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The birth of the legend: Theseus the King of Athens

 

Theseus was the son of beautiful Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, King of Troezen, and of Aegeas, King of Athens. 

Their story, like those of many other Kings and Queens, could never escape what fate had already dictated for their life and death. Aegeas had already married twice, but had not yet acquired an heir to the throne. One day Aegeas decided to travel to the Oracle of Delphi to consult the priestess of the temple of Apollo. Pythia offered Aegeas the following prophecy: “Aegeas, be careful! Don’t open the wineskin before you return to Athens”. The king did not understand the meaning of the prophecy. He pleaded with the oracle to explain further, but she remained silent.

 

On his way back, Aegeas remembered that the King of Troezen, Pittheus, a wise and experienced man, might be able to help him. Aegeas went to Pittheus and narrated what the oracle had told him. Pittheus pretended that he could not understand the importance of the prophecy, but in reality, he already had a plan in mind. Pittheus had a daughter at a marrying age whose name was Aethra and he saw an opportunity to marry his daughter to the powerful man of Athens. At the feast he organized in honor of his guest, the wine flowed generously and, in accordance with the orders of the King of Troezen, Aegeas’ glass was never empty. It did not take long for Aegeas to get drunk, and as his host had planned, the Athenian King slept with the beautiful Aethra. That night Aethra conceived Theseus.

The conception of Theseus occurred on the small island of Sphairia which can be easily approached on foot by stepping on a series of reefs. After the holly wedding of Aethra, the small island was renamed Holy. An alternative version of the myth indicates that the father of Theseus was Poseidon. The story narrates that as Aethra waded over the reefs in order to meet Aegeas, she received the sea embrace of the god and conceived the hero before lying down with her mortal husband. According to another tale, Aethra was driven to Sphairia after a dream sent to her by goddess Athena in order to offer a sacrifice to the spirit of Pelops’ dead charioteer whose name was Sphairos or Myrtilus. The tomb of Sphairos was located on the island of Sphairia. Both the sphere and the myrtus (common name: myrtle) symbolized the matrimonial union.
 

In the myths surrounding the birth of Theseus, two gods play a primary role: Poseidon and Athena. These two gods were inextricably linked with the city of Athens. After a series of chthonic kings, the idea of the coming of a king born out of the sea with the consent of protector goddess Athena strikes as highly appropriate. Even his mortal parents were a reflection of the two gods on an earthly level. The name Aegeas reveals a nature associated to the sea. It seems that the Athenian King was a reflection of god Poseidon in the mortal world. Likewise, Aethra, whose name means celestial light, was a priestess of goddess Athena.


When the time came for Aegeas to return to Athens the baby was not born yet. However, before departing from Troezen, Aegeas decided to leave behind two of his most treasured possessions: his valuable sword featuring an ivory grip, and his favorite golden sandals.

 

Silver tetradrachm from Troezen. Theseus moves the rock. Bronze coin.

 

“I want to leave here, in the city where my successor will be born, these favorite things of mine. I will dig a pit under a rock to hide them. They should remain there until the day my son becomes a man. It is only then that he should learn who his father is and you will allow him to come and find me in Athens. When I see him wearing my sandals and holding my favorite sword, I will recognize him and receive him with honors suited to a future king.”

These were the instructions that Aegeas gave Pittheus…Despite the prophecy by Pythia, Theseus was born in Troezen and raised as a prince in his grandfather’s court. 

 



 




Theseus spent his childhood well protected in his grandfather’s palace. He was a child that could not wait to grow up and throw himself into adventures. 

Once, Hercules passed through Troezen and King Pittheus offered his hospitality. When they sat down to eat, Hercules took out his lion skin and deposited it on the floor. Upon seeing the lion skin, a group of children mistook it for a live lion and ran away. Theseus was 7 years old at the time. Thinking that this was a real lion, he grabbed an axe and lunged to kill it. Since then, Theseus and Hercules’ paths would cross many times over in the future. The difference between Hercules and Theseus is that Theseus fights humans and not monsters. 

