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In ancient Greek mythology, Theseus was one of the great heroes, ascribed with bringing democracy to Athens among other feats.
King Aegeus of Athens married twice and neither of his wives bore him a son. He went to the oracle at Delphi to request guidance from the gods and on his way back to Athens, he rested at Troezen. There, King Pittheus maneuvered Aegeus into sleeping with his daughter, Aethra. Nine months later, Aethra bore Theseus. Myth is unclear about whether Theseus is actually Aegeus's son or the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. When he reached the age of 16, his mother took him outside the city to a large boulder. She said that his father had left him gifts which he could only have when he was old enough to obtain them himself. Theseus moved the rock and found underneath it the sword and sandals of Aegeus. At his mother's behest, he took the items and traveled to Athens to meet his father. On his way to Athens, Theseus encountered six foes.
  • Periphetes: At Epidauros, Theseus met Periphetes, a giant with a bronze-coated club who preyed on passing travelers. After some haggling, Theseus got the club away from Periphetes and hit him with it, killing him.
  • Sinis: Some ways further on the road, Theseus ran afoul of Sinis, a robber and son of Poseidon. His modus operandi was to ask passers-by for help with his task, bending two pine trees towards each other. If a person consented to assist him, he tied the person's wrists, one to each tree. Eventually, weariness would force the person to loosen his grip and then he would be pulled apart as the trees snapped back upright. Theseus tricked Sinis into being bound to the trees and he suffered the same fate as his victims. At this time, he fathered several children with Sinis's daughter Perigouna.
  • Krommyo and the Pig of the Underworld: When Theseus got to Krommyon, he was asked by the residents to slay a giant sow whose shadowy coloring indicated that it was a creature from the Underworld. Though the pig's owner, an old woman named Krommyo, begged Theseus for leniency, he slew the vicious beast.
  • Skiron: The thief Skiron worked on a narrow mountain road on the isthmus between Megara and Athens. He had a footbath set up in the road and he told travelers that in order to pass they had to wash his feet. When they bent over to do so, he kicked them in the head and sent them over the edge of the cliff to be eaten by the man-eating turtle that resided in the waters below. Theseus grabbed the footbath and threw it at Skiron who fell of the mountain and was eaten by the turtle.
  • Prokrustes: Procrustes manned an inn on the road to Athens. He had a single bed which he claimed would "magically" fit anyone who lay on it. If the person was too short for the bed, he stretched him on the rack, if the person was too tall, he caught off anything that hung over the edges. Theseus forced him to lie in his bed and, when Procrustes's head hung over the edge, Theseus cut it off.
  • Kerkyon: Kerkyon was a vicious wrestler who challenged anyone who passed to wrestle and killed them. Theseus fought him and threw him to the ground so hard that he shattered into a million pieces. At the same time, Theseus invented sportmanlike wrestling.
Finally, Theseus arrived in Athens, where his father's wife, Medea (previously married to Jason of the Golden Fleece), already knew that he was heir to the throne. Out of jealousy for her own son, she convinced Aegeus, who did not recognize his first son, to kill Theseus by forcing him to fight the Bull of Marathon. He defeated the Bull and returned to Athens to great public acclaim. Medea played on Aegeus's insecurities and convinced him that Theseus was too popular and the only way to maintain his position was to serve Theseus poisoned wine. At the last second, Aegeus recognized Theseus's sword as his own and knocked away the goblet, acknowledging Theseus as heir to the throne of Athens.
At this time, Athens was under obligation to Crete because Aegeus had sent King Minos's son to fight the Bull of Marathon and the boy was killed. Minos demanded that in payment Athens send seven young women and seven young men to be sacrificed to the Minotaur (a half-man, half-bull monster, son of Queen Pasiphae) every nine years. At the time of the next sacrifice, Theseus volunteered to be part of the group and to kill the Minotaur. He set sail with thirteen other Athenian youths in a ship with black sails.
When they reached Crete, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and promised to help him in his quest to defeat the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived in an "unsolvable" labyrinth underneath the Cretan palace. However, Princess Ariadne had a special ball of golden twine made by Daedalus, the inventor of the labyrinth that would lead the pure of heart out of the labyrinth safely. Using the magic twine, Theseus entered the maze, slew the Minotaur, and made it out again. He and the other Athenians escaped onto their ship, along with Ariadne. They stopped on their journey home at Naxos, where Theseus left Ariadne. Ariadne was the promised bride of Dionysus and the god claimed her after Theseus and his crew left. There are multiple versions of the reasoning behind Theseus's desertion, but the most common is that he was enthralled by Aigle, one of Dionysus's nurses, and ran off with her.
Theseus had promised his father that if his quest was successful, he would switch the ship's black sails for white on the journey home. In the celebrations after his victory, he forgot his promise. Aegeus stood on a cliff, watching for the ship. When he saw the black sails, he assumed that Theseus was dead and hurled himself into the sea below, which now bears his name, the Aegean. Theseus became king of Athens.
For many years, Theseus went adventuring with his cousin Heracles (in the Roman myths, Hercules). Among their most celebrated quests, the heroes went to war with the Amazons, a race of warrior women. Heracles was trying to get the magic girdle of the Queen of the Amazons. She gave it to him willingly, but Hera stirred the Amazon tribes to rise up and there was a war. Theseus sent a message to the Amazon queen and she came to meet him on his ship, at which point he sailed away and kidnapped her. The name of the queen is alternately given as Antiopa or Hippolyta and she bore Theseus a son, Hippolytos. The queen lived with Theseus until he made peace with the Cretans and married Phaedra, sister to Ariadne. The Amazons attacked over this betrayal of their queen and during the fighting Antiopa/Hippolyta was killed, either by friendly fire or by Theseus.
Later, Theseus encountered the pirate Peirithous. Though he intended to kill the brigand, on sight, he decided he liked the man and they swore an oath of unending friendship. It is at the wedding of Peirithous to Hippodamia that the wars between the Centaurs and Peirithous's people, the Lapithai began. Some years later, the two men made a plan to marry the daughters of Zeus, Helen and Persephone. Theseus, now probably about 50, went first and kidnapped Helen, who was at the time, thirteen. He left her with her mother until she grew to marriageable age, when she married Menelaus and eventually precipitated the Trojan War. There is some speculation that Iphigenia was actually the daughter of Theseus and Helen, passed off to Clytemnestra by her sister. Theseus and Peirithous went to the Underworld to steal Persephone from her husband, Hades. Only Theseus came out alive, thanks to the help of Heracles, then in the process of completing his Twelve Labors.
Very late in his life, Theseus became a friend to Thebes. He accepted Oedipus at Colonus, completing his wanderings, and he helped Adrastus bury the seven dead heroes who tried to take over Thebes. He was exiled from Athens shortly after that and went to Skyros, where he was thrown off a cliff by King Lykomedes.
-Haviva Avirom, Dramaturg


Kerényi, C. The Heroes of the Greeks. Trans. H.l. Rose. 2nd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1959. 217-246.
Skidmore, Joel. "Greek Mythology: Theseus." Mythweb. 1997. <>.
Churchill, Justin. "Theseus." Encyclopedia Mythica. 31 Oct. 2005. Encyclopedia Mythica.<>.
Aeschylus. The Seven Against Thebes.
Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus.
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