HIS BIRTH AND HIS YOUTH
THESEUS, king of Athens, was the son of Aegeus and of Aethra, daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen. On his father’s side he was descended from King Erechtheus and those Athenians who, according to the legend of that country, had sprung directly from the earth itself. His maternal ancestor was Pelops, whose many sons had made him the mightiest king on the Peloponnesus.
Aegeus, the childless king of Athens, who reigned about twenty years before Jason’s journey on the Argo, was once visiting one of these sons, Pittheus, founder of the city of Troezen, because he was bound to him by ties of hospitality. Aegeus was very much afraid of the fifty sons of his brother Pallas, for they were hostile to him and held him in contempt because he had no children of his own. And so he conceived the idea of marrying again, secretly, without the knowledge of his wife, in the hope thus to beget a son who would be the comfort of his old age and the heir to his kingdom. He confided his plan to Pittheus, his host, and, as luck would have it, the king of Troezen had just received an oracle foretelling that his daughter would not make a splendid marriage in the eyes of the world but would bear a son whose name would become famous. This swayed Pittheus to marry his daughter Aethra, in a secret ceremony, to a man who already had a wife. Aegeus remained in Troezen for only a few days after this and then journeyed back to Athens. When he bade his new-wedded wife farewell at the seashore, he laid his sword and sandals under a block of stone, saying: “If the gods favor our marriage, into which I have not entered lightly, but in order to raise up an heir for my house and my realm, if they grant you a son, rear him in secret and tell no one the name of his father. When he is old enough and strong enough to roll away this rock, lead him to this place, let him fetch out the sword and shoes, travel to Athens, and bring them to me.”
And Aethra had a son. She named him Theseus and put him in the care of her father Pittheus. In obedience to her husband’s wish, she never told who the child’s true father was, and his grandfather spread the rumor that he was a son of Poseidon, for the sea-god was the patron of that city. The people of Troezen paid him honor by offering the first fruits of their fields to him, and the trident was the emblem of Troezen. In that country, therefore, it was anything but a disgrace that the king’s daughter had been found worthy to bear this god a child. When the boy had become not only strong and beautiful but brave and steadfast, and showed an inborn knowledge of things, his mother took him to the block of stone, on the seashore, revealed his true origin, and bade him fetch forth the objects which would serve to identify him to his father, and travel to Athens. Theseus pressed his weight against the stone and pushed it aside without difficulty. The sandals he bound to his feet and the sword he strapped to his side.
He refused to go by way of the sea, although his grandfather and his mother pleaded with him to do so, since the land route to Athens was in those days beset with robbers and other evildoers. For that age produced men who, though powerful in body and strong of arm, did not use their strength to do deeds helpful to man but only to abuse and destroy whatever came their way and to revel in mischief and crime. Some of these Heracles had slain on his quests. At this time he was the slave of Queen Omphale in Lydia, but while he was ridding that country of lawlessness, violence broke out afresh in Greece, because there was no one to curb it That was why journeying to Athens by land was a perilous undertaking, and the young man’s grandfather gave him vivid accounts of every one of these robbers and murderers and the particular cruelties they were reputed to inflict upon strangers.
But Theseus had long ago taken Heracles as his model. When he was only seven years old, this hero had visited his grandfather, and while he sat at the king’s board and ate the feast prepared for him, little Theseus, among other boys of Troezen, had been allowed to watch him. At the banquet, Heracles had laid aside his lion’s skin. When the other boys saw it, they ran away, but Theseus went fearlessly forward, snatched an axe from the hands of one of the servants, and brandishing it ran at the skin, which he took for a real Hon. Ever since this visit of Heracles, Theseus had been so full of admiration for him that he had dreamed of him by night, and by day thought only of how he would perform feats like his in years to come. Besides, Heracles was his kinsman, for their mothers were cousins. So now sixteen-year-old Theseus could not endure the thought that while Heracles was seeking out evildoers and putting an end to their wickedness, he himself should avoid any conflicts he might chance upon. “What would the god they call my father think of a cowardly journey over the safe expanse of his waters?” he asked fretfully. “What would my real father think if as tokens I brought him sandals that were not grayed with dust and a sword unstained with blood?” These words pleased his grandfather, who had himself been a brave hero. His mother gave her blessing, and Theseus set out on his way.
HI8 JOURNEY TO HIS FATHER
The first person he met was the robber Periphetes, who went armed with an iron club, to which he owed his name of Club-Bearer. With this he dashed to the ground all who came his way.
When Theseus reached the region of Epidaurus, this ruthless and savage man rushed at him out of the dark woods and blocked his path. But the youth called to him in a ringing voice: “Miserable rogue, you come in the very nick of time! Your club will be just the thing for one who intends to become a second Heracles in a world of rascals!” With these words he hurled himself upon the robber and, after brief combat, slew him. Then he took the club from the dead man and bore it away as a trophy and weapon.
