The Bull from the Sea

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The Bull from the Sea

by Mary Renault


A novel set in ancient Greece, about 1300 b.c.; published in 1962.


Theseus, mythical hero of ancient Greece, has many experiences and adventures during his adult years.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in England in 1905, Mary Renault emigrated to South Africa in 1948 and remained there the rest of her life. During her long career as an author, she wrote many historical novels set in the ancient world. The Bull from the Sea is a fictional interpretation of life in ancient Greece as it might have been experienced by the legendary Greek hero Theseus. While the novel focuses on a mythical figure, Renault’s portrait of the society in which he is supposed to have lived is based on extensive scholarly research into the Mycenaean civilization that actually existed in Greece between about 1500 and 1100 b.c.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Mycenaean Age

The Bull from the Sea focuses on a time early in Greek history known as the Mycenaean Age. The country known today as Greece did not exist then as a single, unified nation. Instead it was divided into many small districts, each controlled by an upper class of noble individuals. The most powerful noble in each district acted as king, serving as the supreme judge, lawgiver, and military commander. He also presided over religious ceremonies.

The king’s authority rested on two factors. One was the claim of his divine right to rule because he was the direct descendant of one of the gods. The other factor was the judgment by the kingdom’s nobles that the king was fit to rule, either because of his prowess in war or his wise counsel. The position of king was never absolutely secure. Rulers of Mycenaean society remained in power only as long as their military success, wealth, and political connections lasted. Power struggles between the king and nobles were frequent, for powerful rivals stood ready to grab the throne at the first sign of a ruler’s weakness. Threats from ambitious relatives and neighboring monarchs lurked as well. This atmosphere explains the significance of a scene in The Bull from the Sea where Theseus presides for the first time as king over a gathering of the region’s leaders. During the meeting he is challenged, and it becomes important for him to assert his authority. By standing up to the insolent Prokrustes and throwing him out of the meeting, he helps ensure the support of the rest of the region’s leaders. He has proven to them his strength and courage—he is someone to be taken seriously.

A violent era

The Mycenaean Age was a bloody period of history. One of the most common

means of increasing one’s wealth and power was through piracy and conquest of neighboring kingdoms. Wars were therefore frequent. Since military equipment was too elaborate and expensive for the lower classes to afford, the warriors consisted mainly of members of the upper class. In addition to weapons, these warriors used horses, chariots, immense oxhide shields, and bronze armor. The upper-class soldiers, equipped with such trappings, often fought many wars over the course of their lifetimes. Those who were defeated were often treated in brutal fashion. As illustrated by Theseus and his friend Pirithoos in The Bull from the Sea, warriors who conquered a city could be ruthless. They sometimes slaughtered all the men and took all the women as mistresses and slaves. After seizing as much gold, silver, and valuables as they could find, they would burn down the city and leave. In a land where such brutal warfare was common, many kings ruled from citadels. The Athenian Acropolis from which Theseus rules in The Bull from the Sea is an example of this kind of stronghold. These citadels were strong fortresses built on tall, steep, rocky hills, which provided a tremendous natural defense. Often the citadels were surrounded by huge protective walls that in some places were forty feet thick. Security was a very serious matter in such violent times.

Mycenaean women

In many respects, women occupied an inferior position to men in this society, where power and status were gained and held through physical prowess and military success. Much of a woman’s time was spent at home engaged in such activities as raising children and attending to household chores. Before marriage, she was required to remain a chaste maiden; after marriage, she was supposed to be a faithful wife. At the same time, it was a common and acceptable practice for her husband to take mistresses.

The legendary Amazons, who play a role in The Bull from the Sea, led lives that differed greatly from this customary pattern. A nation of female warriors, the Amazons supposedly lived in Scythia, in Asia Minor. According to legends about the Amazons, they kept men segregated on an island and mated only to produce children. Male children would either be killed or sent back to the island reserved for men to be raised there. In contrast, young females were raised to become warriors. Skirmishes between such Greek heroes as Theseus and Hercules and the Amazons are recorded in myths and portrayed on hundreds of ancient vases and plaques. Another version of the Amazon legend, which Renault follows in The Bull from the Sea, is that they were a group of warrior princesses who guarded the religious


It was believed that the Great Goddess had power over life, death, fertility, marriage, and wisdom. Later Greek goddesses are thought to derive from the Great Goddess, and her various spheres of influence are attributed to different figures:

GoddessSpheres of Influence
ArtemisBirth, hunting, moon
AthenaWisdom, crafts
HestiaHearth, home

sanctuary of the goddess Artemis (goddess of birth, hunting, and the moon). They are engaged in one of their religious rituals just before Theseus appears, and a battle between his forces and theirs ensues. He successfully captures their leader, Hippolyta, but only does so after a difficult fight against these powerful women.

