The greatest hero of ancient Athens was the semi-mythical, semi-historical Theseus. The ancient Athenians saw the countless acts of heroism ascribed to him as the actions that resulted in the founding of democracy in the Attic city-state, the cradle of Greek democracy.
It might be concluded that he belonged to the generation before the Trojan War because he is depicted as Hercules’ contemporary. His spectacular deeds against ruthless villains and terrifying creatures are thought to be an allegory of how Theseus overthrew the tyrants, liberated the Athenians from terror, and put an end to the onerous tribute the city was forced to pay to foreign countries.
Learn about the legend of the famous king Theseus.
Having two fathers
After being twice married, the ancient Athens king Aegeus lacked an heir to the throne. He traveled to Delphi to consult the renowned oracle as a result. He sought guidance from his knowledgeable friend Pittheus, king of Troezen, after the oracle failed to provide him with a definitive response (in Argolis). Aethra was joyfully given away by Pittheus to his companion at a covert wedding.
After spending her wedding night lying next to her spouse, Aethra made the decision to go for a moonlit stroll, which led her to the island of Sferia off the coast of Poros. Poseidon, the deity of the sea and earthquakes, was there to be discovered. Poseidon wooed Aethra in the midst of the night and by the light of the moon. As a result, she became twice pregnant with the mortal and divine seeds, giving birth to Our Hero, Theseus, who was fortunate to be born with both human and divine traits.
It seems that King Aegeus simply required an heir—not a wife. Therefore, after the birth of his kid, he made the decision to go back to Athens. But before he left, he told Aethra to send Theseus to Athens when he was old enough and strong enough to roll the boulder aside and collect the proof of his royal pedigree, and he buried his sword and sandals beneath a great rock.
Theseus was raised by his mother and grandfather in Troezen. The courageous young man had always been driven by a burning desire to surpass the heroic deeds of his idol, Hercules, who had likewise gained reputation by vanquishing several villains and monsters. As Aethra guided her son to the boulder of his fate at the appropriate time, he simply rolled it away and retrieved his father’s sword and sandals.
Pittheus persuaded his grandson to take the quicker, safer sea route to Athens instead of the robber-infested roadways as Theseus prepared to embark on his fateful adventure. Yet, our young hero would have none of it because he had already made the decision to make facing and conquering obstacles his life’s work. He therefore decided to take the perilous land path around the Saronic Gulf, where he would soon face a number of extremely difficult obstacles.
Adventures on the way to Athens
Theseus experienced his first adventure quickly after. He met the renowned Periphetes, son of Hephestus, who was known for bashing tourists’ brains out with an iron club at Epidaurus, a city revered by the deity Apollo and the fabled healer Asclepius. Theseus knew Periphetes from his grandfather’s description of him, therefore he knew who he was. Theseus gave Periphetes his due in the brutal confrontation that followed by bashing out the criminal’s brains with his own iron club. The courageous young man kept the club as a prize and continued on unimpeded to the Isthmus of Corinth.
Theseus was warned about another threat by the locals at the isthmus: Siris (or Sinnis), the bandit who guarded the route from Corinth to Athens, had a more inventive way of treating tourists than the previous bad guy. Siris would tie his defenseless prey to two trees, bend them to the ground, and then suddenly free the victim. The victims would be launched by this makeshift catapult into the air, where they would crash to the ground and perish. However, it didn’t take long for our hero to complete this duty as well. So Theseus decided that this would be a good time to lose his virginity, so he committed a rape on the Sirian princess Perigune, from whom he would eventually have a son named Melanippus.
The following adventure of Theseus took place close to Megara’s borders on a scrambled path that led to a precipice, where he encountered the wicked robber Scyron. To conveniently kick them into the waters below, where a sea monster or a huge turtle would consume them, this villain would force passengers to wash his feet with their backs to the sea. But, the sea monster this time around ate the bad guy Scyron.