On the isthmus of Corinth he came upon another evildoer, Sinnis, the Pine-Bender, so called because when anyone crossed his path he bent down the tops of two pines with his mighty hands, bound his captive to them, and then released the trees, so that his victim was torn in two. Theseus broke in his club by slaying that monster of cruelty. Sinnis had a lithe and lovely daughter, Perigune. Theseus had seen her flee into the forest when he was killing her father, and now he looked for her everywhere. The girl had hidden in a grove thick with shrubs, and in her childish innocence, pleaded with the bushes, as though they could understand, that never, never would she harm them or burn them if only they would conceal and rescue her. When Theseus called her back and assured her that he not only intended no harm but would take care of her, she came out of hiding and, from that time on, was under his protection. Later he married her to Deioneus, the son of Eurytus, king of Oechalia, and all her descendants kept her promise and never burned a single plant of the species which had given shelter to their ancestress.
But Theseus did not merely clear the road he travelled of destructive men. Always mindful of Heracles, he considered it his duty to wage war upon harmful animals as well. Among other brave deeds, he approached Megara and met with Sciron, a third notorious robber, who had chosen his abode on a high cliff between Megara and Attica. This insolent ne’er-do-well had the habit of thrusting his feet out at strangers and commanding them to wash his soles. While they did what he asked, he would give them a kick that plunged them into the sea. Now Theseus punished him with the same death he had inflicted on others. When he was already in Attica, near the city of Eleusis, he met Cercyon, who was in the habit of waylaying all who crossed his path, to challenge them to a wrestling match, and kill them after he had won the victory. Theseus accepted his challenge, was himself the winner, and rid the world of this plague. When he had gone a little farther, he came to the last and most cruel of the highway robbers, Damastes, who was better known by his nickname Procrustes, the Stretcher. This scoundrel had two beds, one very short and one very long. If a stranger who was small of stature came his way, he conducted him to the long bed, saying: “You can well see that my bed is much too big for you; let me arrange a better fit!” And with this he would stretch him on the rack until the man breathed his last. But if he had a tall guest for the night, he took him to the short bed, saying: “I am sorry, friend, but this bed was never made for you. It is much too small, but we can do something about that!” And with this he would lop off his feet and that part of his legs which protruded from the bed. Since Procrustes was a large man, Theseus forced him to lie in his own short bed and hacked him into shape until he died a miserable death. Thus Theseus made the punishment of most of these evildoers fit their crimes.
Up to this point, our hero had not come across anything of a pleasant nature on his journey. But now, when he reached the river Cephissus, he found men from the race of the Phytalides, who received him hospitably. At his request, they first purified him of the blood he had shed, with the rites proper to this service, and then set food and drink before him. After he had refreshed himself in their house and given them thanks in warm and courteous words, he turned in the direction of his father’s home.
THESEUS IN ATHENS
In Athens, the young hero did not find the peace and happiness he had expected. The city was in confusion, the citizens were at civil war among themselves, and conditions in the house of his father Aegeus were not of a kind to favor his coming. Medea, who had left Corinth and unhappy Jason on her dragon-drawn chariot and taken refuge in Athens, had tricked old Aegeus into receiving her, by a promise to restore his strength and youth with one of her magic charms. The king and she were living in wedlock. Because she was a sorceress, she knew that Theseus had arrived in Athens before the news of his coming reached the palace. She persuaded Aegeus, whom the party strife in his city had made suspicious of every newcomer, that the stranger, whom he did not recognize as his son, was a dangerous spy and that it would be wise to treat him as a welcome guest and then do away with him by means of poison.
Theseus came to the morning meal without having revealed his identity, glad in the thought that his father would discover for himself who it was he had before him. The cup with the poisoned potion was at his place, and Medea waited impatiently for the new arrival, who she feared would drive her from the palace, to take the first sip, for she had seen to it that even a few drops would be enough to close his young and watchful eyes forever. But Theseus, who longed to feel his father’s arms about him more than to drink of the cup, drew his sword, the one that had been left under the stone for him, seemingly to cut his meat, but actually that Aegeus might see it and know that this was his son. No sooner had the king laid eyes on the weapon, which he instantly recognized, than he dashed the cup to the ground. A few questions convinced him that this youth was, indeed, the son he had begged of Destiny, and he clasped him to his heart. Theseus was made known to the assembled populace, whom he told of the adventures he had met with on his journey. Joyful acclaim welcomed the youth, who had proved his hardihood so early and so often. But treacherous Medea was driven out of the land, for King Aegeus now felt only loathing for this cruel sorceress, who had almost succeeded in depriving him of his newfound happiness.
THESEUS AND MINOS
The first deed Theseus performed as prince and heir to the throne of Attica was to kill the fifty sons of his uncle Pallas. These young men had always hoped to succeed to the kingship if Aegeus died childless, and they were now enraged at the thought that not only was Aegeus an adopted son of Pandion, king of Athens, but that in the future this recently arrived vagabond and adventurer would hold sway over them and the entire land. So they armed themselves and lay in ambush for him. But the herald they had with them was not native to Attica and disclosed their plan to Theseus, who fell upon them in their hiding-place and killed all fifty of them. In order not to antagonize the people by the slaughter he had been forced to commit in self-preservation, he set out on a quest for the good of all: he overcame the bull of Marathon, which had ravaged four provinces of Attica and harrassed the inhabitants, drove him through the streets of Athens as a spectacle for the crowd, and finally sacrificed him at the altar of Apollo.
