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Theseus

Theseus (thē´syōōs, –sēəs), in Greek mythology, hero of Athens; son of either King Aegeus or Poseidon. Before Aegeus left Troezen he placed his sword and sandals beneath a huge rock and told his wife Aethra that when their son, Theseus, could lift the rock he was to bring the gifts to his kingdom in Athens. At the age of 16 Theseus lifted the rock and began his journey, during which he freed the countryside of various monsters and villains (e.g., Procrustes). When Theseus arrived at Athens, Medea, then wife of Aegeus, tried to kill him. Aegeus, however, recognized the sword and sandals, saved Theseus, and exiled Medea. Theseus subsequently had numerous adventures. His most famous exploit was against the Minotaur of King Minos of Crete. Theseus insisted on being one of the seven youths and seven maidens of Athens to be sacrificed to the monster as an annual tribute. He promised his father that if he were successful in killing the Minotaur he would on his return voyage replace his ship's black sails with white ones. Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a magic ball of thread to be dropped at the entrance of the labyrinth; it led Theseus to the Minotaur, which he killed, and he then followed the unwound thread back to the entrance. He left Crete with Ariadne but abandoned her at Naxos. When Theseus reached home he forgot to raise white sails. Aegeus saw black sails, and, thinking his son dead, the grief-stricken father threw himself into the sea, thereafter called the Aegean. As king of Athens, Theseus instituted several reforms, most notably the federalization of the scattered Attic communities. He journeyed to the land of the Amazons, where he abducted Antiope, who bore him Hippolytus. A vengeful Amazon army invaded Athens, but Theseus defeated it. Some say Antiope died fighting beside him in the battle; others claim that Theseus killed her when she objected to his marriage to Phaedra. For helping Pirithoüs to carry off Persephone, Theseus was imprisoned in Hades until Hercules rescued him. Upon his return to Athens, he found his once great kingdom a turmoil of corruption and rebellion. He regretfully sailed away and came to rest at Skyros, where he was treacherously murdered by King Lycomedes. Although Theseus is generally thought of as legendary, the Athenians believed he had been one of their early kings.

See A. G. Ward et al., The Quest for Theseus (1970).

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Theseus

Theseus in Greek mythology, the legendary hero of Athens, son of Poseidon (or, in another account, of Aegeus, king of Athens) and husband of Phaedra.

Aegeus had left the child Theseus and his mother at her father's court in Troezen, with the instruction that when the boy was old enough to lift a certain rock, he was to come to Athens with the sword and sandals he would find beneath it; it was on this journey that he encountered and killed such bandits as Procrustes and Sinis.

At Athens, he became one of the boys and girls sent as tribute to Crete; there he slew the Cretan Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, and returned to Athens. Forgetting an earlier agreement with his father, he did not change his ship's sails from black to white in token of success, and Aegeus is said to have killed himself in despair on seeing the black-sailed ship. Theseus became king of Athens; his many subsequent adventures (often in the company of Hercules) included the capture of the Amazon queen Hippolyta.

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Theseus

Theseus

Theseus, a hero of Greek mythology, is best known for slaying a monster called the Minotaur. His life and adventures illustrate many themes of Greek myths, including the idea that even the mightiest hero cannot escape tragedy, if that is his fate.


Mysterious Origins. Like many other heroes of myth and legend, Theseus was born and raised in unusual and dramatic circumstances. His mother was Aethra, daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen. Although some accounts name Poseidon* as his father, most say that Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens, who had stopped at Troezen after consulting the oracle at Delphi.

oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken

The oracle had warned Aegeus not to get drunk or father a child on his way home to Athensor one day he would die of sorrow. However, at Troezen, Aegeus ignored the warnings and became


* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Aethra's lover. Before leaving for Athens, he placed his sandals and sword under a boulder and told Aethra that if she bore a son who could lift the boulder, that son would inherit the throne of Athens.

Theseus grew into a strong young man, and one day he easily lifted the boulder and retrieved the sandals and the sword. He then set off for Athens to claim his heritage. On the way, he faced a series of challenges: three vicious and murderous outlaws; a monstrous pig that was destroying the countryside; a king who challenged travelers to fatal wrestling matches; and an innkeeper named Procrustes who tortured people by either stretching them or chopping off their limbs to make them fit his beds. Theseus overcame these dangerous opponents and killed them by the same methods they had used against their victims.

