Aegeus is tricked by Pitheus to have sex with his daughter-Theseus is reared by his mother and when time comes he goes in search of his father. Medea wants to kill the youth but his father recognizes him by his sword. He is acknowledged as his legitimate heir. Sons of Pallas and his fifty sons wage war against him and are routed. Exploits of Theseus, Theseus and Ariadne-Theseus kills the minotaur and return to Athens. Credited as making Athens adopt democratic way of government.
As in maps of antiquity areas were sometimes marked with legends that showed ignorance of the cartographer than explained the true case. A lion country may upon close examination would have yielded dandelions than the king of the beasts. But such legends make us reexamine antiquity not for exactness of geography but for understanding the lack of it. I, Plutarch is aiming for an effect and not for explaining facts I do not have. The effect is entertaining my reader, of course.
Theseus is considered as the founder of Athens as Romulus, the founder of Rome. There are several points of resemblance to one another.
Both were unacknowledged illegitimate children, and were reputed to descend from the Gods. Both were wise as well as powerful. The one founded Rome, while the other was the joint founder of Athens; and these are two of the most famous of cities. Both carried off women by violence, and neither of them escaped domestic misfortune and retribution, but towards the end of
their lives both were at variance with their countrymen from what we have on this from writers of antiquity.
Theseus traced his descent on the father’s side from Erechtheus while on the mother’s side he was descended from Pelops. For Pelops surpassed all the other princes of the Peloponnesus in the number of his children as well as in wealth.
One of these, Pittheus, the grandfather of Theseus, founded Troezen, which is indeed but a little state, though he had a greater reputation than any man of his time for eloquence and wisdom.
Now Aegeus desired to have children, and the Oracle at Delphi is said to have given
him an answer, forbidding him to have intercourse with any woman before he reached Athens. On his way home however he went to Troezen, and asked the advice of Pittheus about the response of the God, which ran thus:
“Great chief, the wine-skin’s foot must closed remain,
Till thou to Athens art returned again.”
Pittheus tricked Aegeus into an intrigue with Aethra his daughter. Afraid that he had made her pregnant he left behind him his sword and sandals hidden under a great stone, which had a hollow inside it exactly fitting them. This he told to Aethra alone, and charged her if a
son of his should be born, and on growing to man’s estate should be able
to lift the stone and take from under it the deposit. She was to inform him as soon as possible and in secrecy since he greatly feared the sons of Pallas, who plotted against him. Sons of Pallas were fifty in number and they made fun of him on account of his childlessness.
When Aethra’s child was born, he was named Theseus, from the tokens placed under the stone. The child was brought up by his grandfather Pittheus.
At that time there was the custom for those who were coming to man’s estate to go to Delphi and offer to the god the first-fruits of their hair which was then cut for the first time.
[ The first instance of this is in Homer's Iliad, where Achilles speaks of having dedicated his hair to the river Spercheius. The Athenian youth offered their hair to Herakles. The Roman emperor Nero, in later times, imitated this custom.]
Now while Theseus was yet a child, Aethra concealed his real parentage
Theseus, and a story was circulated by Pittheus that his father was
Poseidon. But when he was grown into a youth, and proved both strong in
body and of good sound sense, then Aethra led him to the stone, told him
the truth about his father, and bade him take the tokens from beneath it
and sail to Athens with them. He easily lifted the stone, but determined
not to go to Athens by sea, though the voyage was a safe and easy one,
and though his mother and his grandfather implored him to go that way.
By land it was a difficult matter to reach Athens, as the whole way was
infested with robbers and bandits. But it appears that Theseus had for a long time wanted to imitate Herakles and went by land and proved himself.
In Epidaurus he came across Periphetes, who used a club as his
weapon, and after killing him he adopted it as a weapon, and always used it, just
as Herakles used his lion’s skin. As he approached isthmus he destroyed Sinis who had a daughter, a tall and beautiful girl, named Perigoune. When
her father fell she ran and hid herself. Theseus sought her everywhere,
but she fled into a place where wild asparagus grew thick, and with a
simple child-like faith besought the plants to conceal her, as if they
could understand her words, promising that if they did so she never
would destroy or burn them. However, when Theseus called to her,
pledging himself to take care of her and do her no hurt, she came out,
and afterwards bore Theseus a son, named Melanippus.
