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The Hero Theseus in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 11, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Theseus in Greek Mythology

Theseus was one of Ancient Greece’s great heroes, ranking alongside Perseus with ancient writers. Today though, the fame of Theseus has been overshadowed by that of Heracles and Perseus, and despite living a life full of adventure, Theseus is now only remembered as the slayer of the Minotaur.

The Birth of Theseus in Greek Mythology

The story of Theseus in Greek mythology starts in Athens, where King Aegeus sat on the Athenian throne. Aegeus had been twice married, firstly to Meta and then Chalciope, and despaired for the birth of a son the succeed him; the king was fearful that one of his 50 nephews, the sons of Pallas, would become king after him.

King Aegeus went to the Oracle of Delphi to seek guidance, although the words that came from the Pythia were cryptic to say the least. To decipher the words, Aegeus visited King Pittheus of Troezen, for Pittheus was regarded as one of the wisest kings of Ancient Greece.

Pittheus understood the message but also saw a chance for the importance of Troezan to increase, and so the king tricked Aegeus in to taking Aethra, Pittheus’ daughter as his partner.

Having slept with the Athenian king, Aethra then waded through the sea to the island of Sphairia, and on the island the sea god Poseidon also slept with the princess. Thus, when born, Theseus in Greek mythology was said to be born from the seed of god and man.

Aegeus would return to Athens, although he left the pregnant Aethra behind. Aegeus would also leave behind his sandals and sword, burying the items beneath a large rock; and the Athenian king told Aethra, that if she gave birth to a son, she was to send him Athens once he was strong enough to retrieve the buried objects.

Theseus and His Father's Sword

Theseus Recovering His Father's Sword - Nicolas-Guy Brenet (1728–1792) - PD-art-100
Theseus Recovering His Father's Sword - Nicolas-Guy Brenet (1728–1792) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Education of Theseus

Aethra did of course give birth to a son, Theseus, and this son was raised in Troezen, where he was educated by King Pittheus; and in some sources, additional training was undertaken by the centaur Chiron.

Theseus would grow up believing that he was the son of Poseidon, and it was only when he came of age, that Aethra informed him of his birthright, the throne of Athens. Theseus easily lifted the stone to take possession of his father’s sandals and sword, and now the young hero planned his trip to Athens.

Unbeknownst to Theseus, the situation in Athens had changed, for King Aegeus had taken himself a third wife. This bride was none other than Medea, the sorceress who had previously been wed to Jason; subsequently Medea had even bore Aegeus a son, Medus.

The Saronic Gulf

Theseus and Sciron

Theseus and Sciron - J. C. Andrä - PD-life-70
Theseus and Sciron - J. C. Andrä - PD-life-70 | Source

Theseus Journeys to Athens

The heroic adventures of Theseus in Greek mythology start with Theseus making his way to Athens.

The journey from Troezen to Athens could be made in one of two ways; firstly there was a sea crossing, which was deemed the safe route, whilst the alternate route was a long dangerous walk around the Saronic Gulf.

King Pittheus advised his grandson to take the safe route, but Theseus wanted to emulate the exploits of Heracles, and vanquish the bandits and murderers found along the coast route.

The route around the Saronic Gulf would take Theseus past six entrances to the Underworld; and at each entrance there was said to reside a notorious bandit.

Periphetes - A day after his departure from Troezen, Theseus would arrive at Epidaurus, where a violent bandit, named Periphetes, was said to live. Periphetes would use a club of iron to beat unwary travellers into the ground. Theseus would face off against Periphetes, but the young hero would easily overcome the bandit, killing him, and taking his iron club as his own.

Sinis - As Theseus continued around the Saronic Gulf, the hero would come to the Isthmian entrance to the Underworld, and there resided the robber Sinis. Sinis was known to capture passers-by, and then time them to two bended pine trees. When the trees sprang apart, the passers-by would be ripped in two. Again Theseus easily overcame this bandit, and would kill Sinis in the same manner that he had killed. Theseus’ strength was so great that, where Sinis had had to use mechanical means to bend the pine trees, Theseus managed with his bare hands. Theseus was also said to have raped Sinis’ daughter Perigune, who would subsequently give birth to Melanippus.

