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From Greek and Roman Mythology & Heroic Legend, by Professor H. Steuding, Translated from the German and Edited by Lionel D. Barnett. The Temple Primers, London: J. M. Dent; 1901; pp. 87-91.


Heroic Poetry

VI.  Theseus.   § 150.  The commercial Ionian race, who were worshippers of Poseidon, had their chief seats in Euboia, on the eastern coast of Attica, Argolis, and the islands which form connecting links with the Ionic colonies on the shore of Asia Minor. Into Athens it made its way from the east and south; hence Ion, the mythical ancestor of the Ionians, is properly a stranger in Athens and related to the native royal house of Kekrops only through his mother Kreusa the daughter of Erechtheus. Theseus, also specifically Ionic, is less of a foreigner than this unworshipped ancestor of the Ionians. Like Herakles among the Dorians, Theseus was developed as a pure ideal of the Ionic hero. His proper home is Trozen in Argolis, which is probably to be regarded as a primitive centre of the united Ionian tribes; for on the island of Kalauria fronting it stood the temple of Poseidon, 88 which was looked on as the federal sanctuary of an old Ionic amphiktyonia or religious union.

§ 151.  The reputed father of Theseus is Poseidon himself or else King Aigeus of Athens, who himself is merely Poseidon in another form, having grown into a separate personality from one of the god’s by-names. His mother is Aithra, daughter of King Pittheus of Trozen. Before Aigeus parts from her and returns to Athens he hides his sword and sandals beneath a heavy rock with the order to send his son to him as soon as he can raise it. When grown to youth Theseus travels with these tokens over the Isthmos to seek his father. On the way he destroys several robbers, — the clubman Periphetes; the pine-bender (pityokamptes) Sinis; Skiron, who dwelt on a steep pass of the Isthmos and hurled wayfarers down into the sea; the wrestler Kerkyon; and the giant Damastes, who racked strangers upon a bed, whence he was also styled Polypemon (‘sorely harmful’) or Prokrustes (‘racker’). He moreover overcame the wild sow of Krommyon.

§ 152.  Meanwhile Aigeus has wedded the sorceress Medeia. When Theseus arrives in Athens she seeks to poison him; but he is saved, for his father recognises him by the sword he brings. He now overcomes the gigantic Pallas and his mighty sons, who rise up against Aigeus; then he tames the Cretan bull which Herakles has let loose, and which has run from Mykenai to Marathon. Properly however this exploit seems to be only a later by-form of his struggle with the bull-headed Minotauros, which in the usual narrative follows it.

§ 153.  Androgeos, a son of King Minos of Crete, had been slain by the Athenians. As an atonement for this murder they were compelled to send every nine years to Knosos seven boys and seven maidens, who furnished a meal to the Minotauros confined in the labyrinth. The latter, conceived as a man with a bull’s head, was the offspring of Pasiphae, — a goddess closely akin to Aphrodite and much worshipped in Crete and Lakonia, whom heroic legend made the wife of 89 King Minos of Crete, — by the so-called Cretan bull, that is, the bull-shaped sun-god Zeus Asterios of Gortyn, with whom Minos himself is probably to be identified (compare § 123). Theseus, who voluntarily accompanied the victims, received on his arrival from Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who falls in love with him, a hank of thread and the counsel to fasten one end of the string to the entrance of the maze in order that he might find his way out again from the countless intricate passages. After slaying the Minotauros he secretly conducted the rescued victims, and with them Ariadne herself, away from Knosos and landed with them on the neighbouring isle of Dia or Naxos. Here Ariadne stayed behind, and, according to one form of the legend, which is probably the older, was slain by Artemis because she had been previously united to Dionysos and had preferred to him her mortal lover; according to the view afterwards current she wedded Dionysos, who was much worshipped in Naxos, after Theseus had privily deserted her.

