The story of Theseus casts a long shadow over Greek mythology. He stands as both a mystical hero that rivaled the legendary Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) and slew the minotaur, and as the king who was said to have united the villages of the Attic Peninsula into the city-state of Athens.
Sometimes called the “Last Mythical King of Athens,, he was not only credited with founding the city’s democratic government but became one of its key emblems, with his likeness decorating everything from pottery to temples and his image and example being held as the ideal of the Athenian man.
Whether he ever existed as an actual historical figure is impossible to know, though it seems doubtful that he is any more grounded in literal history than his contemporary Hercules. That said, the story of Theseus is significant for its outsized impact on the mythology and culture of Greece, and particularly on that of the city of Athens to which he is so strongly connected.
Birth and Childhood
The story of Theseus begins with another Athenian king, Aegeus, who despite two marriages still had no heir for his throne. In desperation, he journeyed to the Oracle at Delphi for guidance, and the Oracle obliged him with a prophecy. In the tradition of Oracular prophecies, however, it left something to be desired in terms of clarity.
Aegeus was told to “not loose the wineskin’s pendent neck” until he returned to Athens, as recounted in Medea, by Euripides. Finding the message undecipherable, Aegeus sought out the aid of his friend Pittheus, king of Troezen (in the Peloponnesus, just across the Saronic Gulf) and a man known for his skill at untangling the pronouncements of the Oracle.
The Siring of Theseus
He was also, as it happened, skilled at using such prophecies to his advantage. Despite the prophecy’s fairly clear admonition against wine before returning home, Pittheus invited his guest to imbibe heavily, and used Aegeus’ drunkenness as an opportunity for his daughter, Aethra, to seduce him. The same night, as legend goes, Aethra made a libation to the sea god Poseidon which also involved (depending on the source) either possession or seduction by the god.
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Thus was the future king Theseus conceived, with both mortal and divine fathers giving him a demigod-like status. Aegeus instructed Aethra not to reveal his paternity to the child until he came of age, then returned to Athens after leaving his sword and a pair of sandals under a heavy rock. When the boy was old enough to lift the rock and retrieve this inheritance, Aethra could reveal the truth so the boy could return to Athens and claim his birthright.
Over the intervening years, Aegeus married the sorceress Medea (formerly the wife of the mythic hero Jason) and produced another son, Medus (though in some accounts, Medus was actually the son of Jason). Meanwhile, Theseus thus grew up in Troezen, raised by his grandfather and unaware that he was the Prince of Athens, until he finally came of age, learned the truth, and retried the symbols of his birthright from under the stone.
The Journey to Athens
Theseus had a choice of two routes to Athens. The first was the easy way, simply taking a boat for the short journey across the Saronic Gulf. The second way, circumventing the Gulf by land, was longer and much more dangerous. As a young prince eager to find glory, Theseus unsurprisingly chose the latter.
Along this route, he was warned he would pass near six entrances to the Underworld. And each one was guarded by either a mythical being of the Underworld or a bandit of fearsome reputation, depending on which source you believe. These six battles (or Six Labors, as they were better known), formed the foundation of Theseus’ early status as a hero.
Theseus first encountered Periphetes, the club bearer, known for pounding enemies into the ground with a great club of either bronze or iron. After killing him, Theseus took the club for himself, and it became a recurring item in his various artistic depictions.
Known as “the Pine Bender,” Sinis was a bandit noted for executing his victims by binding them to two trees bent down, which when released would rip the victim in half. Theseus bested Sinis and killed him by his own gruesome method.
Theseus’ next battle was, according to legend, with an enormous killer hog bred from Typhon and Echidna (a giant duo responsible for a number of Greek monsters). More prosaically, the Crommyonian Sow may have simply been a ruthless female bandit who had earned the nickname “sow” for either her appearance, manners, or both.
At the narrow sea passage at Megara, Theseus encountered Skiron, who forced travelers to wash his feet and kicked them over the cliff when they bent down to do so. Falling into the sea, the hapless victim would be devoured by a giant turtle. Theseus, anticipating Skiron’s attack, kicked Skiron into the sea instead, feeding him to his own turtle.
Kerkyon guarded the northernmost point of the Saronic Gulf and crushed all passers-by after challenging them to a wrestling match. As with many of these other guardians, Theseus beat him at his own game.
