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Theseus (UK: //, US: //; Greek: Θησεύς [tʰɛːsěu̯s]) was a divine hero and the founder of Athens from Greek mythology. The myths surrounding Theseus, his journeys, exploits, and friends, have provided material for storytelling throughout the ages.
Theseus is sometimes described as the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and sometimes as the son of the god Poseidon. He was raised by his mother, Aethra, and, upon discovering his connection to Aegeus, travels overland to Athens, having many adventures on the way. When he reaches Athens, he finds that Aegeus is married to Medea (formerly wife of Jason), who plots against him.
The most famous legend about Theseus is his slaying of the Minotaur, half man and half bull. He then goes on to unite Attica under Athenian rule: the synoikismos ('dwelling together'). As the unifying king, he is credited with building a palace on the fortress of the Acropolis. Pausanias reports that after synoikismos, Theseus established a cult of Aphrodite ('Aphrodite of all the People') on the southern slope of the Acropolis.
Plutarch's Life of Theseus makes use of varying accounts of the death of the Minotaur, Theseus's escape, and his romantic involvement with and betrayal of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos.[i]
Plutarch's avowed purpose is to construct a life that parallels the Life of Romulus, the founding myth of Rome. Plutarch's sources, not all of whose texts have survived independently, include Pherecydes (mid-fifth century BC), Demon (c. 400 BC), Philochorus, and Cleidemus (both fourth century BC). As the subject of myth, the existence of Theseus as a real person has not been proven, but scholars believe that he may have been alive during the Late Bronze Age, or possibly as a king in the 8th or 9th century BC.
Aegeus, one of the primordial kings of Athens, was childless. Desiring an heir, he asked the Oracle of Delphi for advice. Her cryptic words were "Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief." Aegeus did not understand the prophecy and was disappointed. He asked the advice of his host Pittheus, king of Troezen. Pittheus understood the prophecy, got Aegeus drunk, and gave Aegeus his daughter Aethra.
But following the instructions of Athena in a dream, Aethra left the sleeping Aegeus and waded across to the island of Sphairia that lay close to Troezen's shore. There, she poured a libation to Sphairos (Pelops's charioteer) and Poseidon and was possessed by the sea god in the night. The mix gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics in his nature; such double paternity, with one immortal and one mortal, was a familiar feature of other Greek heroes.[ii] After Aethra became pregnant, Aegeus decided to return to Athens. Before leaving, however, he buried his sandals and sword under a huge rock[iii] and told Aethra that when their son grew up, he should move the rock, if he were heroic enough, and take the tokens for himself as evidence of his royal parentage. In Athens, Aegeus was joined by Medea, who had left Corinth after slaughtering the children she had borne to Jason, and had taken Aegeus as her new consort.
Thus Theseus was raised in his mother's land. When Theseus grew up to be a young man, he moved the rock and recovered his father's tokens. His mother then told him the truth about his father's identity and that he must take the sword and sandals back to the king Aegeus to claim his birthright. To journey 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,[iv] each guarded by a chthonic enemy. Young, brave, and ambitious, Theseus decided to go alone by the land route and defeated many bandits along the way.
The six entrances to the underworld, more commonly known as the Six Labours, are as follows:
When Theseus arrived in 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 consort 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 and the sword and knocked the poisoned wine cup from Theseus's hands. Thus father and son were reunited, and Medea fled to Asia.
When Theseus appeared in the town, his reputation had preceded him, as a result of his having traveled 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 childless Aegeus would be lost if they did not get rid of Theseus (the Pallantides were the sons of Pallas and nephews of King Aegeus, who was then living at the royal court in the sanctuary of Delphic Apollo). 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 after 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.
Pasiphaë, wife of King Minos of Crete, had several children. The eldest of these, Androgeus, set sail for Athens to take part in the Panathenaic Games, which were held there every four years. Being strong and skillful, he did very well, winning some events outright. He soon became a crowd favorite, much to the resentment of the Pallantides, who assassinated him, incurring the wrath of Minos.
When King Minos heard what had befallen his son, he ordered the Cretan fleet to set sail for Athens. Minos asked Aegeus for his son's assassins, saying that if they were to be handed to him, the city would be spared. However, not knowing who the assassins were, King Aegeus surrendered the whole city to Minos' mercy. His retribution was to stipulate that at the end of every Great Year, which occurred after every seven cycles on the solar calendar, the seven most courageous youths and the seven most beautiful maidens were to board a boat and be sent as tribute to Crete, never to be seen again.
