Theseus: Wikis


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Topics in Greek mythology
Theseus Slaying Minotaur (1843), bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye

For other uses, see Theseus (disambiguation)

Theseus (Greek: Θησεύς) was the legendary founder-king of Athens, son of Aethra, and fathered by Aegeus and Poseidon, both of whom Aethra lay with in one night. Theseus was a founder-hero, like Perseus, Cadmus or Heracles, all of whom battled and overcame foes that were identified with an archaic religious and social order.[1] As Heracles was the Dorian hero, Theseus was the Ionian founding hero, considered by Athenians as their own great reformer. His name comes from the same root as θεσμός ("thesmos"), Greek for institution. He was responsible for the synoikismos ("dwelling together")—the political unification of Attica under Athens, represented emblematically in his journey of labours, subduing highly localized ogres and monstrous beasts. Because he was the unifying king, Theseus built and occupied a palace on the fortress of the Acropolis that may have been similar to the palace that was excavated in Mycenae. Pausanias reports that after the synoikismos, Theseus established a cult of Aphrodite Pandemos ("Aphrodite of all the People") and Peitho on the southern slope of the Acropolis.

In The Frogs, Aristophanes credited him with inventing many everyday Athenian traditions. If the theory of a Minoan hegemony[2] is correct, he may have been based on Athens' liberation from this political order rather than on an historical individual.

Plutarch's vita of Theseus makes use of varying accounts of the death of the Minotaur, Theseus' escape and the love of Ariadne for Theseus, in order to construct a literalistic biography, a vita.[3] Plutarch's sources, not all of whose texts have survived independently, included Pherecydes (mid-sixth century), Demon (ca 300), Philochorus and Cleidemus (both fourth century).[4]


Early years

Theseus and Aethra, by Laurent de La Hyre

Aegeus, one of the primordial kings of Athens, found a bride, Aethra who was the daughter of king Pittheus at Troezen, a small city southwest of Athens. On their wedding night, Aethra waded through the sea to the island Sphairia that rests close to the coast and lay there with Poseidon (god of the sea, and earthquakes). By the understanding of sex in antiquity, the mix of semen gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics in his nature; such double fatherhood, one father immortal, one mortal, was a familiar feature of Greek heroes.[5] When Aethra became pregnant, Aegeus decided to return to Athens. But before leaving, he buried his sandals and sword under a huge rock[6] and told her that when their son grew up, he should move the rock, if he were hero enough, and take the tokens for himself as evidence of his royal parentage. At Athens, Aegeus was joined by Medea, who had fled Corinth after slaughtering the children she had borne Jason, and had taken up a new consort in Aegeus. Priestess and consort together represented the old order at Athens.

Thus Theseus was raised in the land of his mother. When Theseus grew up and became a brave young man, he moved the rock and recovered his father's arms. His mother then told him the truth about his father's identity and that he must take the weapons back to the king and claim his birthright. To get to Athens, Theseus could choose to go by sea (which was the safe way) or by land, following a dangerous path around the Saronic Gulf, where he would encounter a string of six entrances to the Underworld,[7] each guarded by a chthonic enemy in the shapes of thieves and bandits. Young, brave and ambitious, Theseus decided to go alone by the land route, and defeated a great many bandits along the way.

The deeds of Theseus, on an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BCE (British Museum)

