Theseus, Great Hero of Greek Mythology

Theseus and Ariadne
Ariadne gives some thread to Theseus to allow him to find his way through the labyrinth, by Pelagius Palagi (1775-1860).

BARDAZZI / Getty Images Plus

Theseus is one of the great heroes of Greek mythology, a prince of Athens who battled numerous foes including the Minotaur, the Amazons, and the Crommyon Sow, and traveled to Hades, where he had to be rescued by Hercules. As the legendary king of Athens, he is credited with inventing a constitutional government, limiting his own powers in the process. 

Fast Facts: Theseus, Great Hero of Greek Mythology

  • Culture/Country: Ancient Greece
  • Realms and Powers: King of Athens
  • Parents: Son of Aegeus (or possibly of Poseidon) and Aethra
  • Spouses: Ariadne, Antiope, and Phaedra
  • Children: Hippolytus (or Demophoon)
  • Primary Sources: Plutarch "Theseus;" Odes 17 and 18 written by Bacchylides in the first half of 5th c BCE, Apollodorus, many other classic sources 

Theseus in Greek Mythology

The King of Athens, Aegeus (also spelled Aigeus), had two wives, but neither produced an heir. He goes to the Oracle of Delphi who tells him "not to untie the mouth of the wineskin until he arrived at the heights of Athens." Confused by the purposefully-confusing oracle, Aegeus visits Pittheus, the King of Troezen (or Troizen), who figures out that the oracle means "don't sleep with anyone until you return to Athens." Pittheus wants his kingdom to unite with Athens, so he gets Aegeus drunk and slips his willing daughter Aethra into Aegeus' bed. 

When Aegeus wakes up, he hides his sword and sandals under a large rock and tells Aethra that should she bear a son, if that son is able to roll away the stone, he should bring his sandals and swords to Athens so that Aegeus can recognize him. Some versions of the tale say that she has a dream from Athena saying to cross over to the island of Sphairia to pour a libation, and there she is impregnated by Poseidon

Theseus is born, and when he comes of age, he is able to roll away the rock and take the armor to Athens, where he is recognized as heir and eventually becomes king.

Theseus Identifies Himself to Aegeus, 19th century
19th century drawing of Theseus and Aegeus, Edmund Ollier 1890. Print Collector / Getty Images

Appearance and Reputation 

By all the various accounts, Theseus is steadfast in the din of battle, a handsome, dark-eyed man who is adventurous, romantic, excellent with the spear, a faithful friend but spotty lover. Later Athenians credit Theseus as a wise and just ruler, who invented their form of government, after the true origins were lost to time.

Theseus in Myth

One myth is set in his childhood: Hercules (Herakles) comes to visit Theseus' grandfather Pittheus and drops his lion skin cloak on the ground. The children of the palace all run away thinking it is a lion, but the brave Theseus whacks it with an ax.

When Theseus decides to make his way to Athens, he chooses to go by land rather than sea because a land journey would be more open to adventure. On his way to Athens, he slays several robbers and monsters—Periphetes in Epidaurus (a lame, one-eyed club-wielding thief); the Corinthian bandits Sinis and Sciron; Phaea (the "Crommyonion Sow," a giant pig and its mistress who were terrorizing the Krommyon countryside); Cercyon (a mighty wrestler and bandit in Eleusis); and Procrustes (a rogue blacksmith and bandit in Attica).

Theseus, Prince of Athens

When he arrives in Athens, Medea—then the wife of Aegeus and mother of his son Medus—is the first to recognize Theseus as Aegeus' heir and attempts to poison him. Aegeus eventually does recognize him and stops Theseus from drinking the poison. Medea sends Theseus on an impossible errand to capture the Marathonian Bull, but Theseus completes the errand and returns to Athens alive. 

As the prince, Theseus takes on the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster owned by King Minos and to whom Athenian maidens and youths were sacrificed. With the help of the princess Ariadne, he slays the Minotaur and rescues the young people, but fails to provide a signal to his father that all is well—to change the black sails to white ones. Aegeas leaps to his death and Theseus becomes king.

King Theseus 

Becoming a king does not suppress the young man, and his adventures while king include an attack on the Amazons, after which he carries off their queen Antiope. The Amazons, led by Hippolyta, in turn invade Attica and penetrate into Athens, where they fight a losing battle. Theseus has a son named Hippolytus (or Demophoon) by Antiope (or Hippolyta) before she dies, after which he marries Ariadne's sister Phaedra.

Battle between the Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons, 14th C CE
Battle between Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons. Miniature from La Teseida, by Giovanni Boccaccio, artist Barthelemy d'Eyck, 14th century. Leemage / Getty Images

Theseus joins Jason's Argonauts and participates in the Calydonian boar hunt. As a close friend of Pirithous, the king of Larissa, Theseus helps him in the battle of the Lapithae against the centaurs. 

Pirithous develops a passion for Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, and he and Theseus travel to Hades to abduct her. But Pirithous dies there, and Theseus is trapped and must be rescued by Hercules. 

Theseus as Mythical Politician

As king of Athens, Theseus is said to have broken up the 12 separate precincts in Athens and united them in a single commonwealth. He is said to have established a constitutional government, limited his own powers, and distributed the citizens into three classes: Eupatridae (nobles), Geomori (peasant farmers), and Demiurgi (craft artisans).

Downfall 

Theseus and Pirithous carry off the legendary beauty Helen of Sparta, and he and Pirithous take her away from Sparta and leave her at Aphidnae under Aethra's care, where she is rescued by her brothers the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). 

The Dioscuri set up Menestheus as Theseus successor—Menestheus would go on to lead Athens into battle over Helen in the Trojan Wars. He incites the people of Athens against Theseus, who retires to the island Scryos where he is tricked by King Lycomedes and, like his father before him, falls into the sea. 

Sources 

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904. Print