Called “the Stretcher,” Procrustes would invite each passer-by to lay on a bed, either stretching them to fit if they were too short or cutting off their feet if they were too tall (he had two beds of different sizes, ensuring that the one he offered was always the wrong size). Theseus served up justice by cutting off his feet – as well as his head.
The Hero of Athens
Unfortunately, reaching Athens didn’t mean the end of Theseus’ struggles. On the contrary, his journey around the Gulf was just a prelude for the dangers that lay ahead.
The Unwelcome Heir
From the moment Theseus arrived in Athens, Medea – jealously guarding her own son’s inheritance – conspired against him. When Aegeus initially didn’t recognize his son, Medea tried to convince her husband that this “stranger” meant him harm. As they prepared to serve Theseus poison at dinner, Aegeus recognized his sword at the last minute and knocked the poison away.
Yet Medea’s son Medus wasn’t the only one vying with Theseus to be next in line for Aegeus’ throne. The fifty sons of Aegeus’ brother, Pallas, arranged to ambush and kill Theseus in hopes of winning succession for themselves. Theseus learned of the plot, however, and as described by Plutarch in chapter 13 of his Life of Theseus, the hero “fell suddenly upon the party lying in ambush, and slew them all.”
Capturing the Marathonian Bull
Poseidon had gifted an exemplary white bull to King Minos of Crete to be used as sacrifice, but the king had substituted a lesser bull from his herds so as to keep Poseidon’s magnificent gift for himself. In retribution, Poseidon enchanted Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull – a union that spawned the fearsome minotaur. The bull itself raged across Crete until it was captured by Heracles and shipped to the Peloponnese.
But the bull later escaped to the area around Marathon, causing the same havoc it had in Crete. Aegeus sent Theseus to capture the beast – in some accounts, persuaded to do so by Medea (who hoped the task would be the end of the hero), though in most versions of the tale Medea had been exiled after the poison incident. If it was Medea’s idea to send Theseus to his death, it didn’t go according to her plan – the hero captured the beast, dragged it back to Athens, and sacrificed it to either Apollo or Athena.
Slaying the Minotaur
And after dealing with the Marathonian bull, Theseus set out for perhaps his most famous adventure – dealing with the bull’s unnatural offspring, the minotaur. Each year (or every nine years, depending on the account) Athens was required to send fourteen young Athenians to be given to Crete as a sacrifice, where they were sent into the Labyrinth which contained the minotaur in retribution for the death of King Minos’ son in Athens years earlier. Upon learning of this twisted custom, Theseus volunteered himself to be one of the fourteen, pledging that he would enter the Labyrinth, slay the beast, and bring the rest of the young men and women safely home.
He was fortunate enough to recruit an ally when he arrived in Crete – King Minos’ own wife, Ariadne. The queen fell in love with Theseus at first sight, and in her devotion beseeched the designer of the Labyrinth, the artist and inventor Daedalus, for advice on how Theseus might succeed.
Based on Daedalus’ advice, Ariadne presented Theseus a clew, or ball of yarn, and – in some versions of the story – a sword. The Prince of Athens was then able to navigate to the innermost depths of the Labyrinth, unspooling the yarn as he went to provide a clear trail back out. Finding the monster at the Labyrinth’s center, Theseus killed the minotaur either by strangling it or cutting its throat and successfully led the Athenian youths back to safety.
Once free of the Labyrinth, Theseus – along with Ariadne and the Athenian youths – set sail for Athens, stopping along the way at the island now known as Naxos, where they spent the night sleeping on the beach. The next morning, however, Theseus set sail again with the youths but left Ariadne behind, abandoning her on the island. Despite Theseus’ inexplicable betrayal, Ariadne fared well, being found by – and ultimately marrying – the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus.
The Black Sail
But despite Theseus’ victory over the minotaur, the adventure had a tragic end. When the ship with Theseus and the youths had left Athens, it had raised a black sail. Theseus had told his father that, if he successfully returned from the Labyrinth, he would exchangeit for a white sail so Aegeus would know his son still lived.
Unfortunately, Theseus apparently forgot to switch the sail before returning to Athens. Aegeus, spying the black sail and believing his son and heir had perished in Crete, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea which now bears his name, the Aegean. So it was that, as a result of his most remembered victory, Theseus lost his father and ascended to the throne as the King of Athens.
