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Theseus and Athens

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The city of Athens ascribes its name according to mythical lore to Athena, the Goddess, and that it was founded by Sais, a native of Egypt. It is also known that it was Theseus, son of King Aegeus, who was responsible for making the city into a real kingdom. According to Plutarch: “Theseus suppressed crime and brought the natives of Attica together into the first democracy.  He saved the Athenian children from the Minotaur, but his kidnap of the queen of the Amazons brought trouble, and he ended his days in disgrace.”

“The figures of myth are particularly important in the self definition of the city and its understanding of the world, because myths concern the distant past and can be retold in different ways, according to the examples that the society needs to draw from them.” (Mills,1) Athenian literature has plenty of it.  The myth surrounding the birth of Theseus has different versions. Theseus is considered as the great mythological hero of Athens. According to one version Poseidon, God of the sea, was his father and Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, his mother. However, more often Theseus’ father was known to be the Athenian king Aegeus.  According to this version King Aegeus, the ruler of Athens wanted a son who would be the heir to the throne. He therefore went to the oracle at Delphi for advice. The oracle advised Aegeus to refrain from intercourse with all women outside Athens. It also told him not to worry and sent him back to Athens with the instruction not to untie his wine skin until he returned home. On his way back he visited his friend Pittheus in Troezan to consult him, as he was considered to be a wise man and the words of the oracle seemed ambiguous to Aegeus.  Pittheus understood the meaning of the oracle, and he deceived Aegeus. He got him drunk and then made him to lie with his daughter Aethra, who conceived that very night.

Aegeus, when he came to know that Aethra was pregnant through him put a sword and a pair of shoes under a large rock. He then gave her instructions that if she gave birth to a son who could lift up the rock, the sword and shoes would be his. She was then to send their son to Athens but she had to keep this a secret from all, as he was frightened that if his brother Pallas’s fifty sons came to know about his son, his son’s life may be in danger. Aethra gave birth to Theseus , though Pittheus claimed that he was Poseidon’s son as mythology says that Aethra after having made love with Aegeus went to Poseidon that very night and lay with him. Theseus was thus raised in his maternal grandfather’s house at Troezan and he grew up to be a lad of immense courage and intelligence. When Theseus came of age his mother took him to the rock and told him about his father. Theseus could lift up the rock easily and taking the sword and the shoes he set off for Athens. It was customary to sail, but Theseus decided that he would go on foot.

On his way Theseus encountered many bandits. These men were strong individuals who had great strength and stamina, and they used these God given gifts cruelty on others. They took great pride in inflicting injury on others who were feeble. Hercules had killed many of them and those who were afraid to encounter him kept out of his way and when Hercules had no bandits to hunt and kill and the land of Greece appeared very peaceful Hercules had left Greece and had gone to Lydia, but when he was there no more, the bandits once again took to crime. Theseus knew all about these criminals as Pittheus had told him about these bandits who waited on the roads to rob and kill their victims, thus Theseus thought that it would be cowardly to take the ship and so he planned to go by foot to courageously meet these bandits. He was charged with courage and strength and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his cousin Hercules. He also wanted to baptize his father’s sword with evil blood so that he might prove to the world his own courage and therefore he started his journey as he had planned.

 The very first bandit he met was Peripethetes, or the Club- Bearer, as he was known. He killed him and from then onwards he used Periphetes’ club as his own weapon. Next, met Sinnis, who was called the Pine-bender, because this was the way he killed his victims. Theseus killed him the same way without bending the pines in any artificial manner. Thus he demonstrated his natural power. The third evil creature he killed was the Sow of Crommyon. She was very old and fierce. She was actually a woman robber who got this name because she was very filthy and dirty and savage. Theseus being brave and courageous hunted her out and killed her for Theseus believed that all brave men should hunt out the evil and kill it. After killing the Sow of  Crommyon , he met Sciron of Megera. Sciron of Megera was a well-known notorious robber who killed many travelers on the high way near the coast. He would command his victims to wash his feet and while they were doing so, he would kick them down the cliff. Theseus threw Sciron into the sea from the same cliff. He then met Cercyon at Eleusis in a wrestling match and killed him. Last of all before reaching Athens he killed Procrustes. He stretched Procrustes on the same bed of torture, which he used for his victims. Thus he made all the bandits suffer in like manner as they did to their victims.

Theseus arrived in Athens, his father’s city and found it in chaos. It was divided into factions. His father had married Medea who had fled fom Corinth and using her socery she had promised to give Aegeus a son. When Theseus arrieved at Athens Medea understood who he was and realizing that her influence would now get over, planned to poison him. Thus she spoke ill of him to Aegeus and influenced Aegeus to poison the young man at a banquet which would be given in his honor. Theseus did not tell his father who he was, preferring that his father discover for himself who he was. Now at the banquet Theseus casually pulled out his sword, Aegeus recognizing it stopped Theseus from drinking the poisoned wine thus saving his son. Medea realizing her influence was over fled back to  Corinth. Aegeus, after questioning his own son let it be known to the Athenians that Theseus was the heir to the throne, and as news of his bravery on his way to Athens had already preceded him, the people of Athens were pleased to have such an heir to the throne. Now when Aegeus’ brother Pallas and his sons heard about Theseus they openly revolted against Aegeus,  and attacked him but Theseus quickly defeated them killing many of them. Pallas and his remaining sons fled from there.

