Theseus, a hero of Greek mythology, is best known for slaying a monster called the Minotaur. His life and adventures illustrate many themes of Greek myths, including the idea that even the mightiest hero cannot escape tragedy, if that is his fate.
Mysterious Origins. Like many other heroes of myth and legend, Theseus was born and raised in unusual and dramatic circumstances. His mother was Aethra, daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen. Although some accounts name Poseidon* as his father, most say that Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens, who had stopped at Troezen after consulting the oracle at Delphi.
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
The oracle had warned Aegeus not to get drunk or father a child on his way home to Athens—or one day he would die of sorrow. However, at Troezen, Aegeus ignored the warnings and became
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Aethra's lover. Before leaving for Athens, he placed his sandals and sword under a boulder and told Aethra that if she bore a son who could lift the boulder, that son would inherit the throne of Athens.
Theseus grew into a strong young man, and one day he easily lifted the boulder and retrieved the sandals and the sword. He then set off for Athens to claim his heritage. On the way, he faced a series of challenges: three vicious and murderous outlaws; a monstrous pig that was destroying the countryside; a king who challenged travelers to fatal wrestling matches; and an innkeeper named Procrustes who tortured people by either stretching them or chopping off their limbs to make them fit his beds. Theseus overcame these dangerous opponents and killed them by the same methods they had used against their victims.
Other entries related to Theseus are listed at the end of this article.
Meeting the Minotaur. Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus found King Aegeus married to an enchantress named Medea. Medea tried to poison Theseus. But when Aegeus saw the young man's sword and sandals, he realized that Theseus was his son and saved him from the poison. Medea fled, and Theseus became heir to the Athenian throne. He continued his heroic feats, defeating a plot against his father and destroying a savage wild bull.
Athens labored under a terrible curse. Earlier Aegeus had sent another warrior, the son of King Minos of Crete, against the bull. The prince had died, and in revenge King Minos called down a plague on the Athenians. Only by sending seven young men and seven young women to Crete every year could they obtain relief. In Crete the youths were sacrificed to the Minotaur, a monstrous man-bull that lived below Minos's castle in a maze called the Labyrinth.
Determined to end this grim tribute, Theseus volunteered to be one of the victims. When the Athenians reached Crete, Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus. (Some accounts say that Aphrodite*, whose help Theseus had requested, filled the girl's heart with passion.) Before Theseus entered the Labyrinth, Ariadne gave him a ball of yarn and told him to unwind it on his way in so that he could find his way out again. Deep in the maze Theseus met the Minotaur and killed it with a blow from his fist. He and the other Athenians then set sail for Athens, taking Ariadne with them. Along the way, they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne.
Theseus had promised his father that if he returned safely to Athens he would raise a white sail on his homecoming ship. He forgot to do so, however, and left the black sail hoisted. When Aegeus saw the black-sailed vessel approaching, he killed himself in grief, thus fulfilling the prophecy he had heard at Delphi.
Later Adventures. On his father's death, Theseus became king of the city-state of Athens, where he won honor and was credited with enlarging the kingdom. His name sometimes appears in myths about heroic deeds, such as a battle against the centaurs or the quest of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece*. Theseus also went to war against the female warriors known as Amazons, and he captured and married one of them—either Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, or her sister Antiope. This wife bore him a son, Hippolytus.
After his Amazon wife died, Theseus eventually married Phaedra, said to be a sister of Ariadne. Phaedra fell passionately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, who rejected her love. The scorned Phaedra hanged herself, leaving a letter in which she accused Hippolytus of raping her. Furious, Theseus asked his patron Poseidon to destroy Hippolytus, and the god fulfilled the king's wish. Later, Theseus learned the truth and knew that he had wrongly had his only son killed.
tribute payment made by a smaller or weaker party to a more powerful one, often under the threat of force
city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
centaur half-human, half-animal creature with the body of a horse and the head, chest, and arms of a human
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
Theseus's final adventures were less than glorious. Seeking another wife, he kidnapped a daughter of Zeus* (Helen of Sparta, later known as Helen of Troy). He also became involved in a plot to carry off Persephone, queen of the underworld. These events brought trouble upon Athens, and the people drove Theseus away. Now a lonely old man, Theseus took refuge on the island of Skyros, but the local king, regarding Theseus as a possible rival, pushed the hero off a cliff to his death.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.