Theseus (Greek: Θησεύς, transl.: Thēséus) was, in Greek mythology, a great Athenian hero. He corresponds for Attica to what the Dorian Heracles was for the Peloponnese. His name means "the strong man par excellence."
Although there are no historical records that indisputably prove that Theseus existed, some historians assume that he ruled Athens between 1234 and 1 204 BCE, as listed in the traditional list of the Kings of Athens, as calculated by Jerome of Stridus.
His father, Aegeus, was the son of Pandion II and was born, as were his brothers Palas, Niso, and Lico, in Megara. Pandion had been king of Athens, but was driven out by the Metionides, sons of Metion, and took refuge in Megara; when King Pilas went to Peloponnesus, Pandion II, married to Pilas' daughter, became king of Megara.
Pandion's sons returned to Athens and drove out the Methionides, reclaiming the kingdom for Aegean, or dividing the kingdom into four, with Aegean having supreme power.
The birth of Theseus
Aegeus married two women, Meta, daughter of Hoples, and Callciope, daughter of Rexenor, but had no children with either of them; fearing losing the kingdom to his brothers (Palas, Niso, and Lyceus), Aegeus consulted Pythia, but did not understand her answer.
On his return to Athens, Aegeus stayed at Trezena, whose king Pythus, son of Pelope, understanding the oracle, made Aegeus get drunk and lie with his daughter Etra. The same night, however, Poseidon also lay with Etra.
Aegeus asked Etra that if she gave birth to a boy, he should only reveal to his son who his father was when he had the strength to take the sword and sandals that he had hidden under a huge stone. After that he was to go secretly to Athens, carrying his father's sword and putting on his sandals.
Aegeus had to return to Athens, to celebrate the Panatenian festival, where Androgeus, son of Minos, defeated all the competitors. Androgeus was killed; according to one version, either Aegeus sent against Androgeus the bull of Marathon, which killed him, or Androgeus traveled to Thebes, to participate in the funeral games in honor of Laius, and was killed by the competitors.
When news of Androgeus' death reached Minos, he was sacrificing to the Graces in Paros: he threw away the garland he wore and interrupted the music of the flutes, a custom which came to be adopted in Paros in the sacrifices to the Graces, made without flutes and garlands.
A boy was born, who grew vigorous and strong like a hero. At sixteen his physical vigor was so impressive that Etra decided to tell him who his father was and what was expected of him. Theseus then lifted the huge stone previously moved by Aegean, retrieved his father's sword and sandals, and headed for Athens.
The arrival of Theseus
On his journey, he arrived in Epidaurus, where he met Periphetes, son of Hephaestus and Anticleia. Periphetes, like his father, was lame and used his crutch as a club to kill the pilgrims who were going to Epidaurus. Theseus killed him with his own crutch/clava and kept it as a souvenir of his first victory.
Theseus went through several other battles, among them, he once battled with Sinis, a giant son of Posidon, who tied his enemies to a pine tree and threw them against rocks, bending it to the ground. Theseus did the same to Sinis and continued on his journey.
Theseus in Athens
When Theseus arrived in Athens he was already known for his deeds, but King Aegeus did not know that he was his son. Medea was already settled in the royal palace after fleeing from Corinth after the murder of four people, including her two sons. Medea knew the identity of the hero, but she didn't tell Aegeus but instead convinced him to kill the stranger, who could be a threat to her reign.
She put poison in the wine and offered it to the distinguished visitor. Theseus took out his sword for comfort at the table and Aegeus recognized him, thus preventing his death. Medea once again was banished from a kingdom, only this time she returned to Colchis.
Variants of the myth tell that Medea sent her stepson on a mission to capture a wild bull that lived near Athens, on the plain of Marathon. This bull would be that of Crete, from the 7th work of Heracles.
After the bull was killed, a sacrifice was made to Apollo, and when Theseus drew his sword, he was recognized by his father. The day before the hunt a lady hosted Theseus in her humble home and promised a sacrifice to Zeus if he returned alive and victorious.
When he returned to see his hostess, whose name was Hecale, Theseus found her dead and instituted a cult of Zeus Hecale in her honor. Before becoming king, Theseus had to face his own animal fury in the form of a bull. The same bull was responsible for Theseus' encounter with Ariadne, daughter of Minos, the beginning of his downfall.
Upon learning that his cousins, the fifty Palantids, wanted to take the throne from his father, Theseus decided to finish them off. The cousins split up to ambush him, but Theseus was warned by the herald Leos. Afterwards, Theseus had to go into exile for a year in Trezena.
Theseus and the Minotaur of Crete
To fight the bull of Crete, the young Androgeus, who was the son of Minos and his wife Pasiphae, kings of Crete, was sent earlier by Aegean. The reason is said to have been jealousy over the young man's performance at the games in Athens. As the young man perished trying to kill the bull, his father Minos decided to wage war against Athens, of which he emerged the winner.
A variant of the myth gives Androgeus' death as being politically motivated, for he would have joined the Palantids, who were enemies of Aegean. Minos headed for Megara with his powerful fleet and soon set out to besiege Athens. During the war a plague sent by Zeus against the Athenians caused Aegean's defeat, which led King Minos to levy a tax every nine years.
