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Theseus (1)

The life and exploits of Theseus are eclipsed only by those of Herakles (Heracles); whereas Herakles was a hero for all of Greece, Theseus was more of an Athenian hero.

Theseus was the son of the legendary Athenian king, Aegeus and his consort, Aethra of Troezen; Aegeus left Aethra before Theseus was born and instructed her to place a sword and a pair of sandals under a boulder so that if and when Theseus was strong enough to move the boulder and remove the sword and sandals he would be manly enough to join his father in Athens and claim his royal inheritance; the sword and sandals were referred to as the gnorismata, i.e., the token by which a lost child is identified.

When Theseus left his mother he traveled by land instead of taking the easier sea route to Athens; his journey was punctuated by encounters with mortal and magical beings; he first encountered a son of Hephaistos (Hephaestus) named Periphetes near the coastal city of Epidauros; Periphetes would attack and kill travelers with his iron club; Theseus fought and killed Periphetes and kept his club as a symbol which mimics Herakles’ weapon of choice.

When Theseus reached the Isthmus of Korinth (Corinth) he was confronted by a man named Sinis; also called the Pine-Bender, Sinis would bend pine trees to either hurl or quarter travelers; Theseus dispatched Sinis in the same manner that the villain used to kill the innocent travelers who fell into his clutches.

Also near Korinth, Theseus killed a fierce sow that was the offspring of the nymph-serpent Ekhidna (Echidna) and the snake-like Typhaon; the sow was named after her keeper, Phaia, and it appears that Theseus killed the beast for sport rather than necessity.

When Theseus came to the coastal city of Megara, he met the semi-divine man, Skiron (Sciron), who would force travelers to wash his feet and then kick them from a cliff into the sea to be eaten by a giant sea-turtle which waited on the rocky shore; Theseus threw Skiron to his death from the cliff.

At the city of Eleusis, Theseus was forced to wrestle a brutish man named Kerkyon (Cercyon); no one had ever survived a wrestling match with Kerkyon because of his imposing physical strength but Theseus overpowered him and beat Kerkyon to death.

Before he reached Athens, Theseus encountered the villain, Prokrustes (Procrustes), who had a home near Eleusis and would entice travelers with his hospitality and then bind them to his bed where he would then amputate or stretch them to fit the bed; Theseus turned the tables and forced Prokrustes to lie in his own bed, i.e. his death bed.

When Theseus arrived in Athens, his father, Aegeus did not immediately recognize him; in the intervening years, Aegeus had married the sorceress, Medea; she knew exactly who Theseus was and began devising plans to dispose of him; she persuaded Aegeus to send Theseus to the plains of Marathon to capture a fierce bull which had been ravaging the countryside; Theseus successfully captured the bull and sacrificed it to Apollon; Medea then tried to poison Theseus but Aegeus finally recognized the sword that Theseus carried and saved him from Medea’s plotting.

For reasons that are variously given, the city of Athens was required to send seven boys and seven girls to king Minos on the island of Crete as payment of a war-debt; each year the Athenians would send the fourteen youths to be placed in the labyrinth where Minos kept the bull-man known as the Minotaur; each year the Minotaur would kill the sacrificial youths; Theseus was either chosen or volunteered to face the Minotaur and sailed to the island of Crete with the other sacrificial victims; on the voyage to Crete, king Minos was bragging about his divine heritage and Theseus said that he was also descended from the Immortals; Minos took a ring from his finger and threw it overboard; Theseus jumped into the sea and, with the assistance of Poseidon’s wife Amphitrite, retrieved the ring.

When Theseus and Minos arrived on the island of Crete, Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus; when Theseus and the other sacrificial youths were put into the labyrinth, Ariadne gave Theseus a roll of twine so that he could unroll the string and find his way out of the maze; Theseus fought and killed the Minotaur and escaped the labyrinth with the other Athenian youths.

After Theseus left Crete, Ariadne went with him but before they could reach Athens, the two were separated either because Theseus deserted her or because Dionysus desired Ariadne.

Theseus and his father had devised a signal by which Aegeus would be able to tell by the color of the ship’s sails whether Theseus had defeated the Minotaur and was returning safely to Athens; Aegeus saw the ship in the distance and misinterpreted the signal; thinking that Theseus was dead, he threw himself into the sea and drowned; Theseus was now the king of Athens.

The remainder of Theseus’ life is as convoluted that of Herakles; Theseus’ marriage to the Amazon, Antiope, started a war with the Amazons which the Athenians won; Theseus and Antiope had a son named Hippolytus who became the subject of sorrow in Theseus’ later life; the fate of Antiope is unclear but Theseus went on to marry another woman named Phaedra; she was also a daughter of king Minos and the sister of Ariadne.

Phaedra and Theseus had two sons named: Akamas (Acamas) and Demophon; Phaedra became infatuated with her step-son, Hippolytus, and tried to seduce him; when he rejected her, Phaedra told Theseus that Hippolytus had tried to force himself upon her; Theseus was enraged and prayed to Poseidon (lord of the Sea) to avenge the insult his son had perpetrated against his wife; Poseidon sent a bull from the sea and frightened the horses that drew Hippolytus’ chariot; the chariot overturned and killed Hippolytus; Phaedra was horrified and hanged herself.

The years following Phaedra’s suicide were perhaps less exciting than Theseus’ youthful adventures but he still managed to become involved in some of the most interesting adventures that defined the development of Attika (Attica); he was the last man to see the cursed king of the city of Thebes, Oedipus, alive; he gave asylum to Oedipus and accompanied him to his final resting place; his friendship with the king of the Lapithae, Pirithous, made him a participant in the war with the Centaurs; he also accompanied king Pirithous to the House of Hades in order to kidnap Persephone but was rescued by Herakles and escaped eternal imprisonment in the Underworld; he also became involved in the kidnapping of Helen when she was a young girl; her brothers, Kastor (Castor) Polydeukes (Polydeuces or Pollux) rescued her; Theseus was soon driven from Athens and forced to take refuge on the island of Skyros (Scyros) where he died.

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