According to Greek mythology, Theseus was the son of Aethra, yet his father was unknown. At the time, Aethra supposedly had two suitors; King Aegeus of Athens, and Poseidon, God of the Sea.
King Aegeus assumed the child was his own, and in the months preceding the birth of Theseus, he gave instructions to Aethra regarding the baby. He buried his sword and his sandals beneath a large boulder, and he told Aethra to ask Theseus to lift the boulder and take his sandals and sword when he reached manhood.
Before Theseus was born, Aegues left for Athens, sentencing Theseus to an early life without a father.
Aethra raised Theseus in a small town known as Troezen, and the boy eventually grew into a sturdy, powerful young man. Aethra realized she could no longer deny Theseus his proper heritage, so she led him to the boulder concealing the belongings of Aegeus. She asked him to lift the boulder, so he bent down and hugged the giant stone, gripping it with his entire body.
He easily stood up and tossed the huge boulder aside as if it were a pebble. He then collected the old sandals and sword at the request of his mother. She told him he must go to Athens to meet Aegeus.
The Trek to Athens
Once Theseus had decided to travel to Athens, he had to choose a route. Instead of the traditional sea-route, he chose the far more dangerous overland route that was inhabited by bandits and thieves of all sorts. Theseus, however, felt no fear of the brutes. He only traveled a few miles inland before he encountered the first such robber.
He was a tall, muscular man brandishing a club made of some sort of shining metal. The man introduced himself as Periphetes, the Cudgel Man. He then explained how he intended to bash Theseus over the head with the menacing club. Before Periphetes could attack, Theseus complimented the club with an impressed gaze.
Wanting to brag, Periphetes claimed the club was made entirely of brass. Sensing his opportunity to outsmart the man, Theseus instantly retorted that there was no way the club was made of pure brass. He guessed out loud that the club must have been made from wood and was merely wrapped in a sheet of brass on the outside. To prove that such a scandalous accusation wasn’t true, Periphetes simply handed the club over to Theseus to inspect himself. As soon as Theseus had the club firmly in hand, he hit Periphetes on the head with the weapon. The man instantly fell to the ground, and Theseus decided to keep the club for later use.
It wasn’t long before Theseus came across another man with bad intentions. This time, it was a truly giant man brandishing a fierce battle axe. He was standing along the roadside near some high cliffs, and he claimed to have dominion over the area. His name was Sciron, and he demanded a toll in order to pass, which was that Theseus had to wash his feet.
His curiosity peaked, so Theseus asked the man what the consequences were for disobeying. Sciron replied that he would use his battle axe to cut the head from his shoulders, and he even went so far as to insult the brass club that Theseus held as a trophy from his last encounter. Sensing Sciron’s weakness, Theseus agreed and started washing the man’s feet.
As he sat on the cliff’s edge and washed the feet of the man who had only moments ago threatened to kill him, he peered over the rocky drop-off and saw a tremendous turtle waiting in the water beneath the cliff. Theseus realized that this particular giant was the infamous beast who fed wayward travelers to the turtle by hurling them over the cliff. As soon as he made the connection, he took a firm grasp on the giant’s foot and threw him from the cliff.
Further along the trail, Theseus came across a man who had a striking resemblance to Sciron. As soon as the man saw Theseus, he called out to him for help with a strange task. He asked Theseus to help him bend down a pine tree and hold it to the ground. He introduced himself as Sinis, the Pine-Bender, and he easily bent down a full-grown pine tree and waited for Theseus to come help him. Once Theseus had a good grip on the tree, Sinis let go and jumped away. He obviously expected the tree to sling Theseus away like a catapult, but he was not prepared for the prodigious strength of the young man.
Instead of questioning Theseus’ strength, Sinis bent down to inspect the tree from a closer viewpoint. He assumed the tree trunk had snapped, which would explain why Theseus could hold it down on his own. As he was bent over, Theseus released the tree, which snapped up and knocked Sinis out cold. To finish the man, he bent down four pine trees and tied each of Sinis’ limbs to one tree before releasing them all at once, tearing the man in half.
By now, it was starting to get dark on the road for Theseus. Just up ahead, Theseus saw a large, bright house in the trees. It seemed like a decent enough place to stay the night, so he decided to see if the occupants would be so kind. He approached the house and knocked on the front door, and he was soon welcomed by a man who introduced himself as Procrustes. He commented on the fatigued appearance of Theseus and offered him a magic bed that would fit anyone despite being exactly six feet long. Fortunately, Theseus had heard of this magic before, and he knew it for the trick that it was. The bed could be made to fit anyone, but not in a way that the victim would like.
Procrustes would restrain the person to the bed, and if they were too tall, he would chop off their legs to make them fit perfectly. If they weren’t tall enough to fill out the bed, he would bind their arms and legs in order to stretch the body to the proper length. Theseus allowed Procrustes to take him to the room that held the bed, but as soon as they entered, Theseus forced Procrustes onto the torturous bed and sliced off his legs. He was merciful though, so to quell Procrustes’ pain, he also cut off his head.
