Theseus—The Hero of Athens

From the lecture series: Classical Mythology

By Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D., Whitman College

Athenian literature makes up the bulk of the surviving literature that we have from classical Greece. Therefore, Theseus—a hero who is especially associated with Athens—shows up in a great deal of literature.

Painting of Theseus slaying the Minotaur
(Image: By Livioandronico2013/Public domain)

Theseus’s connection with Athens is that he is seen as being the legendary synoikistes of Attica. Synoikistes means, more or less, “unifier.” What this refers to is that Theseus persuaded all the various small and independent towns of Attica—the peninsula on which Athens is located—to unify, to come together under the centralized control of Athens.

This element of his myth, as far as we can tell, developed for Theseus fairly late, in the 6th century B.C., and seems to parallel political developments that were actually going on in Athens at the time. The Athenians apparently felt a need to have a mythic predecessor, a mythic justification for their own political developments in the 6th century B.C., and Theseus provided that justification.

Theseus’ Origin Story

It is perhaps because of the important role Theseus plays in Athens that a great many adventures were attached to his name, which makes it very difficult to work out a consistent chronology for him. However, the early parts of his life—conception, birth, and early adulthood—are fairly easy to describe and fairly well set. In his birth and childhood stories,

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Theseus demonstrates typical elements of narrative that appear in stories about many heroes. In Theseus’s story, we very clearly see that there is some sort of oddity or ambiguity surrounding his conception and birth. For Theseus, the strangest thing about his conception is an apparent double fatherhood. He is said to be the son of both the human and of the god Poseidon.

image of Aigeus in front of the oracle Themis
Aigeus consults the Oracle at Delphi (Image: Altes Museum / Public domain)

The reason there is confusion about his fatherhood is as follows: Theseus’s human father was Aigeus, king of Athens. Aigeus had gone to consult the oracle at Delphi to find out what he needed to do to have a son, because he was, at this point in his life, childless.

The oracle told him in a typical oracular fashion that, to be sure of begetting a son, he should not “loosen the dangling foot of the wine skin” until he returned home to Athens. Aigeus had no idea what this meant. On his way back to Athens from Delphi, he stopped overnight at a place called Troizen, which is close to Attica but not actually in Attica, and asked the king there what this oracle could possibly mean.

The king recognized that what it meant was Aigeus should not have sexual intercourse until he returned home to Athens, the implication being that the next time Aigeus did have sex with anyone, he would beget a son. The king, wanting to connect his family with the royal house of Athens, offered his own daughter to Aigeus as a sexual partner for that night. This woman was Aithra, Theseus’s mother.

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Aigeus and Aithra go to bed together on the advice and consent of her father and have sex. Later that night, Aithra is told in a dream that she should go to a particular temple. She gets out of bed, dresses, and when she goes to this temple, she is raped by the god Poseidon. This means that on the same night, Aithra has had sexual intercourse with both Aigeus and Poseidon. Therefore, no one will ever know who Theseus’s real father is.

The Logic of Two Fathers

There is a very clear logic at work behind this story. Theseus is the great hero of Athens. As such, Athenian myth wants him to be a top-notch hero, and top-notch heroes have a god that is their father. So, if Theseus must have a god as his father, there is this story about Poseidon. Theseus is also the most important legendary king of Athens. How do you become king? You inherit the kingship from your father.

So, Theseus must have a father who is king of Athens, and therefore, the story about Aigeus’s parentage. Since Theseus has to fill both of these roles—really top-notch true hero who needs a god as a father, absolutely legitimate king of Athens who needs a king of Athens as a father—he is given two fathers, and the two are left side-by-side without any decision ever being made in the myths of Theseus about which one is really his father.

Painting by Nicolas-Guy Brenet 1768
Aithra showing Theseus the Place where his father had hidden his sword (Image: By Nicolas-Guy Brenet/Public domain)

Aigeus, when he left Aithra and continued on his way to Athens, performed another element that comes up very frequently in folk tale and in hero myth: He left tokens for his son to discover at a later time in his life. Specifically, Aigeus put a pair of sandals and a sword under a boulder. He told Aithra that if she bore a son, when that son was old enough to lift the boulder and retrieve the sandals and the sword, he should make his way to Athens, show these tokens to Aigeus, and Aigeus would recognize that he was indeed his son. 

If Aithra bore a daughter, Aigeus apparently doesn’t want to know about it. Notice also that Aigeus is perfectly happy to have Aithra have all the trouble, expense, and worry of bringing the baby up. Aigeus only wants him once he is grown, once he is big enough to lift that boulder and make his way to Athens. So, Theseus grows up, lifts the boulder, retrieves the tokens and sets off on a journey to Athens to claim his patrimony.

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Theseus the Unifier

If the traveler was too tall for the bed, Procrustes lopped his legs off to make him fit. If the traveler was too short, Procrustes put him on a rack and stretched him out to make him fit the bed.

