Classical Mythology: Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus

Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus

Befitting Athens, a city renowned for its thinkers, Theseus, the chief hero of Athenian legends, was known more for his quick wit than his strength, and his brain rather than his brawn. The cleverness of Theseus made him—along with such heroes as Heracles, Perseus, and Odysseus—one of the great monster-slayers of classical mythology.

Theseus earned a reputation not only for his daring and intelligence, but also for his fairness. An early king of Athens, he was one of the first rulers to reform the government in the direction of democracy. As both a king and an adventurer, he defended the oppressed and consistently fought for the ideal of justice.

Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?

The More Things Change ...

Tales about the mythic adventures of Theseus, the greatest hero of Athens, became popular shortly after the vogue of stories about Heracles. The two myths explore similar themes and the heroes undertake similar heroic deeds, especially in their monster-slaying. The two heroes even cross paths several times. These parallels suggest that the Ionians (the racial group of Athenians) may have developed the mythic tales of Theseus to rival the Dorians' tale of Heracles.

Theseus came from good stock. On his mother's side, he descended from Pelops, the great king of Pisa, whom the gods had restored to life after his father Tantalus had tried to serve him to them in a stew (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld). On his father's side, Theseus was the son of either a king (Aegeus) or a god (Poseidon).

King Aegeus of Athens had long wanted a child, but his efforts in two marriages had proved fruitless. He at last decided to consult the oracle at Delphi, where he received a cryptic instruction: Do not unloose the foot (in other words, spout) of your wineskin until you return to Athens. Failing to appreciate this counsel as a sexual metaphor, Aegeus puzzled over its meaning, but could not decipher the riddle.

Instead of returning directly to Athens, Aegeus headed for the small town of Troezen in Argolis. Aegeus hoped that Pittheus—the king of Troezen, who had a reputation for wisdom—could help. Pittheus, a son of Pelops, immediately understood the oracle. Yet he did not share his wisdom with Aegeus, for he had other plans for him.

The More Things Change ...

The tale of Theseus retrieving his father's sword and sandals from under a stone in order to prove his paternity calls to mind the Arthurian legends of medieval England. Just as young Arthur demonstrated his worthiness to be king by drawing the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it had been buried for so many years, Theseus established himself as heir to the throne of Athens by drawing his father's sword (and sandals) out from under the rock. Both rites identify the heroes as inheritors of their dynasties.

That night, Pittheus filled Aegeus with drink and led him to the bed of his daughter Aethra. Later that same night, Poseidon lay down with Aethra, too—but neither Pittheus nor Aegeus knew of this coupling.

The next morning, Aegeus buried his sword and his sandals under a massive boulder near Troezen. He told Aethra that if she gave birth to his son and that boy grew strong enough to push aside the stone, she should send him with these items to Athens. In this way, Aegeus would recognize him as his son.

Aethra did have a son and named him Theseus. The boy soon demonstrated both strength and cleverness. As a young wrestler, Theseus is credited with transforming the sport from a contest of brute strength into an art that merged fighting skill with agility and quick wits.

At age 16, Theseus moved the stone, put on Aegeus's sandals and sword, and set off for Athens. He ignored his mother's and grandfather's advice to sail across the Saronic Gulf. Instead, he boldly chose the hazardous land route across the Isthmus of Corinth.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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