The Six Entrances to the Underworld

  • At the first site, which was Epidaurus, sacred to Apollo and the healer Aesculapius, Theseus turned the tables on the chthonic bandit, the "clubber" Periphetes, who beat his opponents into the Earth, and took from him the stout staff that often identifies Theseus in vase-paintings.
  • At the Isthmian entrance to the Netherworld was a robber named Siris. He would capture travellers, tie them between two pine trees which were bent down to the ground, and then let the trees go, tearing his victims apart. Theseus killed him by his own method. He then raped Siris's daughter, Perigune, fathering the child Melanippus.
Detail of the kylix at right: Theseus and the Crommyonian Sow, with Phaea
  • In another deed north of the Isthmus, at a place called Crommyon, he killed an enormous pig, the Crommyonian sow, bred by an old crone named Phaea. Some versions name the sow herself as Phaea. Apollodorus described Crommyonian sow as an offspring of Typhon and Echidna.
  • Near Megara an elderly robber named Sciron forced travellers along the narrow cliff-face pathway to wash his feet. While they knelt, he kicked them off the cliff behind them, where they were eaten by a sea monster (or, in some versions, a giant turtle). Theseus pushed him off the cliff.
  • Another of these enemies was Cercyon, king at the holy site of Eleusis, who challenged passers-by to a wrestling match and, when he had beaten them, killed them. Theseus beat Cercyon at wrestling and then killed him instead. In interpretations of the story that follow the formulas of Frazer's The Golden Bough, Cercyon was a "year-King", who was required to do annual battle for his life, for the good of his kingdom, and was succeeded by the victor. Theseus overturned this archaic religious rite by refusing to be sacrificed.
  • The last bandit was Procrustes, the Stretcher, who had a bed which he offered to passers-by in the plain of Eleusis. He then made them fit into it, either by stretching them or by cutting off their feet. Theseus turned the tables on Procrustes, although it is not said whether he cut Procrustes to size or stretched him to fit.

Each of these sites was a very sacred place already of great antiquity when the deeds of Theseus were first attested in painted ceramics, which predate the literary texts.

Medea and the Marathonian Bull/ Androgeus and the Pallantides

Theseus captures the Marathonian Bull (kylix painted by Aison, 5th cent. BC)

When Theseus arrived at Athens, he did not reveal his true identity immediately. Aegeus gave him hospitality but was suspicious of the young, powerful stranger's intentions. Aegeus's wife Medea recognized Theseus immediately as Aegeus' son and worried that Theseus would be chosen as heir to Aegeus' kingdom instead of her son Medus. She tried to arrange to have Theseus killed by asking him to capture the Marathonian Bull, an emblem of Cretan power. On the way to Marathon, Theseus took shelter from a storm in the hut of an ancient woman named Hecale. She swore to make a sacrifice to Zeus if Theseus were successful in capturing the bull. Theseus did capture the bull, but when he returned to Hecale's hut, she was dead. In her honor Theseus gave her name to one of the demes of Attica, making its inhabitants in a sense her adopted children.

When Theseus returned victorious to Athens, where he sacrificed the Bull, Medea tried to poison him. At the last second, Aegeus recognized the sandals, shield, and sword, and knocked the poisoned wine cup from Theseus's hand. Thus father and son were reunited, and Medea, it was said, fled to Asia.

In another version, Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, had several children before the minotaur. The eldest of these, Androgeus, set sail for Athens to take part in the Pan-Athenian games which were held there every five years. Being strong and skillful, he did very well, winning some events outright. He soon became a crowd favourite, much to the resentment of the Pallantides, sons of Pallas and nephews of King Aegeus, who were then living at the royal court in the sanctuary of Delphic Apollo,[8] and they assassinated him, incurring the wrath of Minos.

When King Minos had heard of what befell his son, he ordered the Cretan fleet to set sail for Athens. Minos asked Aegeus for his son's assassins, and if they were to be handed to him, the town would be spared. However, not knowing who they were, King Aegeus surrendered the whole town to Minos' mercy. His retribution was that, at the end of every Great Year (seven solar years), the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens were to board a boat and sent as tribute to Crete, never to be seen again.

When Theseus appeared in the town, his reputation preceded him, having travelled along the notorious coastal road from Troezen and slain some of the most feared bandits there. It was not long before the Pallantides' hopes of succeeding the apparently childless Aegeus would be lost if they did not get rid of Theseus. So they set a trap for him. One band of them would march on the town from one side while another lay in wait near a place called Gargettus in ambush. The plan was that once Theseus, Aegeus and the palace guards had been forced out the front, the other half would surprise them from behind. However, Theseus was not fooled. Informed of the plan by a herald named Leos, he crept out of the city at midnight and surprised the Pallantides. "Theseus then fell suddenly upon the party lying in ambush, and slew them all. Thereupon the party with Pallas dispersed," Plutarch reported.[9]

Theseus and the Minotaur on 6th-century black-figure pottery


King Minos of Crete had waged war with the Athenians and was successful. He then demanded that, at nine-year intervals, seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls were to be sent to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in the Labyrinth created by Daedalus.

