Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Theseus

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THESEUS, the great hero of Attic legend,[1] son of Ægeus, king of Athens, and Æthra, daughter of Pittheus, king of Trœzen. Thus through his father he was descended from Erechtheus and the autochthones of Attica; through his mother he came of the Asiatic house of Pelops. Ægeus, being childless, went to Delphi to consult the god, who gave him an ambiguous answer. He went to Trœzen, and told the oracle to Pittheus, who, seeing its bearing, contrived that Ægeus should have intercourse with his daughter Æthra. Ægeus then departed to Athens, and in due time Æthra, who remained at Troezen, brought forth Theseus. It was given out that the child's father was Poseidon, the great god of Troezen, and in after ages the Troezenians pointed to the Holy Isle as the place where Poseidon and Æthra met, and where Æthra raised a temple to Athene Apaturia, at which Tro3zenian maids dedicated 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, in accordance with custom, went to Delphi, and there cut off his front hair. Ægeus had deposited his sword and boots under a heavy rock, telling Æthra that, if she gave birth to a son who, on attaining manhood, should be able to lift the rock and remove the sword and boots, she was to send him with all secrecy to his father at Athens. Theseus now lifted the rock, removed the sword and boots, and set out for Athens. He encountered many adventures on the way. First he met Periphetes, surnamed Corynetes (Clubman). Him Theseus slew, and carried off his club. At the isthmus of Corinth dwelt Sinis, called the Pine-Bender, because he killed his victims by fastening them to the top of a pine-tree (or two pine-trees), which he had bent down and then suffered to fly up. Theseus hoisted the Pine-Bender on his own pine-tree. Now, the deceased Pine-Bender had a pretty daughter, who ran and hid herself in a thicket where asparagus grew plentifully; and, when Theseus came to look for her, she prayed to the asparagus, and promised that if it would hide her she would never injure asparagus any more. Theseus wiled her from the thicket, and from their union sprang the family of the loxids, who worshipped asparagus. Next Theseus despatched the Crommyonian sow (or boar), a dreadful monster. Then he flung over the cliff the wicked Sciron, who, while his guests were perforce washing his feet, used to kick them over into the sea. In Eleusis Theseus wrestled with and killed Cercyon. A little farther on he slew Procrustes, who had only one bed for all comers: 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. At the Cephissus Theseus was met by the Phytalid family, who purified him from the taint of bloodshed. 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 Ægeus to poison his son; but Ægeus at last recognized him by his sword, and took him to his arms. Theseus was now declared heir to the throne, and the Pallantids, who had hoped to succeed to the childless king, conspired against Theseus, but he crushed the conspiracy. He then attacked the flame-spitting bull of Marathon and brought it alive to Athens, where he sacrificed it to Apollo Delphinius. Now comes the adventure of the Cretan Minotaur (see MINOS), 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 the youths danced the crane dance, the complicated movements of which were meant to imitate the windings of the Labyrinth.[2] In historical times this dance was still danced by the Delians round the horned altar an altar entirely composed of left-sided horns. Theseus had promised Ægeus that, if he returned successful, the black sail with which the fatal ship always put to sea[3] should be exchanged for a white one. But he forgot his promise; and, when from the Acropolis at Athens Ægeus 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 Panathenæa,[4] as a symbol of the unity of the Attic race. Further, according to a democratic tradition, he abolished the monarchy, and substituted in its place a popular government; but, to obviate the evils of a pure democracy, he instituted the three classes or castes of the eupatrids (nobles), geomori (husbandmen), and demiurgi (artisans). He also minted coins bearing the figure of an ox. 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 different accounts. According to some, he sailed with Hercules to the Euxine, and there won the Amazon Antiope as the meed 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 Phædra. 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.

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 Aphidnæ, and left her in charge of his mother Æthra 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 Hercules came and released Theseus. Meantime Castor and Pollux had captured Aphidnæ, and carried off their sister Helen and Æthra. 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 Eubœa, 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 cast him into the sea, that he died. Others said that he fell of himself over the cliff as he was taking his evening walk. Menestheus reigned at Athens, but, when he died before Troy, the sons of Theseus recovered the kingdom. Long afterwards, at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), many of the Athenians thought 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 was on the 8th of the month Pyanepsion (October 21st), but the 8th day of every month was also sacred to him.

Whatever we may think of the historical reality of Theseus, his legend seems to contain recollections of historical events, e.g., the συνοικισμός, 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 Trœzen points to the immigration of an Ionian family or tribe from the south. With this agrees the legend of the contest between Athene and Poseidon for supremacy on the acropolis of Athens, for Theseus is intimately connected with Poseidon, the great Ionian god. Ægeus, the father of Theseus, has been identified by some modern scholars with Poseidon.

The Athenian festival in October, popularly supposed to commemorate the return of Theseus from Crete, is interesting, as some of its features are identical with those of harvest-festivals still observed in the north of Europe. Thus the eiresione, a branch of olive wreathed with wool and decked with fruits, bread, &c., which was carried in procession and hung over the door of the house, where it was kept for a year, is the Erntemai (Harvest-may) of Germany.[5]

The well-preserved Doric temple to the north of the acropolis at Athens, commonly known as the Theseum, was long supposed to be the sanctuary in which the bones of Theseus reposed. But archaeologists are now much divided on this question. It is agreed, however, that the temple is of the 5th century B.C., and that the date of its construction cannot differ widely from that of the Parthenon.[6] There were several (according to Philochorus, four) temples or shrines of Theseus at Athens. Milchhofer thinks he has found one of them in the neighbourhood of Piræus.[7]

Our chief authority for the legend of Theseus is the life by Plutarch, which is a compilation from earlier writers. G. Gilbert, who has investigated the sources from which Plutarch drew for his life of Theseus, believes that his chief authority was the Atthis of Ister, and that Ister mainly followed Philochorus. See Philologus, 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 Bernard Schmidt, Griechische Mährchen, Sagen, und Volkslieder, p. 118 sq.(J. G. FR.)

  1. All the passages in the Iliad and Odyssey in which his name or allusions to his legend occur are regarded with more or less probability as spurious.
  2. The Ostiaks of Siberia have an elaborate crane dance, in which the dancers are dressed up with skins and the heads of cranes (Pallas, Reise durch verschiedene Provinzen des russischen Reichs, iii. 65).
  3. 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, Heroica, 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. Compare Asiatick Researches, ix. 97.
  4. Besides the Panathenæa, 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 Panathenæa commemorated the political union of the whole of Attica (C. Wachsmuth, Die Stadt Athen im Alterthum, p. 453 sq.).
  5. See W. Mannhardt, Antike Wald- und Feld-Kulte, p. 212 sq.
  6. For the literature on the subject, see Milchhöfer, in Baumeister's Denkmäler des classischen Alterthums, i. p. 170.
  7. See Erläuternder Text to the Karten von Attika (Berlin, 1881), i. p. 37 sq.