1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Theseus

THESEUS, the great hero of Attic legend,[1] son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen. Thus through his father he was descended from Erechtheus and the original stock of Attica; through his mother he came of the Asiatic house of Pelops. The legend relates that Aegeus, being childless, went to Pittheus, who contrived that Aegeus should have intercourse with his daughter Aethra, and that in due time Aethra brought forth Theseus. It was given out that the child's father was Poseidon, the great god of Troezen, and that Aethra raised a temple to Athena Apaturia, at which Troezenian maids used to dedicate their girdles before marriage. For his tutor and guardian young Theseus had one Cannidas, to whom, down to Plutarch's time the Athenians were wont to sacrifice a black ram on the eve of the festival of Theseus. On passing out of boyhood Theseus was sent by his m&her to Athens. He encountered many adventures on the way. First he<met and slew Periphetes, surnamed Corynetes (Clubman). At the isthmus of Corinth dwelt Sinis, called the Pine-Bender, because he killed his victims by tearing them asunder between- two pine-trees. Theseus hoisted the Pine-Bender on his own pine-tree. Next Theseus dispatched the Crommyonian sow (or boar). Then he Hung over a cliff the wicked Sciron, who used to kick his guests into the sea, while perforce they washed his feet. In Eleusis Theseus wrestled with Cercyon and killed him. A little farther on he slew Procrustes, who fitted all comers to his only bed: if 'his guest was too short for the bed, he stretched him out; if he was too long, he cut him down to the requisite length. As he passed through the streets of Athens, his curls and long garment reaching to his ankles drew on him the derision of some masons, who were putting on the roof of the new temple of Apollo Delphinius: “Why,” they asked, “was such a pretty girl out alone?” In reply Theseus took the bullocks out of their cart and flung them higher than the roof of the temple. He found his father married to Medea, who had fled from Corinth. Being a witch, she knew Theseus before his father did, and tried to persuade Aegeus to poison his son; but Aegeus recognized him by his sword and took him to his arms. Theseus was now declared heir to the throne, and the Pallantids,[2] who had hoped to succeed to the childless king, conspired against Theseus, but he crushed the conspiracy. He then attacked the fire breathing bull of Marathon and brought it alive to Athens, where he sacrificed it to Apollo Delphinius. Next, came the adventure of the Cretan Minotaur (q. v.), whom Theseus slew by the aid of Ariadne (q.v.). While Theseus was in Crete, Minos, wishing to see whether Theseus was really the son of Poseidon, flung his ring into the sea. Theseus dived and brought it up, together with a golden crown, the gift of Amphitrite. On the return voyage the ship touched at Naxos, and there Theseus abandoned Ariadne. He landed also at Delos, and there he and his comrades danced the crane dance, the complicated movements of which were meant to imitate the windings of the Labyrinth.[3] In historical times this dance was still danced by the Delians round a horned altar. Theseus had promised Aegeus that, if he returned successful, the black sail with which the fatal ship always put to sea should be exchanged for a white one.[4] But he forgot his promise; and when Aegeus from the Acropolis at Athens descried the black sail out at sea, he flung himself from the rock and died. Hence at the festival which commemorated the return of Theseus there was always weeping and lamentation. Theseus now carried out a political revolution in Attica by abolishing the semi-independent powers of the separate townships and concentrating those powers at Athens, and he instituted the festival of the Panathenaea[5] as a symbol of the unity of the Attic race. Further, according to tradition, he instituted the three classes or castes of the eupatrids (nobles), geomori (husbandmen), and demiurgi (artisans). He extended the territory of Attica as far as the isthmus of Corinth.

He was the first to celebrate in their full pomp the Isthmian games in honour of Poseidon; 'for the games previously instituted by Hercules in honour of Melicertes had been celebrated by night, and had partaken of the nature of mysteries rather than of a festival. Of Theseus's adventures with the Amazons there were dinerent accounts. According to some, he fsailed with Hercules to~ the Euxine, and there won the Amazon Antiope as the rneed of valour; others said that he sailed on his own account, and captured Antiope by stratagem. Thereafter the Amazons attacked Athens. Antiope fell fighting on the side of Theseus, and her tomb was pointed out on the south side of the acropolis. By Antiope Theseus had a son, Hippolytus. On the death of Antiope, Theseus married Phaedra. She fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who, resisting her advances, was accused by her to Theseus of having attempted her virtue. Theseus in a rage imprecated on his son the wrath of Poseidon. His prayer was answered: as Hippolytus was driving beside the sea, a bull issuing from the waves terrified his horses, and he was thrown and killed. This tragic story is the subject of one of the extant plays of Euripides.[6]