On the third occasion, Theseus volunteered to slay the monster. He took the place of one of the youths and set off with a black sail, promising to his father, Aegeus, that if successful he would return with a white sail.[10] Like the others, Theseus was stripped of his weapons when they sailed. On his arrival in Crete, King Minos' daughter Ariadne, out of love for Theseus, gave him a ball of string so he could find his way out.[11] That night, Ariadne escorted Theseus to the Labyrinth, and Theseus promised that if he returned from the Labyrinth he would take Ariadne with him. As soon as Theseus entered the Labyrinth, he tied one end of the ball of string to the door post and brandished his sword which he had kept hidden from the guards inside his tunic. Theseus followed Daedalus' instructions given to Ariadne; go forwards, always down and never left or right. Theseus came to the heart of the Labyrinth and also upon the sleeping Minotaur. The beast awoke and a tremendous fight then occurred. Theseus overpowered the Minotaur with his strength and then slit the beast's throat with his sword.

After decapitating the beast, Theseus used the string to escape the Labyrinth and managed to escape with all of the young Athenians and Ariadne - and her little sister Phaidra too. On the return journey Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. In other versions of the story, the god Dionysus appeared to Theseus and told him that he had already chosen Ariadne for his bride, and to abandon her on Naxos, a favorite island. Ariadne then cursed Theseus to forget to change the black sail to white. Seeing a black sail, Theseus' father Aegeus committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea (hence named Aegean). Theseus and the other Athenian youths returned safely. Theseus returned safely back as a king of heroes

Ship of Theseus

According to Plutarch's Life of Theseus, the ship Theseus used on his return to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbor as a memorial for several centuries.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus,[12] for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place...

The ship had to be maintained in a seaworthy state, for it annually carried the Athenian envoys to the festival of Apollo at Delos.

As the wood of the ship wore out or rotted and was replaced, it was unclear to philosophers how much of the original ship actually remained, giving rise to the philosophical question whether it should be considered "the same" ship or not. Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the Ship of Theseus Paradox.

For Athenians, the preserved ship kept fresh their understanding that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure, which none then doubted.


Theseus and the Centaur by Antonio Canova

Theseus's best friend was Pirithous, prince of the Lapiths. Pirithous had heard stories of Theseus's courage and strength in battle but wanted proof, so he rustled Theseus's herd of cattle and drove it from Marathon, and Theseus set out in pursuit. Pirithous took up his arms and the pair met to do battle, but were so impressed with each other they took an oath of friendship and joined the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. In Iliad I, Nestor numbers Pirithous and Theseus "of heroic fame" among an earlier generation of heroes of his youth, "the strongest men that Earth has bred, the strongest men against the strongest enemies, a savage mountain-dwelling tribe whom they utterly destroyed." No trace of such an oral tradition, which Homer's listeners would have recognized in Nestor's allusion, survived in literary epic. Later, Pirithous was preparing to marry Hippodamia. The centaurs were guests at the wedding feast, but got drunk and tried to abduct the women, including Hippodamia. The Lapiths won the ensuing battle.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses Theseus fights against and kills Eurytus, the "fiercest of all the fierce centaurs"[13] at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia.

Theseus carries off the willing Helen, on an Attic red-figure amphora, ca. 510 BCE

Theseus and Pirithous: the abduction of Helen and encounter with Hades

Theseus, a great abductor of women, and his bosom companion, Pirithous, since they were sons of Zeus and Poseidon, pledged themselves to marry daughters of Zeus.[14] Theseus, in an old tradition,[15] chose Helen, and together they kidnapped her, intending to keep her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus's mother, Aethra at Aphidna, whence she was rescued by the Dioscuri.