At just about this time, King Minos of Crete sent messengers to call for the tribute due him every ninth year. Now the reason was this: it was said that Androgeos, the son of Minos, had been treacherously murdered in Attica. In revenge, his father had waged war against the people of that country, and the gods themselves had laid waste the land with drought and plagues. Then the oracle of Apollo proclaimed that the anger of the gods and the sufferings of the people of Athens would cease if they succeeded in placating Minos and obtaining his forgiveness. Hereupon the Athenians had pleaded with him and secured peace on condition that every nine years they send a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to Crete. Rumor had it that Minos locked these into his famous labyrinth, where they died of hunger and thirst or were killed by the Minotaur, a terrible monster, part man and part bull. So now, when the time for the third tribute had come and those fathers who had unmarried sons and daughters again faced the possibility of having to sacrifice them to so terrible a fate, the citizens began to murmur against Aegeus. He who was the cause of this disaster, they said, was the only one who did not have to bear the burden of the consequences; having made an adventurer, a bastard son, heir to his throne, he was indifferent to their despair at having their legitimate children torn from them.
Theseus, who had come to regard the lot of his fellow citizens as his own, was pained by their grief. He rose in the assembly and declared that he himself would go, without being chosen by lot. All the people were full of admiration for his noble selflessness, and he clung to his purpose in the face of his father’s fervent entreaty not to rob him, who had only just gained a son and heir, of his new happiness. Theseus was steadfast in his resolve, but quieted his father by assuring him with proud self-confidence that he neither intended to perish nor to leave the other youths and maidens to their fate, but to overcome the Minotaur. Up to this time, the ship which took the unhappy victims to Crete had been rigged with a black sail, as a sign of their hopelessness. But now that Aegeus heard his son speak with such dauntless faith, he did, indeed, have the ship equipped in the old accustomed way, but he also gave the helmsman another sail of white stuff, which he was to hoist if Theseus returned safely. If not, he was to leave up the black sail, which would announce disaster from afar.
When the lots had been drawn, Theseus took the boys and girls on whom they had fallen to the temple of Apollo and, in their behalf, proffered the god the olive branch, twined about with white wool, the gift of those who crave protection. When the solemn prayer had been said, he and the thirteen with him went down to the seashore, accompanied by all the people, and they boarded the ship of mourning.
The oracle of Delphi had advised him to choose the goddess of love as his guide and implore her patronage. Theseus did not understand this counsel, but he made sacrifice to Aphrodite notwithstanding. Later the meaning grew plain to him. For when he landed in Crete and was brought before King Minos, his beauty as he stood there in the bloom of heroic youth attracted the gaze of the lovely princess Ariadne. Meeting him secretly, she confessed her love and handed him a ball of thread, one end of which he was to fasten to the entrance of the labyrinth and then unroll the ball as he went forward through the bewildering maze to meet the Minotaur. She also gave him a magic sword with which to kill the monster. Minos had all his victims taken to the labyrinth. But Theseus guided them to the Minotaur, slew him with the sword Ariadne had given him, and then, retracing his steps by following the thread, led them through the maze of passages. Once safely out, they fled with the help of Ariadne, who accompanied them: she was the lovely and unexpected prize Theseus had won for his feat. At her advice, he gashed the keels of the Cretan ships so that her father could not pursue them in their flight. He thought himself secure with his fair booty and stopped at the island of Dia, which later was called Naxos. There Dionysus appeared to him in a dream, declared that Ariadne was his own bride whom Fate had decreed for him, and that he would afflict Theseus with evil fortune unless he renounced his beloved. His grandfather had reared him in the fear of the gods, so now he deferred to angry Dionysus and left the sorrowing princess behind on that lonely island. But in the night, Ariadne’s true bridegroom came and spirited her away to Mount Drios. There he vanished, and soon after Ariadne too became invisible.
Theseus and his friends were so saddened at the loss of Ariadne that they forgot the ship was still riding under the black sail which had been hoisted on the coast of Attica. They did not fetch out the white, and so their vessel sped homeward under the color of mourning. Aegeus was at the shore when the ship hove into sight, for he was watching the open sea from a high lookout. When he saw the black sail, he concluded that his son must be dead. Filled with unbearable grief and weary of his life, he threw himself into the waters below. In memory of him, they called those waters the Aegean Sea.
In the meantime Theseus had landed. Before leaving the harbor, he had made the gods those offerings he had pledged at the time of his departure and dispatched a herald to bring the news of his rescue and that of his companions to the city. This messenger did not know what to make of the reception he met with. While some welcomed him full of joy and placed a wreath on his head as the bringer of good news, others were so sunk in mourning that they did not even listen to his words. He did not find an answer to the riddle until he learned of the death of King Aegeus, which gradually became known throughout the city. When he heard of it, he continued to accept the wreaths accorded him, but instead of adorning himself, he only twined them around his herald’s staff and returned to the shore. Here he found that Theseus was still busy with the sacrifice, and so he remained standing at the entrance to the temple, in order not to disturb the sacred rites by a message of grief. As soon as the ashes of the victims had been strewn on the earth, he announced the end of King Aegeus. Struck with sorrow, Theseus flung himself on the ground, and when he rose again, all hastened to the city, not jubilantly, as they had planned, but with weeping and laments for the dead.