The famous friendship between Theseus and Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, originated thus. Hearing of the strength and courage of Theseus, Pirithous desired to put them to the test. Accordingly he drove away from Marathon some cows which belonged to Theseus. The latter pursued, but when he came up with the robber the two heroes were so filled with admiration of each other that they swore brotherhood. At the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodamia (or Deidamia) a fight broke out between the Lapiths and Centaurs, in which the Lapiths, assisted by Theseus, were victorious, and drove the Centaurs out of the country. Theseus and Pirithous now carried off Helen from Sparta, and when they drew lots for her she fell to the lot of Theseus, who took her to Aphidnae, and left her in charge of his mother Aethra and his friend Aphidnus. He now descended to the lower world with Pirithous, to help his friend to carry off Proserpine. But the two were caught and confined in Hades till Heracles came and released Theseus. When Theseus returned to Athens he found that a sedition had been stirred up by Menestheus, a descendant of Erechtheus, one of the old kings of Athens. Failing to quell the outbreak, Theseus in despair sent his children to Euboea, and after solemnly cursing the Athenians sailed away to the island of Scyrus, where he had ancestral estates. But Lycomedes, king of Scyrus, took him up to a high place, and killed him by casting him into the sea. Long afterwards, at the battle of Marathon (490 B.c.), many of the Athenians fancied they saw the phantom of Theseus, in full armour, charging at their head against the Persians. When the Persian war was over the Delphic oracle bade the Athenians fetch the bones of Theseus from Scyrus, and' lay them in Attic earth. It fell to Cimon's lot in 469 B.c. to discover the hero's grave at Scyrus and bring back his bones to Athens. They were deposited in the heart of Athens, and 'henceforth escaped slaves and all persons in peril sought and found sanctuary at the grave of him who in his life had been a champion of the oppressed. His chief festival, called Theseia, was on the 8th of the month Pyanepsion (October zrst), but the 8th day of every other month was also sacred to him.[7]

Whatever we may think of the historical reality of Theseus, his legend almost certainly contains recollections of historical events, e.g. the avvoocwpbs, whether by this we understand the political centralization of Attica at Athens or a local union of previously separate settlements on the site of Athens. The birth of Theseus at Troezen points to the immigration of an Ionian family or tribe. With this agrees the legend of the contest 'between Athena and Poseidon for supremacy on the acropolis of Athens, for Theseus is intimately connected with Poseidon, the great Ionian od. Aegeus, the father of Theseus, has been identified by some modern scholars with Poseidon.

The well-preserved Doric temple to the north of the acropolis at Athens, commonly known as the Theseum, was long supposed t0 be the sanctuary in which the bones of Theseus reposed., But archaeologists have generally abandoned this conjecture. There were several (according to P ilochorus, four) temples or shrines of Theseus at Athens. Milchhofer considers he hasfound one of them in the neighbourhood of Peiraeus.[8]

Our chief authority for the legend of Theseus is the life by Plutarch, which is a compilation from earlier writers; see also Bacchylides. G. Gilbert, who- has investigated the sources from which Plutarch drew for his life of Theseus, belieyes that his chief authority was the Atthis of Ister, and that Ister mainly followed Philochorus (Philalogus, xxxiii., 1874, p. 46 sq.),

There is a modern Greek folk-tale which preserves some features of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, but for the Minotaur has been substituted a seven-headed snake. See Bernhard Schmidt, Griechische Mdfchen, Sagen und Volkslieder (1877), p. 118 sq.

Among modern mono raphs on Theseus mi? be mentioned: A. Schultz, De Theseo § Breslau, 1874); Th. ausel, De Thesei Synoikismo (Dillenburg, 1882); E. Prigge, De Thesei rebus gestis (Marburg, 1891); O. Wulff, Zur These-ussage (Dorpat, 1892); see also O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythalogie, i. pp. 581-608; »]. E. Harrison, Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens (1890); “Der Theseische Synoikismos " in C. F; Hermann's Lehfbuch der riechischen Staatsaltemimer, i. (1892), pp. 30 -306; A. Baumeister, fhnkmdler des klassischen Alterlums, iii. (1888).

  1. The story of Theseus is a strange mixture of (mostly fictitious) political tradition, of etiological myths invented to-explain misunderstood acts of ritual and of a cycle of tales of adventure analogous to the story of the labours of Heracles. 'All the passa es in the Iliad and Odyssey in which 'his name or allusions to his legend occur are regarded with more or less probability as spurious (but see O. Gruppe, Gr. Myth., i. p. 581).
  2. The sons of Pallas, the brother of Aegeus,
  3. The Ostiaks of Siberia have an elaborate crane dance, in which the dancers are dressed up with skins and the heads of cranes (P. S. Pallas, Reise durch verschiedene Provinzen des russischen Reichs, iii. 1778).
  4. So, too, the ship that sailed annually from Thessaly to Troy with offerings to the shade of Achilles put to sea with sable sails (Philostratus, Heroioa, xx. 25). The ship that was to bring Iseult to the mortally wounded Tristram was to hoist a white sail if she was on board, a black sail if she was not. The black sails recur in the modern Greek version of the tale of Theseus. Cf. Asiatick Researcher, ix. 97.
  5. Besides the Panathenaea Theseus is said to have instituted the festival of the Synoikia or Metoikia. Wachsmuth ingeniously supposes that the latter festival commemorated the local union in a single city of the separate settlements on the Acropolis and its immediate neighbourhood, while the Panathenaea commemorated the political union of the whole of Attica (C. Wachsmuth, Die Stadt Athcn im Altmthum, 1874, p. 453 sq.).
  6. Theseus is also said to have taken part in the Argonautic expedition and the Calydonian boar-hunt.
  7. The Athenian festival in October, popularly supposed to commemorate the return of Theseus from Crete, i stint ere sting, as some of its features are identical with those of harvest-festivals still observed in the north of Europe. Thus the eiresrléné, a branch of olive wreathed with wool and decked with fruits, bread, &c., which was carried 'in procession' and hungover the' door .of the house, where it, was lcept for a year, is the rntemai (Harvest-may) of Germanym See W. Mannhardt, Anlike Wald- und Feld¢Kute (1877), p. 212 sq
  8. See Erlduternder Text to the Kaftan von Amka (Berlin, 1881), 1- p. 37 sq.