Theseus faced his final adventure on the way to Athens a short distance outside of Eleusina, by the banks of the river Cephissus. The enormous Procrustes, sometimes known as “the Stretcher,” was the last criminal to wager his life against our hero. This charming rogue had a creative method of displaying his generosity to visitors, for whom he always had two iron beds ready—one that was too long and the other that was too short. He would offer the too-short bed to the tall people and would amputate their limbs to allow them to fit comfortably in the bed.
The unfortunate short guys in the long bed experienced the same thing: he would stretch out their limbs to make a perfect fit, and the victims would die in agonizing pain when their limbs were severed. The enormous Procrustes passed away in the short bed like his sad victims after Theseus treated the Stretcher in the same manner. The expression “the Procrustean Bed” is how people today refer to Procrustes.
The Bull of Marathon
Without any further difficulty, Theseus reached his final destination, Athens. He made the choice to postpone his meeting with his father Aegeus until he had a firm grasp of the situation. He conducted some study on the city and its ruler and learned some unsettling information, including the knowledge that King Aegeus was in the captivity of the terrible sorceress Medea. He was a smart and tough hero. He therefore kept the sword and sandals, which served as signs of his paternity, hidden when he first met his father.
But thanks to her occult abilities, Medea understood who the strange young intruder really was. The witch didn’t like that since she wanted her own son, Medus, to rule the Athens kingdom. In order to simply get rid of him without using the standard way in such circumstances—murder—she contrived to poison the old king’s mind against the foreigner and innocently advised sending the lad to catch the terrifying Marathonian Bull, a threat to the farmers of the region.
The Marathonian Bull suggestion sparked our hero’s waning enthusiasm, as he was beginning to grow restless in the lack of any significant obstacles to overcome. Theseus had to seek shelter from a storm on his trip to Marathon at the modest home of an elderly woman named Hecale. If the brave young man was successful in capturing the bull, she pledged to offer a sacrifice to Zeus, the ruler of the gods.
Nevertheless, for our intrepid hero, taking down the Marathon Bull was no big issue. But when Theseus arrived to Hecale’s cottage with the caught bull, she had already passed away. Hecale is a locality in Attica that he later named in honor of the elderly woman in memory of her kindness to him. This region exists with the same name till today, as Hecalei (Ekali, in contemporary Greek) in a beautiful area to the north side of Athems adjacent to Kifisia.
Aegeus, encouraged by Medea, grew even more wary of the victorious Theseus when he returned to Athens with the dead body of the Marathon Bull. So, he was forced to agree to the sorceress’s plan to poison Theseus during the feast to honor his victory.
The sword and sandals the young stranger had just put on caught Aegeus’ attention as our hero was about to sip the poisoned wine. When Aegeus realized it was his son, he knocked the cup of tainted wine from his hand and, hugging the boy with tremendous emotion and delight, declared him to be his son and successor in front of his subjects. Medea the evil was exiled from Athens forever.
Set sail to kill the Minotaur
Theseus’s exploits did not, however, come to a conclusion at this point. The young man quickly found out that Athens was dealing with a terrible catastrophe. Aegeus had been providing a barbaric tribute to King Minos of Crete for the last few decades after he had been vanquished in a protracted conflict that the Cretans had started in retaliation for the Athenians’ death of Androgens, the younger son of the Cretan ruler.
The tribute was made up of seven boys and seven girls from the most noble families in Athens, who were brought to Crete every nine years to be eaten by the dreaded Minotaur, a half-man, half-beast that resided in the magnificent Labyrinth, a maze with intersecting passages that no man could escape.
Theseus was adamant about going on the dangerous mission with the other nine lads on the occasion of the third tribute, despite his father’s disapproval. He made a vow to his father Aegeus before setting sail that, should he succeed in this mission, the ship carrying him and the crew would fly white sails rather than the customary black sails.
Theseus didn’t set sail with the other boys and maidens until he had taken some sensible safety measures. After consulting an oracle, he was advised to declare the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite his patroness. He performed the proper sacrifices for the goddess before setting out on his tragic expedition to face the terrifying Minotaur.
