The father of Theseus was Aegeus and his mother was Aethra. However, before meeting Aethra, Aegeus had desperately wished for a son and although having twice married no child was forthcoming. For advice and guidance to solve this problem he decided to visit the oracle at Delphi but unfortunately this visit was not successful as the oracle was incomprehensible to him and with heavy heart he made his way back to Athens.
On the journey to Athens he rested at Troezen where King Pittheus reigned. Pittheus had a reputation for being wise and Aegeus visited him to see if he could explain the oracle that had been given to him at Delphi. Pittheus gave him wine until he was intoxicated and then sent his daughter, Aethra, to spend the night with him. However, Aethra was also the lover of Poseidon and when, shortly after this Aegeus learned that Aethra was with child he needed to know that the child she was carrying was his.
He decided therefore to go to the temple of Zeus and placed his sandals and sword under a rock next to the temple. He then told Aethra that, if she bears him a son, she should not reveal the name of his father and when he reaches puberty she must tell him to go to the rock next to and, if he is able to lift it he will reveal the signs by which he can search for his father in Athens. However, he should carry out this search with great secrecy, taking care that the Pallantides , nephews of Aegeus and sons of his brother Pallas , do not hear of him because they would bring great danger to him.
In time, Aethra had her child and it was a son. She named him Theseus after the Greek word “ethese”, meaning “he put under”, as his father had put the signs of recognition under the rock.
When Theseus was seven years old he met Heracles who was a guest at the palace of his grandfather King Pittheus. 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
On 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 Wicked 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 Athens
During all this time that Theseus had been growing up, Aegeus had given refuge to Medea who he later married. She in turn healed him from his assumed sterility and given him a son who they had named Medes.
When Theseus arrived at the palace, the king had already heard about the brave lad and his accomplishments. Aegeus never imagined that it might be his son, but Medea, who was a witch , realized that it was so and plotted against him, persuading the unsuspecting Aegeus to poison him during dinner.
Theseus had not yet revealed who he was, but during the dinner, Theseus under the guise of carving the meat, stuck his father’s sword into it. On recognizing his sword and understanding what it meant, Aegeus threw the glass of poison away and embraced his new found son. Aegeus then gathered all his subjects around him and presented his son Theseus to them. Medea fled with her son Medes to Asia.
Later Theseus heard about a wild bull in Marathon which was terrorising the residents and he took it upon himself to travel to Marathon to slay the bull and save the residents. On the way there, it started to rain and he was forced to take refuge in the home of a little old lady named Ekali who took care of him and prayed to the gods to help him. On reaching Marathon, Theseus caught the animal and decided to take it alive to the Temple of Apollo for sacrifice. On the return journey he passed the old lady”s home again and wished to tell her that he was safe and the bull was captured. However, he learned that she had died. Having sacrificed the bull to Apollo, Theseus established a festival in memory of Ekali, gave her name to a town in Attica and founded the sanctuary of Zeus Ekaleos.
Perithes, the Lapith hero, heard of the reputation of Theseus and in jealousy decided to challenge him. So, to goad him, he grabbed Theseus” oxen from Marathon. Theseus chased after him to kill him and Perithes stopped and waited for him determined to beat him in battle. But when they met, they were both overawed with each others boldness and beauty . Perithes first stretched out his hand to Theseus and, when Theseus took it, they swore eternal friendship.
Theseus in Crete and the Minotaur
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.
On arrival at Crete, Theseus met Ariadne fell in love with him. She told him that if he should take her back to Athens with him as his wife, she would help him in his task to slay the Minotaur. With the assistance of Venus she gave him a ball of thread which the hero had to anchor at the entrance to the labyrinth. This would enable him to find his way back out of the maze of tunnels that was the Minotaur’s lair. She also told him that the creature would be asleep for one hour at midnight and this would be the time to catch him off guard and slay him. Theseus proceeded to the entrance of the labyrinth, secured the thread and found and killed the sleeping Minotaur. He was then able to return back to the daylight by following Ariadne’s thread. Meanwhile the young boys who were dressed as girls killed the guards and Theseus opened holes in the Minoan ships so they could not follow them. Together with Ariadne they sailed to Athens.
Unfortunately, an ill wind blew their ship off course and they found themselves on the shores of Naxos. Whilst there, Ariadne and Theseus were drugged and, whilst in a deep sleep, Dionysos came to Theseus in his dream and claimed Ariadne as his own bride. When Theseus woke up he realised that he must leave Ariadne behind and that his destiny lay in Athens.
So, Theseus returned to his ship and, together with the Athenian youth, sailed towards Attica stopping first at the small island of Delos close to Mykonos. Here the hero dedicated the statue of Venus to the local sanctuary and, with the rescued youths, performed a special, shuffling dance, known as the crane, with twisting movements that depicted the complex corridors of the labyrinth. The journey had been so long and so full of trials and tribulations, as well as great joy, that the exhausted and preoccupied Theseus forgot to change the sails of the ship from black to white. Aegeus was waiting at Cape Sounian keeping vigil for the return of the ship. On sighting the approaching ship with its black sails, he was seized with grief and threw himself from the Cape into the sea and was drowned. Thus derives the name of the Aegean Sea. Theseus was not told of his father’s death until after he had made sacrifices to the gods for his safe return. With great sorrow he assumed his father’s throne and ruled wisely and well in Athens for many years.
The Athenians kept the boat until the end of the 4th century BC. The return of Theseus from Crete upset the Pallantides who where waiting to inherit the throne from their uncle Aegeus. They tried to take power in Athens by force but Theseus killed all those who were involved. For the murder of his relatives he was tried, but acquitted because there had been mitigating circumstances which led him to slay them. This was the first trial for murder acquittal relatives
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 the Argonauts.
Theseus as King
On 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.
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.