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Life and Feats of Theseus

theseus

Theseus was a Greek king of Athens in Greek mythology, son of Aegeus and Aethra, the most famous hero in ancient Greece after Heracles.

The mythical route traced by Theseus has as its starting point the town of Troizina where the wise King Pittheas reigned. The childless Athenian king Aegeas resorted to him in order Pithheas to interpret an oracle of Pythia. Aegeas had visited her in order to find out how he could get the coveted successor to his throne, as all his efforts until then had been fruitless. Pythia replied to Aegeas “not to untie the leg that protrudes from the bag before reaching Athens”.

Recognizing the true meaning of the oracle, which was not to meet a woman before arriving in Athens, Pittheus urged him – deceptively according to some accounts – to mingle with Aethra’s daughter. Theseus was captured on the islet of Sfairia, which can be reached on foot by landing on a series of reefs. After the sacred marriage of Aethra the island was named Iera.

The legend that Poseidon wanted to be the real father of Theseus, it is said that while Aethra was passing over the reefs to meet Aegeas, she accepted the sea hug of the god and captured the hero before she mingled with her mortal husband. According to another story, Aethra was taken to Sfairia after a dream sent to her by the goddess Athena, in order to offer a sacrifice to the spirit of the dead driver of Pelops, Sfairos or Myrtilos, whose grave was supposed to be on the island.

The myths about the birth of Theseus occurs both Poseidon and Athena, two gods inextricably linked to the city of Athens. The arrival of a king born from the sea with the consent of the patron goddess, of course, seems very appropriate. Even his mortal parents are mirrors of the two gods on earth.

The youth of Theseus

When Theseus was seven years old he met Heracles who was a guest at the palace of his grandfather King Pittheus #4. On entering the room, Heracles had taken off his lion skin cloak and thrown it to the floor. When the children of the Troezen saw this they became frightened and ran away. Only Theseus stayed and, thinking too that the lion skin was a real lion, took up an axe to kill it.

 Time passed and Theseus grew into a brave and strong young man. When he reached sixteen years old his mother, Aethra, led him to the rock next to the Temple of Zeus and here he raised the rock with ease, retrieved the paternal signs and began his journey to seek his father in the city of Athens. Despite the advice of his grandfather and his mother to travel to Athens using the sea route, Theseus chose to travel overland, which however, was full of dangers.

The Feats of Theseus

perifetisOn the way to Athens, the Hero met with a series of villains. Firstly, at Epidaurus he met Periphetes, son of Hephaestus and Antikleia. Periphetes was known also as Korynitis because he roamed the region with an iron cudgel killing all who where passing by. The hero killed him and fashioned a weapon from the iron cudgel.

 At Kechrees near Isthmus, he met the next villain, the son of Poseidon named Sinis, who was also known as Pityokamptis. This name derived from his custom of killing people in the most gruesome way as follows: he bent and fastened the tops of two large pine trees to the ground with rope and tied his victims to these uppermost branches. Then, he unfastened the rope that held the two trees down causing them to spring back into the air and, as they did so, their momentum ripped the victim into two. Theseus killed Sinis in the same way.

 Sinis had a very beautiful daughter, Perigoune, who on seeing the fight between her father and the Hero was scared for her own life and, looking around for somewhere to hide noticed a clump of thorn bushes. She begged them to conceal her and in return she would ensure they were never burned. They opened their branches and took her in. However, on completion of his feat, Theseus found her and promised to stay with her and protect her. (Together. Perigoune and Theseus , had a son, Melanippos, who himself later had a son named Ioxos, who settled in Caria. From Ioxos originate the Ioxides who stayed loyal to their grandmother’s promise, never to light a fire with thorns).

 Moving on, Theseus arrived in Krommyona (today the location of Agioi Theodoroi). There he met Faea, a boar daughter of Echidna and Typhon who wreaked terrible damage in the area. Theseus killed her saving the residents.

 The fourth feat was on Skirronides rocks, or the Kakia Scala. Here Theseus met Skiron, the son of Pelops. Skiron was forcing travellers who where passing by to wash his feet. When they bent down in front of him to carry out this chore he kicked them into the sea where they were eaten by a giant tortoise. Theseus threw him into the sea to meet his death in the same way.