After Theseus had buried his father with tears and mourning, he kept his promise to Apollo and dedicated to him the ship in which the Attic youths and maidens had set out on so sad a voyage and come back unharmed. It was a vessel with room for thirty oarsmen, and since the Athenians wanted it to keep alive forever the memory of this miraculous return, they preserved it by replacing those planks which rotted away. That was why it was still possible to show this venerable relic even many years after the time of Alexander the Great.
Theseus was crowned king, and soon he proved that he was not only a hero in wars and quests but an able organizer of the state and one who could make happy a nation which was at peace. In this he excelled even Heracles, after whose example he had modelled his life. For he launched upon a great and admirable enterprise. When he came to power, most of the inhabitants of Attica lived in isolated farmsteads and small settlements scattered around the acropolis and little city of Athens. It was, therefore, difficult to assemble them to discuss matters of public interest and concern, and sometimes petty wars were waged about insignificant feuds between one neighbor and another. It was Theseus who united all the citizens of Attica and welded scattered communities into one common state. And he did not accomplish this great work by force, in the manner of a tyrant, but travelled from one community and one family to another, seeking to obtain their voluntary agreement to his plan. Those who were poor and of humble birth did not require much urging, for they had everything to gain from association with the wealthy. To win over the rich and the mighty, he promised that the power of the king, which up to this time had been unlimited, should be curtailed, and that he would give them a constitution which pledged liberty. “I myself,” said he, “will be your leader in wars, and at all times the protector of laws, but beyond this all my fellow citizens shall have equal rights with me.” Many of the nobles recognized the advantages this implied; others, who were less eager for change in matters of state, feared his popularity among the people, his great power, and his notorious courage, and these therefore preferred to yield to the persuasion of one who could compel them if he wished.
And so he abolished the semi-independent powers of the separate townships and concentrated those powers at Athens. He also instituted a holiday for all Attic citizens and called it the Panathenaea: the feast for all Athenians. Only now did Athens grow into a true city. Before it had been little more than a palace, called by its founder the “Palace of Cecrops,” with a few houses grouped around it. In order to enlarge his city still more, Theseus invited people from many different regions to make their home there and promised them the rights of citizens, for he wanted to make Athens a city of many peoples. Lest this mass of persons streaming into the city cause disorder in the newly founded state, he divided the inhabitants into nobles, farmers, and craftsmen, and assigned to each class its peculiar rights and duties. The nobles were valued for their rank and their service to the state, the farmers for their usefulness, and the craftsmen had the advantage of numbers. Theseus limited his own kingly powers, as he had promised, and made them dependent upon the counsel of the nobles and the assembly of the people.
THE WAR WITH THE AMAZONS
When Theseus had organized his state, he set about making it secure and permanent by nurturing the fear of the gods. To this end he introduced the worship of Athene as the patron goddess of the land, and as a mark of reverence for Poseidon, whose special charge he was and who had long been taken for his father, he initiated or at least revived the sacred contests on the isthmus of Corinth, just as Heracles had once done in the case of the Olympic games in honor of Zeus. While he was so occupied, Athens was threatened with a curious and unexpected war.
In the course of a quest which Theseus had undertaken at an earlier time, he had landed on the coast of the country of the Amazons, and these warlike women, who were not in the least afraid of men, not only did not flee from this splendid young hero but sent him the gifts a host bestows upon his guest. Theseus was pleased with the gifts but still more with the bringer, a lovely Amazon by the name of Hippolyte. He invited her to visit him on his ship and, when she came aboard, set sail and carried her off. When they reached Athens he married her. Hippolyte was not at all averse to being the wife of a hero, one who was a powerful king to boot. But the belligerent Amazons, indignant at the bold abduction, brooded on revenge long after the whole incident seemed forgotten. They availed themselves of a time when Athens was unguarded, landed with a fleet of ships, occupied the land, surrounded the city, and invaded it, rushing in like a storm. They even pitched camp in the middle of the city, and the frightened inhabitants took refuge on the acropolis. Both sides hesitated to launch the attack, but Theseus finally began, after making offerings to the goddesses of vengeance, as an oracle had bidden him. At first the men of Athens were forced to retreat before the onslaught of these women fighters, and they were pressed back to the temple of the Eumenides. But then the battle was resumed from another direction, and the right wing of the Amazons were driven back to their camp and many slain. It is said that in this conflict Queen Hippolyte, unmindful of her origin, fought on her husband’s side, but a spear struck her as she aided Theseus, and she fell dead. Later a column was reared to her memory. The war ended with a treaty of peace, which stipulated that the Amazons leave Athens and return to their own country.