In another version, King Minos 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 talk to the monster to stop this horror. 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.[v] Like the others, Theseus was stripped of his weapons when they sailed. On his arrival in Crete, Ariadne, King Minos' daughter, fell in love with Theseus and, on the advice of Daedalus, gave him a ball of thread (a clew), so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth.[vi] 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 doorpost 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 upon the sleeping Minotaur. The beast awoke and a tremendous fight occurred. Theseus overpowered the Minotaur with his strength and stabbed the beast in the throat with his sword (according to one scholium on Pindar's Fifth Nemean Ode, Theseus strangled it).
After decapitating the beast, Theseus used the string to escape the Labyrinth and managed to escape with all of the young Athenians and Ariadne as well as her younger sister Phaedra. Then he and the rest of the crew fell asleep on the beach of the island of Naxos, where they stopped on their way back, looking for water. Theseus then abandoned Ariadne, where Dionysus eventually found and married her. Theseus forgot to put up the white sails instead of the black ones, so his father, the king, believing he was dead, died by suicide, throwing himself off a cliff of Sounion and into the sea, causing this body of water to be named the Aegean Sea.
Main article: Ship of Theseus
According to Plutarch's Life of Theseus, the ship Theseus used on his return from Minoan Crete 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,[vii] 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, in return for Theseus's successful mission, the Athenians had pledged to honor Apollo every year henceforth. Thus, the Athenians sent a religious mission to the island of Delos (one of Apollo's most sacred sanctuaries) on the Athenian state galley—the ship itself—to pay their fealty to the god. To preserve the purity of the occasion, no executions were permitted between the time when the religious ceremony began to when the ship returned from Delos, which took several weeks.
To preserve the ship, any wood that wore out or rotted was replaced; it was thus unclear to philosophers how much of the original ship remained, giving rise to the philosophical question of 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.
Regardless of these issues, the Athenians preserved the ship. They believed that Theseus had been an actual, historical figure and the ship gave them a tangible connection to their divine provenance.
Theseus's best friend was Pirithous, king 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's gracefulness, beauty and courage they took an oath of friendship and joined the Calydonian boar hunt.
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 the 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" at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia.
Also according to Ovid, Phaedra, Theseus' wife, felt left out by her husband's love for Pirithous and she used this as an excuse to try to convince her stepson, Hippolytus, to accept being her lover, as Theseus also neglected his son because he preferred to spend long periods with his companion.
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. Theseus, in an old tradition, chose Helen, and together they kidnapped her, intending to keep her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone, even though she was already married to Hades, king of the underworld. They left Helen with Theseus's mother, Aethra at Aphidna, whence she was rescued by the Dioscuri.
On Pirithous's behalf they rather unwisely traveled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband Hades. As they wandered through the outskirts of Tartarus, Theseus sat down to rest on a rock. As he did so he felt his limbs change and grow stiff. He tried to rise but could not. He was fixed to the rock. As he turned to cry out to his friend, he saw that Pirithous too was crying out. Around him gathered the terrible band of Furies with snakes in their hair, torches, and long whips in their hands. Before these monsters, the hero's courage failed and he was led away to eternal punishment.
For many months in half-darkness, Theseus sat immovably fixed to the rock, mourning for both his friend and for himself. In the end, he was rescued by Heracles who had come to the underworld for his 12th task. There he persuaded Persephone to forgive him for the part he had taken in the rash venture of Pirithous. So Theseus was restored to the upper air but Pirithous never left the kingdom of the dead, for when Heracles tried to free Pirithous, the underworld shook. They then decided the task was beyond any hero and left. When Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the Dioscuri had taken Helen and Aethra to Sparta.
Phaedra, Theseus' second wife and the daughter of King Minos, bore Theseus two sons, Demophon and Acamas. While these two were still in their infancy, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, Theseus' son by the Amazon queen Hippolyta. According to some versions of the story, Hippolytus had scorned Aphrodite to become a follower 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 version recounted by the Roman playwright Seneca, entitled Phaedra, after Phaedra told Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her, Theseus called upon Neptune (as he did Poseidon in Euripides' interpretation) to kill his son. Upon hearing the news of Hippolytus' death at the hands of Neptune's sea monster, Phaedra died by 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. Dionysus sent a wild bull that 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.
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. Both statements are inconsistent with Medea being Aegeus' wife by the time Theseus first came to Athens. 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 Theseus). The remains found by Cimon 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.