What is the reality about the relationship with Ariadne?
King Minos invited Theseus and his fellow sacrificial lambs to the palace where Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan monarch, had fallen head over heels in love with our hero at Aphrodite’s behest. The noble boy and Ariadne exchanged vows of fidelity and eternal love when they finally met alone. She also gave him a skein of thread and a sharp blade (to slay the Minotaur) (to find his way back within the complex maze). Theseus and his group entered the mysterious Labyrinth with their weapons in hand.
Theseus followed Ariadne’s suggestion and tied the thread at the entrance to the labyrinth before carefully unwinding the skein and searching for the enormous beast. The brave boy eventually located Minotaur in his lair after searching for a time. Theseus finally defeated the monster with the sword Ariadne had given him after a protracted and bloody battle.
Theseus and his comrades safely exited the Labyrinth by following the thread’s line, where they were met by an apprehensive Ariadne. Before King Minos learned that the Minotaur had been killed and his own daughter had aided Theseus, the two hastily boarded the ship bound for Athens.
The young couple’s bliss did not last long, though. Theseus had a dream in which the wine-god Dionysus informed him that the Fates had reserved Ariadne to be his bride and forewarned him of several catastrophes if he didn’t give up the damsel. This occurred at the island of Naxos, where the ship had touched down. Theseus had a high respect for the gods and sought their favor even though he had no fear of any monsters or bad guys. As the ship sailed toward Athens, Theseus and Ariadne bid each other a sorrowful farewell.
However, because to the distress caused by parting with Ariadne, no one remembered to turn the ship’s sails to white. Theseus claimed to love Ariadne in order to win her assistance, according to a more reliable version of the narrative. After they arrived in Crete without incident, our hero left the charming maiden behind in Naxos since he was done with her. Theseus and his comrades were cursed by the grieving Ariadne for having neglected to switch the ship’s sail from black to white.
Whatever the circumstances, after leaving Ariadne on Naxos, the god Dionysus married her, they cohabited, and had three sons: Thoas, Oenopion, and Staphylus. Ariadne was later transported to Mount Olympus by Dionysus to live among the gods.
Aegeus waited anxiously for his son to return from Crete during this time. He made the trip to Cape Sounion, Attica’s southernmost point, every evening to view the ship leaving for Crete. But months had elapsed and his son was still absent. He eventually spotted the ship one day while perched on a cliff near Sounion, but the sails were completely black. As soon as he realized his son was gone, he fell into the water and drowned out of complete grief. The water was then given the name Aegean Sea in honor of their adored king by the Athenians.
becoming the Athens king
Theseus succeeded his father as King of Athens as the legal successor. He acquired the respect and admiration of the Athenians, who saw in him a valiant and fearless warrior as well as a shrewd and foresighted king.
Theseus successfully brought the various Attic communities together into a strong, centrally-run state. Theseus had the right idea when he said that the sea would give Athens power; as a result, agriculture and trade prospered, and Athens developed into a thriving and significant maritime port. On his journey from Troizen to Athens, he accomplished a number of duties that were commemorated by the Isthmian Games. He also introduced a number of new festivals, including as the Panthenaea festivals, which honor the goddess Athena, the city’s guardian.
The Amazon Antigone, his first wife
The safety of his country was in jeopardy due to the latest expedition of the restless Theseus. His ship arrived to Lemnos, the home of the legendary female warriors known as the Amazons, while on an exploration mission. In order to determine if the intentions of the foreigners were peaceful or not, the attractive Antigone, sister of the Queen of the Amazons, was dispatched as a messenger.
Theseus glanced at the attractive emissary and immediately forgot about diplomatic matters. He promptly embarked on a ship bound for Athens with Antigone. The brave Athens king must have won the warrior lady’s admiration because it appears that she had no objections to being kidnapped. Antigone gave birth to her husband’s son, Hippolytus, and Theseus made her his queen when they arrived at Athens.
