The Greek Hero Theseus
Theseus was the son of both king Aegeus of Athens and Poseidon. His mother was Aethra, a princess of Troezan near Athens. His mixed paternity may seem unusual, however the ancient Greeks believed that it was possible for a hero to have two fathers.
Shortly after Aegeus married Aethra he decided to return to Athens. Aethra was instructed to keep their son with her until he was old enough to travel to his father in Athens. Aegeus buried a pair of sandals and a sword under a huge stone and told Aethra that when Theseus could lift the stone and take the items from under it, then he would be ready to come to Athens.
When Theseus came of age he went to the rock and lifted it with ease and took the sandals and sword from under it. Aethra explained that he would have to travel to Athens to meet his father. He could reach Athens by land or sea, however the sea faring route was the safer way, whereas the land based route was full of dangers. Theseus decided to reach Athens by land and thus test his heroic skills.
The ‘labours’ of Theseus were known as the six entrances to the underworld that were passed as he made his way to Athens.
1. When Theseus reached the sanctuary of Epidaurus (in the Peloponnese) he met Periphetes. Periphetes was the son of Hephaestus and a monstrous creature who owned a bronze club that he used to beat travellers to death with. Theseus beat Periphetes, firstly with a boulder that he threw at the monster and then used the bronze club to finished beating him to death.
2. He next met the monster Siris near the Isthmus (near Corinth). Siris would imprison unwary travellers and tie them to two trees that were bent down to the ground. He would untie the tree, which would tear the unfortunate person apart. Theseus killed Siris in the same way that the monster had killed his victims. Siris had a daughter called Perigune who was raped after Theseus had killed Siris.
3. The next monster Theseus came across was known as the Crommyon Sow. This was an enormous pig that may have been the offspring of another monster known as the Typhon. Theseus killed the pig and continued with his journey.
4. Theseus reached Megara and met the robber Sciron. Sciron would lure people to a cliff edge and throw them off when they were off guard. He did this so that a giant turtle or sea monster would be regularly fed.
5. When Theseus reached the mystery shrine of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis he met king Cercyon. King Cercyon would challenge travellers to a wrestling match and then beat them to death. He needed to do this in order to stay alive. Anyone who beat Cercyon would need to do the same. Theseus beat Ceryon to death and then refused to follow this rite, thus ending the bloodshed.
6. Theseus then made his way from Eleusis towards Athens. Here he met Procrustes. Procrustes was known to either stretch his victims to death on a special stretching device. If they did not fit on it he would lop off feet. Theseus stretched Procrustes to death (although it is uncertain if he had to lop off his feet first) and then carried on with his journey.
When Theseus arrived in Athens, he kept his identity a secret from his father. Aegeus had some years earlier offered Medea refuge from Corinth. She had helped Jason retrieve the golden fleece from her father king Aeetes in Colcis and fled with him. They later married and settled in Corinth with their two sons. Jason decided to abandon Medea and marry Glauce, a princess of Corinth.
Medea was furious and poisoned Glauce and her father to death. She then killed her two sons and refused to give their bodies to Jason. Shortly before committing these murders, Aegeus happened to be passing by. He was looking for a cure to his childless marriage. Medea gave him advice in return for his promise to give her a safe refuge in Athens. Aegeus agreed to this and later Medea arrived in Athens.
They married and all was well until Theseus arrived. She realised that Theseus would inherit the throne from Aegeus and tried to poison him. Aegeus realised who Theseus was just in time to stop him being poisoned. Medea left Athens soon after.
At this time, Athens had lost a war against king Minos of Crete. In retaliation, Minos had forced very unfavourable terms against the Athenians. Every nine years they had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete. No one knew what happened to them so when the time came for the tribute to be given, Theseus volunteered to go in place of one of the youths.
When he arrived in Crete it became apparent that they were an offering or sacrifice to a monster known as the Minotaur. This monster had the head of a bull and the body of a man. It was said that the Minotaur was the offspring of king Minos’ queen and a bull that was a gift from the king of the sea, Poseidon. Minos offended Poseidon, so instead of taking the gift back, he decreed that Minos’ wife should fall in love with the bull and procreate with it. Minos was so ashamed of his wife’s actions that when the Minotaur was born, he imprisoned it in a huge maze or labyrinth to keep the world from knowing about his wife’s guilt.
Minos’ daughter, Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and helped him to kill the Minotaur. She fled with him and expected him to repay her by becoming her husband. Instead, Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos as she slept.
When he returned to Athens he forgot to exchange the black sail of his ship for a white one, which led Aegeus to believe that Theseus was dead. Aegeus threw himself into the sea in despair and died.
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