When Theseus grew up, he visited the temple of Apollo at Delphi where, according to custom, he cut off his boyish curls and offered them to the god. When he came home from his journey, Aethra showed him the stone. Theseus lifted it, retrieved his father’s gifts (tokens) and set out for Athens. He did not want to go to Athens by boat. He preferred the overland route which was full of dangers. He overcame all the dangers that he encountered by defeating a lot of criminals, bandits and wild animals that had been terrorizing and killing people for many years. Subsequently, travelers could move around freely and safely.

 

Purification

 

The duty of purification was undertaken by men who were descendants of the Phytalidae. They greeted the hero in the place where the Sacred Way crossed the river Kephisos (Cephissus). The Phytalidae offered propitiatory sacrifices to Zeus Meilichios, also known as Zeus of the Underworld, a fact that signals the conclusion of the hero’s first encounter with the chthonic element. After the purification, the young Theseus was ready to enter the city of Athens and claim his place as the crown prince, bearing on him as insignia the sandals and the bloodstained patrimonial sword with the blood of powerful opponents on it. He had successfully passed his first initiation test and had become worthy of recognition. Nevertheless, he arrived in Athens a foreigner. 

At that time, Aegeas’ companion was Medea, the witch of Colchis. The true identity of the foreigner was clear to Medea who had supernatural power; she was the granddaughter of the sun god Helios after all. Fearing that the newly arrived - but firstborn - son would succeed Aegeas to the throne, thus excluding her own son from the royal privileges, Medea convinced Aegeas to murder the foreigner by offering him a cup of poisoned wine during a sacrificial dinner. 
 

As Aegeas was handing him the drink, Theseus drew his sword supposedly to cut the meat. Suddenly, Aegeas recognized the sword, his eyes lit up, and he pushed away the cup of poisoned wine. Medea, then, according to the legend, disappeared along with her son in a dense cloud; a fitting exit for such a godlike woman! However, this would not be the only encounter the hero had with a granddaughter of the sun god Helios. The only difference being that while Medea threatened his life, the second granddaughter, Ariadne, would do anything to save it!

 


 

Theseus quickly became widely accepted by the people as the Athenian royal offspring and successor, but individuals trying to usurp the throne did not cease to exist. 

The new enemy revealed himself in the face of Pallas and his 50 sons, called Pallantides. Theseus was notified by the Pallantides’ herald Leos of an ambush that the Pallantides had staged to kill him. Theseus managed to ambush them first and kill most of them. The rest retreated and scattered. Theseus defeated the Pallantides and annexed their territories. Soon, he subjugated all Attic communities that resisted. 

 


 

With the help of Leos, Theseus secured his dominion over Attica. Having rid himself of all domestic enemies that plotted against his life and conspired to take over his power, Theseus set off to confront a beast that ravaged the Marathon area (7th Labor). The beast was a bull, and according to one version of the story, it was the very same bull that emerged from the sea in the land of Crete (sent by god Poseidon) and stirred up an unnatural lust in the heart of Queen Pasiphaë. The bull was brought to Marathon by Hercules on King Minos’ orders. This mission of Theseus seems like preparatory work for his confrontation with the Minotaur (the offspring born out of the union of Pasiphaë and the bull). Theseus subdued the bull with incredible skill, matched by that demonstrated by young Cretans during the ritual of bull-leaping (taurokathapsia). He then transported the bull alive to Athens where he sacrificed it on the altar of Delphic (Delphinius) Apollo. This event ushers in an era where the bull as an animal will play a catalytic role in the life of the hero; a presence that will not only accompany Theseus, but the divine princesses of Crete as well, as part of a tragic parallel course. It is said that the first coins that Theseus issued as King of Athens featured a bull’s head on one side. The relationship established between the hero and the deified animal was going to be very close. 