The Great Goddess vs. Zeus

Before the beginning of the Mycenaean Age (1500-1100 b.c.), the inhabitants of ancient Greece apparently worshipped a Great Goddess as their principal deity. Archaeologists have found many objects from this period that are connected with the worship of this goddess. These include numerous small statues of female figures (often squatting in traditional childbirth postures) with protruding breasts, large bellies, enormous thighs, and rounded contours. According to scholars, these figures indicate that the society of the time considered motherhood a sacred status. The Great Goddess seems to have been revered as the source of life and death. She was also regarded as the giver of divine wisdom, just law, and the arts, and as the protector of peace and nurturer of growth. Men held a subordinate place in this religion.

Around 1500 b.c., many generations before Theseus’s legendary life, invaders from the northeast conquered and settled the Greek mainland. They brought with them the Greek language and their patriarchal religion, which featured the male god Zeus as the most powerful of all deities. The Great Goddess was apparently absorbed into this new Greek religion; each of the six main Greek goddesses worshipped in the Mycenaean Age may have been derived from the ancient Great Goddess. But the new religion made these goddesses subordinate to Zeus.

Though the reverence of Zeus became widespread in Mycenean Greece, the ancient Goddess-centered religion of the native peoples apparently did not completely disappear. In The Bull from the Sea, Mary Renault refers to the continued worship by some people of a most-powerful female goddess and portrays these ceremonies as a source of tension in the area. Throughout the book, the continuing cult of the Goddess seems to be considered a serious threat by Greek society. This anxiety about the cult is due in large extent to the belief that the worship of the Goddess was intertwined with a desire to put women in a position of power over men.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

The novel opens with the arrival of Theseus in Athens. Almost as soon as he steps off the ship, he learns that his father has killed himself; it is time for him to step into position as king of Athens. Theseus soon calls his first meeting with the lords of the region. He refuses to tolerate the rudeness that Prokrustes, one of the leaders, shows him. Theseus authoritatively throws Prokrustes out of the meeting, an action that gains him the respect and support of the other lords in attendance.

Soon after becoming king, Theseus’s mother Aithra insists on bringing him to a sacred grove for a religious ceremony in order to seek the forgiveness of the Great Goddess, offended by Theseus’s actions as a young man. He had taken many actions against the ancient worship of the Great Goddess in the past, outlawing the Goddess worship at Eleusis and seducing and subsequently deserting Ariadne, Crete’s high priestess of the Goddess religion.

Once at the ceremony, however, Theseus’s longing looks at a young priestess cause her to accidentally knock over the screen placed in front of a sacred statue of the Goddess that men are forbidden from laying eyes on. Sent away before the ceremony is concluded, he remains unpardoned.

Theseus spends the first five years of his reign bringing all of Attica, the eastern region of Greece, under his authority. This action marks the first time that so many individual kingdoms in Greece are united under one rule of law. He does this primarily through diplomacy rather than warfare. It is during these years that he meets Pirithoos, prince of Thessaly in northern Greece. Pirithoos becomes a good friend, and Theseus periodically accompanies him on his pirating conquests of distant cities.

As Theseus grows older, it becomes time for him to take a wife and produce a legitimate son to be his heir. He arranges a future marriage to princess Phaedra of Crete, a union that also promises to help solidify the political ties between the two kingdoms. In the meantime, Theseus ends up in battle against the Amazons while on a pirating voyage with Pirithoos. He falls in love with their leader, Hippolyta, and follows them back to their center one night with a few of his crew. The onlookers spy on the women as they perform a religious ritual that all men are forbidden to see. After Theseus is discovered, the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, challenges him to one-on-one combat. He wins, takes her back to Athens, and after an initial period of distrust, she falls in love with him.

Theseus and Hippolyta are very happy together. The Athenian people don’t trust the female warrior, who behaves so differently from their own women, but Theseus ignores their discontent. Soon the couple have a son, Hippolytus. The Athenians, however, grow increasingly insistent that Theseus marry someone respectable. He finally succumbs to the pressure and marries Phaedra. Although Hippolyta remains with him in Athens, and Phaedra stays in Crete, the people are satisfied with the alliance.