Crommyonian Sow - Shortly after encountering Sinis, Theseus would come across an enormous pig known as the Crommyonian Sow. The Crommyonian Sow was also known as Phaea, and some writers tells of her being an ugly, fierce female bandit, rather than a sow. The Crommyonian Sow ravaged the surrounding countryside, but was easily killed by Theseus.

Sciron - The fourth entrance to the Underworld was near to Megara, and there, a robber named as Sciron, would throw travellers from a sea cliff; from the same cliff, Theseus would throw the bandit when the two met.

Cercyon - At Eleusis, Theseus would meet with Cercyon, a bandit who challenged travellers to a wrestling match. Cercyon had never lost a bout, and had killed all those who he had wrestled, but the natural strength of Theseus overcame the bandit, and Cercyon was killed.

Procrustes - The final entrance to the Underworld was the home of Procrustes. Procrustes would welcome passers-by into his home, and even offer them a bed for the night. The bandit though, would force the traveller to exactly fit in the bed, either by stretching the traveller, or by cutting off their feet. As Procrustes had two beds of different lengths, no traveller would exactly fit in the bed, and so all would be killed. Theseus though would kill Procrustes in the same manner that he had killed.

In making his way to Athens, Theseus had killed six dangerous bandits, dispatching them in the same manner that they killed, and had made the journey around the Saronic Gulf a much safer one.

Theseus and the Marathonian Bull

Theseus Returns with the Marathonian Bull - Charles-André Vanloo - PD-art-100
Theseus Returns with the Marathonian Bull - Charles-André Vanloo - PD-art-100 | Source

Theseus and the Marathonian Bull

The story of Theseus in Greek mythology then continues in Athens.

Hardly troubled by his journey around the Saronic Gulf, Theseus arrived in Athens, although he did not immediately reveal his identity. Nevertheless, Medea, the new wife of King Aegeus, recognised the youth for who he was.

Seeing a threat to her position, and that of her son Medus, Medea sought to do away with Theseus before he was recognised. Medea played on Aegeus’ suspicions about a stranger in his court, and had the king send Theseus on a quest to capture the Marathonian Bull.

The Marathonian Bull was the bull of Crete that had previously been captured and released by Heracles, but was now causing damage to Marathon. Medea expected the Marathonian Bull to kill Theseus.

Theseus though, had as little difficulty in overcoming the Bull, as Heracles had; and the hero returned to Athens in triumph. A costly banquet was held in Theseus’ honour, and the Bull was sacrificed to the god. Medea though has not quite given up on killing Theseus, and persuades Aegeus to poison the hero; Aegeus now fearing the stranger was going to usurp him. As Theseus is about to drink from a poisoned goblet though, the king recognises the sword and sandals worn by Theseus, and dashes the goblet from his son’s hand.

King Aegeus proclaims Theseus to be his son and heir, and the exploits around the Saronic Gulf makes Theseus a popular choice amongst the Athenians. With the proclamation, Medea and Medus are forced to flee from Athens.

The choice of Theseus though is less popular amongst Pallas and his 50 sons, who started to plot against Theseus.

Theseus Recognised by His Father

Theseus Accepted by His Father - Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809–1864) - PD-art-100
Theseus Accepted by His Father - Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (1809–1864) - PD-art-100 | Source

Theseus and Ariadne

Theseus and Ariadne - Niccolò Bambini - PD-art-100
Theseus and Ariadne - Niccolò Bambini - PD-art-100 | Source

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus in Greek mythology today, is most famous for killing the Minotaur, and this part of Theseus’ life occurs shortly after he is named heir to Aegeus.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Athens at the time was subservient to Crete, and every year, or every nine years, King Minos of Crete demanded a tribute of seven maidens and seven male youths from Athens. This tribute would then be sacrificed to the Minotaur, the half-male, half-bull offspring of Queen Pasiphae.

With a tribute now due, Theseus took the place of one of the youths, and sailed to Crete in a ship with a black sail. Theseus promised his father, that if he were successful in his quest, he would return in a ship with a white sail.