Another exploit concerns killing the wild sow of Krommyon, whom they called Phaia, was no ordinary beast. In fact some say that Phaia was a murderous and licentious woman and was called a sow from her life and habits. Whatever the truth may be she was slain by Theseus.
As he proceeded on his way, and reached the river Kephisus, men of
the Phytalid race were the first to meet and greet him. He demanded to
be purified from the guilt of bloodshed, and they purified him, made
propitiatory offerings, and also entertained him in their houses, being
the first persons from whom he had received any kindness on his journey.
It is said to have been on the eighth day of the month Kronion, that he came to his own city. On entering it he found public affairs disturbed by factions, and the house of Aegeus in
great disorder; for Medea, who had been banished from Corinth, was
living with Aegeus, and had engaged by her drugs to enable Aegeus to
have children. She was the first to discover who Theseus was, while
Aegeus, who was an old man, and feared every one because of the
disturbed state of society, did not recognise him. Consequently she
advised Aegeus to invite him to a feast, that she might poison him.
Theseus accordingly came to Aegeus’s table. He did not wish to be the
first to tell his name, but, to give his father an opportunity of
recognising him, he drew his sword, as if he meant to cut some of the
meat with it, and showed it to Aegeus. Aegeus at once recognised it,
overset the cup of poison, looked closely at his son and embraced him.
He then called a public meeting and made Theseus known as his son to the
citizens, with whom he was already very popular because of his bravery.
But the sons of Pallas, who had previously to this expected that
they would inherit the kingdom on the death of Aegeus without issue, now
that Theseus was declared the heir, were much enraged.
They consequently declared war. Dividing themselves into two bodies, the one proceeded to the city from Sphettus, under the command of Pallas their father, while the other lay in ambush at Gargettus. Leos, of the township of Agnus, betrayed the plans of the sons of Pallas to Theseus who first took on the party at Gargettus and hearing their rout Pallas fled.
Now Theseus, who wished for employment and also to make himself
popular with the people, went to attack the bull of Marathon, who had
caused no little trouble to the inhabitants of Tetrapolis. He overcame
the beast, and drove it alive through the city for all men to see, and
then sacrificed it to Apollo of Delphi.
Shortly after this the ship from Crete arrived for the third time
to collect the customary tribute. Most writers agree that the origin of
this was, that on the death of Androgeus, in Attica, which was ascribed
to treachery, his father Minos went to war, and wrought much evil to the
country. It coincided with many calamities that visited upon the countryside
So that as the oracle told the Athenians that, if they propitiated Minos and came to terms with him, the anger of Heaven would cease, they sent an embassy to Minos and prevailed on him to make peace, on the condition that every nine years they should send him
a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens. The most tragic of the
legends states these poor children when they reached Crete were thrown
into the Labyrinth, and there either were devoured by the Minotaur or
else perished with hunger, being unable to find the way out. The
Minotaur, as Euripides tells us, was
“A form commingled, and a monstrous birth,
Half man, half bull, in twofold shape combined.”
(Note:Philochorus says that the Cretans do not recognise this story.)
So when the time of the third payment of the tribute arrived those fathers who had sons not yet grown up and had drawn lots began to revile Aegeus, complaining that he, although
the author of this calamity, yet took no share in their affliction.
This vexed Theseus, and offered himself without being drawn by lot. Another version says that Minos himself came thither and chose them, and that he picked out Theseus first of all, upon the usual conditions, which were that the Athenians should furnish a ship, and that the youths should
embark in it and sail with him, not carrying with them any weapon of war; and that when the Minotaur was slain, the tribute should cease.
Formerly, no one had any hope of safety; so they used to send out the
ship with a black sail, as if it were going to a certain doom; but now
Theseus so encouraged his father, and boasted that he would overcome the
Minotaur, that he gave a second sail, a white one, to the steersman, and
charged him on his return, if Theseus were safe, to hoist the white one,
if not, the black one as a sign of mourning.
But Simonides says that it
when the lots were drawn Theseus brought the chosen youths from
the Prytaneum, and when they reached Crete, according to most historians and poets,
Ariadne fell in love with him, and from her he received the clue of
string, and was taught how to thread the mazes of the Labyrinth. He slew
the Minotaur, and, taking with him Ariadne and the youths, sailed away.
