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The Hero Pirithous in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 18, 2016

Heroes played a central role in many of the stories of Ancient Greece, including the tale of the Argonauts and the heroes of the Trojan War. As a result many Greek heroes like Odysseus, Heracles and Achilles are well known today, the names of many more heroes though are less well known, and one such hero was Pirithous.

The Geneaology of Pirithous

Pirithous was a hero from the generation preceding the Trojan War, a contemporary of Peleus, Jason and Theseus; Pirithous was also the king of the Lapiths.

Nominally, Pirithous was the son of Ixion and Dia, Ixion being at the time king of the Lapiths himself. Ixion though would kill his father in law, and so he was banished from Thessaly.

In the heroic tradition, Pirithous was also said to be a demi-god, born after Zeus had slept with Dia; although this would make Zeus’ eternal punishment of Ixion, after Ixion tried to seduce Hera, seem extremely unfair.

At some point, after Ixion’s banishment and subsequent incarceration in Tartarus, Pirithous would take up the throne of the Lapiths.

The Iliad

Pirithous in Ancient Sources

The timeline of Pirithous is a confusing one when surviving sources are reconciled. It is probable that many stories concerning Pirithous, and Theseus, have not survived, and perhaps were never written down, for Homer, in the Iliad, had Nestor proclaim that the pair of heroes were amongst the strongest of all men, and vanquishers of tribes.

Pirithous and Theseus Meet

A good starting point though is the meeting of Pirithous and Theseus. It was said that Pirithous had heard stories of the strength and skill of Theseus.

To test himself Pirithous would steal away a herd of Theseus’ cattle from marathon, leaving plenty of evidence for who had committed the theft and where the cattle could be found. Theseus of course set out after his missing cattle, and soon caught up with Pirithous.

Pirithous and Theseus would then take up their weapons and fight each other. The pair proved evenly matched, and when it became evident that neither would gain a significant advantage in the fight, the pair made an oath of friendship, and afterwards the pair were normally found together.

Pirithous and Theseus

Pirithous and Theseus - Angélique Mongez - PD-art-100
Pirithous and Theseus - Angélique Mongez - PD-art-100 | Source

Pirithous and the Centauromachy

The first major story of Pirithous concerns his wedding to Hippodamia, the daughter of Butes, and therefore granddaughter of Boreas.

The marriage of the king of the Lapiths was a major event, and as well as his kinsmen, Pirithous invited his more distant relatives, the Centaurs, as well as comrades in arms, including Peleus, Nestor and Theseus.

As the celebrations progressed, the centaurs got more and more drunk, and eventually attempted to carry of Hippodamia and the female guests at the wedding. Quickly Pirithous, the other Lapiths, and the guests of Pirithous took up weapons against the centaurs in an event that would become known as the Centauromachy. Many centaurs were killed, and the rest were driven out of Thessaly. Pirithoush would gain much praise for his role in the fighting.

At about the same time, Pirithous was also commonly named amongst the Calydonian Hunters, the band of heroes brought together to hunt the Calydonian Boar. Stories of the Calydon Hunt tend to focus on Meleager and the actions of Pirithous in the hunt are rarely mentioned.

Pirithous and the Centauromachy

The Centauromachy - Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) - PD-art-100
The Centauromachy - Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) - PD-art-100 | Source

Pirithous Imprisoned

The next major story about Pirithous occurs several years later, after the death of Hippodamia. Pirithous visits Theseus in Athens, and finds that his old friend is also a widow. The pair then determine to find new wives, and also decide that only the offspring of Zeus are good enough for them.

First Pirithous and Theseus travel to Sparta, and there they successfully abduct the young Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda. Helen is to be the new wife of Theseus when she comes of age.

Pirithous though has set his eyes on a more difficult prize, for Pirithous has his heart set on marrying Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and the wife of Hades. This means Pirithous and Theseus have to travel into the Underworld.

The pair are actually successful in entering and traversing the Underworld, and Hades seemingly welcomes the pair, but the Greek god is well aware of their plans. When Pirithous and Theseus therefore sit down to partake of a banquet, the stone chairs in which they were sat, suddenly engulf the, imprisoning them in unbreakable bonds.

Pirithous and Theseus Abduct Helen

The Abduction of Helen by Pirithous and Theseus - Pelagio Palagi (1775-1860) - PD-art-100
The Abduction of Helen by Pirithous and Theseus - Pelagio Palagi (1775-1860) - PD-art-100 | Source

Pirithous Left behind

In those stone chairs Pirithous and Theseus would remain, tormented by the Erinyes, until another Greek hero, Heracles descended into the realm of Hades. Heracles saw the pair in their imprisonment, and Pirithous and Theseus were able to call out to him. Heracles managed to break the stone bonds that held Theseus, but when he tried to free Pirithous, the whole earth rumbled and shook; the crime of Pirithous being too great for Hades to allow his release.

And so, whilst Theseus and Heracles made it back to the surface of the earth, Pirithous remained in eternal incarceration.

Polypoetes Son of Pirithous

The line of Pirithous did continue though, for Pirithous was named father to Polypoetes by Hippodamia. Polypoetes was commonly named as a Suitor of Helen, and having taken the Oath of Tyndareus, the son of Pirithous would fight during the Trojan War leading a force of 40 ships.

Polypoetes was one of those Achaean heroes who hid in the Wooden Horse, and the Greek hero would survive the Trojan War, going on to found the city of Aspendus.

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