On arrival in Crete, Ariadne the daughter of Minos, falls in love with Theseus, and she and Daedalus, aide the Athenian prince in his quest. Theseus is given a sword, and also a thread to ensure he does not get lost in the Labyrinth.

Theseus of course successfully kills the Minotaur in the centre of the Labyrinth, and with the ability to find his way out of the Labyrinth, the hero makes his way to the harbour. There, Theseus boards a ship with the other Athenian youths, and also with Ariadne, and sets sail to Athens.

Theseus and Ariadne

In the short version of Theseus’ life, the story of the hero starts with the Minotaur, and finishes with Theseus and Ariadne happily living life out together; but the truth is that Theseus and Ariadne do not arrive at Athens together.

Writers in antiquity gave various reasons for the split between Theseus and Ariadne. In some stories Theseus leaves Ariadne on Naxos, as the goddess Athena has told him that the Cretan princess is to be a bride of Dionysus, and in some stories Ariadne dies whilst giving birth to Theseus’ child.

Death of King Aegeus

Theseus is so upset about the separation with Ariadne that he forgets to replace the black sails with white sails on his ship. When King Aegeus observes the black sails, he believes that his son has died on Crete, and so commits suicide, throwing himself into the sea, which became known as the Aegean in his honour.

Pallas and his 50 sons then revolt against the new king, Theseus, but pre-warned of an ambush, Theseus kills Pallas and the Pallantides.

The Ship of Theseus Paradox

Plutarch would centuries later tell of how the Ship of Theseus was honoured by the Athenians, and kept in a seaworthy condition for hundreds of years; the Ship of Theseus being used each year for a journey to Delos. To ensure seaworthiness, any rotten wood would be replaced.

To Plutarch this created a philosophical question, known as the Theseus Paradox or Ship of Theseus Paradox, for after a few generations, none of the wood on the ship would be the original wood, and so could the vessel be truly described as the Ship of Theseus?

Theseus Organises Athens

The story of Theseus in Greek mythology is not just the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, and as king of Athens, Theseus in Greek mythology was said to have organised Athens and surrounding Attica, into working government. It was also Theseus who was said to have brought democracy to Athens, introducing a class system of the aristocracy, farmers and craftsmen; with the aristocracy put in charge of religion and law.

Athens as a result prospered with farmers becoming richer, and craftsmen becoming highly regarded. Athens in the time of Theseus was also said to be the first city state to give foreigners the same rights as locals

At the same time, Theseus in Greek mythology was also credited with introducing the Isthmian Games in honour of the sea god Poseidon.

Whilst thought of as a great administrator, Theseus heart though was always one of a hero.

Statue of Theseus, Thiseion neighbourhood, Athens

Mstyslav Chernov CC-BY-SA-3.0
Mstyslav Chernov CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

The Wives of Theseus

Theseus and Antiope

Theseus would accompany Heracles, when Heracles undertook his ninth Labour. This task would see Heracles and Theseus enter the lands of the Amazons to retrieve the Girdle of Hippolyte.

During the adventure an Amazon by the name of Antiope would be carried off by Theseus, and subsequently Antiope would become the wife of Theseus.

It was generally said that Antiope had fallen in love with Theseus, and the Amazon gave birth to Theseus’ son Hippolytus. The Amazons though went to war with Athens, believing that Antiope was being held against her will.

The Amazons advanced to the very gates of Athens but on the hill of Ares Theseus led the Athenians to victory over the Amazons. In the fighting though, Antopie was killed, and so Hippolytus was sent to Troezan to be raised by King Pittheus.

Theseus and Phaedra

At some point though, Theseus would marry Phaedra, a sister of Ariadne; and this second wife of Theseus would give birth to a son, Acamas. Later, Acamas would be known as one of the those who fought the Trojans, and took his place in the Wooden Horse.

Phaedra though is more noted for having fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. Hippolytus though, rejected the advances of his stepmother, but this did not stop Phaedra telling Theseus that he had raped her.

Theseus would use one of three curses given to him by Poseidon, and so in effect, Theseus had his own son killed. Wracked with guilt, Phaedra would then commit suicide.