On Pirithous' behalf they travelled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband, Hades. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and laid out a feast, but as soon as the two visitors sat down, they could not move. They were fastened to the chairs. They did not know where they were or why they were there. In fact, they forgot everything, because they sat on the Chairs of Forgetfulness.

When Heracles came into Hades for his twelfth task, he freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, and Pirithous had to remain in Hades for eternity. When Heracles had pulled Theseus from the chair where he was trapped, some of his thigh stuck to it; this explains the supposedly lean thighs of Athenians. When Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the Dioscuri had taken Helen and Aethra back to Sparta.


Theseus, believed either to be in the company of Heracles, or of his own accord, had been on a quest in the land of the Amazons, a race of all-female warriors who reproduced with men for children (but killed off the males). Sensing no trouble or malice, the Amazons decided to openly welcome Theseus by having the queen, Hippolyta, go aboard his ship bearing gifts. After boarding the ship, Theseus left to Athens, claiming Hippolyta as his own bride. This sparked a war between the Amazons and the Athenians. Hippolyta eventually bore a son for Theseus, whom they named Hippolytus(Ἱππόλυτος). Theseus lost his love for Hippolyta, however, once he had cast his eye on Phaedra .

Phaedra and Hippolytus

Phaedra, Theseus's second wife, bore Theseus two sons, Demophon and Acamas. While these two were still in their infancy, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's son by Hippolyta. According to some versions of the story, Hippolytus had scorned Aphrodite to become a devotee of Artemis, so Aphrodite made Phaedra fall in love with him as punishment. He rejected her out of chastity.

Alternatively, in Euripides' version, Hippolytus, Phaedra's nurse told Hippolytus of her mistress's love and he swore he would not reveal the nurse as his source of information. To ensure that she would die with dignity, Phaedra wrote to Theseus on a tablet claiming that Hippolytus had raped her before hanging herself. Theseus believed her and used one of the three wishes he had received from Poseidon against his son. The curse caused Hippolytus' horses to be frightened by a sea monster, usually a bull, and drag their rider to his death. Artemis would later tell Theseus the truth, promising to avenge her loyal follower on another follower of Aphrodite. In a third version, after Phaedra told Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her, Theseus killed his son himself, and Phaedra committed suicide out of guilt, for she had not intended for Hippolytus to die.

In yet another version, Phaedra simply told Theseus Hippolytus had raped her and did not kill herself, and Dionysus sent a wild bull which terrified Hippolytus's horses.

A cult grew up around Hippolytus, associated with the cult of Aphrodite. Girls who were about to be married offered locks of their hair to him. The cult believed that Asclepius had resurrected Hippolytus and that he lived in a sacred forest near Aricia in Latium.

Other stories and his death

According to some sources, Theseus also was one of the Argonauts, although Apollonius of Rhodes states in the Argonautica that Theseus was still in the underworld at this time. With Phaedra, Theseus fathered Acamas, who was one of those who hid in the Trojan Horse during the Trojan War. Theseus welcomed the wandering Oedipus and helped Adrastus to bury the Seven Against Thebes. Lycomedes of the island of Skyros threw Theseus off a cliff after he had lost popularity in Athens. In 475 BC, in response to an oracle, Cimon of Athens, having conquered Skyros for the Athenians, identified as the remains of Theseus "a coffin of a great corpse with a bronze spear-head by its side and a sword." (Plutarch, Life of Cimon, quoted Burkert 1985, p. 206). The remains found by Kimon were reburied in Athens; the early modern name Theseion (Temple of Theseus) was mistakenly applied to the Temple of Hephaestus which was thought to be the actual site of the hero's tomb.

Adaptations of the myth

with the head of Minotaur

Racine's Phèdre (1677) features Theseus as well as Hippolytus and the title character.