After some years, the Amazons and other enemies from the north lay siege to Athens. While Hippolyta is troubled to fight against her old comrades, she ultimately demonstrates her loyalty to Theseus and takes up arms against them. She is killed when she steps in front of an arrow meant for Theseus. He sends Hippolytus to live with his grandfather and devotes more time to pirating voyages with his friend Pirithoos. Many years later, after one such adventure, he visits his son, who is now seventeen. Theseus is upset to learn that his son had made a vow to remain a virgin, never marry, and dedicate his life to becoming a healer. Before Theseus returns to Athens, however, the two come to an understanding and part as friends.

Theseus finally decides to bring his wife Phaedra to live with him in Athens. Their relationship proves an unhappy one, and she falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. After being rejected by him, she claims that he raped her. Theseus curses him and Hippolytus races off in his chariot. By the time Theseus finds out the truth about what happened and rides out to stop his son, it is too late; a tidal wave carrying a great bull from the sea slays Hippolytus. Theseus then returns to Athens and kills Phaedra in anger.

The aging Theseus eventually suffers a paralytic stroke. He avoids Athens during his recovery so that no one will see his weakness. He returns several years later, only to find that Athens is greatly changed and under the control of the nobleman Menestheus. Theseus leaves Athens and journeys to a friend’s house in Skyros. There he kills himself, preferring to end his life before his heroic status can further diminish.

Culture clash

Before The Bull from the Sea opens, Medea, a high priestess of the Goddess, had tried to gain power in Athens. She is referred to by the Greeks as a dangerous and powerful sorceress “scheming to bring back the old religion and end the rule of men” (Renault, Bull from the Sea, p. 170). Generally, Renault portrays the Greek men of the Mycenaean Age as distrustful of powerful women who worship the ancient Great Goddess so popular in Greece before the arrival of Theseus’s forefathers. The new gods have been established, with Zeus at their head, but the men of Theseus’s time fear an overthrow of their male gods and of their male-dominated social system.

When Theseus brings the Amazon leader Hippolyta back to Athens with him, the Athenians fear this strange female warrior, who comes from a society where the Great Goddess is revered. Powerful women with ties to the Goddess were commonly assumed to know magic, which added to the Athenians’ fearfulness. Many people of the city believe Hippolyta bewitched Theseus into treating her well and fear that—like Medea—she has plans to overthrow the power of the men in Athens. This is far from the truth of the tale, however; she has not worked any magic on Theseus, nor does she have any plots against the people of her new homeland. Still, her presence in the royal house of Athens is never completely accepted by the public.


In Greek legend, Theseus, whose father is Poseidon, the God of the Sea, calls on a bull from the sea to punish his son for raping Phaedra, a false charge leveled against him by the queen. The son’s frightened horse team bolts, and he is dragged to death over the rocks. It is from this legend that Renault takes the title of her book.

The couple’s son, Hippolytus, seems from a very young age to have a spiritual connection to the Goddess. On one occasion, when he is about six years old, his parents search for him at his bedtime. They scour the palace but cannot find him. Finally, they look up and see him quietly sitting on the roof of the palace, his face turned towards the sky. He appears to be meditating or praying. When his worried parents come to him, he assures them, “I was quite safe. I was with the Lady” (The Bull from the Sea, p. 197). Such incidents bred unfounded rumors among the people that the king’s son was being taught by Hippolyta to revere the Goddess instead of Zeus. In any case, the townspeople view Hippolytus’s neglect of the worship of Zeus in favor of the Goddess as highly improper. As Theseus cautions Hippolyta, “Before the people, we must see he… shows respect to the Olympians [Zeus and his fellow gods]. You know what hangs on it” (The Bull from the Sea, p. 198). Theseus is concerned because gossip about his son’s beliefs detracts from his own reputation and authority. It is only when Hippolyta is killed and her son sent away that the Athenian fear of a female overthrow of the male-dominated religion recedes.


The Bull from the Sea is a historical novel that recreates the Mycenaean Age in Greece. Renault drew from many different sources in writing the book. The first and most obvious of these was the ancient Greek myth of Theseus. She drew the basic outline of the plot from Plutarch’s Life of Theseus. As one biographer explains, Renault’s “intention was to run through the Theseus tale, episode by episode, from his return to Athens until his death” (Sweetman, p. 209).

Renault also extensively researched the Mycenaean Age. This helped her incorporate elements of the time into her narrative, giving it a realistic tone. Modern archaeological finds related to ancient Greece contributed to her knowledge of the period. She tells of a Mycenaean tomb that had been excavated shortly before she wrote her novel:

Here with their skeleton hands still folded over their long gold-pommelled swords lay the tall princes whose descendants took Troy.... The written tablets shadowed a warlike society, well organized, aristocratic and art-loving.