The fee was in the form of seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls sent to Crete, where they would be placed in the labyrinth to be devoured by his monstrous son, the Minotaur.
In the third batch of youngsters, Theseus was present and decided to intervene in the problem. He stepped into the shoes of a young man and set off for Crete to enter the Labyrinth. In the match he used black sails to sail and his father gave him a set of white sails, to use if he was victorious in the mission.
In fact, the beautiful Ariadne, daughter of the powerful Minos, fell in love with Theseus and arranged with him a way to find the way out of the terrible labyrinth. A very simple way: just a ball of wool.
Ariadne would stand at the entrance of the palace, holding the ball of wool that Theseus would unwind as he progressed through the labyrinth. To return to the starting point, he would just have to follow the thread that Ariadne would hold tightly. Theseus advanced and killed the monster with a single blow to the head.
The return and the fall of Theseus
On the way back, he stopped at the island of Naxos and set sail from there, leaving Ariadne asleep. This is the best known version, and in another, it is Dionysus who asked Theseus to leave the young girl there. As a wedding present for Ariadne, Dionysus gave her a chiseled gold diadem made by Hephaestus.
This diadem was later transformed into a constellation. Dionysus and Ariadne had four sons: Toas, Staphylus, Enopion and Peparetus. In another variant, Theseus abandoned Ariadne because he loved Egle daughter of Panopleus. In a fourth variant, he took Ariadne to the island's beach to ease her seasickness.
A very strong wind left the ship adrift and when he managed to return he found the princess dead. A fifth variant points out that upon stopping at Naxos, Ariadne goes down on dry land. Poseidon chooses that precise moment to start an immense storm. Theseus must act quickly.
Either he flees the storm immediately or he goes down to get Ariadne, at the risk of having the ship destroyed against the reefs. It is Athena who will interfere. The goddess protector of the Athenians orders Theseus to ice the sail and avoid shipwreck. She gives him the order to abandon Ariadne. His fate lay elsewhere.
The next stopover was on the island of Delos, where he consecrated a statue of Aphrodite, a gift from Ariadne. Then he and his companions performed a circular dance that became a rite on the island of Apollo and was performed for a long time.
As he approached Athens, Theseus forgot to change the black sails for the white ones, and his father, when he spotted the ship, thought he had died in the endeavor, throwing himself off the cliff into the sea, which then came to bear his name.
When he ascended the throne, Theseus organized a democratic government, gathering the inhabitants of Attica and making wise and useful laws for the people. Seeing that everything was going well and the Athenians were happy, Theseus once again went off in search of the adventures he so enjoyed.
Theseus led a fight against the Amazons and his origins are told with some difference. In one version he fought together with Heracles and received as a prize the amazoness Antipope and had a son with her named Hippolytus. In another version, Theseus went alone to the land of the Amazons and kidnapped Antelope.
The Amazons then invaded Attica to avenge the kidnapping. In a third variant, the Amazons invaded Athens because Theseus had abandoned Antipope to marry Ariadne's sister, Phaedra. In any case, to commemorate the victory over the Amazons the Athenians instituted the festivals called Boedromias.
In one of his adventures with Pyritho, he decided to kidnap Helen, still a child, and soon after go to Hades to kidnap Persephone. He was stimulated by the fact that they were both of divine descent.
They decided that Helen would be the wife of Theseus and Persephone of Pyrrhus. The heroes went to Sparta and kidnapped Helen from inside Artemis' temple, but they did not count on the young girl's brothers, Castor and Pollux, going after their sister.
Theseus took Helen to Aphidna to be under the care of her mother Etra, and he and Pyrrhitoo went to Hades to abduct Persephone. During this adventure Castor and Pollux managed to rescue their sister.
This rescue was facilitated by Academo, who revealed the princess' hiding place. In Hades they were invited by their king to sit and eat, with this they were trapped in the hellish seats. When Heracles went to Hades to free them, he was only allowed to take Theseus, leaving Pyritho trapped in the 'chair of forgetfulness'.
When Theseus returned to Athens, he found the city upset and transformed. Tired of so much struggle and administrative work, he sent his sons to Evia, where Elefenor (to deceive with promises) reigned, and decided to live on the island of Esquiro.
Lycomedes (the one who acts like a wolf), the king of the island of Esquiro, feeling threatened, decided to kill the hero by throwing him off a cliff. Even after his death, Theseus' eidolon (soul without the body) helped the Athenians during the battle of Marathon in 480 B.C., driving away the Persians.
After his death, however, the Athenians, repentant, went to Esquiro to collect his ashes and erected a magnificent temple in his honor.
This myth, which has been the subject of investigations by historians, seems to indicate that Athens, for a long time, was dominated by the kings of Crete, who demanded heavy tributes from it. The episode of Theseus and the Minotaur must indicate a revolution that liberated the Athenians.
Excavations made on the island of Crete at the beginning of the century revealed the existence of a large palace with immense corridors resembling a labyrinth (Cnossos Palace, discovered by Arthur Evans). On the other hand, experts say that there is evidence that the kings of Crete wore masks representing bulls' heads during certain festivals and religious ceremonies.