Mary Renault's The King Must Die (1958) is a dramatic retelling of the Theseus legend through the return from Crete to Athens. While fictional, it is generally faithful to the spirit and flavor of the best-known variations of the original story. The sequel is The Bull from the Sea (1962), about the hero's later career. Theseus is also a prominent character as the Duke of Athens in William Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Shakespeare draws on Geoffrey Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseida, whence the use of the anachronistic term "Duke": when Boccaccio and Chaucer were writing in the fourteenth century, there was an actual Duke of Athens. Hippolyta also appears in both plays.

John Dempsey's "Ariadne's Brother: A Novel on the Fall of Bronze Age Crete" (Athens, Greece: Kalendis 1996, 679pp., ISBN 960-219-062-0) tells the Minoan Cretan version of these events based on both archaeology and myth.

Steven Pressfield's Last of the Amazons is a fictional account of Theseus meeting and subsequent marriage to Antiope and the ensuing war. Theseus also appears as a major character in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale

Jorge Luis Borges also presents an interesting variation of the myth in a short story, told from Asterion's point-of-view, "La Casa de Asterion" ("The House of Asterion"), which depends for its full effect on the reader's not realizing the identity of the narrator until the end.

The Cretan Chronicles are an alternative, interactive version of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. The reader controls Theseus's brother Altheus, who learns from Hermes Theseus was killed by the Minotaur and takes up his brother's quest to slay the beast.

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which is set in the distant future, contains a retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, about a student who makes a son from dreams and sends him off to fight an ogre who, unlike the minotaur, has a head like a castle and a body like a ship. In order to save a young maiden, the young man of dreams defeats the ogre by blinding him with burning tar and then returns to the island where the student lives. Sadly the student sees the sails, blackened by the burning tar, and, thinking his created son is dead, throws himself to his death, for "no man lives long when his dreams are dead." The story indicates that both mythology and language have corrupted over time, with the student creating a 'Theseus' (thesis) and the USS Monitor replacing the Minotaur.


  1. ^ See Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth (Carolina Academic Press, 1994), ch. ix "Theseus:Making the New Athens" pp 203-22: "This was a major cultural transition, like the making of the new Olympia by Herakles" (p. 204).
  2. ^ Minoan cultural dominance is clearly reflected in the ceramic history of Attica, but political dominance from Crete does not necessarily follow.
  3. ^ "May I therefore succeed in purifying Fable, making her submit to reason and take on the semblance of History. But where she obstinately disdains to make herself credible, and refuses to admit any element of probability, I shall pray for kindly readers, and such as receive with indulgence the tales of antiquity." (Plutarch, Life of Theseus). Plutarch's avowed purpose is to construct a life that parallels the vita of Romulus that embodies the founding myth of Rome.
  4. ^ Edmund P. Cueva, "Plutarch's Ariadne in Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe" American Journal of Philology 117.3 (Fall 1996) pp. 473-484.
  5. ^ The theory, expounded as natural history by Aristotle was credited through the nineteenth century and only proved wrong in modern genetics: see Telegony (heredity). Sometimes in myth the result could be twins, one born divine of a divine father, the other human of a human sire: see Dioscuri. Of a supposed Parnassos, founder of Delphi, Pausanias observes, "Like the other heroes, as they are called, he had two fathers; one they say was the god Poseidon, the human father being Cleopompus." (Description of Greece x.6.1).
  6. ^ Rock "which had a hollow in it just large enough to receive these objects," Plutarch explains.
  7. ^ Compared to Heracles and his Labours, "Theseus is occupied only with the sacred Entrances that are local to the lands of Athens" (Ruck and Staples 1994:204).
  8. ^ "...where now is the enclosure in the Delphinium, for that is where the house of Aegeus stood, and the Hermes to the east of the sanctuary is called the Hermes at Aegeus's gate." (Plutarch, 12)
  9. ^ Plutarch, 13.
  10. ^ Plutarch quotes Simonides to the effect that the alternate sail given by Aegeus was not white, but “a scarlet sail dyed with the tender flower of luxuriant holm oak.” (Plutarch, 17.5).
  11. ^ Ariadne is sometimes represented in vase-paintings with the thread wound on her spindle.
  12. ^ Demetrius Phalereus was a distinguished orator and statesman, who governed Athens for a decade before being exiled, in 307 BCE.
  13. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses, XII:217-153
  14. ^ Scholia on Iliad iii.144 and a fragment (#227) of Pindar, according to Kerenyi 1951:237, note 588.
  15. ^ Reported in Athenagoras, Apologeta, 557a, according to Kerenyi 1959:234 and note.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985
  • Kerenyi, Karl, The Heroes of the Greeks 1959
  • The Quest for Theseus, ed. Anne Price (London, 1970), examines the Theseus-Minotaur-Ariadne myth and its historical basis, and later treatments and adaptations of it in Western culture.
  • Ruck, Carl A.P. and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, ch. IX "Theseus: making the new Athens 1994, pp. 203–222.
  • Walker, Henry J., Theseus and Athens (Oxford University Press US) 1995. The most thorough scholarly examination of Theseus' archaic origins and classical myth and cult, and his place in classical literature and the beek and stuff like that.