Now that Theseus was settled at Athens as its prince, he set out to save its people from all that were terrorizing them. First of all he went to Marathon, to kill the huge bull, which was a threat to its inhabitants. Theseus captured this bull and brought it back to show it to its inhabitants. Later, he took the bull to Delphi, where he made of it a sacrifice to Apollo.

Very soon, after his exploit with the bull, collectors from Crete came to take the seven girls and seven boys, as Athens was required to send them every nine years. Minos was king of Knossos in Crete.  Many years ago, Aegeus had killed Androgeos, Minos’ son, out of jealousy because Androgeous had won all the events at the Penathenaic (“All-Athenian”) games and Aegeus was frightened that he would supplant him as king, so he had him killed. Minos attacked Athens to avenge the death of his son, and part of the treaty that ended this war was an agreement. This agreement was a tribute, which had to be paid for the murder of Androgeeus, the eldest son of the King Minos of Crete. The Gods had punished the Athenians by sending down famine, drought and plague upon them. The oracle had said that the troubles of the Athenians would end only if they appeased Minos.

Minos immediately asked for the seven girls and the seven boys to be send to Crete as a tribute. There was much discontent among the Athenians as every Athenian who had a teenage daughter or son had to participate in the draw which would decide who would be send as a tribute. As Aegeus was not participating in the draw there was a lot of unhappy grumbling against Aegeus. Theseus thus offered himself as one of the victims; he declined to be in the lottery. The Athenians admired the courage of Theseus and nothing Aegeus would say or do could change Theseus’s mind. Theseus promised to kill the Minotaur. Aegus this time kept white sails on board the ship with the exclusive command that the black sails which were always used on ship were to be changed to white if Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur. “A considerable portion of the myth of Theseus is devoted to his image as a youth on the verge of manhood, someone who has yet to prove himself as a hero, but the death of his father makes him the king of  Athens.” (Atkins,113)

When the ship arrived at Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love Theseus the moment she saw him.  She gave him a ball of string to mark his trail through the Labyrinth where the Minotaur lived. Theseus entered the Libyrinth with the ball of string, found the Minotaur and killed it. Then he and all the other hostages managed to escape from Crete in the same ship that brought them. Ariadne accompanied them. On their way they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, leaving her asleep there. He did this as Minerva had appeared to him in a dream and she warned him that Ariadne was betrothed to Bacchus, the wine-god. (One can see in Italy the celebrated statue of Ariadne riding on the tiger of Bacchus, one of the finest pieces of sculpture in Italy, made by Danneker) When the ship came in sight of Athens, Aegeus, who was on the lookout saw the ship with black sails, for everyone in their happiness of having killed the Minotaur, forgot to replace the black sails with the white sails.

When Aegeus saw the black sails, he was grieved that bhis son was no more and in his grief he jumped off the cliff and died. Theseus was very sad to learn of his father’s death and that too on his account. He now became the King. His first step was to gather the inhabitants of Attica as one city. He settled their disputes and brought peace under one central government. Earlier they were all spread out into factions. The poor readily accepted the new form of government and the rich were promised the end of monarchy and the introduction of democracy for  he said that the king would now  be no more than the commander in chief and the protector of the law. All local courts were abolished and Athens was made the only seat of the government, and as promised he gave up his kingly powers.

According to Aristotle, Theseus was the first king to form a democracy. In order to find out the future of his new political plan, which he put to practice, he traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle. The oracle gave him the answer:

“Many are the cities which will end by and be spun out of your own.   Therefore do not despair; the float will cross the violent ocean.”

He enlarged his city by inviting foreigners to come and live there, giving them the same civil rights as the citizens of the city. Further he divided all the citizens into three groups, each group had their own duties and privileges. They were the farmers, the craftsmen, and the nobles. The farmers were the wealthy of the society, whereas the craftsmen were more in number and the nobles had the prestige. The nobles were in charge of the law, the selection of the judges and the religion. Theseus thus saw that there was a balance among the different groups in Athens. All this goes to show that Theseus was the true founder of Athens the city. He is a semi-historical figure.