Related Entries

Other entries related to Theseus are listed at the end of this article.

Meeting the Minotaur. Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus found King Aegeus married to an enchantress named Medea. Medea tried to poison Theseus. But when Aegeus saw the young man's sword and sandals, he realized that Theseus was his son and saved him from the poison. Medea fled, and Theseus became heir to the Athenian throne. He continued his heroic feats, defeating a plot against his father and destroying a savage wild bull.

Athens labored under a terrible curse. Earlier Aegeus had sent another warrior, the son of King Minos of Crete, against the bull. The prince had died, and in revenge King Minos called down a plague on the Athenians. Only by sending seven young men and seven young women to Crete every year could they obtain relief. In Crete the youths were sacrificed to the Minotaur, a monstrous man-bull that lived below Minos's castle in a maze called the Labyrinth.

Determined to end this grim tribute, Theseus volunteered to be one of the victims. When the Athenians reached Crete, Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus. (Some accounts say that Aphrodite*, whose help Theseus had requested, filled the girl's heart with passion.) Before Theseus entered the Labyrinth, Ariadne gave him a ball of yarn and told him to unwind it on his way in so that he could find his way out again. Deep in the maze Theseus met the Minotaur and killed it with a blow from his fist. He and the other Athenians then set sail for Athens, taking Ariadne with them. Along the way, they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne.

Theseus had promised his father that if he returned safely to Athens he would raise a white sail on his homecoming ship. He forgot to do so, however, and left the black sail hoisted. When Aegeus saw the black-sailed vessel approaching, he killed himself in grief, thus fulfilling the prophecy he had heard at Delphi.


Later Adventures. On his father's death, Theseus became king of the city-state of Athens, where he won honor and was credited with enlarging the kingdom. His name sometimes appears in myths about heroic deeds, such as a battle against the centaurs or the quest of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece*. Theseus also went to war against the female warriors known as Amazons, and he captured and married one of themeither Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, or her sister Antiope. This wife bore him a son, Hippolytus.

After his Amazon wife died, Theseus eventually married Phaedra, said to be a sister of Ariadne. Phaedra fell passionately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, who rejected her love. The scorned Phaedra hanged herself, leaving a letter in which she accused Hippolytus of raping her. Furious, Theseus asked his patron Poseidon to destroy Hippolytus, and the god fulfilled the king's wish. Later, Theseus learned the truth and knew that he had wrongly had his only son killed.

tribute payment made by a smaller or weaker party to a more powerful one, often under the threat of force

city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

centaur half-human, half-animal creature with the body of a horse and the head, chest, and arms of a human

patron special guardian, protector, or supporter

Theseus's final adventures were less than glorious. Seeking another wife, he kidnapped a daughter of Zeus* (Helen of Sparta, later known as Helen of Troy). He also became involved in a plot to carry off Persephone, queen of the underworld. These events brought trouble upon Athens, and the people drove Theseus away. Now a lonely old man, Theseus took refuge on the island of Skyros, but the local king, regarding Theseus as a possible rival, pushed the hero off a cliff to his death.

See also Amazons; Argonauts; Ariadne; Delphi; Greek Mythology; Heroes; Medea; Minos; Minotaur; Phaedra; Procrustes.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

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Theseus

Theseus In Greek mythology, a great hero of many adventures, the son of Aethra by Aegeus, King of Athens, or by the sea god Poseidon. His most famous exploit was the vanquishing of the Minotaur of Crete.

