Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 3 Chapter 2 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 3, Chapter 2 : Theseus | Summary

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Summary

Theseus's father, Aegeus, is an Athenian king who leaves Theseus and his mother in her home in southern Greece. Before Aegeus leaves, he places a sword and a pair of shoes in a hollow under a heavy rock. When Theseus is able to move the rock and claim the items beneath, he is strong enough to come to Athens and claim his father. Theseus travels to Athens by land, believing the sea route is too easy. He encounters bandits on the journey and kills them all, dispatching each bandit using the same method the bandit used to kill his own victims.

For ridding the land of bandits, Theseus receives a hero's welcome in Athens and is invited to dine with the king. Aegeus does not yet know Theseus is his son and plans to poison him at dinner—an idea planted by Medea, who has gained influence over Aegeus after leaving Jason. She does not want her influence threatened by Aegeus's son. When Theseus draws his sword, Aegeus recognizes it and dashes the poisoned cup to the ground. Aegeus announces Theseus as his son and heir, and Medea flees to Asia.

Athens lives under constant threat from King Minos of Crete, who has promised to raze the city every nine years unless Athens sends seven young men and seven young women to Crete each year as a sacrifice to his Minotaur. The Minotaur is the product of Poseidon's revenge on Minos for refusing to sacrifice a bull to him. Poseidon inspires Minos's wife, Pasiphaë, to fall in love with the bull, and the Minotaur is the result—a creature that is half man and half bull. Minos keeps the Minotaur in a Labyrinth on Crete.

Theseus offers to go to Crete as one of the sacrifices, promising his father he will end the sacrifices, kill the Minotaur, and return to Athens under a white sail. When Theseus arrives, Minos's daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus at first sight and asks the Labyrinth's builder, Daedalus, to help her provide Theseus with a means of escape. Theseus attaches a thread inside the Labyrinth's door and unwinds the ball as he moves through the maze. He finds the Minotaur and kills it with his bare hands, then leads the young people to be sacrificed out of the Labyrinth by following the thread.

On the return trip to Athens, Ariadne either dies or Theseus abandons her, depending on the version of the story. Theseus also forgets to raise the white sail, which leads his father Aegeus to believe he has died, so Aegeus flings himself into the sea in despair. Theseus becomes king of Athens and introduces a democratic government. His wisdom earns high regard around the world. He assists the nations at war with Thebes when Thebes will not allow them to bury their dead. He gives the outcast King Oedipus sanctuary when he is exiled, and he comforts Hercules after he kills his wife and children in a fit of madness.

Theseus also embraces adventure. He goes to the country of the Amazons and has a son, Hippolytus, with their queen, known as Antiope or Hippolyta. He sails with the Argonauts on the Quest of the Golden Fleece. He participates in the Great Calydonian Hunt, an effort to kill a boar "laying waste" to the country of Calydon and saves the life of a fellow hunter named Pirithoüs, establishing a lifelong friendship.

At Pirithoüs's wedding feast, Theseus helps defeat a horde of Centaurs who invade the party and try to kidnap the bride. Later, he goes with Pirithoüs to the underworld when Pirithoüs takes a mind to kidnap Persephone. The two end up on the Chair of Forgetfulness, but Hercules later rescues Theseus while Pirithoüs remains behind.

When Theseus marries Ariadne's sister Phaedra, she falls in love with Hippolytus, who takes no notice of his father's new wife, even when she threatens suicide. Phaedra tells Theseus that Hippolytus "laid violent hands" on her in her suicide note. Theseus banishes his son, who is mortally wounded by a sea monster and carried back to Theseus's palace. Artemis tells Theseus the truth, so father and son make amends before Hippolytus dies. Theseus dies years later at the hands of his friend King Lycomedes, and the Athenians honor him above all other mortals.

Analysis

Edith Hamilton refers to Theseus as "the great Athenian hero." His story includes elements of the heroic journey as presented by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but Theseus engages in multiple adventures during his lifetime, which changes the course of the cycle for him. Still, like most heroes, he is born to greatness as the son of the respected king of Greece's most powerful city. Destiny is an important part of the hero's beginnings, and Theseus claims his birthright by overcoming his first heroic obstacle: the stone placed over the items his father leaves behind for him. Theseus's moving the stone to claim the sword underneath may have influenced the Anglo-Saxon legend of King Arthur that emerged in England centuries later. Arthur proves he is destined to become king by pulling a sword out of a stone. Theseus then overcomes obstacles to travel to Athens, and when he commits to killing the Minotaur, he overcomes the obstacles of a sea voyage and the Labyrinth—assisted by the love of a woman. He returns home to cope with the loss of his father. He ultimately transforms Athens by introducing the concept of democracy to the city's people (and to the world).

Athens honors Theseus over other heroes because he embodies the ideals held most dear in Athenian culture. He wields intelligence and reason as readily as muscle or weapons. He certainly has the muscle and the weapons, and he clearly enjoys adventure. He chooses to travel to Athens by land because the route will allow him more opportunities to test his strength and distinguish himself as a prince and hero. Later in life, Theseus's thirst for adventure leads him to assist his friend in a doomed attempt to kidnap Persephone from Hades. Yet, this episode also reveals Theseus's exceptional loyalty to his friends. A man as intelligent as Theseus must know the journey to Hades is a fool's errand, which is likely why he does not want his friend to go alone. Theseus also risks his reputation by showing friendship to Hercules and Oedipus when they are shamed and exiled, but loyalty transcends the social awkwardness. Theseus's intelligence allows him to see Hercules and Oedipus as victims of exceptionally bad fortune, not inherently bad people.

Like his predecessor Perseus, Theseus's heroics are driven by a desire to serve others, but he takes this concept a step further than Perseus. Perseus served individuals; Theseus serves society as a whole. His first act of heroism—ridding the countryside of bandits—substantially improves the lives of the citizens in and around Athens. He volunteers to fight the Minotaur to end the series of human sacrifices Athens must send to Crete. His reward upon return to Athens is for the people, not himself, as he elects to allow the citizens to govern themselves. Historically, Athens is recognized as the birthplace of democracy, and the ancient Athenians were proud of their enlightened system of self-governance. It stands to reason they would give credit to their most honored hero for creating this system. His reputation is based on kindness to the downtrodden, fairness in resolving conflict, and commitment to justice rather than might or wealth. These are the traits Athenians value in their heroes and in themselves.

Still, Theseus is not a flawless hero. For example, his forgetfulness costs his father Aegeus his life, even though Theseus could not have known his father would despair at the loss of his son to the point of suicide. While Theseus's exceptional qualities are evident in the women he woos and wins throughout his life, they also bring him trouble. Ariadne is a princess of a powerful nation, and she falls in love with Theseus at first sight, which indicates Theseus is physically attractive in addition to his other positive qualities. Even so, though the stories vary in terms of her fate, he is either unable to save her life or he consciously abandons her on the trip back to Athens—so, at best, his knowledge and wisdom have limits, and at worst, he is a scoundrel. Theseus later has a child with an Amazon queen, the ruler of a race of women whose distinguishing characteristics are their prowess in battle and their dismissal of the company of men. Theseus's ability to win her heart speaks to his own exceptional traits as a hero, but it also starts a war in the country around Athens. Finally, Theseus is disturbingly shortsighted in his devotion to his last wife, Phaedra, accepting her words against his son without question or hesitation, an unusual choice for a man renowned for his love of truth and sense of justice.

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