Theseus and Pirithous

Theseus and Pirithous - Angelique Mongez - PD-life-70
Theseus and Pirithous - Angelique Mongez - PD-life-70 | Source

Theseus and Pirithous

Theseus’ best friend was the prince of the Lapiths, Pirithous, and the pair were named by many sources as being hunters together of the Calydonian Boar.

Theseus and the Centauromachy

Theseus would be invited to the wedding ceremony when Pirithous wed Hippodamia (Deidama); unfortunately also invited to the wedding were the cousins of the Lapiths, the centaurs. The centaurs would get drunk, as was their want, and would seek to carry off all the female guests at the wedding, including Hippodamia. To prevent this Pirithous and Theseus, along with Peleus and Nestor would take up their weapons, and kill many centaurs in a battle that became known as the Centauromachy.

Hippodamia would subsequently give birth to Polypoetes, although the wife of Pirithous would die shortly afterwards

Theseus and the Daughters of Zeus

Theseus and Pirithous would then decide that they were worth of marrying daughters of Zeus. Thus, the pair would first travel to Sparta, and there, Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda was abducted. Helen was then sent to Athens where, when she came of age, would be married to Theseus.

Theseus and Pirithous then continued their quest to find a second daughter of Zeus. Pirithous set his heart on marrying Persephone, ignoring the fact that she was, at the time, in the Underworld, and married to Hades.

In the Underworld, Hades welcomed the heroes, but the Greek god was well aware of their quest, and so as the pair sat down, the stone seats on which they sat moved, trapping them.

The pair were destined to spend eternity trapped in the stone chairs, but thankfully for Theseus, Heracles encountered the pair during his twelfth Labour, and Theseus was freed. There was though nothing Heracles could do for Pirithous, and so the friend of Theseus was left behind.

Theseus Return to Athens

The story of Theseus in Greek mythology then continues once again; but with the hero back on the surface of the earth, he find his world has changed.

During his absence, Castor and Pollux, the brothers of Helen, had raised a Spartan army to rescue their sister. The Spartans had advanced on Athens, and there, an Athenian noble by the name of Menestheus had raised the Athenian populous against their king. Castor and Pollux had then walked into Athens and rescued their sister, and possibly taking Theseus’ mother as hostage.

On returning to Athens Theseus found that he was no longer welcome, and the fact that he was still regarded as a foreigner, having not been born in Athens, did him no favours.

The Death of Theseus

Having no desire to fight for the throne of Athens, Theseus places himself in self-imposed exile, leaving Menestheus as king. Theseus would sail away into the Aegean, and would eventually land upon Skyros.

On Skyros Theseus would become a welcome guest of King Lycomedes, but the welcome would quickly dissipate. The popularity of Theseus on Skyros would see Lycomedes fear for his own position, and so the king would throw his guest off of a cliff.

In Athens, the death of Theseus would pass virtually unnoticed.

The Legend of Theseus Lives On

There is some archaeological evidence to suggest an ancient king of Athens did organise the city in a way mythology has attributed to Theseus; and there is evidence of a war between the Amazons and Athens.

Greek myth and fact do intertwine though, after the Battle of Marathon in 490BC. On the battlefield Athenian soldiers would claim that Theseus himself had led them against the Persian armies; and subsequently, the Oracle of Delphi would command the retrieval of Theseus’ body.

According to legend, Theseus had been buried in Skryos, but at the time of the command, Skryos and Athens were hostile to each other. After 15 years though, General Cimon took Skryos, and the general retrieved a large coffin believed to house Theseus. The coffin was returned to Athens, and would sit thereafter in the Theseum Temple.

The Theseum

Kikithomas55 CC-BY-SA-3.0
Kikithomas55 CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

The Confusing Timeline of Theseus

It is impossible to reconcile the timeline of Theseus in Greek mythology with other stories.

The Calydonian Hunt would have occurred before Theseus’ first arrival in Athens, as Jason and Medea were wed at this time, and as Theseus was said to have been imprisoned in the Underworld during the time of Argonauts, this would have occurred even earlier, and the Centauromachy would have occurred even earlier still.

The abduction of Helen would therefore have to have occurred just before Theseus’ imprisonment in the Underworld, and her rescue by Castor and Pollux, during this period of incarceration. So, Theseus would be overthrown as king of Athens before he had even got there.

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