 

In addition, Plutarch mentions that Theseus issued coins featuring a depiction of a bull, a statement corroborated by Philochorus.  

 

The weight of the coin does not exceed 7 grams and its diameter is under 1 cm. It dates back to the 6th century BC and it features the head of a bull on the front face. The coin is made of amber. 

 

 

Honoring the memory of the hero and Theseion 

In recorded history, the first man to remind the Athenians of their debt to the hero was Peisistratos / Pisistratus. In 475 BC, when Cimon marched on Skyros and seized the island, he began searching the entire island for the tomb of Theseus. He was in despair when suddenly he saw an eagle landing on a hill, digging it with its talons and pecking at it with its beak. Cimon considered it a divine sign and he dug the spot up. There, he discovered a big old Sarcophagus and close to it a spearhead and a sword. He believed they belonged to Theseus and he transported them to Athens onboard his trireme (an ancient vessel). The Athenians received him with glorious celebrations and laid the remains reverently at “Theseion”, a shrine (heroon) they built for this purpose in “the middle of the city” (according to Plutarch) near the altar of the 12 gods. Moreover, they designated the 8th Pyanepsion as a day for offering the ultimate sacrifice because it was the anniversary of his return from Crete and the eighth day of every month to honor his memory (especially the 8th Hecatombaeon, which was the day the hero first arrived in Athens from Troezen). 

 

The name “Athenae” which is still being used today was given to the city by Theseus. This is why in English the name is ATHENS and not ATHEN. Athens was founded when Theseus united the many settlements in the Attica region into one city-state; yet there is no statue of Theseus in the city of Athens.
The Temple of Hephaestus was dedicated to god Hephaestus and not to Theseus as most Athenians believe today. This is a common misconception among modern Athenians, perhaps because of a depiction of the battle between Theseus and the Lapiths against the Centaurs that exists on the pediment of the temple (or according to others a depiction of the battle of Theseus against the Pallantides). Construction of the Temple had already begun in 450 BC, before the Parthenon. The north and south metopes depict scenes from Theseus’ adventures (Crommyonian Sow, Sciron, Cercyon, Periphetes, Procrustes, Sinis, Marathonian Bull, Minotaur). The east side which is visible from the Ancient Agora features a sculptural relief decoration depicting the feats of Hercules. It is one of the most well-preserved monuments. The work was completed in 416 BC, so the temple is a 5th century monument. It belongs to the generation of the Marathon warriors and of Cimon and not to the Periclean building program. Work on the temple of Hephaestus lasted a long time because the Periclean building program placed priority on the Parthenon (from 447 BC onwards) and on the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion (from 444 BC onwards). 

 

The temple is attributed to the architect Ictinus, as is the Telesterion at Eleusis which was the main temple of goddess Demeter and where the Eleusinian Mysteries took place. 

 

Based on designs by Ictinus, the Parthenon was built in a very short time (447 – 438 BC). Construction began in 447 BC and finished in 438 BC. The sculptural decoration was completed 6 years later by Phidias and his pupils, Alcamenes and Agoracritus. It is the biggest temple of Doric Order, since the bigger temples of Selinunte and Akragas remained unfinished. 

 

It is speculated that the conversion of the ancient temple into a Christian church occurred in the 7th century AD. In 1690, the Temple officially started being referenced to as a Christian church up until 1834. It was dedicated to Saint George and it carried the distinctive sobriquet “St George Akamates”. The last church service conducted in St. George Akamates was on February 2 1833 during the celebrations for the arrival of Otto (Othon) in Greece, in the presence of Athenians and of many others. When Athens was declared the capital of Greece, the announcement of the royal ordinance was made in this temple. This was the last time that Athenians would flock to publicly attend an event in the temple. 

 

Heroes are not mere mortals, but superior beings living between the nature of humans and that of gods. The justice of Zeus endows these beings with a superior lot. Heroes live on the boundaries of the Eternal and of Historical Linearity. 

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