Theseus: The Athenian National Hero

“The fairest praise that I can award to Theseus is this: that he, a contemporary of Hercules, won a fame which rivalled him". This is how a great Athenian orator and essayist (Isocrates) describes Theseus in the early 4th century BCE, developing an ideal relationship between the king and the city.

“The fairest praise that I can award to Theseus is this: that he, a contemporary of Hercules, won a fame which rivalled him. For they not only equipped themselves with similar armor, but followed the same pursuits, performing deeds that were worthy of their common origin…Hercules undertook perilous labors more celebrated and more severe…Theseus those more useful, and to the Greeks, more vital importance”

This is how a great Athenian orator and essayist (Isocrates) describes Theseus in the early 4th century BCE, developing an ideal relationship between the king and the city. As a matter of fact, Isocrates seems to use often heroes in his public speeches. He uses Theseus and Hercules, well-established characters in the political discourse as founder figures and significant heroes of the Greeks. Both they are associated strongly with the two great and rival Greek city-states, namely with Athens and Sparta: Hercules representing Sparta (and later, the Macedonians of King Phillip and Alexander the Great), while Theseus representing Athens and its superior political capacity.     

minotaur national museum athens b 4th cent BCE
Minotaur National Museum Athens b 4th cent BCE

Theseus was the last Mythical King of Athens, the Great Founder and Reformer of the City.

He, indeed, was credited with bringing about the synoecism, namely the unification of the small Athenian villages into a single political and economic entity that became Athens city-state.

Today, he is well-known as the young boy who slew the Minotaur in the labyrinth, an overwhelming event that took place somewhere on the island of Crete, at the southernmost part of Greece.

But, let me tell you the story of this youth who became Athens’ king and eventually its famous national hero. 

Theseus and bull_Marathon_440-430BCE Metropolitan NY (wikimedia)
Theseus and bull - Marathon - 440-430BCE Metropolitan NY (wikimedia)


Theseus’ Myth and Deeds: the Beginning of a Great Career

According to legend, Aegeus, the king of Athens, had no heir to his throne despite of having been married twice. Eager to find a solution, he went to Delphi to consult the great Oracle, because this is what the ancient Greeks were used to doing in difficult moments. But apparently, he didn’t get a clear answer, because this was the appropriate ancient practice of giving information and prophecies. Thus, he decided to seek advice from his good friend, King Pittheus of Troezen (today the region across Athens and at the northwestern part of the Peloponnese). The king persuaded Aegeus into having an intercourse with his daughter Aethra, the future mother of Theseus. On the same night, Aegeus and the sea god Poseidon, both slept with Aethra, supplying Theseus with both divine and royal lineage.

Theseus was born at his mother’s place, but as a young boy he travelled extensively around the Saronic Gulf via Epidaurus and the isthmus of Corinth before finally reaching Athens. But, as in all ancient Greek stories, Theseus, instead of choosing the safer seaway to find Athens, he went on the dangerous land route. Along the way he encountered and dispatched several legendary brigands notorious for attacking travelers. Thus, he performed a great number of deeds (similar to those we know from Hercules myth-cycle) in or in the vicinity of Athens, which made him an important local hero.

Pasiphae-Minotaur, Attic Red Figur - Kylix
Pasiphae-Minotaur, Attic Red Figur - Kylix

Theseus in Athens

Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus was recognized by his father, Aegeus, as the only legitimate heir of his throne. After resolving the issues of his royal heritage, he was informed about a very sad and disastrous situation that affected his new city.

Few years before his arrival, the king Minos of Crete had invaded Athens after his son was murdered at its soil. King Aegeus of Athens asked for terms, and thus the city was required to sacrifice seven youths and seven maidens to the Minotaur every nine years (or every year according to another version of the myth). The boys and the girls were sent to Crete and shut up in the labyrinth designed by the legendary architect and engineer Daedalus[1] to contain the Minotaur: the famous half-man, half-bull, offspring of the union of Pasiphae, King’s Minos wife, with a bull.

Theseus in Athens volunteered to resolve for good the tribute and curse. Fearless he set sail to the island of Crete in order to kill the minotaur.

entrance section to the palatial complex of Knossos, the legendary palace of King Minos
Entrance section to the palatial complex of Knossos, the legendary palace of King Minos

Theseus and the Minotaur

As soon as he arrived on Crete Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, fell in love with him. She offered to help him conquer the labyrinth and kill the minotaur if he would marry her and take her away from Crete. Theseus agreed. Ariadne gave him a sword and a ball of thread; and Theseus enrolled it as he delved deeper into the twisting paths of the maze. When he found the minotaur, he managed to slay him, and then followed the thread back to the entrance.

Theseus took Ariadne away from Crete. On their voyage back to Athens while crossing the Aegean, they arrived on Naxos by nightfall. They decided to sleep on the beautiful shores of the island, but the next morning Theseus abandoned the girl sleeping on the beach. In a few versions of the myth, this was the will of the Gods and Theseus appears to be under the goddess Athena’s directions. 

Naxos - Yria - Dionysus
Naxos - Yria - Dionysus

One way or another, Ariadne was discovered by God Dionysos (god of grape-harvest, wine, fertility, ritual madness and many more) who made her his wife and together they settled happy on his sacred island.

In the meantime, back in Athens King Aegeus was waiting eagerly for his son to return from Crete. It had been agreed that the ship carrying Theseus and the rest of the Athenians should hoist a white sail to notify that the trip was successful, Theseus alive and Athens liberated by the tribute. If the quest had gone wrong, a black sail would have signaled the bad and unlucky outcome and the death of his son.

But Theseus had tragically forgotten to change the black sails on the boat. Aegeus believing that his son had died, committed suicide and threw himself by the cliffs of Cape Sounio, thus giving his name to the Aegean Sea.

The Athenians, in return for Theseus’s successful mission, organized religious festivals to honour the God Apollo (their forefather) and their new king.

Delphi-treasury of Athenians 490
Delphi-treasury of Athenians 490

Theseus and Classical Athens

Hence, Theseus became the last mythical king of Athens, the founder of the new city and the heroic link between their past and their future. About 500 BCE, he was credited mythically with being the founder of Democratic Athens, of the new political system, although he had to share the limelight with the two Tyrant-Slayers who had actually killed the tyrant’s brother several years before democracy.

By the mid-5th century BCE, he had gained so much prominence that he had become the embodiment of Athens and a role-model to emulate. His image and deeds were depicted in all visual media, from vase paintings to bigger audiences in public buildings and sacred temples. 

After the battle of Marathon (490BCE), the lavish ‘treasury building’ of the Athenians at Delphi was embellished with the deeds of Theseus polished in parallel with those of bold Hercules. Some decades later, the temple of Hephaistos at the social and political center of the city (the Athenian Agora) was also decorated with sculpture panels of his exploits. Theseus had now evolved from a heroic wrestler to a powerful defender of democracy.

His image was allusion enough to propagate Athens contempt against its enemies and its claims to take the hegemony of the entire Greek world.    


Author: Nota Karamaouna (Archaeologist and Tour Guide)



Related posts