His journey to Athens, which he makes by foot, is a series of encounters with monsters and wild outlaws who are terrorizing the people of Attica. The most famous outlaw Theseus encounters as he walks from Troizen to Athens is named Procrustes. Procrustes had a bed in which he compelled all travelers who passed by his house to sleep.

Procrustes insisted that the traveler had to fit the bed precisely. So, if the traveler was too tall for the bed, Procrustes lopped his legs off to make him fit. If the traveler was too short, Procrustes put him on a rack and stretched him out to make him fit the bed. This is where we get the term “procrustean.” If someone says that a particular solution is a procrustean solution to a problem, by that they mean that the problem is made to fit the solution rather than the other way around.

Another outlaw was Sinis, the Pine-bender. He was a giant who had a habit of bending two pine trees down, tying a hapless traveler between them and then letting the pine trees go, which of course rips the traveler into two pieces. Theseus killed him as well.

Theseus also killed a monstrous boar that was ravaging the countryside. These adventures work allegorically to underline the idea of Theseus as the synoikistes, the unifier of Attica under Athenian rule. What is he doing? He is ridding Attica of danger, of things that make Attica unsafe for people to travel in, make it unsafe to go from one town to another.

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These mythic monsters and outlaws whom he overcomes seem pretty clearly to represent the idea of lawlessness, of lack of unification, of lack of safety on the roads. So, Theseus, as the person who wipes out these monsters, parallels the idea of Theseus as the person who unifies Attica under Athenian control.

Theseus in Danger

When Theseus reached Athens, he was received as a guest. He did not declare who he was; he was in disguise. According to some versions, he was dressed as a girl. He presented himself to his father Aigeus. Now, Aigeus, at this point, was married to a woman named Medea. Medea is much more famous for her previous marriage to the Greek hero Jason, the man who sailed the Argo to get the Golden Fleece.

Medea is a sorceress, a witch, one of very many powerful women who use magic and who show up throughout Greek myth. In this particular element of her story, Medea was pregnant with Aigeus’s child, and she feared that Theseus, whom her magic allowed her to recognize as Aigeus’s son, would supplant her unborn child in Aigeus’s estimation. Therefore, Medea acted as Medea always does.

She was not a lady who was at all averse to killing her enemies to get them out of her way. She persuaded Aigeus that this young stranger-guest was planning to kill him, and that to protect himself, Aigeus should poison the guest before he gets the chance. Aigeus went along with this idea, terrible violation of the guest-host relationship though it might be, and at dinner presented Theseus with a cup of poisoned wine.

Here we get yet another element that is very common in folk tale, in myth, in traditional tales in general—the idea that a disaster is averted, that a stranger is recognized as being a relative just in time. Theseus was sitting at the dinner table, the poisoned goblet of wine in front of him. Before he drank it, however, he drew his sword to carve his meat (that tells you something about ancient table manners). Aigeus recognizes the sword, realizes that this is his son, tells him not to drink the wine. Medea beats a hasty retreat. One very noteworthy element of Medea’s story is that she always manages to escape before she pays the consequences of her crimes. So she does in this circumstance.

Test and Quest

Painting of Theseus recognized by his father, 1832, By Antoine-Placide Gibert.
Aigeus and Theseus recognize each other as father and son. (Image: By Antoine-Placide Gibert/Public domain)

Aigeus and Theseus recognize each other as father and son. They have a joyous reunion and the next element in Theseus’s story gets into what is called the “test-and-quest” kind of a hero’s story. He sets out on a dangerous journey to the island of Crete to try to free Athens from the dreadful tribute that it has to pay every year to the Minotaur. The Minotaur is a monster that  lives in Crete. Its body is that of a man; its head is that of a bull. It is a monster that devours human beings. Athens has the obligation of sending seven youths and seven maidens every year to Crete to be eaten by the Minotaur.

The reason Athens has to do this is because of a war that had been fought between Crete and Athens and the treaty that ended that war. Minos, king of Crete, had a son Androgeos who had been visiting Aigeus in Attica. Androgeos had died while he was in Attica.

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Either he was killed by a great bull that Aigeus sent him out to fight, or Androgeos was killed by young Athenian men who were jealous of his athletic prowess. Either version, the result is the same. Androgeos is killed, and Minos declares war on Athens to avenge his son’s death. The war ceased only when Athens agreed to let King Minos name whatever recompense he wanted. What he wanted was fodder for his monster, the Minotaur. Minos imposed this tribute on Athens of seven youths and seven maidens every year, who will be fed to the Minotaur in Crete.

Illustration of the Minotaur, half man half bull
Minotaur in Crete (Image: Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock)

Theseus’s Adventures in Crete

When Theseus learns of this dreadful tribute from his father Aigeus, he volunteers to be a member of the delegation that year, one of the seven youths that will go to face the Minotaur in Crete. Of course, Theseus is intending to kill the monster if he possibly can, and therefore lift this tribute from Athens. Theseus’s adventures in Crete are the most famous part of his story. His encounter with the Minotaur and the help that he gets from the Cretan princess Ariadne, daughter of Minos, are the most famous elements of any story about Theseus.

