Theseus: The Greek Hero That Slayed the Minotaur
Theseus was a hero in Greek mythology and a legendary king of Athens. The most famous myth involving Theseus is the one in which he slayed the dreaded Minotaur. Many stories about Theseus say he not only displayed courage and strength, but also wisdom and shrewdness. Moreover, as king of Athens, Theseus was responsible for strengthening the city and turning it into a regional power.
According to Greek mythology, Theseus was born in Troezen, in the northeastern Peloponnese. His mother was Aethra, the daughter of Pittheus, the king of Troezen. Theseus seems to have had two fathers, a mortal one, Aegeus, the king of Athens , and a divine one, Poseidon. After the birth of Theseus, Aegeus left Aethra and his new-born son, and returned to Athens. Before leaving, however, the king left his sword and sandals under a huge rock. He told Aethra to send Theseus to Athens once he was able to retrieve these items from under the rock, so that he may inherit the kingdom.
Theseus was raised by his mother and grandfather in Troezen, and when he was old enough, moved the stone that was placed by Aegeus on his sword and sandals, and obtained these royal objects. Theseus decided to journey to Athens via a land route, during which he encountered a number of bandits. Theseus overcame these obstacles not only with strength, but also with wit.
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‘Theseus and Aethra’ (1635-1636) by Larent de la Hyre. ( Public Domain )
For instance, the first obstacle Theseus met on his way to Athens was a bandit by the name of Periphetes, who would kill his victims by bashing their heads with a club. Instead of trying to overcome his adversary with brute force, Theseus decided to use his wits. The hero started an argument with Periphetes by saying that he did not believe that his club was made of brass, as the bandit had claimed. Agitated by this, Periphetes allowed Theseus to inspect his weapon by handing it over to the hero. Once the club was in his possession, Theseus killed the bandit with it.
The Best-Known Theseus Story
The best known story about Theseus, however, is the one in which he slays the Minotaur . In this myth, Theseus volunteered to be one of the 14 sacrificial victims who were sent each year by the Athenians to King Minos of Crete, so that he may have a chance to slay the monster.
Theseus honored by the Athenians after he killed the Minotaur. ( Public Domain )
Although Aegeus refused to allow his son to risk his life, he eventually relented, on the condition that if he returned from Crete alive, he was to change the ship’s sail from black to white. With the help of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos , Theseus succeeded in slaying the Minotaur. Unfortunately, the hero had forgotten to change the ship’s sail on his voyage back to Athens, and when Aegeus saw the black sail, he was so full of grief that he committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.
The King of Athens
Following Aegeus’ death, Theseus became the new king of Athens. He succeeded in unifying the various Attic communities, thus forming a powerful, centralized state. Additionally, he is credited with the establishment of the Isthmian Games, which were meant to commemorate his journey from Troezen to Athens, as well as the Panathenaea festivals, which were held in honor of the city’s patron deity, Athena. Furthermore, Athenian democracy has been traced back to Theseus’ reign, as he is said to have given up some of his powers as king to the Assembly.
Theseus embarked on many other adventures . For instance, Theseus is said to have accompanied Hercules on his Ninth Labor, which was to retrieve the Girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. Some sources also state that Theseus was one of the Argonauts who accompanied the hero Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece .
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Theseus’ cycle of deeds: centre, Minotaur; around, clockwise from top, Kerkyon, Prokrustes, Skiron, bull, Sinis, sow. Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci. (Twospoonfuls/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
How Did Theseus Die?
As Theseus aged, however, his wisdom left him, and he began making foolish decisions. Eventually, he lost popularity with the people of Athens, and rebellions broke out. In the end, Theseus abdicated, and left for the island of Skyros, where he was killed by Lycomedes, the island’s ruler, who thought that Theseus had come to seize his throne.
Theseus’ bones (or what were believed to be his) were eventually brought back to Athens during the time of the Persian Wars by the Athenian general Cimon, in accordance to a command given by the Oracle at Delphi.
‘Theseus and Achelous’ (1659-1660) by Jan Steen. ( Public Domain )
Top image: Theseus and the Minotaur. Source: kenernest63a/ Deviant Art
By Wu Mingren
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