THESEUS AND PIRITHOUS
Theseus was famed for extraordinary strength and courage. Pirithous, one of the most noted heroes of antiquity, a son of Ixion, was eager to put his valor to the test and to this end stole from Marathon cattle belonging to the king of Athens. Soon he heard that Theseus had armed and was coming in hot pursuit. At this he was greatly pleased and, far from taking flight, turned to meet his opponent. When the two heroes were near enough for one to measure the other, each was so moved with admiration for his adversary’s beauty and boldness, that they both threw down their weapons as though at a given signal and hastened toward each other. Pirithous stretched his right hand out to Theseus and begged him to be judge concerning the theft of the herds, saying that he would willingly submit to whatever satisfaction Theseus thought fit. “The only satisfaction I ask,” answered Theseus with shining eyes, “is that one who is my enemy and seeks to harm me, become my friend and comrade-in-arms.” And now the two heroes embraced and swore everlasting friendship.
Soon after this Pirithous courted Hippodamia, a Thessalian princess from the race of the Lapithae, and invited Theseus to the wedding. The Lapithae, in whose country the feast was held, were a well-known people of Thessaly, mountain-folk, resembling animals rather than men, the first mortals to succeed in taming horses. But the bride, who was descended from this line, had nothing in common with them. She was lovely of form, and her face had such delicate charm that the guests thought Pirithous fortunate to have won her. All the princes of Thessaly had come to the banquet, and the kinsmen of Pirithous also appeared. They were centaurs, creatures half man and half beast, who were descended from the monster borne by the cloud that Ixion, father of Pirithous, had clasped, thinking it Hera. This was why they were often called the “sons of cloud.” These and the Lapithae were enemies of long standing, but this time the fact that the centaurs were kinsmen to the bridegroom had made them forget their old grudge and lured them to the joyful ceremony. The palace of Pirithous was gaily decorated and swarming with guests and servingmen. Songs were sung for the bride, and the halls were warm and fragrant with the steam and scent of food and wines. They could not hold all who had come, so the Lapithae and centaurs mingled with one another at tables spread in the shadow of leafy groves.
For a long time the feast went on in lighthearted merriment. But an overabundance of wine had maddened the heart of Eurytion, the wildest among the centaurs, and when he looked at lovely Hippodamia, he conceived the bold plan of carrying off the bride. No one knew how it happened, no one had noticed how it began, but suddenly the guests saw Eurytion dragging Hippodamia, who resisted and screamed for help, across the floor by her long shining locks. The centaurs, heated and fuddled with wine, took this as a signal, and before the Lapithae and their guests could even rise from their places, each centaur had seized one of the Thessalian girls who served at the king’s court and clutched her as his prize. Palace and gardens resembled a conquered city. The cries of women shrilled through the wide halls. Quickly the friends and kinsmen of the bride leaped from their seats. “What folly is this, Eurytion?” cried Theseus. “Are you mad to insult Pirithous while I am alive, and thus offend two heroes by provoking one?” With these words he snatched the girl from his rough hands. Eurytion said nothing at all, for he could not defend his action, but he raised his arm and struck the king of Athens a blow in the chest. Theseus had no weapon at hand, but he reached for a bronze pitcher which happened to be standing near and dashed it in the face of his assailant so that he fell badly wounded.
“To arms!” The call rang out from the centaurs still seated at the board. First cups and jars and bowls hurtled through the air; then one impious fellow robbed the nearby temples and holy altars of the precious vessels dedicated to the gods, while another tore from the wall the metal rings which held the torches lighting the banquet, and yet another fought with the antlers which hung in the grotto both as adornments and votive offerings.
The Lapithae were slaughtered mercilessly. Rhoetus, second in fierceness only to Eurytion, snatched a brand from the altar and thrust it into the gaping wound of an opponent, so that the blood hissed like iron in the foundry. But Dryas, the bravest of the Lapithae, countered by casting a burning post between the shoulders and neck of Rhoetus. His fall halted the orgy of murder to which his comrades had given themselves up, and Dryas took advantage of the pause by killing five of them in succession. And now Pirithous flung his spear and pierced a giant centaur, Petraeus, who was just dragging an oak out of the earth to use as a weapon. While he was still gripping the tree, the missile pinned his heaving breast to the gnarled trunk. Dictys, another centaur, gave way before the Greek hero and in falling snapped a mighty ash. A third wanted to avenge him, but Theseus crushed him with a heavy oaken stave.
The youngest and fairest among the centaurs was Cyllarus. His long locks, the color of gold, floated about his face; his neck and shoulders, his hands and breast were as if moulded by an artist. The lower part of his body, which was that of a horse, was also flawless—broad-backed, the chest arched, black of hue save for his light-colored legs and tail. He had come to the wedding with his beloved, beautiful Hylonome, who had leaned against him tenderly while he feasted and now fought staunchly at his side. An unknown hand pierced him to the heart, and wounded unto death he sank into her arms. Hylonome clasped his dying form, kissed him, and tried in vain to keep the sweet breath in his body. When she saw he was dead, she drew the spear from his heart and threw herself upon it.
