Greek and Roman Mythology > Theseus


Theseus was the son of AEgeus, king of Athens, and of Aethra,
daughter of the king of Troezene. He was brought up at Troezene,
and, when arrived at manhood, was to proceed to Athens and
present himself to his father. AEgeus, on parting from Aethra,
before the birth of his son, placed his sword and shoes under a
large stone, and directed her to send his son to him when he
became strong enough to roll away the stone and take them from
under it. When she thought the time had come, his mother led
Theseus to the stone, and he removed it with ease, and took the
sword and shoes. As the roads were infested with robbers, his
grandfather pressed him earnestly to take the shorter and safer
way to his father's country, by sea; but the youth, feeling in
himself the spirit and the soul of a hero, and eager to signalize
himself like Hercules, with whose fame all Greece then rang, by
destroying the evil-doers and monsters that oppressed the
country, determined on the more perilous and adventurous journey
by land.

His first day's journey brought him to Epidaurus, where dwelt a
man named Periphetes, a son of Vulcan. This ferocious savage
always went armed with a club of iron, and all travellers stood
in terror of his violence. When he saw Theseus approach, he
assailed him, but speedily fell beneath the blows of the young
hero, who took possession of his club, and bore it ever
afterwards as a memorial of his first victory.

Several similar contests with the petty tyrants and marauders of
the country followed, in all of which Theseus was victorious.
One of these evil-doers was called Procrustes, or the Stretcher.
He had an iron bedstead, on which he used to tie all travellers
who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he
stretched their limbs to make them fit it; if they were longer
than the bed, he lopped off a portion. Theseus served him as he
had served others.

Having overcome all the perils of the road, Theseus at length
reached Athens, where new dangers awaited him. Medea, the
sorceress, who had fled from Corinth after her separation from
Jason, had become the wife of AEgeus, the father of Theseus.
Knowing by her arts who he was, and fearing the loss of her
influence with her husband, if Theseus should be acknowledged as
his son, she filled the mind of AEgeus with suspicions of the
young stranger, and induced him to present him a cup of poison;
but at the moment when Theseus stepped forward to take it, the
sight of the sword which he wore discovered to his father who he
was, and prevented the fatal draught. Medea, detected in her
arts, fled once more from deserved punishment, and arrived in
Asia, where the country afterwards called Media received its name
from her. Theseus was acknowledged by his father, and declared
his successor.

The Athenians were at that time in deep affliction, on account of
the tribute which they were forced to pay to Minos, king of
Crete. This tribute consisted of seven youths and seven maidens,
who were sent every year to be devoured by the Minotaur, a
monster with a bull's body and a human head. It was exceedingly
strong and fierce, and was kept in a labyrinth constructed by
Daedalus, so artfully contrived that whoever was enclosed in it
could by no means find his way out unassisted. Here the Minotaur
roamed, and was fed with human victims.

Theseus resolved to deliver his countrymen from this calamity, or
to die in the attempt. Accordingly, when the time of sending off
the tribute came, and the youths and maidens were, according to
custom, drawn by lot to be sent, he offered himself as one of the
victims, in spite of the entreaties of his father. The ship
departed under black sails, as usual, which Theseus promised his
father to change for white, in case of his returning victorious.
When they arrived in Crete, the youths and maidens were exhibited
before Minos; and Ariadne, the daughter of the king, being
present, became deeply enamored of Theseus, by whom her love was
readily returned. She furnished him with a sword, with which to
encounter the Minotaur, and with a clew of thread by which he
might find his way out of the labyrinth. He was successful, slew
the Minotaur, escaped from the labyrinth, and taking Ariadne as
the companion of his way, with his rescued companions sailed for
Athens. On their way they stopped at the island of Naxos, where
Theseus abandoned Ariadne, leaving her asleep. For Minerva had
appeared to Theseus in a dream, and warned him that Ariadne was
destined to be the wife of Bacchus, the wine-god. (One of the
finest pieces of sculpture in Italy, the recumbent Ariadne of the
Vatican, represents this incident. A copy is in the Athenaeum
gallery, Boston. The celebrated statue of Ariadne, by Danneker,
represents her as riding on the tiger of Bacchus, at a somewhat
later period of her story.)

On approaching the coast of Attica, Theseus, intent on Ariadne,
forgot the signal appointed by his father, and neglected to raise
the white sails, and the old king, thinking his son had perished,
put an end to his own life. Theseus thus became king of Athens.

One of the most celebrated of the adventures of Theseus is his
expedition against the Amazons. He assailed them before they had
recovered from the attack of Hercules, and carried off their
queen, Antiope. The Amazons in their turn invaded the country of
Athens and penetrated into the city itself; and the final battle
in which Theseus overcame them was fought in the very midst of
the city. This battle was one of the favorite subjects of the
ancient sculptors, and is commemorated in several works of art
that are still extant.