The Son Returns
Theseus continued through the night, and by morning he had reached Athens. He had never in his life seen such a magnificent city, and he traveled through the streets to reach the palace of King Aegeus. At this time, King Aegeus was married to a sorceress named Medea. She had taken control of Aegeus, and she sensed Theseus would be a threat before the young man even found their home.
When Theseus arrived, Medea attempted to warn Aegeus that Theseus wasn’t who he claimed to be, and that he wanted to kill the king. She offered to poison the wine of Theseus at that evening’s banquet, and Aegeus agreed. He still hadn’t recognized Theseus as his son. At the banquet, he watched as Theseus nearly drank the poisoned wine, but he slapped the cup away from Theseus at the last moment. Aegeus had recognized his old sword swinging from Theseus’ hip, and he realized his son had returned. Both father and son were overjoyed at the revelation, and the sorceress escaped on a chariot carried by winged serpents.
The Labyrinth of Minos
Now that Theseus and his father were reunited, they were happy for quite a long time. However, not everything can last forever, including peace and happiness. There came a time near the spring equinox when all of Athens was in a panic. A ship with a black sail was approaching, and when Theseus asked Aegeus what the ship meant, he got no response from his father.
Searching for answers, Theseus went to where the black-sailed ship had docked at the harbor and spoke with the captain. Apparently the king of Crete was upset because his oldest son had been accidentally killed while in Athens. King Minos was not one to take such offense lightly, despite the accidentally nature of the event. He suspected foul play, so he demanded that the Athenians pay him for the atrocity of killing his heir. In return, King Minos requested a tribute of 14 young men and women, seven of each gender, to be given to the Minotaur every year. Underneath the palace of King Minos was an immense labyrinth, built by Daedalus, and the Minotaur was a beast that was half bull and half man that lived in the maze.
Upon hearing of the Minotaur, Theseus returned to his father and suggested that he should travel to Crete as one of the yearly victims, which would allow him to slay the Minotaur and cease the yearly tribute. Aegeus did not want Theseus to go because he feared the Minotaur would kill him, but Theseus wanted to go in order to prove that he was a true hero. Aegeus eventually agreed to allow Theseus to travel to Crete, but one of his conditions was that Theseus should use white sails on his return journey should he survive. This would allow Theseus to know if he had lost his only son before the ship actually docked. Theseus agreed and went to offer himself as one of the seven male tributes.
When the ship made landfall in Crete, the king was waiting to welcome the tributes. He went around and asked each of the 14 to name themselves. When the time came for Theseus to introduce himself, he claimed to not only be the prince of Athens, but also the son of Poseidon. Minos recognized that Theseus was the son of Aegeus, but he wanted to taunt the young man for claiming to be the son of a god. He removed his ring, tossed it into the ocean, and asked Theseus to prove his patronage by fetching it from the waves.
Theseus dove underwater and prayed to Poseidon, and he was greeted with the sight of a nymph called Thetis. She not only gave Theseus the ring Minos had tossed into the sea, but she also gave him an old crown. When Theseus surfaced and returned the items to Minos, the king merely laughed.
The tributes would not be given to the Minotaur until the following day, and Theseus was visited by Ariadne, the daughter of the king, during the night. She wanted to help Theseus destroy the Minotaur, but she had a condition for her help. She wanted Theseus to take her from Crete back to Athens where she would eventually become his queen. When Theseus happily agreed to the request, the princess handed him a large ball of silk thread. She told him it would help him find his way back to the beginning of the labyrinth if he tied the end to a rock at the entrance and released the thread steadily as he traveled.
Next morning, the tributes were placed at the entrance of the labyrinth and forced inside. Before the tributes traveled too far from the entrance, Theseus tied the end of the silk thread to a rock and left it. He then led the group through the maze, and they eventually found the center, which held the Minotaur. They had traveled through the maze so quickly that the monster was still asleep, so Theseus jumped up onto the head of the beast and tore off one of the horns. The giant monstrosity was instantly furious, but Theseus kept jabbing it with its own horn. After he had his fun, he sprinted away from the monster, turned back toward it, and threw the severed horn like a spear. It pierced the neck of the great beast but didn’t instantly drop the creature, which charged directly at Theseus. Theseus did not move a muscle, and the Minotaur dropped dead at his feet after the horn had done its full damage. With the creature dead before the eyes of every tribute, they cheered and celebrated Theseus as the hero he was. He then led them back to the entrance of the maze using the silk thread from the princess.
In their escape, the tributes, along with princess Ariadne, returned to the black-sailed ship. They left for Athens, but before they returned home, Theseus had a vision of the god Dionysus during his sleep. The god demanded that Theseus shouldn’t marry Ariadne, and instead must leave her on an island before they returned to Athens. Theseus followed the request of the god, but in his sadness over the loss of his love, he neglected to swap the black sails for the white sails he had promised his father. Aegeus was waiting atop a high cliff peering out to sea, hoping to see the white sails that meant his son was still alive. He saw the black sails instead, and he jumped to his death from the cliff. The sea was then named after him and was known as the Aegean Sea.
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