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The Labors

 

 

 Theseus was the founding hero of Athens. As opposed to Hercules who was the Dorian hero, Theseus was the Ionian hero. The 12 Labors of Theseus are equal in number to those of Hercules; a fact that carries some political connotations as the Athenians did not want to appear inferior to the Dorians. Obviously, the Labors also have politico-military interpretations. After all the trials and considerable difficulties, Theseus eventually reached Athens and met his father. His stature and popularity of accomplishments grew so great that acquired mythical attributes.

 

 

 

 

 

Labor 1    

Periphetes

The journey from Troezen to Athens could be traveled by sea or land. Aethra and Pittheus tried in vain to convince Theseus to take the safe sea route. Aware of the dangers, Theseus considered it shameful to take the easy way. He was being given a fine opportunity to prove his valor. 

In those days, the road that connected the Peloponnese to Attica was frequented by many criminals who robbed and killed unsuspecting travelers. Hercules could not guarantee the safety of travelers because he was being held captive at Lydia where he ended up as a result of one of his many adventures. Without the presence of this brave punisher, the criminals in the area had regained their old territories and orchestrated their attacks undisturbed. Hence, on his way to Athens, Theseus faced numerous difficulties and obstacles. 

Theseus met the first opponent in his path in Epidaurus. His name was Periphetes, son of Hephaestus (God of fire and metalworking), and he was known to many by his nickname the “man with the club”. When Periphetes was just a little boy, his father gave him an iron club as a present. When he grew up, instead of using it to protect the weak, Periphetes turned it into a weapon and robbed travelers. He would hide in the bushes at the side of the road and as soon as he saw a lone traveler, he would jump out of his hiding spot and remove all valuable possessions by force. Then, he would beat his victim to death. Theseus came face to face with the bandit and managed to kill him using the criminal’s own weapon, the huge iron club. 

This almost godlike adversary was also called Corynetes because he used the steel club (= κορύνα in Greek) gifted by his father. According to Kerényi, the name Periphetes (meaning “renowned”) was attributed to the lord of the Underworld. Indeed, all the dangers that Theseus faced essentially personify the hero’s constant battle against the chthonic element and offer a sense of the hero’s initiatory experience. By killing Periphetes, Theseus emerged triumphant from his first fight with the chthonic powers. Emulating Hercules, who had taken with him the skin of the Lion of Nemea, Theseus also took the iron club with him when he left. On a symbolic level, Theseus absorbed the power of the club and continued on his way more powerful than before. 



Labor 2 

Phaea

While still on Corinthian soil and more specifically around an area called Crommyon, Theseus confronted a tremendous beast: the Crommyonian Sow whose name was Phaea, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. As its name suggests, it was a being of the Underworld (female pigs were slaughtered in honor of Demeter and her daughter at Eleusinian mysteries). Its origin points more to a chthonic evil power than a common animal. Phaea was the mother of the Calydonian and the Erymanthian Boar.

 

Labor 3   

Sinis the torturer

Theseus’ next stop was the Isthmus of Corinth. There, he vanquished Sinis the Pityocamptes (which in Greek means Sinis the one who bends Pine trees), son of Poseidon or Polypemon (probably one more name for Hades). Sinis owed his name to his habit of killing travelers by tying them on two neighboring pine trees which he had first bent. Then he let the trees loose to return to their initial position and, as a result, the bodies of the travelers were torn apart. Theseus gave him a taste of his own medicine as well. 

 

Labor 4 

Procrustes

Prior to his arrival in Athens, at an area called Erineus, Theseus met Damastes. Damastes had the nickname “Procrustes” meaning the stretcher, which revealed the way he tortured his victims. Procrustes had two beds, one long and one short. He forced the travelers to lie down on one bed and then he tried to make the body of the person fit the bed. If the unlucky man was tall, Procrustes would chop off his limbs. If the man was short, he would tie weights to the victim’s limbs and pull them hard in order to stretch them. In the end, he finished off the victims using a hammer. As he had done with all the other murderers, Theseus decided to kill Procrustes in the same way that Procrustes had killed so many innocent people. 

 

labor 5  Ο Θησέας σκοτώνει τον Σκίρωνα στις Σκιρωνίδες Πέτρες, Κύλιξ 450 π.Χ.          

Sciron

His next stop – and perhaps the most dangerous one – was the “Sceironian Rocks”, a cliff located on a coast that today is called Kakia Skala, close to the town of Megara. There, the road consisted of an extremely narrow path, constructed in such a way so as to accommodate only one traveler at a time. The mountains were ruled by a notorious bandit named Sciron who was the son of Corinthus and the grandson of Pelops. Sciron forced the travelers passing through the Sceironian Rocks to wash his feet. Before they could finish washing his feet, he kicked them over the cliff. The travelers landed onto the beach below which was taken over by a huge flesh – eating turtle, devouring in maniacal frenzy the people that were pushed off the cliff by Sciron. Theseus immediately understood that this man was dangerous. He knelt in front of him and as Sciron was ready to kick him, the fearless youth avoided the kick in one quick motion, grabbed the metal washbowl in front of him and hit Sciron over the head with it. Dizzy as Sciron was, he lost his balance and fell into the sea where the enormous turtle devoured him. Theseus then went down to the beach and killed the turtle as well. He turned its turtle shell into a shield.