The friendship between Theseus and Pirithous was of a most
intimate nature, yet it originated in the midst of arms.
Pirithous had made an irruption into the plain of Marathon, and
carried off the herds of the king of Athens. Theseus went to
repel the plunderers. The moment Pirithous beheld him, he was
seized with admiration; he stretched out his hand as a token of
peace, and cried, "Be judge thyself, what satisfaction dost
thou require?" "Thy friendship," replied the Athenian, and they
swore inviolable fidelity. Their deeds corresponded to their
professions, and they ever continued true brothers in arms. Each
of them aspired to espouse a daughter of Jupiter. Theseus fixed
his choice on Helen, then but a child, afterwards so celebrated
as the cause of the Trojan war, and with the aid of his friend he
carried her off. Pirithous aspired to the wife of the monarch of
Erebus; and Theseus, though aware of the danger, accompanied the
ambitious lover in his descent to the underworld. But Pluto
seized and set them on an enchanted rock at his palace gate,
where they remained till Hercules arrived and liberated Theseus,
leaving Pirithous to his fate.

After the death of Antiope, Theseus married Phaedra, daughter of
Minos, king of Crete. Phaedra saw in Hippolytus, the son of
Theseus, a youth endowed with all the graces and virtues of his
father, and of an age corresponding to her own. She loved him,
but he repulsed her advances, and her love was changed to hate.
She used her influence over her infatuated husband to cause him
to be jealous of his son, and he imprecated the vengeance of
Neptune upon him. As Hippolytus was one day driving his chariot
along the shore, a sea-monster raised himself above the waters,
and frightened the horses so that they ran away and dashed the
chariot to pieces. Hippolytus was killed, but by Diana's
assistance Aesculapius restored him to life. Diana removed
Hippolytus from the power of his deluded father and false
stepmother, and placed him in Italy under the protection of the
nymph Egeria.

Theseus at length lost the favor of his people, and retired to
the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros, who at first received him
kindly, but afterwards treacherously slew him. In a later age
the Athenian general Cimon discovered the place where his remains
were laid, and caused them to be removed to Athens, where they
were deposited in a temple called the Theseum, erected in honor
of the hero.

The queen of the Amazons whom Theseus espoused is by some called
Hippolyta. That is the name she bears in Shakespeare's Midsummer
Night's Dream, the subject of which is the festivities
attending the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Mrs. Hemans has a poem on the ancient Greek tradition that the
"Shade of Theseus" appeared strengthening his countrymen at the
battle of Marathon.

Mr. Lewis Morris has a beautiful poem on Helen, in the Epic of
Hades. In these lines Helen describes how she was seized by
Theseus and his friend:

----------"There came a night
When I lay longing for my love, and knew
Sudden the clang of hoofs, the broken doors,
The clash of swords, the shouts, the groans, the stain
Of red upon the marble, the fixed gaze
Of dead and dying eyes, that was the time
When first I looked on death, and when I woke
>From my deep swoon, I felt the night air cool
Upon my brow, and the cold stars look down,
As swift we galloped o'er the darkling plain
And saw the chill sea-glimpses slowly wake,
With arms unknown around me. When the dawn
Broke swift, we panted on the pathless steeps,
And so by plain and mountain till we came
to Athens, ----------."

Theseus is a semi-historical personage. It is recorded of him
that he united the several tribes by whom the territory of Attica
was then possessed into one state, of which Athens was the
capital. In commemoration of this important event, he instituted
the festival of Panathenaea, in honor of Minerva, the patron
deity of Athens. This festival differed from the other Grecian
games chiefly in two particulars. It was peculiar to the
Athenians, and its chief feature was a solemn procession in which
the Peplus or sacred robe of Minerva was carried to the
Parthenon, and suspended before the statue of the goddess. The
Peplus was covered with embroidery, worked by select virgins of
the noblest families in Athens. The procession consisted of
persons of all ages and both sexes. The old men carried olive-
branches in their hands, and the young men bore arms. The young
women carried baskets on their heads, containing the sacred
utensils, cakes, and all things necessary for the sacrifices.
The procession formed the subject of the bas-reliefs by Phidias
which embellished the outside of the temple of the Parthenon. A
considerable portion of these sculptures is now in the British
museum among those known as the "Elgin marbles."


We may mention here the other celebrated national games of the
Greeks. The first and most distinguished were the Olympic,
founded, it was said , by Jupiter himself. They were celebrated
at Olympia in Elis. Vast numbers of spectators flocked to them
from every part of Greece, and from Asia, Africa, and Sicily.
They were repeated every fifth year in midsummer, and continued
five days. They gave rise to the custom of reckoning time and
dating events by Olympiads. The first Olympiad is generally
considered as corresponding with the year 776 B.C. The Pythian
games were celebrated in the vicinity of Delphi, the Isthmian on
the Corinthian isthmus, the Nemean at Nemea, a city of Argolis.

The exercises in these games were of five sorts: running,
leaping, wrestling, throwing the quoit, and hurling the javelin,
or boxing. Besides these exercises of bodily strength and
agility, there were contests in music, poetry, and eloquence.
Thus these games furnished poets, musicians, and authors the best
opportunities to present their productions to the public, and the
fame of the victors was diffused far and wide.

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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