Athenians believed that Theseus was responsible for the unification of the Athenian state. Earlier where there had been independent villages of factions, now it was as the Athenians called synoikismos or dwelling together and they celebrated it; at least in the fourth century and may be even earlier with a national holiday called the Synoikia. They rightly attributed the origins of Athenian democracy to Theseus. Several tribes were united and Attica became one state with Athens as its capital. In order to celebrate this occasion he instituted the festival of Panathenaea. This festival was in honor of Minerva. It was different from other Greek festivals for its chief feature was a solemn procession in which the sacred robe of Minerva known as the Peplus was carried to the Panthenon, where it was suspended before the statue of the goddess. Select virgins belonging to the noblest families of Athens embroidered this sacred robe. Both men and women participated in this procession. The young women carried baskets on their heads. These baskets contained the sacred utensils, cakes and all other things needed for the sacrifices. Old men had olive leaves in their arms whereas the young men carried arms. The unification of Attika, however, was a gradual process, and Theseus’ role here and in the origin of democracy can also be understood as political myth.

Theseus also instituted the Isthmian Games, in honor of Poseidon, after which he set out sailing the Black Sea, to visit the land of the Amazons.     These lusty women, when Theseus and his sailors came in sight, brought them presents of welcome.  Theseus invited their queen, Antiope, to come aboard, and once he had her, he set sail at once with Antiope. The war between Athens and the Amazons started.

 The Amazons traveled by land and after a very long journey they arrived at Athens.A bloody war was fought which ultimately ended in a draw. A peace treaty was drawn and the Amazons left Athens, but many graves of the Amazons in Athens prove that this war took place.

Thus Theseus renowned for his courage and intellegence was a legendary hero of ancient Athens. His daring exploits inspired his countrymen for generations, and made him a favorite of poets and playwrights and the saying “Not without Theseus!” became an emblem of Athenian wisdom and bravery.

  The downfall of Theseus started with his friendship with Perithous. Perithious wanted Theseus to befriend him and so he stole some cattle from around Marathon. Theseus went after him but when the two warriors met, they had no desire to fight and became friends and brothers in arms. When Perithous got married, Theseus attended the marriage feast, where some of the centaurs got drunk. Theseus joined Perithous and his people in chasing the centaurs out of the region. When Theseues was fifty years old, he went with Perithous to the temple of Diana at Sparta, where they saw Helen dancing. Helen was only twelve years old then. She was too young for marriage but they abducted her. Though they were chased by armed men they managed to escape with her. They then agreed to trust to luck as to who should keep her provided the winner would help the other to win a bride for himself. As luck would have it Theseus won, and he sent Helen to his mother in Aphidane, and went with Perithous to Epirus to steal the daughter of the king. Pluto the king had a dog by the name of Cerberus. Pluto had proclaimed that anyone who wanted to marry his daughter had first to fight his daughter. When Pluto came to understand that they had no intention of wooing his daughter but had come rather to kidnap her, Pluto threw Theseus into prison and had Cerberus tear Perithous into pieces.

Now all this while when Theseus was absent from Athens, Menestheus, one of the nobles of Athens, began to stir up trouble in Athens. He told the nobles that Theseus had removed the power they had in Athens and that they were now acting like his slaves in the city, and to the poor he said that Theseus was not a true Athenian and was only giving them the delusion of liberty while in reality he was ruling over them. In the meantime Helen’s brothers had reached Athens in search of Helen. The Athenians replied that they had no idea where Helen was, at this Castor and Pollux, Helen’s brothers decided to invade the city. Menestheus got the Athenians to welcome the Spartans as their quarrel was with Theseus and not with them. The brothers found out that Helen was with Theseus’s mother, they rescued her and captured his mother to be her servant.

Theseus was Pluto’s prisoner for a long time. It happened that Hercules was traveling in Epirus and he visited Pluto. Pluto casually told him all about Theseus. Hercules was horrified and asked Pluto to release Theseus. Pluto thus released Theseus. When Theseus returned to Athens, everything had changed and he realized that he would not be able to get back his kingship. Thus he retired to Scyros where he died later. Menestheus was king then and the Athenians did not care about Theseus’ death, but the oracle at Delphi commanded that Theseus’ bones be brought back to Athens and an honorable burial be given to Theseus. The Athenians were not able to do so at that time as the Scyros was hostile towards them. It was years later when Cimon captured Scyros that he saw an eagle clawing the ground and it came to his mind to dig there and search for the bones of Theseus.  He found a coffin of a man more than ordinary size, and a bronze spearhead and sword.  He took these on board his ship back to Athens. The Athenians were greatly delighted that at length the remains of Theseus were brought back, that their founder had come back. He was buried in the middle of Athens and his tomb is considered as a sanctuary especially for the poor for he remembered as a protector of the weak and the poor.

Works Cited:

  1. highbeam.com,Theseus found Athens
  2. godchecker.com/pantheon/greek- mythology.php?deity
  3. timeless myths.com/classical/theseus
  4. pantheon.org/articles/theseus
  5. Theseus and Athens, Oxford University Press, 1995, 113
  6. Theseus, Tragedy and the Athens,Sophie Mills,Clarendon Press, 1997
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