According to Greek legend, Theseus was an early king of Athens. One of the greatest Greek heroes*, Theseus represented the qualities that the Athenians respected: strength, courage, wisdom, and leadership. Although he had many adventures and defeated many foes, he is most famous for his victory over the Minotaur, a monster that lived on the island of Crete. Theseus’s mother was Aethra, a princess of Troezen. His father was Aegeus, the king of Athens. (According to some versions of the story, Poseidon, the god of the sea, was Theseus’s father.) When Aegeus left Troezen to return to Athens, Aethra was pregnant. Aegeus hid his sword and sandals under a heavy rock and told Aethra that when their son reached adulthood, he should try to lift the rock. If he could do so, he should come to Athens, where Aegeus would name him heir to the throne.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
One of the great mythical heroes of Greece, Theseus was involved in many adventures and battles and successfully defeated many foes. One of his best-known feats was the slaying of the Minotaur—the half man, half bull that terrorized the island of Crete.
When Theseus grew up, Aethra showed him the boulder. Theseus lifted it easily and set out for Athens with Aegeus’s sword and sandals. In an attempt to be heroic, Theseus chose to travel by land. The journey provided many opportunities for bravery. Theseus slew a murdering bully, a violent outlaw, a fierce wild pig, a robber, and others.
When he arrived at Athens, Theseus found Aegeus living with Medea, a woman who wanted her own son to become king of Athens. Medea attempted to have Theseus killed, but her plot backfired, and she fled the city. Aegeus made Theseus his heir. Theseus soon learned that Minos, the king of Crete, was punishing Athens by demanding seven young men and seven young women every year. Minos gave these victims to the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull who lived in a maze of tunnels, called the Labyrinth, beneath the palace. Determined to end this cruel practice, Theseus volunteered to be one of the young men sent to Crete. He told Aegeus that if he survived, he would replace the black sails of his ship with white sails to indicate his success.
Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and gave him valuable information that would enable him to escape from the Labyrinth. She told him to tie a thread to the entrance, unreeling it as he went in, and then to follow the thread back after he had slain the Minotaur. Theseus killed the beast and escaped with Ariadne, whom he abandoned on an island during his return to Athens. In his excitement over his victory, Theseus forgot to hoist the white sails. When Aegeus saw the black-sailed ship approaching, he believed that Theseus was dead, and he threw himself off a cliff to his death. The Aegean Sea took its name from him.
One of Theseus’s most important accomplishments as king of Athens was to bring all of the countryside of Attica under his rule, thus increasing the city’s size and importance. He also fought the women warriors known as
Amazons—perhaps with the help of his idol, Heracles. He also gave shelter to the legendary king Oedipus during that king’s tragic wanderings. Theseus was linked to many of the old and popular tales in Greek mythology. It was sometimes stud that he had been one of the Argonauts who captured the Golden Fleece. Forced to flee Athens in a time of war and upheaval, Theseus was killed by his host, who pushed him off a cliff. (See also Myths, Greek.)