External links

Preceded by
King of Athens Succeeded by

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THESEUS, the great hero of Attic legend,' son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen. Thus through his father he was descended from Erechtheus and the original stock of Attica; through his mother he came of the Asiatic house of Pelops. The legend relates that Aegeus, being childless, went to Pittheus, who contrived that Aegeus should have intercourse with his daughter Aethra, and that in due time Aethra brought forth Theseus. It was given out that the child's father was Poseidon, the great god of Troezen, and that Aethra raised a temple to Athena Apaturia, at which Troezenian maids used to dedicate their girdles before marriage. For his tutor and guardian young Theseus had one Cannidas, to whom, down to Plutarch's time, the Athenians were wont to sacrifice a black ram on the eve of the festival of Theseus. On passing out of boyhood Theseus was sent by his mother to Athens. He encountered many adventures on the way. First he met and slew Periphetes, surnamed Corynetes (Clubman). At the isthmus of Corinth dwelt Sinis, called the Pine-Bender, because he killed his victims by tearing them asunder between two pine-trees. Theseus hoisted the Pine-Bender on his own pine-tree. Next Theseus despatched the Crommyonian sow (or boar). Then he flung over a cliff the wicked Sciron, who used to kick his guests into the sea, while perforce they washed his feet. In Eleusis Theseus wrestled with Cercyon and killed him. A little farther on he slew Procrustes, who fitted all corners to his only bed: if his guest was too short for the bed, he stretched him out; if he was too long, he cut him down to the requisite length. As he passed through the streets of Athens, his curls and long garment reaching to his ankles drew on him the derision of some masons, who were putting on the roof of the new temple of Apollo Delphinius: "Why," they asked, "was such a pretty girl out alone?" In reply Theseus took the bullocks out of their cart and flung them higher than the roof of the temple. He found his father married to Medea, who had fled from Corinth. Being a witch, she knew Theseus before his father did, and tried to persuade Aegeus to poison his son; but Aegeus recognized him by his sword and took him to his arms. Theseus was now declared heir to the throne, and the Pallantids, 2 who had hoped to succeed to the childless king, conspired against Theseus, but he crushed the conspiracy. He then attacked the firebreathing bull of Marathon and brought it alive to Athens, where he sacrificed it to Apollo Delphinius. Next came the adventure of the Cretan Minotaur, whom Theseus slew by the aid of Ariadne. While Theseus was in Crete, Minos, 1 The story of Theseus is a strange mixture of (mostly fictitious) political tradition, of aetiological myths invented to explain misunderstood acts of ritual and of a cycle of tales of adventure analogous to the story of the labours of Heracles. All the passages in the Iliad and Odyssey in which his name or allusions to his legend occur are regarded with more or less probability as spurious (but see O. Gruppe, Gr. Myth., i. p. 581).

