married Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne. We have already seen her tragic infatuation with Hippolytus and how that turned out. Theseus and Pirithous agreed to support one another in two hubristic wife-capturing missions: Theseus abducted Helen from Sparta (when she was only a child) and brought her back to Athens. Then he and Pirithous went to Hades to abduct Persephone for Pirithous. While they were gone the Dioscuri recaptured Helen and brought her home. Pirithous and Theseus were caught in magic chairs in Hades.
Like most local heroes, though unlike Heracles, he was much less important in the rest of the Greek world than in his home country. Benevolent Theseus • Despite the hubris of his raid on Helen and Hades, and despite his poor parenting skills (i.e. cursing Hippolytus & causing his death), Theseus appears as a model of virtue in Athenian myth: • his exploits were often against bandits & other human predators • he freed Athens from the tribute to Crete • Athenian sources show him as a helpful mediator in other cities’ disputes (notably the Theban saga).