The battle went on and on, gaining in fury, until the Lapithae had utterly overwhelmed the centaurs. It ended only when flight and darkness saved them from further slaughter. Pirithous now had undisputed possession of his bride, and the next morning Theseus bade farewell to his friend. The fight in a common cause had strengthened the brotherly tie between them to a bond that could never be broken.
THESEUS AND PHAEDRA
Theseus had reached the peak and the turning point of his fortunes. It was his attempt to found his happiness solidly at his own hearth, rather than seek it in bold and passing quests, that plunged him into stress and pain. When, in the flower of youth, he had stolen Ariadne of Crete from her father, King Minos, her little sister Phaedra had accompanied her. After Dionysus carried off Ariadne, Phaedra, not daring to return to her tyrannical father, had gone to Athens with Theseus. Not until Minos was dead did she return to her home in Crete, and there, in the palace of her brother Deucalion, the eldest son of King Minos, who now ruled the island, she grew into a girl both beautiful and wise. Theseus, who had not remarried after the death of his wife Hippolyte, heard Phaedra’s charms praised on all sides and hoped to find her as charming as his first love, her sister Ariadne. Deucalion, the new king of Crete, favored the hero, and when he returned from the wedding of his Thessalian friend, Pirithous, at which the blood had flowed so freely, the two kings formed a protective alliance. Theseus then asked Phaedra in marriage and was not refused. Soon after, he voyaged home with this girl from Crete, who was, indeed, so like her sister in face and in manner that it seemed to Theseus that the hopes of his youth were being fulfilled in his late manhood.
To fill the cup of his happiness, Phaedra bore him two sons in the first years of their marriage, Acamas and Demophoon. But she was not as virtuous and true-hearted as she was beautiful! Hippolytus, the king’s young son, who was of her own age, pleased her better than his aging father. He was the son of Theseus by Hippolyte, the Amazon he had once abducted. The child Hippolytus had been sent to Troezen to be reared by the brothers of his father’s mother Aethra. When he was grown, this chaste and beautiful youth, who had resolved to dedicate his life to Artemis, the virgin goddess, and who had never looked at a woman with desire, came to Athens and Eleusis, where he was to take part in the celebration of the mysteries. It was here that Phaedra first saw him. As she looked at Hippolytus, it seemed as though she had before her Theseus as he must have been in his youth. The boy’s fair body and innocent spirit kindled her heart, and she desired him; but she locked her passion in her breast and was silent. When the youth left, she had a temple built on the acropolis at Athens and consecrated it to the goddess of love. Standing within it one could look toward Troezen, so that later it was called The Temple of Aphrodite Who Gazes Afar. Here she went day after day, looking out to sea. When at long last Theseus journeyed to Troezen to visit his kinsmen and his son, she accompanied him and remained there for a long time. At first she fought the fires of love, fled into solitude, and wept out her sorrow under a myrtle. But in the end she confided her trouble to her old nurse, a shrewd but foolish woman who adored her mistress with blind, unreasoning faithfulness and undertook to inform the youth of his stepmother’s passion for him. When Hippolytus received her message, he was filled with repugnance, which turned to loathing the moment undutiful Phaedra suggested that he thrust his father from the throne and share the rule with her. In the intensity of his disgust, he cursed all women, and it seemed to him that he was defiled by the mere hearing of so guilty a proposal. Since Theseus was, at the moment, absent from Troezen—an occasion his faithless wife had availed herself of—Hippolytus declared that not for another instant would he remain under the same roof with her. After he had given the nurse his answer, he ran into the open to hunt in the service of his divine mistress Artemis, to live in the forest, far from the palace, until his father should return and he could pour out to him his troubled soul.
Phaedra found it impossible to endure the rejection of her love and her scheme. Awareness of her fault and unbearable desire warred within her, but hatred born of wounded pride gained the upper hand.
When Theseus returned, he found she had hanged herself. Clasped in her right hand was a letter she had written before her death. It read: “Hippolytus had designs upon my honor. There was only one way to escape his pursuing. I die rather than become faithless to my husband.”
For a long time Theseus stood rooted to the earth in horror and revulsion. At last, his numbness leaving him, he lifted his hands to heaven and prayed! “Poseidon, father, you who have always loved me as though I were, indeed, your son, once you gave me three wishes which you promised to fulfill. Now I remind you of your pledge. I have only one wish for which I crave fulfillment: Let the sun not set for my son this day!” Hardly had he uttered this curse when Hippolytus, returned from the hunt and learning of his father’s arrival, entered the palace. He followed the sounds of lament and came into the presence of his father and the body of his stepmother. Gently and calmly he replied to Theseus’ accusations. “My conscience is clear,” he said. “I know myself guiltless of crime.” But Theseus held out to him his stepmother’s letter and sentenced him to exile, unheard. Hippolytus could only call upon Artemis, his patron goddess, to witness his innocence, and with sighs and tears bid farewell to Troezen, his adopted country.