The sons of Pallas, the brother of Aegeus.

wishing to see whether Theseus was really the son of Poseidon, flung his ring into the sea. Theseus dived and brought it up, together with a golden crown, the gift of Amphitrite. On the return voyage the ship touched at Naxos, and there Theseus abandoned Ariadne. He landed also at Delos, and there he and his comrades danced the crane dance, the complicated movements of which were meant to imitate the windings of the Labyrinth.' In historical times this dance was still danced by the Delians round a horned altar. Theseus had promised Aegeus that, if he returned successful, the. black sail with which the fatal ship always put to sea should be exchanged for a white one. 2 But he forgot his promise; and when Aegeus from the Acropolis at Athens descried the black sail out at sea, he flung himself from the rock and died. Hence at the festival which commemorated the return of Theseus there was always weeping and lamentation. Theseus now carried out a political revolution in Attica by abolishing the semi-independent powers of the separate townships and concentrating those powers at Athens, and he instituted the festival of the Panathenaea,3 as a symbol of the unity of the Attic race. Further, according to tradition, he instituted the three classes or castes of the eupatrids (nobles), geomori (husba.ndmen), and demiurgi (artisans). He extended the territory of Attica as far as the isthmus of Corinth.

He was the first to celebrate in their full pomp the Isthmian games in honour of Poseidon; for the games previously instituted by Hercules in honour of Melicertes had been celebrated by night, and had partaken of the nature of mysteries rather than of a festival. Of Theseus's adventures with the Amazons there were different accounts. According to some, he sailed with Hercules to the Euxine, and there won the Amazon Antiope as the meed of valour; others said that he sailed on his own account, and captured Antiope by stratagem. Thereafter the Amazons attacked Athens. Antiope fell fighting on the side of Theseus, and her tomb was pointed out on the south side of the acropolis. By Antiope Theseus had a son, Hippolytus. On the death of Antiope, ' Theseus married Phaedra. She fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who, resisting her advances, was accused by her to Theseus of having attempted her virtue. Theseus in a rage imprecated on his son the wrath of Poseidon. His prayer was answered: as Hippolytus was driving beside the sea, a bull issuing from the waves terrified his horses, and he was thrown and killed. This tragic story is the subject of one of the extant plays of Euripides.4 The famous friendship between Theseus and Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, originated thus. Hearing of the strength and courage of Theseus, Pirithous desired to put them to the test. Accordingly he drove away from Marathon some cows which belonged to Theseus. The latter pursued, but when he came up with the robber the two heroes were so filled with admiration of each other that they swore brotherhood. At the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodamia (or Deidamia) a fight broke out between the Lapiths and Centaurs, in which the Lapiths, assisted by Theseus, were victorious, and drove the 1 The Ostiaks of Siberia have an elaborate crane dance, in which the dancers are dressed up with skins and the heads of cranes (P. S. Pallas, Reise durch verschiedene Provinzen des russischen Reichs, iii. 1778).

2 So, too, the ship that sailed annually from Thessaly to Troy with offerings to the shade of Achilles put to sea with sable sails (Philostratus, Heroica, xx. 25). The ship that was to bring Iseult to the mortally wounded Tristram was to hoist a white sail if she was on board, a black sail if she was not. The black sails recur in the modern Greek version of the tale of Theseus. Cf. Asiatick Researches, ix. 97.

3 Besides the Panathenaea Theseus is said to have instituted the festival of the Synoikia or Metoikia. Wachsmuth ingeniously supposes that the latter festival commemorated the local union in a single city of the separate settlements on the Acropolis and its immediate neighbourhood, while the Panathenaea commemorated the political union of the whole of Attica (C. Wachsmuth, Die Stadt Athen im Alterthum, 18 74, p. 453 sq.).