Again, we are dealing with an element that comes up in many stories of this “test-and-quest” pattern. Ariadne, the princess, helps Theseus. This is a very common element: The young man attempting to perform an all-but-impossible feat is helped by a young woman who has fallen in love with him, usually a princess. Ariadne has in fact fallen in love with Theseus at first sight, and so she decides to help him to overcome the Minotaur. She gives Theseus a ball of thread so that he can find his way back out of the labyrinth where the Minotaur is imprisoned.

The Labyrinth

The labyrinth is a maze so intricate that once you enter it you can never find your way back out again. The seven youths and seven maidens will be driven into the labyrinth, and the Minotaur would hunt them down and eat them. Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of thread so he can tie one end to the door post and use it to retrace his steps. This is often called the clue of Ariadne. “Clue” in English originally simply meant a ball of yarn. Our use of the word clue to mean the one element that leads you out of your perplexity to an understanding comes from the story of Ariadne. It is originally a metaphorical use of the term.

Painting of Ariadne and Theseus by Niccolò Bambini
Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of thread so he can tie one end to the door post and use it to retrace his steps (Image: By Niccolò Bambini/Public domain)

In return—Ariadne has to get something out of this as well—Theseus agrees to take Ariadne with him when he leaves Crete, as well he might. Minos is not going to be particularly pleased that his daughter has helped this Athenian kill the Minotaur and end Athens’s tribute to Crete.

Illustration of Minotaur from the book: Alexey Ryabinin "Theseus.The story of ancient gods, goddesses, kings and warriors" (ill. N.Vasilev)
Theseus succeeds in killing the Minotaur in the labyrinth (Image: Правообладатель – Рябинин Алексей Валерьевич, художник – Н.А. Васильев/Public domain)

With the help of Ariadne’s thread, Theseus succeeds—after he kills the Minotaur in the labyrinth—in finding his way back out again. He and Ariadne do then indeed leave Crete. They stop to spend the night on the nearby island of Naxos, and supposedly spend the night together. And the next morning, when Theseus wakes up, he sets sail and leaves Ariadne behind, alone on the island of Naxos.

 Now there are various versions explaining why he did this, but the most common one most authors seem to espouse is that he simply flat-out forgot her. He got up in the morning, forgot about Ariadne entirely and set sail without her. When Ariadne wakes up, she is abandoned, all alone on an island, all by herself.

A Happy Ending for Ariadne, Not So Much for Aigeus

Unusually for myth, she has a happy ending to her story. The god Dionysos supposedly comes, finds Ariadne, rescues her, marries her, and turns her into a goddess. That is so unusual an ending—both in the idea that a woman would become a goddess and in the fact that this kind of story doesn’t normally have a happy ending—that many scholars think that Ariadne was a goddess, perhaps even a Minoan goddess. The name Ariadne means “very holy” and may indicate that she was originally a goddess.

If the story originally was that a Cretan goddess helped Theseus, then it would make more sense that after she helped him, Dionysos married her. It would be a god marrying a goddess rather than a god turning a human woman into a goddess. But as the story developed, for whatever the reason, Ariadne was downgraded to being a human being and we get the story of Theseus leaving her behind on Naxos and Dionysos rescuing her.

Mosaic depicting Theseus escape from the labyrinth of Crete after killing the Minotaur, vintage engraved illustration. Le Tour du Monde, Travel Journal, (1872).
Theseus returning home from the labyrinth of Crete in a ship with black sails (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

This was not the only devastating episode of forgetfulness on Theseus’s part. Before he left Athens, he had promised his father Aigeus that if he succeeded in killing the Minotaur, he would change the sails on his ship from black to white. When the ship set sail every year for Crete with the seven doomed boys and the seven doomed girls aboard, it had black sails. When it came back, having left its human cargo in Crete, it still had black sails. Theseus promised Aigeus that if he was successful, if he was actually coming home in triumph on the ship, he would change the sails to white.

He forgot to do so, and Aigeus, who had been standing either on the Acropolis of Athens or on Cape Sounion—the southernmost tip of Attica—keeping watch every day for the returning ship, saw that the sails were still black, and leapt to his death because he thought Theseus was dead. Theseus then became king of Athens. Aigeus is dead; Theseus enters into kingship in his father’s place.

Common Questions About Theseus

Q: Was Theseus an actual God?

Theseus was a half-breed. He had two fathers: one of them a god, Poseidon, and the other mortal, Aegeus. His mother had been with the both of them the night she conceived.

Q: Why do we know about Theseus?

Theseus is ultimately famous for slaying the Minotaur, but he was also king of Athens and killed many mythical beasts.

Q: How did Theseus kill the Minotaur?

Theseus snuck the sword of Aegeus into the labyrinth inside his tunic, and when confronted, he overpowered the Minotaur and stabbed it.

Q: What killed Theseus?

Lycomedes, king of Scyros, threw Theseus from a cliff after he cursed Athens.

This article was updated on 9/27/2019

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