 The fifth feat of the hero was in Eleusis. There Cercyon , son of Poseidon, was killing people by forcing them to grapple with him. The hero lifted him up and knocked him to the ground, beating him not only with his strength but also with his cleverness, therefore they say that the fight is an art first coined by the hero.

 Lastly in his path the hero met Procrustes. He lived near the Sacred Way (Iera Odos) from Athens to Elefsis. This villain had a hostel with two beds: one short and one long, supposedly to accommodate travellers. Once he had lured the unsuspecting travellers into his hostel he forced the tall ones to lie on the short bed and the short ones to the long bed. Then, taking up a hammer he repeatedly struck the short victims flattening them until they fitted the dimensions of the bed, with the tall victims he simply cut away the parts of their bodies that hung over the short beds. Theseus punished Procrustes in the same way.

 On his arrival finally in Athens he med the Fytalides, who were the descendants of Fytalos who had taken care of the goddess Demeter when she was searching for her daughter. The Fytalides were willing to purify him of the dreadful killings that he had carried out to rid the citizens of these villains.
Theseus came to Athens on the 8th of Hekatombaion (July).

Theseus in Crete

When, all those years ago, Theseus’ father. Aegeus had returned to Athens after visiting the Oracle at Delphi he organized the Panathenaic Games which were held every four years and involved, amongst other things, athletic competitions. Androgeos, the son of Minos, took part in these games and won many victories. The jealous Aegeus was angry that Athenian citizens had been defeated by this son of a Cretan King and sent him to Marathon where he was commanded to slay the Cretan bull. However, he was killed by the bull and his father, Minos the King of Crete, blamed the Athenians and also the citizens of Megara for the brutal death of his son.

In revenge Minos gathered together his men and sailed forth towards Athens. His fleet entered the Saronic Gulf and Megara was overthrown and conquered. The war, however, was not over. Minos called upon Zeus for assistance and the god sent a plague to the city of Athens. In despair at the destruction the plague had wreaked on the Athenian population Aegeus capitulated and Minos laid out his terms of retribution for his son’s death.

Minos demanded from the Athenians to send as a sacrifice to the Minotaur seven young men and seven young women every nine years. This sacrifice of the Athenian youth would only end when one of the victims managed to kill the Minotaur by fighting with him in the Labyrinth of Knossos.

Twice, seven young males and seven young females were shipped off to the Labyrinth in a ship with black sails, and each time they were killed and devoured by the Minotaur. When the third time came to send the hapless victims off to Knossos, Theseus offered to go and attempt to slay the bull himself. Reluctantly, Aegeus agreed but instructed the captain to change his sails from black to white if Theseus had been successful and the young people where spared. The wily Theseus exchanged two of the girls with boys, dressing them in women’s clothes. Venus was invited to become a guide on their journey and on the 6th of Mouichion (April) they set sail.

Theseus arrived in Crete as one of the 14 young men and women sent every year by Athens, as a blood tax for the murder of a Cretan prince.  All of them were sacrificed to the Minotaur. This monster, half human and half bull, was the result of the unnatural mating of Pasiphae with the white bull of the god Poseidon. It was kept hidden in a palace with complex corridors and hidden rooms, called the Labyrinth and was built by the architect Daedalus. None of the young victims ever managed to kill the Minotaur or escape from the Labyrinth.

The plan of Ariadne

When Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, saw Theseus, who had just arrived in Crete, she fell in love with him. She promised to show him a way to escape the Labyrinth, if he agreed to marry her and take her back to Athens. Theseus agreed and Ariadne gave him a string of twine (or gold thread) given to her by Daedalus. Having tied one end of the string at the entrance of the Labyrinth, he began to unroll it as he walked through the corridors. So Theseus could follow back the path to the exit, if he managed to kill the Minotaur. When he finally got out, Ariadne led Theseus and the other Athenian survivors to the port,

They boarded his ship and set sail for Athens. At this point there are various versions of the myth for the continuation of the story. In the most common version, the Athenian ship of Theseus arrived on the island of Naxos, where Ariadne fell asleep on the beach. Theseus and his companions set sail, leaving her there. Ariadne when she woke up and found that she had been left alone by her lover, for whom she had betrayed her homeland and family. Nevertheless, Dionysus, the god of wine, had fallen in love with her and came down from his palace to marry her.

