Not many heroes are best known for their use of silk thread to escape a crisis, but it is true of Theseus. The Greek demi-god is known for feats of strength but is even better remembered for divine intelligence and wisdom. He had many great triumphs as a young man, but he died a king in exile filled with despair.
Theseus grew up with his mother, Aethra. She was the daughter of Pittheus, the king of Troezen. Theseus had two fathers. One father was Aegeus, King of Athens, who visited Troezen after consulting the Oracle at Delphi about finding an heir. He married Aethra then left her behind, telling her that if she had a child and if that child could move a boulder and retrieve the sword and sandals he had buried underneath, then she should send that child to Athens. Theseus’ other father was Poseidon, the god of the sea, who joined Aethra for a seaside walk on her wedding night.
When Theseus grew up, he easily picked up the large boulder and found his father’s items, so his mother gave him directions to Athens. Rather than take the safer sea route, he chose to take the land route even though he knew there would be multiple dangers ahead. Along the road he had to fight six battles. He defeated four bandits, one monster pig and one giant, winning every battle through strength and cunning.
When Theseus arrived at Athens, he did not reveal himself to his father. His father had married the sorceress Medea. She recognized Theseus and wanted to kill him. First, she sent him on a dangerous quest to capture the Marathonian bull. When he was successful, she gave him poisoned wine. Medea’s husband knew of her plan. However at the last moment, Aegeus saw Theseus had the sword and sandals he had buried and knocked the cup from his hand. Medea fled to Asia. Aegeus welcomed Theseus and named him as heir to the throne.
Battle with the Minotaur
Sometime later came Theseus’ greatest challenge. Every seven years King Minos of Crete forced Athens to send seven courageous young men and seven beautiful young women to sacrifice to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature that lived in a complicated maze under Minos’ castle. This tribute was to prevent Minos starting a war after Minos’ son, Androgens, was killed in Athens by unknown assassins during the games. Theseus volunteered to be one of the men, promising to kill the Minotaur and end the brutal tradition. Aegeus was heartbroken, but made Theseus promise to change the ship’s flags from black to white before he returned to show that he had succeeded.
When Theseus arrived in Crete, King Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell in love with him and promised to help him escape the labyrinth if he agreed to take her with him and marry her. He agreed. Ariadne brought him a ball of silk thread, a sword and instructions from the maze’s creator Daedalus – once in the maze go straight and down, never to the left or right.
Theseus and the Athenians entered the labyrinth and tied the end of the thread near the door, letting out the string as they walked. They continued straight until they found the sleeping Minotaur in the center. Theseus attacked and a terrible battle ensued until the Minotaur was killed. They then followed the thread back to the door and were able to board the ship with the waiting Ariadne before King Minos knew what had happened.
That night Theseus had a dream – likely sent by the god Dionysus – saying he had to leave Ariadne behind because Fate had another path for her. In the morning, Theseus left her weeping on the Island of Naxos and sailed to Athens. Heartbroken, perhaps cursed by Ariadne, Theseus forgot to change the ship’s flags from black to white.
His father, seeing the black flags on the approaching ship, assumed Theseus was dead. Aegeus threw himself off the cliffs and into the sea to his death. The sea east of Greece is still called the Aegean Sea.
Ariadne would later marry Dionysus.
King of Athens
Theseus became King of Athens after his father’s death. He led the people well and united the people around Athens. He is credited as a creator of democracy because he gave up some of his powers to the Assembly. He continued to have adventures.
During one of his adventures, he travelled to the Underworld with his friend Pirithous, who was pursuing Persephone. Both friends sat on rocks to rest and found that they could not move. Theseus remained there for many months until he was rescued by his cousin Heracles, who was in the Underworld on his 12th task. Pirithous had been led away by Furies in the meantime and was not rescued.
On another adventure with Heracles, he set out to rescue the Amazon Queen Hippolyta’s girdle. After the quest, Theseus married her and they had a son named Hippolytus. When Hippolytus was a young man, he caused a fit of jealousy between the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, caused Phaedra, who was Theseus’ second wife and Ariadne’s younger sister, to fall in love with her stepson. Phaedra killed herself and left a note blaming Hippolytus’ bad treatment of her for her actions.
When Theseus saw the note, he called on his father Poseidon to take revenge on Hippolytus. A sea monster frightened the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot so that he was thrown from it, got tangled in the reins and dragged. Then Artemis let Theseus know he had been deceived and he ran to find his son, who died in his arms.
Due to his despair over losing his wife and his son, Theseus quickly lost popularity and the support of his people. He fled Athens for the Island of Skyros, where the king feared Theseus was plotting to overthrow him and pushed him off a cliff and into the sea to this death.
After His Death
Some ancient Greeks believed Theseus was a historical king of Athens. During the Persian Wars from 499 to 449 B.C., Greek soldiers reported seeing Theseus’ ghost on the battlefield and believed it helped lead them to victory. In 476 B.C., the Athenian Kimon is said to have found and returned Theseus’ bones to Athens and then built a shrine that also served as a sanctuary for the defenseless.
The ship Theseus used to sail to Crete was also believed to have been preserved in the city harbor until about 300 B.C. As wooden boards rotted they were replaced to keep the ship afloat. In time, people questioned whether any of the boards could have been from the original ship, which led to a question philosophers debate called the Ship of Theseus Paradox: “Is an object that has had all of its parts replaced still the original object?”
Quick Facts about Theseus
— Semigod (demigod) with two fathers, including the sea god Poseidon
— Defeated the Minotaur
— King of Athens credited with development of democracy
— Lost his throne after the death of his wife and son
— Aegean Sea is named for his human father
— Frequently depicted in ancient and Romantic art
— Experienced six tasks on his journey to Athens
— Some believed him to be based on a historic kin
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