Theseus had taken precaution to scuttle the Cretan ships, to prevent pursuit. There are many more stories about these events, and about Ariadne, none of which agree in any particulars. Some say that she hanged herself when deserted by Theseus, and some, that she was taken to Naxos by his sailors, and there dwelt with Oenarus, the priest of Dionysus.
The pleasantest of these legends are borne out some one’s fancy and have excited so many each a gem in its own right.
Theseus, when he sailed away from Crete, touched at Delos; here he
sacrificed to the god and offered up the statue of Aphrodite, which
Ariadne had given him; and besides this, he and the youths with him
danced a measure which imitated the many turnings and windings of
the Labyrinth. It became a tradition and the dance is called “the crane dance,”
according to Dikaearchus. It was danced round the altar of the Horns,
which is all formed of horns from the left side.
It is said that he instituted games at Delos, and that then for the first time a palm was
given by him to the victor.
As he approached Attica, both he and his steersman in their
delight forgot to hoist the sail which was to be a signal of their
safety to Aegeus; and he in his despair flung himself down the cliffs
Theseus, after burying his father, paid his vow to Apollo, on the
seventh day of the month Pyanepsion; for on this day it was that the
rescued youths went up into the city. The boiling of pulse, which is
customary on this anniversary, is said to be done because the rescued
youths put what remained of their pulse together into one pot, boiled it
all, and merrily feasted on it together.
Now the thirty-oared ship, in which Theseus sailed with the
youths, and came back safe, was kept by the Athenians up to the time of
Demetrius Phalereus. They constantly removed the decayed part of her
timbers, and renewed them with sound wood, so that the ship became an
illustration to philosophers of the doctrine of growth and change.
The feast of the Oschophoria, or of carrying boughs,
which to this day the Athenians celebrate, was instituted by Theseus.
For he did not take with him all the maidens who were drawn by lot, but
he chose two youths, his intimate friends, who were feminine and fair to
look upon, but of manly spirit; these by warm baths and avoiding the heat of the sun and careful tending of their hair and skin he
completely metamorphosed, teaching them to imitate the voice and
carriage and walk of maidens. These two were then substituted in the
place of two of the girls, and deceived every one; and when they
returned, he and these two youths walked in procession, dressed as now
those who carry boughs at the Oschophoria are dressed. They carry them
in honour of Dionysus and Ariadne, because of the legend, or rather
because they returned home when the harvest was being gathered in.
After the death of Aegeus, Theseus conceived a great and important
design. He gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica and made them
citizens of one city, whereas before they had lived dispersed, so as to
be hard to assemble together for the common weal, and at times even
fighting with one another.
He visited all the villages and tribes, and won their consent; the poor
and lower classes gladly accepting his proposals, while he gained over
the more powerful by promising that the new constitution should not
include a king, but that it should be a pure commonwealth, with himself
merely acting as general of its army and guardian of its laws, while in
other respects it would allow perfect freedom and equality to every one.
He therefore destroyed the prytaneia, the senate house, and
the magistracy of each individual township, built one common prytaneum
and senate house for them all on the site of the present acropolis,
called the city Athens, and instituted the Panathenaic festival common
to all of them. And having, according to his promise, laid down his sovereign power, he arranged the new constitution under the auspices of the gods; for he
made inquiry at Delphi as to how he should deal with the city, and
received the following answer:
“Thou son of Aegeus and of Pittheus’ maid,
My father hath within thy city laid
The bounds of many cities; weigh not down
Thy soul with thought; the bladder cannot drown.”
The same thing they say was afterwards prophesied by the Sibyl
concerning the city, in these words:
“The bladder may be dipped, but cannot drown.”
Wishing still further to increase the number of his citizens, he
invited all strangers to come and share equal privileges, and they say
that the words now used, “Come hither all ye peoples,” was the
proclamation then used by Theseus, establishing as it were a
commonwealth of all nations. But he did not permit his state to fall
into the disorder which this influx of all kinds of people would
probably have produced, but divided the people into three classes, of
Eupatridae or nobles, Geomori or farmers, Demiurgi or artisans. To the
Eupatridae he assigned the care of religious rites, the supply of
magistrates for the city, and the interpretation of the laws and customs
sacred or profane, yet he placed them on an equality with the other
citizens, thinking that the nobles would always excel in dignity, the
farmers in usefulness, and the artisans in numbers. Aristotle tells us
that he was the first who inclined to democracy.
(To be continued)
Read Full Post »