§ 154.  On sailing away from Athens Theseus had promised his father to replace the black mourning sail of the ship by a white one in case his undertaking should have a prosperous issue. As however he forgot to do so, Aigeus on the approach of the ship hurled himself down from a rock of the Akropolis or into the sea, which obtained from him the name of the ‘Aegean,’ Aigaios. Later he was worshipped in Athens as a hero. Theseus founded in memory of his prosperous return the harvest feast of the Pyanopsia, or ‘bean-festival,’ and the vintage-feast of the Oschophoria (§ 115). As a ruler he now combined twelve separate districts into the collective State of Athens on the southern foot of the old Akropolis, an event that lived on in the memory of the people through the celebration of the ancient Synoikia or ‘union of dwellings,’ and according to some procured for him his name Θησεύς, ‘the Founder’ (compare θής and τιθέναι).

§ 155.  Like Bellerophon, Herakles, and Achilleus, Theseus fights against the Amazons, either as a comrade of Herakles or on the occasion of an inroad made by them into Attica. 90 He wins there the love of Antiope or Hippolyte, whom he has conquered (we may compare Achilleus and Penthesileia), weds her, and begets by her Hippolytos (‘unyoker of horses’), a hero honoured in Trozen and Sparta. Later his stepmother Phaidra (‘bright one,’ a goddess akin to Aphrodite), whom Theseus has wedded after the death of the Amazon, falls in love with the chaste young Hippolytos, and on being rejected by him brings about his ruin through a false accusation.

§ 156.  In Marathon, the scene of his struggle with the bull and one of the old Ionic Four Cities, Theseus meets the Thessalian Peirithoos (‘the round-runner’), the King of the Lapithai (‘stone-folk’), a race akin to the Phlegyai and Minyai. With him he forms a close friendship and — as is already mentioned in the Iliad, in a passage which however is much contested — fights by his side at his wedding with Hippodameia or Deidameia against the wild Centaurs of Mount Pelion, when the latter in their drunkenness lay violent hands upon the women; this is a scene often treated by art in the first half of the fifth century B.C., notably upon the metopes of the Parthenon and the group on the western pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, whereas earlier, as far back as the seventh century, Herakles figures as the opponent of the Centaurs. In concert with Peirithoos Theseus then abducts the youthful Helena from Sparta, and brings her to the hill-fortress of Aphidna (apparently in the north of Attica), from which she was later set free by her brothers the Dioskoroi, while Theseus with his friend was going down into the nether world (probably at Hermione, according to the older view) in order to carry off Persephone for the latter. Both the friends however adhere to a rock-seat at the entrance, and Herakles afterwards is able to tear only Theseus loose.

§ 157.  During his absence Menestheus, who in the Iliad is the leader of the Athenians, had made himself master of the kingdom. Theseus was therefore compelled soon after his return to leave the city; he went to the island of Skyros, 91 and was here treacherously thrown down by King Lykomedes into the sea. Later however his sons by Phaidra, Demophon and Akamas, became rulers in Athens. The bones of Theseus, alleged to have been revealed by a miracle, were brought in the year 468 B.C. by Kimon from Skyros to Athens, and deposited in a sanctuary newly erected to him, between the later Gymnasion of Ptolemaios and the Anakeion. He did not however receive any proper worship in Athens until the Ionic and democratic element of the population became supreme, at the beginning of the fifth century B.C.

§ 158.  By art Theseus is represented as fighting the Minotauros perhaps as early as the ninth century B.C. on gold plates found in a grave at Corinth, and soon afterwards on the chest of Kypselos, which likewise is of Corinthian origin, as standing by Ariadne. In the sixth century the struggle with the bull and the Amazons also appears, as well as the rape of Helena; the rest of his adventures cannot be traced with certainty in art until the fifth century. His weapon is in the oldest period the sword, and in dress and bodily frame too he resembles other heroes. Later, in imitation of the type of Herakles, he commonly carries the club, and often too the skin of a wild beast, but is distinguished from Herakles by youthful beardlessness and more slender proportions. Theseus is certainly a figure primarily akin to the Dorian Herakles of Boiotia, Argolis, and Thessaly, but one that has been developed in harmony with the ideal of the Ionic hero.

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Heroic Poetry :

VII.  Meleagros and the Hunt of Kalydon.

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