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Theseus

TheseusBierce, fierce, Pearce, Peirce, pierce, tierce •Fabius, scabious •Eusebius •amphibious, Polybius •dubious • Thaddeus • compendious •radius • tedious •fastidious, hideous, insidious, invidious, perfidious •Claudiuscommodious, melodious, odious •studious • Cepheus •Morpheus, Orpheus •Pelagius • callipygous • Vitellius •alias, Sibelius, Vesalius •Aurelius, Berzelius, contumelious, Cornelius, Delius •bilious, punctilious, supercilious •coleus • Julius • nucleus • Equuleus •abstemious •Ennius, Nenniuscontemporaneous, cutaneous, extemporaneous, extraneous, instantaneous, miscellaneous, Pausanias, porcellaneous, simultaneous, spontaneous, subcutaneous •genius, heterogeneous, homogeneous, ingenious •consanguineous, ignominious, Phineas, sanguineous •igneous, ligneous •Vilnius •acrimonious, antimonious, ceremonious, erroneous, euphonious, felonious, harmonious, parsimonious, Petronius, sanctimonious, Suetonius •Apollonius • impecunious •calumnious • Asclepius • impious •Scorpius •copious, Gropius, Procopius •Marius • pancreas • retiarius •Aquarius, calcareous, Darius, denarius, gregarious, hilarious, multifarious, nefarious, omnifarious, precarious, Sagittarius, senarius, Stradivarius, temerarious, various, vicarious •Atreus •delirious, Sirius •vitreous •censorious, glorious, laborious, meritorious, notorious, uproarious, uxorious, vainglorious, victorious •opprobrious •lugubrious, salubrious •illustrious, industrious •cinereous, deleterious, imperious, mysterious, Nereus, serious, Tiberiuscurious, furious, injurious, luxurious, penurious, perjurious, spurious, sulphureous (US sulfureous), usurious •Cassius, gaseous •Alcaeus • Celsius •Theseus, Tiresias •osseous, Roscius •nauseous •caduceus, Lucius •Perseus • Statius • Propertius •Deo gratias • plenteous • piteous •bounteous •Grotius, Photius, Proteus •beauteous, duteous •courteous, sestertius •Boethius, Prometheus •envious • Octavius •devious, previous •lascivious, niveous, oblivious •obvious •Vesuvius, Vitruviusimpervious, pervious •aqueous • subaqueous • obsequious •Dionysius

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Theseus

Theseus

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

THEE-see-uhs

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Plutarch's Life of Theseus, Hyginus's Fabulae

Lineage

Son of King Aegeus and Aethra

Character Overview

Theseus, a hero of Greek mythology , is best known for slaying a monster called the Minotaur (pronounced MIN-uh-tawr). His life and adventures illustrate many themes of Greek myths, including the idea that even the mightiest hero cannot escape tragedy if that is his fate.

Mysterious Origins Like many other heroes of myth and legend, Theseus was born and raised in unusual and dramatic circumstances. His mother was Aethra (pronounced EE-thruh), daughter of King Pittheus (pronounced PIT-thee-uhs) of Troezen (pronounced TREE-zen). Although some accounts name Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun) as his father, most say that Theseus was the son of King Aegeus (pronounced EE-joos) of Athens, who had stopped at Troezen after consulting the oracle at Delphi (pronounced DEL-fye).

The oracle had warned Aegeus not to get drunk or father a child on his way home to Athens, or one day he would die of sorrow. However, at Troezen, Aegeus ignored the warnings and became Aethra's lover. Before leaving for Athens, he placed his sandals and sword under a boulder and told Aethra that if she bore a son who could lift the boulder, that son would inherit the throne of Atliens.

Their son Theseus grew into a strong young man, and one day he easily lifted the boulder and retrieved the sandals and the sword. He then set off for Athens to claim his heritage. On the way, he faced a series of challenges: three vicious and murderous outlaws; a monstrous pig that was destroying the countryside; a king who challenged travelers to fatal wrestling matches; and an innkeeper named Procrustes (pronounced proh-KRUS-teez) who tortured people by either stretching them or chopping off their limbs to make them fit his beds. Theseus overcame these dangerous opponents and killed them by the same methods they had used against their victims.

Meeting the Minotaur Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus found King Aegeus married to an enchantress named Medea (pronounced me-DEE-uh). Medea tried to poison Theseus, but when Aegeus saw the young man's sword and sandals, he realized that Theseus was his son and saved him from the poison. Medea fled, and Theseus became heir to the Athenian throne. He continued his heroic feats, defeating a plot against his father and destroying a savage wild bull.

Athens labored under a terrible curse. Earlier, Aegeus had sent another warrior, the son of King Minos (pronounced MYE-nuhs) of Crete, against the bull. The prince had died, and in revenge King Minos called down a plague on the Athenians. Only by sending seven young men and seven young women to Crete every year could they obtain relief. In Crete the youths were sacrificed to the Minotaur, a monstrous man-bull that lived below Minos's castle in a maze called the Labyrinth (pronounced LAB-uh-rinth).

Determined to end this grim practice, Theseus volunteered to be one of the victims. When the Athenians reached Crete, Minos's daughter Ariadne (pronounced ar-ee-AD-nee) fell in love with Theseus. Before Theseus entered the Labyrinth, Ariadne gave him a ball of yarn and told him to unwind it on his way in so that he could find his way out again. Deep in the maze Theseus met the Minotaur and killed it with a blow from his fist. He and the other Athenians then set sail for Athens, taking Ariadne with them. Along the way, they stopped at the island of Naxos (pronounced NAK-suhs), where Theseus abandoned Ariadne.