4 Theseus is also said to have taken part in the Argonautic expedition and the Calydonian boar-hunt.

Centaurs out of the country. Theseus and Pirithous now carried off Helen from Sparta, and when they drew lots for her she fell to the lot of Theseus, who took her to Aphidnae, and left her in charge of his mother Aethra and his friend Aphidnus. He now descended to the lower world with Pirithous, to help his friend to carry off Proserpine. But the two were caught and confined in Hades till Heracles came and released Theseus. When Theseus returned to Athens he found that a sedition had been stirred up by Menestheus, a descendant of Erechtheus, one of the old kings of Athens. Failing to quell the outbreak, Theseus in despair sent his children to Euboea, and after solemnly cursing the Athenians sailed away to the island of Scyrus, where he had ancestral estates. But Lycomedes, king of Scyrus, took him up to a high place, and killed him by casting him into the sea. Long afterwards, at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), many of the Athenians fancied they saw the phantom of Theseus, in full armour, charging at their head against the Persians. When the Persian war was over the Delphic oracle bade the Athenians fetch the bones of Theseus from Scyrus, and' lay them in Attic earth. It fell to Cimon's lot in 469 B.C. to discover the hero's grave at Scyrus and bring back his bones to Athens. They were deposited in the heart of Athens, and henceforth escaped slaves and all persons in peril sought and found sanctuary at the grave of him who in his life had been a champion of the oppressed. His chief festival, called Theseia, was on the 8th of the month Pyanepsion (October 21st), but the 8th day of every other month was also sacred to him.5 Whatever we may think of the historical reality of Theseus, his legend almost certainly contains recollections of historical events, e.g. the vuvoucr.vµos, whether by this we understand the political centralization of Attica at Athens or a local union of previously separate settlements on the site of Athens. The birth of Theseus at Troezen points to the immigration of an Ionian family or tribe. With this agrees the legend of the contest between Athena and Poseidon for supremacy on the acropolis of Athens, for Theseus is intimately connected with Poseidon, the great Ionian god. Aegeus, the father of Theseus, has been identified by some modern scholars with Poseidon.

The well-preserved Doric temple to the north of the acropolis at Athens, commonly known as the Theseum, was long supposed to be the sanctuary in which the bones of Theseus reposed. But archaeologists have generally abandoned this conjecture.' There were several (according to Philochorus, four) temples or shrines of Theseus at Athens. Milchhofer considers he has found one of them in the neighbourhood of Peiraeus.s Our chief authority for the legend of Theseus is the life by Plutarch, which is a compilation from earlier writers; see also Bacchylides. G. Gilbert, who has investigated the sources from which Plutarch drew for his life of Theseus, believes that his chief authority was the Atthis of Ister, and that Ister mainly followed Philochorus (Philologus, xxxiii., 18 74, p. 46 sq.).

There is a modern Greek folk-tale which preserves some features of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, but for the Minotaur has been substituted a seven-headed snake. See Bernhard Schmidt, Griechische Meirchen, Sagen and Volkslieder (1877), p. 118 sq.

Among modern monographs on Theseus may be mentioned: A. Schultz, De Theseo (Breslau, 1874); Th. Kausel, De Thesei Synoikismo (Dillenburg, 1882); E. Prigge, De Thesei rebus gestis (Marburg, 1891); O. Wulff, Zur Theseussage (Dorpat, 1892); see also O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologic, i. pp. 581-608; J. E. Harrison, Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens (1890); "Der Theseische Synoikismos" in C. F. Hermann's Lehrbuch der griechischen Staatsaltertiimer, i. (5892), pp. 3 0 3-3 06; A. Baumeister, Denkmeiler des klassischen Altertums, iii. (1888).

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From Ancient Greek Θησεύς (Thēseus). His name comes from the same root as θεσμός (thesmos), Greek for “institution”.

Proper noun




  1. A legendary Ancient Greek hero most famous for defeating the minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete.


Simple English

Theseus was an ancient Greek hero who is the main character in many myths. His father was Aegeus, and his mother was Aethra. He is best known for the defeating the monsters and criminals (such as Procustus who made travellers fit his special bed by stretching them or cutting off their feet) he met on his way to Athens, and killing the minotaur on the island of Crete. Later in life, he became king of Athens after his father.


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