Theseus was indubitably one of the greatest heroes of ancient Athens, being both a semi-mythical and semi-historical figure. His numerous exploits carry not only symbolical but also various political and cultural agendas. From fiercely slaying vicious creatures and saving many lives, to leading the Athenian army on a number of victorious battles, Theseus managed to grow into the ideal man of Athens – a fighter and defender of democracy, protector of the city, and one that is devoted to his people.
THESEUS’ LIFE AND FAMILY
Myths suggest that Theseus represented the Greek heroes before the Trojan War and lived during the Late Bronze Age. He was the son of Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, the king of Troezen, while his father was either Poseidon, God of the sea and rivers, or King Aigeus of Athens. Having two fathers, the Greek hero had both divine and royal lineage. During his childhood, Theseus grew up in the city of Troezen (near Peloponnesos) where he was born, but later on he traveled to different places, including the Saronic Gulf via Epidauros, the Isthmus of Corinth, Krommyon, the Megarian Cliffs, and Eleusis. Before reaching the city of Athens, though, he encountered and battled different villains, Amazons, centaurs and other mythical monsters.
ADVENTURES AND HEROIC ACHIEVEMENTS
As a Greek hero, Theseus was a great warrior and went through many adventures throughout his life. Despite the fact that it is quite challenging to tell which of his heroic exploits was the greatest, the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is perhaps the most famous of all. The legend begins with King Minos who won over the Athenians in a war. He demanded Athens to send an annual tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to the island of Crete, where they would be devoured by his Minotaur, half man and half bull, which inhabited the Labyrinth at Knossos. Determined to put an end to this terrible tribute, Theseus decided to volunteer as one of the sacrificial youths and therefore sailed to the island of Crete. Upon his arrival, he managed to seduce King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, who helped him in his undertaking. She gave him a ball of yarn that Theseus unrolled through the passages of the labyrinth, thus marking his way. After slaying the creature with his sword, the Athenian hero followed the string back in order to escape from the labyrinth. Despite freeing Athens from this obligation to Minos, this myth has an unfortunate turn of events. Upon returning to Athens, Theseus promised to his father, king Aigeus, to put a white sail if his mission was successful. Forgetting his father’s instructions, he left the vessel’s original black sails in place. Aigeus mistakenly believed his son is dead and drowned himself in the sea. The sea was thereafter called the Aegean. Theseus inherited the throne and became the new king of Athens.
Regarded as one of the most fascinating myths of the Greek Mythology, the episode has been retold and illustrated in different ways. One representation is found on a silver kantharos from the world-known collection of ancient pieces, belonging to Vassil Bojkov. The wine drinking cup dates back to the age of the Parthenon (around 440-435 BC) and is composed of four silver parts soldered together. One of the sides of the kantharos is decorated with the figures of king Minos with his daughter Ariadne, the goddess of love Aphrodite and Eros. They are leaf-gilded, chiselled and underlined by minute dotted inscriptions placed right under their feet. On the other side, there are the naked hero Theseus and the goddess Athena. There is one detail that makes this silver kantharos unique and that is the representation of a town in the form of a man. The seventh figure of what appears to be a middle-aged man in the first place is, in fact, a far more complicated iconographical-representation of the city of Knossos. This is the first time in the history of art when people can see a similar iconography of a city.
Nevertheless, despite being so famous, the killing of the Minotaur was neither the first nor the last of Theseus’ adventures and achievements.The fearless hero was also seen by myth-tellers as a political figure and protector of democracy. A large number of correspondences between myth and historical events attests for the political, cultural, and symbolical imprint left by Theseus for both Athens and the rest of the world. Some examples include the Synoecism, which is said to mark the beginning of a different Athenian democracy that shared more similarities with the modern-day understanding of this type of social status and power. Theseus protected Athens, helped develop their power structure and, according to some sources of information, he was responsible for the political unification of Attica (or the twelve demes) into what became the economic entity of Athens. This event is known as the Synoecism and was perceived as the most significant achievement attributed to the legendary hero. In many ways, then, all of the heroic deeds ascribed to him, led to the formation of democracy in the Attic city-state. Theseus also turned Athens into a city that was opened to people from other places and established the Panathenaia, the most significant religious festival there.
In terms of his more heroic deeds, many myths and tales reaffirm Theseus as a figure of courage and selflessness. There are the six exploits which he underwent while journeying to King Aigeus:
Other legends depict Theseus as the hero who accompanied the Greek hero Heracles on his labor against the Amazons. Later on, both of them stood against the Amazons and fought them when they invaded Attica in attempt to recover the girdle of their queen Antiope, which Hercules had previously stolen. The Athenian and national hero is also known for fighting centaurs and even Hades when trying to abduct Persephone from the underworld. Interestingly, scholars offer an alternative reading of these stories, suggesting that the image of Theseus here is, in fact, an allegory for Athens’ confrontation and its way to resist against attacks from the outside.
REPRESENTATIONS IN ART AND LITERATURE
The myths of Theseus could be said to be quite long and detailed. They begin from his childhood, go through his travels to Athens, the discovery of his true father, and end with how he saved countless of lives. The earliest references to the hero derive from the epics of Iliad and the Odyssey, dating back to the early 8th century BC. There are also brief literary references mostly found in fragmentary pieces by lyric poets from the early Archaic period. Another intriguing fact is that the earliest existing representation of Theseus in art can be seen on the François Vase, which is located in Florence and dates back to the 570 BC. The famous black-figure krater shows the Athenian hero during the Cretan episode and is one of a very scarce number of representations of Theseus that go as far back as to before 540 BC. Then of course, there is his iconography in the Athenian art. Other more contemporary adaptations in opera, film and television also recognise the deeds of this great antique hero.
All of these sources of information and stories regarding Theseus may have different origins and may come in different forms (artefacts, myths, songs, tragedies, antique coins) but they have one thing in common – they solidify Theseus as one of the greatest heroes of ancient Greece.
Watch the story of the famous hero in our short series Myths and Treasures of the Vassil Bojkov Collection:
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