On the evening of the same day a messenger came to the palace and, when he was admitted to the king’s presence, said: “O master and ruler, your son Hippolytus no longer sees the light of day!”
Theseus received this news coldly and said with a bitter smile: “Was he slain by an enemy whose wife he dishonored, just as he wished to do violence to his father’s bed?”
But the messenger replied: “No, lord! His own chariot and the curse your lips pronounced have destroyed him.”
Then Theseus raised his hands to heaven in thanks. “O Poseidon,” he said, “today you have dealt with me as a true father and heard my prayer. But tell me, messenger, how did my son meet his death? How did the club of reprisal strike this ravisher?”
The messenger told his tale. “We were currying the horses of our young master Hippolytus, down by the shore of the sea, when we heard of his exile, and soon he himself came accompanied by a group of his childhood friends, all weeping and lamenting, and told us to make ready the chariot for a journey. When all was done he lifted his hands to heaven and prayed: ‘Destroy me, Zeus, if I have been an evildoer! And, whether I be dead or alive, let my father discover that he has dishonored me without cause.’ Then he took up his goad, leaped into the chariot, seized the reins, and drove toward Argos and Epidaurus, and we accompanied him on his way. We reached the barren coast; to our right lay the sea, to the left great boulders jutted from the hillside. Suddenly we heard a deep rumble like subterranean thunder. The horses took fright and pointed their ears, while we looked around full of alarm to see where the sound was coming from. When our glance fell on the sea, we beheld a terrible thing: a wave which towered up to the sky and blotted out the view of the further shore and the isthmus. White with surf and loud with clamor, this mountain of water made for the very path the horses were travelling. And as it broke it spewed forth a monster, a gigantic bull, whose roars echoed and re-echoed from the rocks. At sight of him the horses went wild with terror. Our master, who was skilled in driving, pulled the reins taut with both hands and used them as an experienced helmsman uses his rudder. But the horses had become unmanageable. They champed at the bit and strained away from their driver. Just as they were racing down the level road, the sea monster blocked their course, and when they turned toward the boulders, it crowded them by rushing close to the wheels. This finally forced the chariot onto the rocks. Your unfortunate son plunged headlong, and the horses stormed on in unguided flight, dragging him and the capsized chariot over sand and stones. It all happened so quickly that we could not come to our master’s aid. Although he was bruised and half crushed he still called to his horses, which had always obeyed him, and cried out to the winds his grief at his father’s curse. He vanished from our sight around a curve in the path. The sea monster was gone, as if the earth had swallowed it up. While the other servants breathlessly ran in search of the chariot, I hastened here to tell you of your son’s fate.”
Theseus was silent and stared at the floor. After a time he spoke, and he seemed sad and in doubt. “I do not rejoice at his misfortune and I do not bewail it,” he said. “But I wish I could have him here alive to question him and talk to him about what he has done.” His words were cut short by the screams of an old woman, who rushed through the rows of servants, her garment torn, her gray hair dishevelled, and threw herself at the king’s feet. It was Queen Phaedra’s old nurse, whose conscience had begun to prick her at the rumor of the death of Hippolytus, so that now she could no longer keep silence but with sobs and cries revealed to the king the innocence of his son and the guilt of her mistress. Before the unhappy father could gather his wits, Hippolytus was carried into the palace on a bier and brought before him, shattered, but still breathing. Penitent and despairing, Theseus threw himself over his dying son, who summoned the last shreds of his strength to ask: “Has my innocence been proved?” A nod from one nearby answered his question and gave him comfort. “My father, you were deceived,” murmured the youth, and the breath fled from his body.
Theseus had him buried under the same myrtle where Phaedra had once striven with her love. Often her fingers, restless with passion, had pulled at its branches and crumpled the glossy green leaves. Since this had been her favorite place, she too was buried there and allowed to remain, for the king did not wish to dishonor his wife in death.
THESEUS AND HELEN
His friendship with young Pirithous stirred up in Theseus, who was lonely and aging, a desire for bold and even wanton adventure. Pirithous had lost his wife Hippodamia after a very short time, and since Theseus too was single again, the two set out to get themselves women by carrying them off by force. At that time Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, later to be so famous, was still almost a child, growing up in the palace of her stepfather Tyndareus, king of Sparta. But she was already the most beautiful girl of her time, and her loveliness was being talked about in all of Greece. When, in the course of their predatory expedition, Theseus and Pirithous came to Sparta, they saw her dance in the temple of Artemis. Both were inflamed with love. With insolent daring they stole the princess from the sanctuary and took her to Tegea in Arcadia. Here they cast lots for her, and each promised the other that he would help the loser steal some other fair maiden. Theseus was the winner. He took his prize to Aphidna, in Attica, and put her in the care of his mother Aethra, and under the protection of a friend. After this he joined his comrade-in-arms again, and both began to plan a deed worthy of Heracles. For Pirithous had resolved to solace himself for the loss of Helen by abducting Persephone, the wife of Pluto, from the underworld.