Amazons Phaedra Hippolytus and other feats

Theseus took part in the campaign of Heracles in the land of the Amazons. There the Amazon Hippolyte fell in love with him, she betrayed the Amazons and the city was captured by treachery. Theseus took her with him and they had a son,Hippolytus.
Theseus then married Phaedra daughter of Minos. They had two sons, Akamas and Demophon. Before the marriage he sent Hippolytus to his grandfather Pittheus who wanted him for his successor.
When Phaedra saw Hippolytus she fell in love with him and she sent him a letter proclaiming her love and asking him to come away with her. Hippolytus resented the letter and refused to respond. Phaedra, fearing that Hippolytus would denounce her to Theseus, forged a love letter to her from Hippolytus and leaving it in a prominent place she committed suicide.
On finding his dead wife and reading the letter Theseus cursed his son and drove him away from Athens. Using one of the three wishes he had been granted by Poseidon he sent a fierce bull from the depths of the sea which terrified Hippolytus’ chariot team of horses, causing him to be dragged over rocks to his death.
After the death of Phaedra and despite his lack of success in affairs of the heart and his increasing middle aged years, Theseus had not despaired of finding his ideal wife.

This time, he decided to pursue a daughter of Zeus, Helen, who was a Spartan princess, the adopted daughter of King Tyndareus . In this reckless task he was assisted by his new friend Pirithous, the King of Lapithae, who also wanted to marry a daughter of the gods. So they went to Sparta where they saw Helen who, at the time was only around ten or eleven years old. The two suitors drew lots to see which one should have her for a bride and Theseus won. They had no trouble in persuading the young girl to go with them and having achieved this they fled Sparta. Meanwhile, Pirithous had decided to abduct Persephone from the Underworld for his wife and so Theseus left the child Helen with his mother and went with Pirithous to Hades to claim his bride. Surprisingly, Hades the King of the Underworld and Persephone’s father greeted them with hospitality and requested them to sit in stone chairs.

However, once seated their flesh stuck to the chairs and they could not stand up. Furthermore, these chairs caused them to forget everything they knew and they had no understanding who they were or why they were there. Theseus was eventually rescued by Heracles for his twelfth and final labour but a sudden earthquake prevented him from also freeing Pirithous. Theseus was also called upon, along with many other Greek heroes, by King Oeneus of Calydon to hunt down and kill the boar which the vengeful Artemis had sent to Calydon to destroy the land and its people as revenge for his omission in honouring her in his rites to the gods. Theseus was also included in the assembly of nobles that Argus sailed with in their quest for the Golden Fleece by Jason and the Argonauts.

Theseus as King

theseus athensOn his return from Crete, Theseus succeeded his father to the throne making him the 10th king of Athens. He reigned around 1260 BC and was an exemplary king, refusing to rule in an authoritarian manner  maintaining only a right to be chief in time of war and the right to ensure the observance of laws by the citizens of Athens .
Theseus’  most significant achievement was the unification of all the inhabitants of Attica into a common municipality, the political and economic entity that became the  city of Athens.  Prior to this the surrounding twelve demes or little settlements had their own prytaneum and their own rulers, Theseus abolished them and established a common parliament and a prytaneum in Athens. This achievement became known as the Synoikismos.  In his desire to increase the size of the city he gave equality and democratic rights to all, including foreigners and divided all the citizens into nobles, landowners and professionals. He minted and issued coins with an image of a bull and named the currency the dekavoion and ekatomvoion.
Theseus was always benevolent, caring for strangers and anyone who sought refuge in Athens. He took care of Oedipus in his last hours, helped the women of Argos to bury their children who had died fighting in Thebes and was also a valuable friend to Hercules and Pirithous in times of need.

His death

After Hercules rescued him from Hades, Theseus returned to Athens where he found that the Athenians had put Menestheas on the throne in place of him.   He was not able to regain his kingdom and instead took refuge on the island of Skyros where he had some estates.  The king of Skyros was  Lycomedes whom Theseus considered as a friend, however, perhaps due to the insecure position that Theseus now held,  Lycomedes feared that he may be usurped and so, whilst out walking together,  pushed him over a steep cliff and killed him. After the Persian Wars, the bones of the hero were brought back to Athens for burial by Cimon in 475BC. They were placed in the Temple of Theseion at the north-west side of the Agora of Athens and this site became a refuge for the weak, for slaves and for all those who are oppressed by the powerful.