The incensed Amazons wasted no time in starting their assault on Athens. Because to the strength of their attack, they were able to enter a significant portion of Attic territory. The Amazon warriors were compelled to request peace as Theseus quickly collected his soldiers and launched a brutal counterattack. Yet the unlucky queen Antigone, who bravely battled beside Theseus against her own people, passed away on the battlefield, leaving her husband to lament her loss bitterly.
The next noteworthy event in Theseus’ life was his renown friendship with Prithious, prince of the Lapiths, an illustrious race from Mount Pelion in Thessaly. Prithious decided to put the famed hero to the test because he had heard many tales about the heroic actions and amazing adventures of Theseus.
He therefore invaded Attica with a group of supporters and camped out with Theseus’ herds of cattle. When Prithious and our hero, accompanied by his armed men, came into contact, they were both at once overcome with an irrational admiration for one another. They made an enduring friendship oath and grew close.
According to tradition, the new companions participated in both the renowned hunt for the Calydonian Boar and the conflict with the Centaurs, beings that were half-horse, half-human. The later incident happened when one of the Centaurs who were invited to Prithious’ wedding feast became inebriated and attempted to rape the bride Hippodamia. The other Centaurs joined him and they all made similar attempts to rape any female present at the feast. With the aid of Theseus, Prithious and his Lapiths assaulted the Centaurs and reclaimed the honor of their female members.
The abduction of Helen
Eventually, the two pals made the decision to help one another kidnap a Zeus daughter. Theseus decided on Helen, who would go on to become known as Helen of Troy. Helen was only nine years old at the time, but that didn’t stop our hero from wanting to kidnap her and keep her safe until it was time for her to get married. The two initially abducted Helen, who Theseus then temporarily put in the care of his mother Aethra at Troizen. Castor and Pollux, Helen’s brothers, saved the child and returned Helen to Sparta, their native territory.
His second wife Phaedra
Theseus had wed Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne, the lady he had once deceived, after the passing of his Amazonian wife Antigone. Demophone and Acamas were two kids whom Phaedra, a young woman who would later suffer a horrible fate, bore to her husband. Hippolytus, Theseus’ child with Antigone, had developed into a lovely young man in the interim. When he turned twenty, he decided to follow Artemis, the goddess of hunting, hills, and forests, rather than his father’s choice of Aphrodite.
Because Phaedra was made to fall madly and profoundly in love with her attractive stepson as a result, the enraged Aphrodite made the decision to exact revenge. She committed suicide out of desperation after Hippolytus scornfully rejected her advances. But, she had previously composed a suicide letter in which she justified her choice to end her life by claiming that Hippolytus had violated and dishonored her.
Theseus, who was furious, pleaded with his father, the sea god Poseidon, to punish Hippolytus. In fact, Poseidon sent a monster that alarmed the horses pulling Hippolytus’ chariot. The chariot flipped over as the horses went crazy, pulling the youngster who was caught in the reins behind it. Theseus discovered the truth from an elderly Phaedra servant in the interim. In his haste to save his son, he discovered him on the verge of death. Poor Hippolytus passed away in his father’s arms while he grieved.
From the ancient tragedy Hippolytus by Euripides to the myriad plays and movies that were based on this magnificent tale, it has inspired countless writers and artists over the course of centuries.
A tragic conclusion fit for a hero
Theseus, who was steadily losing his appeal among the Athenians, met his demise with this occurrence. His previous valiant achievements and contributions to the state were forgotten, and rebellions against his leadership started to spread everywhere. Finally, Theseus gave up the throne and fled to the island of Skyros.
There, the island’s ruler Lycomedes believed that Theseus would ultimately aspire to rule Skyros. In order to murder Theseus, he brought him to the top of a cliff and pushed him over the edge into the water under the pretense of friendship. One of the greatest Greek heroes and the most honorable Athenian met a horrible end in this way.