Classical Mythology: Midlife Crisis: The Abduction of Helen

Midlife Crisis: The Abduction of Helen

Despite the tragic ends of his affairs with Ariadne, Antiope, and Phaedra, Theseus had not yet given up on finding a suitable wife. This time, he aimed a little higher. Instead of an Amazon queen (Antiope) or a granddaughter of Zeus (Ariadne and Phaedra), Theseus chose to pursue a daughter of Zeus: Helen, a princess of Sparta who would soon become famous for sparking the Trojan War (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).

In this folly, he was strongly influenced by his new friend Peirithous, king of the Lapithae, a rugged tribe who lived in Thessaly (northeastern Greece). The son of Zeus or Ixion, Peirithous met Theseus after stealing a herd of his cattle from Marathon. Peirithous wanted to test the already legendary courage and strength of Theseus. When the hero obligingly pursued Peirithous and caught up with him, the two admired each other so much that they set aside their fight and instead swore eternal friendship.

Theseus stood by his friend's side on the day Peirithous married Hippodameia. When the Centaurs—half-brothers of Peirithous—got drunk and tried to carry off all the women, including the bride, Theseus rushed to his friend's aid. The skirmish set off an all-out war between the Lapithae and the Centaurs. Theseus helped drive the Centaurs out of Thessaly.

Somehow, the two friends—perhaps due to their own divine parentage—got the notion that each should marry a daughter of Zeus. Now middle-aged, Theseus chose young Helen, the adopted daughter of King Tyndareus of Sparta and sister of Castor and Polydeuces. The two friends had little trouble abducting Helen, who was just 10 or 11, from Sparta. Theseus was then obliged to leave Helen with his mother Aethra in the town of Aphidnae in order to help Peirithous achieve his end of the bargain.

Peirithous made an even more foolish choice than Theseus had. He wanted to kidnap Persephone from the Underworld. The two heroes joined to undertake the perilous journey to the Underworld. To their surprise, Hades greeted them warmly and invited them to sit in stone chairs. Instantly, either their flesh grew fast to the stone or serpents or chains held them down. In any case, they could not get up again. What's worse, these Chairs of Forgetfulness stripped them of all memory of who they were and why they had come.

While performing his final labor, Heracles eventually rescued Theseus (see The Labors of Heracles), but a sudden quaking of the ground dissuaded him from freeing Peirithous.

Brought back to the living, Theseus returned to Athens. There he learned that during his absence, the Dioscuri (Castor and Polydeuces) had sacked Aphidnae (and perhaps Athens as well), rescued their sister, and abducted and enslaved Aethra.

The Athenians were furious that Theseus had brought on this attack with his vainglorious abduction of Helen. Menestheus—whom Plutarch called a direct descendant of the great Athenian King Erechtheus—had stirred up resentment toward the absent Theseus. By the time he returned, the Athenians had ousted Theseus as king. Menestheus had assumed the throne—or had been placed there by the victorious Dioscuri.

Unable to wrest back the throne, Theseus took refuge on the Aegean island of Scyrus. Lycomedes, the king of the island, put on a show of welcoming Theseus. But secretly, the king envied his guest's fame and the reverence that his own people showed this stranger. Perhaps he feared that the Scyrians might replace him with his guest. Whatever his reasons, Lycomedes gave Theseus a shove while they were walking along a cliff (or maybe Theseus just “slipped”). The exiled hero plunged to his death.

Long after his death, the image of Theseus, fully armed, arose and helped Athenians to victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.). When the Persian Wars ended, the bones of Theseus were restored to Athens for burial. The renowned monster-slayer and great king of Athens finally reaped the well-deserved honors that his follies had for too long overshadowed.

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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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