On a quick side note – the ship in which Theseus returned to Athens was supposedly kept as a memorial in the harbor for centuries. Since it sailed once a year to the isle of Delos to pay homage to Apollo, it was kept always in a seaworthy condition, with rotted wood being continually replaced. This “Ship of Theseus,” eternally being remade with new planks, became an iconic philosophical puzzle on the nature of identity.
The New King
Theseus is labeled in mythology as the “Last Mythical King of Athens,” and that title points to his attributed legacy as the founder of Greek democracy. He was said to have united the traditional twelve villages or regions of Attica into a single political unit. Additionally, he is credited as founding both the Isthmian Games and the festival of the Panathenaea.
In legend, the reign of Theseus was a prosperous time, and it is supposedly during this time that Theseus increasingly became the living emblem of the city. The treasury building of the city displayed his mythic feats, as did an increasing amount of public and private art. But Theseus’ reign wasn’t a time of unbroken peace – in classic Greek tradition, the hero tended to create his own trouble.
Battling the Amazons
The fierce female warriors known as the Amazons, supposedly descendants of Ares, were said to dwell near the Black Sea. While spending some time among them, Theseus was so taken with their queen Antiope (called, in some versions, Hippolyta), that he abducted her back to Athens, and she bore him a son, Hippolytus.
Enraged, the Amazons attacked Athens to retrieve their stolen queen, penetrating well into the city itself. There are even some scholars who claim to be able to identify specific tombs or place names that show evidence of the Amazon incursion.
In the end, however, they were unsuccessful in rescuing their queen. She was said to be either killed accidentally in battle or murdered by Theseus himself after she had given him a son. The Amazons were beaten back or, with no one to rescue, simply gave up the fight.
Braving the Underworld
Theseus’ closest friend was Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, who was rumored to be a son of Zeus just as Theseus was said to be a son of Poseidon. The two decided it would be fitting for them to claim wives who also had divine origins and set their sights on two in particular.
Theseus decided to abduct Helen, though she was too young to marry at the time. He left her in the care of his mother, Aethra, until she came of age. This plan would prove futile, however, when Helen’s brothers invaded Attica to retrieve their sister.
Pirithous’ ambitions were even grander – he had his sights set on Persephone, the wife of Hades. The two traveled into the Underworld to abduct her but found themselves trapped instead. Theseus was ultimately rescued by Heracles, but Pirithous was left behind in eternal punishment.
A Family Tragedy
Theseus next married Phaedra – the sister of Ariadne, whom he’d abandoned on Naxos years earlier. Phaedra would bear him two sons, Acamas and Demophon, but this new family would end tragically.
Phaedra would come to fall in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ son by the Amazon queen (some tales credit this forbidden longing to the influence of the goddess Aphrodite after Hippolytus became a follower of Artemis instead of her). When the affair was exposed, Phaedra claimed rape, causing Theseus called on Poseidon to curse his own son.
This curse would come to pass later when Hippolytus would be dragged to death by his own horses (who were supposedly panicked by a beast Poseidon had sent). In shame and guilt over her actions, Phaedra hung herself.
The End of Theseus
In his later years, Theseus fell out of favor with the people of Athens. While his tendency to single-handedly provoke invasions of Athens may have been a factor, public sentiment against Theseus also had an instigator in the form of Menestheus.
The son of Peteus, a former king of Athens who had been himself expelled by Theseus’ father, Aegeus, Menestheus was said in some versions of the story to have made himself ruler of Athens while Theseus was trapped in the Underworld. In others, he simply worked to turn the people against Theseus after he returned.
Whatever the case, Menestheus would ultimately displace Theseus, forcing the hero to leave the city. Theseus would take refuge on the island of Skyros, where he had inherited a small portion of land from his father.
Initially, Theseus was warmly welcomed by the ruler of Skyros, King Lycomedes. In time, however, the king became fearful that Theseus might desire his throne. Out of paranoid caution, legend says Lycomedes killed Theseus by pushing him off a cliff into the sea.
In the end, however, the hero would still come home to Athens. His bones were later recovered from Skyros and brought to the Temple of Hephaestus, which would commonly come to be known as the Theseium for its depictions of Theseus’ deeds, and which still stands today as one of Greece’s best preserved ancient temples.