Theseus is said to be a legendary hero based on a historical personage, which is why the religious element is missing from his cycle of legends. Uncertainty surrounds the question of his father. One legend says his father was Aegeus, if so, then the lineage of Theseus descend from Erichthonius and the kings of Attica. In this legend, Aegeus unable to have children with his successive wives consulted the oracle of Delphi, but failed to understand the message he received. On his return Aegeus visited Pittheus, the king of Troezen, and told him the message. The king immediately understood the message of the oracle. Pittheus then got Aegeus drunk and laid him beside his daughter, Aethra, and Theseus was born. Another legend concerning the same night says that in a dream Aethra was told in a dream to go and offer sacrifice on an island, where Poseidon violated her. In this tradition, Thesues was the son of a god.
After the birth of their son Aegeus had Aethra keep Theseus at Troezen, because he did not want to take his son back to Attica where his nephews were attempting to cause disorder. Before leaving Troezen Aegeus hid a sword and a pair of sandals beneath a rock, advising Aethra not to tell the child the secret of his birth until he was old enough to retrieve these things himself. The child grew to a young man; at sixteen he retrieved the sword and sandals and made his way to Athens.
In his travels to Athens Theseus performed feats that made his fame increase. All of his feats helped liberate people from bandits, giants, and other evildoers. When arriving at Athens, his father, Aegeus, was under the power of the sorceress-magician Medea, who had promised to rid him of his sterility. Medea, hearing of the fame of the new arrival, immediately guessed his identity. Aegeus was at first afraid of him, but was persuaded by Madea to invite the young man to a banquet with the intention of poisoning him. When Theseus arrived with the sword and sandals his father immediately recognized him as his son. Aegeus sent Medea into exile and acknowledged Theseus before all of the citizenry.
According to one tale, Medea had tried to test Theseus before persuading his father to poison him; this was that Theseus would fight the Marathonian bull, which was devastating the countryside, perhaps the same Cretan bull that Hercules had retrieved. Theseus overpowered it and offered it as sacrifice to Apollo.
After being recognized as the king’s son Theseus’ first act was to fight his father’s nephews, the Pallantids, who were angered because Aegeus’ heritage would not come to them. Dividing into two groups they laid a trap to ambush Theseus who was warned of their plan by the herald Laos. This enabled Theseus to foil their plot and massacre his enemies.
However, things did not advance smoothly for the king’s son, and past events were going to lead him into his most famous adventure. A curse had been put on Attica because previous residents had falsely taken the life of Androgeus, the son of Minos, the Minotaur. For this grievous act Minos demanded in retribution that seven maidens and seven youths be sacrifice to him every nine years. When this tribute was about to be paid for the third time, Theseus volunteered as one of the victims. When setting off he was given two sets of sails: black for the onward journey, as it was an occasion for grief; and white for the return trip if he succeeded in killing the Minotaur.
Upon his arrival in Crete Theseus was imprisoned in the labyrinth that housed the monster. However, before his imprisonment he had been noticed by the monster’s daughter, Ariadne, who fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread to enable him to find his way out of the complicated corridors of the labyrinth. Theseus promised to marry her on his return. In the labyrinth Theseus felled Minos with blows, and set off on the return journey with Ariadne and the young people he had saved.
On the returned trip the ship stopped at Naxos, where Ariadne fell asleep on the shore, and when awaking the next day Theseus’ ship had already sailed. Conflicting legends say that Theseus loved another woman, or he was ordered by Dionysus to abandon Ariadne whom the god wanted to marry himself. Soon after the ship sailed the god arrived in his chariot and took Ariadne to Olympus.
In the meantime, Theseus, grief-stricken after abandoning Ariadne, forgot to change the ship’s sail from black to white. Aegeus, his father, watching for him on the shore, when seeing the black sail immediately thought Theseus had been killed and threw himself into the sea; and from whence it has been called the Aegean Sea. Theseus’ first task after becoming king was to bring all of the scattered villagers and farmers within the city of Athens. Next he constructed the main monuments, organized the constitution, minted coinage, which were among his historical contributions.
During his reign there was the war of the Seven against Thebes and Theseus’ expedition against the Amazons. While fighting the Amazons Theseus deceitfully abducted one of them, Antiope. In attempt to regain their sister the Amazons marched on Athens, a decisive battle occurred near Pnyx where the warrior-women were defeated and signed a peace pact. The cause of this war is also recounted as follows: Theseus married Antiope with her consent, but, after she bore him a son, Hippolytus, he repudiated her to marry Phaedra, a sister of Ariadne. Then the Amazons came to demand justice for Antiope, who, however, perished in the battle.
A series of legends centered on the friendship of Theseus and the Lapith prince Peirithous. The latter became jealous of Theseus’ reputation, so he stole his cattle and was preparing to fight him when was suddenly struck with admiration for his adversary. He offered his friendship instead, which Theseus accepted. The two fought together against the centaurs.
During their friendship the two one day decided they both would marry daughters of Zeus. They first abducted Helen for Theseus. Helen was not yet of marrying age so was secretly taken to Aphidna where she was guarded by Aethra. But her brothers, the Dioscuri, freed her during Theseus’ absence. Then the two companions set off for the underworld to win Persephone. Hades received them amiably and invited them to sit at his table. But the chairs they sat in had magical properties that held the two captive until one day when Hercules ventured through the underworld and won permission for Theseus to leave. Peirithous remained rooted in his chair of forgetfulness for forever where Hades had committed him.
When returning to the world of light and his city Theseus found a troubling situation. His wife Phaedra had fallen in love with Hippolytus, the son that Antiope, the Amazon had borne him, and had told the boy of her love. Hippolytus was totally hostile to such passion and refused her with indignation. When seeing Theseus, Phaedra was in torn clothes, pretending to be mourning and distraught because, as she said, Hippolytus had attempted to violate her. Theseus became violently angry, he wanted to kill his son but knew he dared not do so himself. He remembered the promise that Poseidon had given him, the god would make any three wishes that he made be fulfilled. Theseus asked that his son be put to death. As Hippolytus was driving his chariot in the region of Troezen a monster rose from the sea and so frightened the horses that they broke loose and dragged Hippolytus to his death. When hearing of the tragedy Phaedra hung herself in remorse.
Theseus found no comfort in his beloved city of Athens, different factions shared power and he recognized he was king in name only. Sensing the he would never regain real control of the kingdom he went into exile cursing the Aegean. He retired too the island of Scyrus, where on pretense, King Lycomedes welcomed him favorably, but took him up onto a mountainside and cast him into the sea. Theseus’ death went unnoticed, but after the after the Medic wars the oracle of Delphi instructed the Athenians to bring the ashes of Theseus back to his own country. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 146-149