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Θησεύς). The great national hero of Attic legend. He was the son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and of Aethra, the daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen. This, however, was the Attic tradition, which aimed at making Theseus a prince of Athenian descent. The older legend of Troezen itself made Theseus the son of Poseidon (Pausan. i. 17, 3; Diod.iv. 59; Plut. Thes. 6; Eur. Hipp. 887). Plutarch in his Theseus has gathered into a connected story various legends, some of Athenian origin, some from other countries:


his journey from Troezen to Athens, an Attic glorification of their hero;


the Cretan story of the Minotaur adapted to the Attic legends;


his later adventures, some of which are of Spartan origin. But the story may be related consecutively as Plutarch has given it.

Theseus was brought up at Troezen, and when he reached maturity he took, by his mother's directions, the sword and sandals, the tokeus which had been left by Aegeus, and proceeded to Athens. Eager to emulate Heracles, he went by land, displaying his prowess by destroying the robbers and monsters that infested the country. Periphetes, Sinis, Phaea the Crommyonian sow, Sciron, Cercyon, and Procrustes fell before him. At Athens he was immediately recognized by Medea, who laid a plot for poisoning him at a banquet to which he was invited. By means of the sword which he carried, Theseus was recognized by Aegeus, acknowledged as his son, and declared his successor. The sons of Pallas, thus disappointed in their hopes of succeeding to the throne, attempted to secure the succession by violence, and declared war, but, being betrayed by the herald Leos, were destroyed. The capture of the Marathonian bull, which had long laid waste the surrounding country, was the next exploit of Theseus. After this Theseus went of his own accord as one of the seven youths whom the Athenians were obliged to send every year, with seven maidens, to Crete, to be devoured by the Minotaur. When they arrived at Crete, Ariadné, the daughter of Minos, became enamoured of Theseus, and provided him with a sword with which he slew the Minotaur, and a clue of thread by which he found his way out of the labyrinth. Having effected his object, Theseus sailed away, carrying off Ariadné. There were various legends about Ariadné; but according to the general account Theseus abandoned her in the island of Naxos on his way home. (See Ariadné.) He was generally believed to have had by her two sons, Oenopion and Staphylus; yet this does not agree with the account in the Odyssey, which represents her as dying before her wedding with Theseus was brought about, and apparently after her union with Dionysus ( Od. xi. 320). As the vessel in which Theseus sailed approached Attica, he neglected to hoist the white sail which was to have been the signal of the success of the expedition; whereupon Aegeus, thinking that his son had perished, threw himself into the sea. (See Aegeus.) Theseus thus became king of Athens. Other adventures followed, again repeating those of Heracles. Theseus is said to have assailed the Amazons before they had recovered from the attack of Heracles, and to have carried off their queen Antiopé. The Amazons in their turn invaded Attica, and penetrated into Athens itself; and the final battle in which Theseus overcame them was fought in the very midst of the city. (See Amazones.) By Antiopé Theseus was said to have had a son named Hippolytus or Demophoön, and after her death to have married Phaedra. (See Hippolytus; Phaedra.)

Theseus figures in almost all the great heroic expeditions. He was one of the Argonauts (the anachronism of the attempt of Medea to poison him does not seem to have been noticed); he joined in the Calydonian hunt, and aided Adrastus in recovering the bodies of those slain before Thebes. He contracted a close friendship with Pirithoüs, and aided him and the Lapithae against the Centaurs. With the assistance of Pirithoüs he carried off Helen from Sparta while she was quite a girl, and placed her at Aphidnae, under the care of Aethra. In return he assisted Pirithoüs in his attempt to carry off Persephoné from the lower world. Pirithoüs perished in the enterprise, and Theseus was kept in hard durance until he was delivered by Heracles. Meantime Castor and Pollux invaded Attica, and carried off Helen and Aethra, Academus having informed the brothers where they were to be found. (See Academus.) Menestheus also endeavoured to incite the people against Theseus, who on his return found himself unable to re-establish his authority, and retired to Scyros, where he met with a treacherous death at the hands of Lycomedes. The departed hero was believed to have appeared to aid the Athenians at the battle of Marathon. In 469 the bones of Theseus were discovered by Cimon in Scyros, and brought to Athens, where they were deposited in a temple (the Theseum) erected in honour of the hero. A considerable part of this temple still remains, forming one of the most interesting monuments of Athens. A festival in honour of Theseus was celebrated on the eighth day of each month, especially in Pyanepsion. See p. 151.

There can be no doubt that Theseus is a purely legendary personage. Nevertheless, in later times the Athenians came to regard him as the author of a very important political revolution in Attica. Before his time Attica had been broken up into twelve petty independent States or townships, acknowledging no head, and connected only by a federal union. Theseus abolished the separate governments, and erected Athens into the capital of a single commonwealth. The festival of the Panathenaea (q.v.) was instituted to commemorate this important revolution. Theseus is said to have established a constitutional government, retaining in his own hands only certain definite powers and functions. He is further said to have distributed the Athenian citizens into the three classes of Eupatridae, Geomori, and Demiurgi. It would be a vain task to attempt to decide whether there is any historical basis for the legends about Theseus, and still more so to endeavour to separate the historical from the legendary in what has been preserved. The Theseus of the Athenians was a hero who fought the Amazons, and slew the Minotaur, and carried off Helen. A personage who should be nothing more than a wise king, consolidating the Athenian commonwealth, however possible his existence might be, would have no historical reality. The connection of Theseus with Poseidon, the national deity of the Ionic tribes, his coming from the Ionic town Troezen, forcing his way through the Isthmus into Attica, and establishing the Isthmia as an Ionic Panegyris, rather suggest that Theseus is, at least in part, the mythological representative of an Ionian immigration into Attica, which, adding perhaps to the strength and importance of Ionian settlers already in the country, might easily have led to that political aggregation of the disjointed elements of the State which is assigned to Theseus.

hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Euripides, Hippolytus, 887
    • Homer, Odyssey, 11.320
    • Plutarch, Theseus, 6
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