(Renault in Sweetman, p. 178)

Further research provided additional insights into the small details of that civilization. She investigated, for example, whether Mycenaean warriors used horses for anything but chariot teams since stirrups, which made riding easier, had not yet been invented (she discovered that warriors did occasionally ride horses). This novel, like others by the author, was thus based not only on legend but also on the results of historical research.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The women’s movement

Mary Renault published The Bull from the Sea in 1962. It was around this time that a movement that encouraged the political, economic, and social equality of women with men began to accelerate. The publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 is often referred to as one of the important spurs to the movement’s growth. In this book, Friedan described feelings that were extremely common to many women during the preceding years:

It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question, “Is this all?”

(Friedan, p. 15)

During the following years, the movement took shape. In 1966 the National Organization of Women was founded. Many new books with feminist themes, such as Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970), were published. The U.S. National Women’s Political Caucus was founded in 1971; the International Feminist Congress first met two years later.

Mary Renault was never an active participant in the women’s movement. However, her work and opinions reflect a certain amount of sympathy with feminist attitudes. She thoroughly disliked conventional female life and once noted that:

Sometimes I look round a lot of housewives shopping, or business men’s wives stuck at some awful party when the men go off talking shop and leave them to go on about knitting or servants or something... and I have a terribly sad feeling like looking at a lot of animals that have moulted and got silly from being kept in a cage.

(Renault in Sweetman, pp. 176-77)

In The Bull from the Sea, her characterization of Hippolyta bears out this attitude. Hippolyta grows up among the Amazons, a society dominated by females, and occupies the stereotypical male role of a warrior king. She is skilled in combat and regularly takes up arms in battle. Instead of spinning or weaving, she enjoys spending her time in such outdoor pursuits as hunting. In fact, Hippolyta is in many respects the type of strong woman that the 1960s feminist movement held up as an ideal.


The Bull from the Sea was the sequel to Renault’s story of the first part of Theseus’s life, The King Must Die, published in 1958. Many reviewers compared it unfavorably to the earlier novel. The Times Literary Supplement, for example, described it as a string of interesting anecdotes rather than a fully developed novel. Even so, most people gave the book at least qualified praise. The American author Granville Hicks argued that The Bull from the Sea was just as good as The King Must Die. The biographer Peter Wolfe praised Renault’s creative use of myth, her psychological insights, and her ability to bring the past to life with vivid descriptions of objects and landscapes. Renault herself, however, felt that The Bull from the Sea was not as good as her earlier book about Theseus, “mainly because [in this novel] the legends on Theseus’s life had little unity” (Renault in Sweetman, p. 217).

From Athens to South Africa

Renault lived in South Africa in 1960 during the writing of The Bull from the Sea. She claimed never to have felt so in touch with life as she did while living in that country. England, the nation of her birth, was a highly developed country with an impersonal government. In contrast, living in South Africa was “like being in a city state where the people in control are personally known to the community” (Renault in Sweetman, p. 199). Given this setting, she became deeply involved in politics for the first time in her life.

Apartheid, a government policy that separated the races into different living areas, had been in effect in South Africa since 1948. The country was still part of the British Commonwealth at the time, but this soon changed. During the 1950s whites who were strongly committed to the policy of racial separation gained power. Their leader, Heinrich Verwoerd, became prime minister and introduced the idea of separate homelands for blacks. Renault felt this proposal was a sneaky way to deprive blacks of territory outside the homeland areas. This and other issues set her against Verwoerd and his design to make South Africa an independent republic. Eventually, however, his plan won out. The Union of South Africa became an independent republic and left the British Commonwealth, a hateful move to Renault since the departure from the Commonwealth helped the most segregation-minded whites.

Renault touched upon racial relations in The Bull from the Sea. In her narrative, the populace of Athens regards Theseus’s Amazon wife Hippolyta as a member of another race. Hippolyta is seen as an outsider throughout her stay in the city, despite her loyalty to Theseus. She is viewed in much the same way that the black and racially mixed people of South Africa were viewed by the conservative whites who controlled the South African government in the 1960s.

For More Information

Chadwick, John. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.

Frost, Frank J. Greek Society. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1971.

Miles, Rosalind. The Women’s History of the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Renault, Mary. The Bull from the Sea. New York: Pantheon Books, 1962.

Sweetman, David. Mary Renault: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

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The Bull from the Sea

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