Theseus had promised his father that if he returned safely to Athens he would raise a white sail on his homecoming ship. He forgot to do so, however, and left the black sail hoisted. When Aegeus saw the black-sailed vessel approaching, he killed himself in grief, thus fulfilling the prophecy he had heard at Delphi.

Later Adventures On his father's death, Theseus became king of the city-state of Athens, where he won honor and was credited with enlarging the kingdom. His name sometimes appears in myths about heroic deeds, such as a battle against the centaurs (half-man, half-horse creatures), or the quest of Jason and the Argonauts (pronounced AHR-guh-nawts) for the Golden Fleece. Theseus also went to war against the female warriors known as Amazons (pronounced AM-uh-zonz), and he captured and married one of them—either Hippolyta (pronounced hye-POL-i-tuh), the Amazon queen, or her sister Antiope (pronounced an-TEE-oh-pee). This wife bore him a son, Hippolytus (pronounced hye-POL-i-tuhs).

After his Amazon wife died, Theseus eventually married Phaedra (pronounced FEE-druh), said to be a sister of Ariadne. Phaedra fell passionately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, who rejected her love. The scorned Phaedra hanged herself, leaving a letter in which she accused Hippolytus of raping her. Furious, Theseus asked the god Poseidon to destroy Hippolytus, and the god fulfilled the king's wish. Later, Theseus learned the truth and knew that he had wrongly caused the death of his only son.

Theseus's final adventures were less than glorious. Seeking another wife, he kidnapped a daughter of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the king of the gods. He also became involved in a plot to carry off Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee), queen of the underworld. These events brought trouble upon Athens, and the people drove Theseus away. Now a lonely old man, Theseus took refuge on the island of Skyros (pronounced SKY-rohs), but the local king, regarding Theseus as a possible rival, pushed the hero off a cliff to his death.

Theseus in Context

The myth of Theseus and the Labyrinth may reflect ancient relationships between the Minoan civilization and the ancient Greeks. Minoan civilization was established on the island of Crete long before mainland Greek culture rose to prominence, with the Minoans lasting until about the fifteenth century bce. It is quite possible that, in the final days of Minoan prominence, rulers on Crete clashed with Greek forces in an attempt to maintain control of their empire. Ultimately, the ancient Greeks flourished and assumed control of Crete. This history mirrors the myth, with King Minos threatening to attack Athens after his son is killed, and provides an explanation for the tension between the two cultures.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the themes found in the myth of Theseus is the idea that one cannot escape destiny—the path of one's life as determined by the gods. This was true for Theseus's father, who ignored warnings not to father a child. Ultimately, this led to his death by sorrow when he thought his son had been killed. Another interesting theme in the myths of Theseus is the appearance of false messages. When Theseus returned from Crete, he forgot to change the color of the sails on his boat, which caused his father to think he was dead. Later, his wife Phaedra left a letter that falsely accused Hippolytus of raping her, which led Theseus to ask the gods to kill his son.

The myths of Theseus also focus on the theme of ill-fated love. Although Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and helped him escape the Labyrinth, he abandoned her on Naxos as soon as he was able. Later, he fell in love with an Amazon, but she died. He then married Phaedra, who, instead of loving Theseus, loved his son. Theseus then tried to kidnap another wife, a plan that failed and brought him disgrace.

Theseus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the best-known tales of Greek mythology. Perhaps because of this, the character of Theseus has made several appearances in other works unrelated to the myth. These include a tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and William Shakespeare's plays A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Modern retellings of the myth include “The House of Asterion” (1949) by Argentinian fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, and two novels from Mary Renault, The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull from the Sea (1962), each of which covers different periods of the life of Theseus.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Lost in the Labyrinth (2002) by Patrice Kindl offers a unique retelling of the myth of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. The story is told from the point of view of Ariadne's younger sister, Xenodice. In this version of the tale, the Minotaur is mostly gentle but misunderstood, while Ariadne and Theseus may be less heroic than they appear—and it is up to Xenodice to straighten things out.

SEE ALSO Amazons; Argonauts; Ariadne; Delphi; Greek Mythology; Heroes; Medea

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Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.