You have already heard that the two friends failed in this attempt, that Pluto condemned them to remain in Hades forever, and that Heracles, who wanted to liberate both, succeeded only in freeing Theseus. Now while Theseus was away on this unfortunate expedition and held a prisoner in Hades, Helen’s brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, went to Attica to recapture their sister. At first they did not commit any hostile act, but went to Athens on a peaceful mission to ask the return of Helen. But when the people in that city replied that the young princess was not there, nor did they know where Theseus had left her, the brothers grew angry and prepared to wage war with the help of the followers they had brought with them. This alarmed the Athenians, and one among them, Academus, who had discovered the king’s secret in some way or other, told the brothers that Helen was kept hidden in Aphidna. Castor and Polydeuces besieged that place, won in battle, and took the city by storm.
In the meantime something else, unfavorable to Theseus, had happened in Athens. Menestheus, son of Peteus, a great-grandson of Erechtheus, had set himself up as the people’s leader. He wanted the vacant throne, and to this end he flattered the rabble and incited the nobles to rebellion with the argument that by incorporating their country estates in the city, the king had made subjects and slaves of them. To the people at large he demonstrated that for an empty dream of freedom they had left their rural sanctuaries and gods, and that instead of being the dependents of many good and gracious lords of their own, they were serving a single master, an alien and a despot. When word came that the Tyndaridae had taken Aphidna, Athens was filled with terror, and Menestheus took full advantage of the confusion and dissatisfaction among the citizens. He persuaded them to open the gates of the city to the sons of Tyndareus, who were waging only a personal war against Theseus for stealing their sister. And Menestheus had really told the truth, for although Castor and Polydeuces entered Athens through gates flung wide and could have taken the city, they did no harm to anyone. Rather did they request that, like other wellborn Athenians and kinsmen of Heracles, they be initiated into the secret rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries. When this had been granted they left the city, escorted by the citizens who had come to love and honor them, and journeyed homeward with Helen.
THE END OF THESEUS
In the meantime Theseus had been freed by Heracles and returned from the underworld. But even now he was not to have peace on his throne. For hardly had he resumed his place at the helm of the state, when revolts broke out against him. Menestheus was always at the head of these, and he was backed by the nobles, who still called themselves Pallantides in honor of Pallas, the uncle of Theseus, and his sons, who had been vanquished and slain. Those who had hated their king before gradually lost their fear of him, and the common people had been so indulged by Menestheus that they refused to obey and craved only more and more potent flattery. In the beginning Theseus tried to establish order by force, but when lawlessness and open rebellion set all his efforts at naught, the unhappy king decided to leave his insubordinate city of his own free will, having previously smuggled out his sons Acamas and Demophoon, whom he sent to Elephenor in Euboea. In a place in Attica called Gargettus he uttered a solemn imprecation against the Athenians, and for many years after that the field where he had stood to curse his people was remembered and shown. Then he shook the dust from his feet and sailed to Scyros, where he owned large estates left to him by his father. He regarded the inhabitants of that island as his particular friends.
At that time Lycomedes was king of Scyros. Theseus went to him, asking for his property, for there he intended to take up his abode. But Fate had led him a perilous way. Perhaps Lycomedes feared the fame of Theseus, perhaps he had a secret understanding with Menestheus. At any rate he cast about for some means to destroy this guest who had put himself in his hands. And so he took him to the highest peak on the island, a cliff which jutted out into the sea, claiming that he wished to give Theseus a good view of the estates his father had owned on Scyros. When Theseus gained the summit, he joyfully looked down over the fruitful fields spread out before him. Then the treacherous king pushed him from behind, and his body hurtled over the cliff and plunged into the sea.
The ungrateful people of Athens soon forgot him, and Menestheus ruled as though the throne had come to him as his rightful heritage from a long line of ancestors. The sons of Theseus followed the hero Elephenor and fought in the Trojan war as common soldiers. Not until Menestheus had fallen did they return to Athens and take the scepter into their own hands.
After many centuries the Athenians began to honor Theseus as a hero. And this is how it came about: When they were fighting the Persians on the plain of Marathon, the long-dead king rose from his grave fully armed and led his people in battle against the barbarians. Thereupon the oracle at Delphi bade the Athenians fetch the bones of Theseus and give them honorable burial. But how were they to set about finding them? For even if his grave on the island of Scyros were discovered, how to win his remains from brutal and savage barbarians? At about this time Cimon of Athens, the son of Miltiades, conquered the island on one of those expeditions which won him fame and glory. While he was eagerly looking for the grave of his nation’s hero, he saw an eagle soaring above a hill. He hastened to that place, and the bird dropped from the sky and began to claw the earth of a burial mound. Cimon took this as a sign from heaven. He had his men dig down, and deep in the earth they found the coffin of a tall man, and beside it a lance and a sword of bronze. Neither he nor those with him had any doubt that they had discovered the remains of Theseus. Cimon had these sacred relics carried to Athens in a splendid trireme, and the Athenians received them with joyful acclaim, gorgeous processions, and solemn offerings. It was as though Theseus himself had returned to his city. Thus, after centuries, the descendants of his people paid the giver of their liberty and their constitution the debt of thanks and the honor his blind contemporaries had denied him.