Ο Θησέας σκοτώνει τον Σκίρωνα στις Σκιρωνίδες Πέτρες, Κύλιξ 450 π.Χ.
 
 
 
Theseus kills Sciron at the Sceironian Rocks (Kylix, 450 BC)

 

                                                                                                                    

Labor 6       

Cercyon

Theseus fights Cercyon (Kylix painted by Aison, 5th century BC)

 

 

At holy Eleusis, Theseus met one more chthonic evil being, Cercyon. The name Cercyon means “he who has a tail” so perhaps Cercyon was a creature similar to Cecrops who was half-man, half-snake. Cercyon challenged passers-by to a wrestling match and locked them in a deadly embrace causing death by chocking. Cercyon was defeated by the young Theseus and according to one legend this was done in the presence of goddess Demeter. Despite Cercyon’s exceptional skills in wrestling, Theseus managed to ward off the blows. He lifted the well-built man up in the air in his strong arms, threw him with force back on the ground and killed him.


Labor 7

The Marathonian Bull

Theseus spent his youth in Athens where he had ample opportunities to prove his great courage and bravery. Two of his legendary achievements involved two bulls. The first bull was at large in the Marathon area. It was the same bull that some years ago Hercules had brought from Crete to Athens after having completed one of his famous feats. The honored hero had entrusted the animal to Eurystheus who did not even set eyes on the creature. Then, Hercules, deeply disappointed by the ingratitude of the king, broke the chains and released it to run free outside the walls of Mycenae. However, this was not a very good idea as the bull was wild and flames came out of his nose. He destroyed crops and killed any unfortunate farmer that crossed its path. Theseus did not cower at the horrendous sight of the beast. 

 




He grabbed the bull by the horns, and put his toes in the animal’s nose to avoid getting burnt by the flames. He then forced the bull to kneel on its front legs. When the animal calmed down, he tied it using a thick rope, and led it to Athens dragging it by its neck. There, he offered it as a sacrifice to god Apollo. The citizens of the city were overcome with joy when they heard the news about the bull being captured. They had two reasons to be so overjoyed. First, they were free to walk around their fields without fear of being attacked by the crazed bull. Secondly, they had exacted their revenge over the creature which had caused such heartache to their city. Besides the obvious reasons, we have to mention here and explain why the bull had caused the city of Athens so much devastation. It all started when Aegeas ordered Androgeus, one of the sons of King Minos of Crete, to face the bull. Androgeus was brave and strong and obeyed Aegeas’ orders. But he was still too young and inexperienced in battle. Consequently, when he faced the beast, he did not have enough time to defend himself and he was killed by the animal’s pointed horns. When Minos learned of his son’s death, he blamed Aegeas for sending a young child to fight an enormous beast. 

“Curse You, Aegeas” the grieving king shouted. “I will wage war against your city and I will not stop until I destroy it to the ground”. The siege of Athens lasted for a long time and its inhabitants were dying a slow and agonizing death brought on by famine and disease.  Eventually, the king of Athens was forced to surrender and give the king of Crete whatever he wanted. In this way, the Athenians were forced to pay a horrible tax every nine years: they had to ship off to Crete seven adolescent boys and seven young maidens who were to become Minotaur’s food. The Minotaur was a man – eating monster that Minos kept imprisoned in the labyrinth of Knossos. 

Labor 8
The Minotaur

Theseus kills the Minotaur, 1843, bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis B

                                                                                                                                                                             

A couple of years before the arrival of Theseus in Athens, the Athenians were celebrating and organizing games to honor the goddess Athena. The son of King Minos of Crete took part in the games and he won in all the contests, so Aegeas ordered him to fight the Marathonian bull. He was killed by the bull and King Minos arrived with many ships and laid siege to Athens in retaliation. He defeated the Athenians and forced them to pay a tax. Every year they had to send him seven male youths and seven female youths to be eaten by the Minotaur. 

The Minotaur was a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The beast was the son of Pasiphae, wife of Minos, and a bull which Poseidon (God of the Sea) had pulled out from the sea and had given to the King of Crete as a gift. The Minotaur, who was born out of an unnatural union, had the head of a bull but the body of a man. Minos was deeply ashamed of the birth of this monster and decided to imprison it in a place from which it could never escape. It lived jailed in a labyrinth, which was created by the Athenian Daedalus, in the basement of the palace of Minos. The labyrinth had so many paths and so many rooms that nobody had ever managed to come out. 

When Theseus arrived in Athens, it was the third time the Athenians had to send their children to Crete. Laments and cries were heard all over Athens. The whole city in tears bid them farewell at the port of Faliro when Theseus decided to accompany the youths to Crete in order to kill the Minotaur. They hoisted black sails and King Aegeas requested that they change the sails to white ones if they returned alive.

The ship reached Crete. There, Theseus met Minos’ daughter Ariadne. Dazzled by his handsomeness, Ariadne decided to help Theseus. She gave him a spool of thread and advised him to tie the end of the thread at the entrance of the labyrinth and unravel it as he moved forward. Theseus entered the labyrinth courageously and began searching for the Minotaur while unraveling the thread at the same time. At some point, he heard the vicious roar of the Minotaur. When they met, they fought hard. Theseus killed the beast with his sword and exited the labyrinth by winding the thread. At the entrance, the Athenian youths greeted him with tears of joy and relief. 

Theseus and his men boarded the ship and set sail for Athens. As he had promised, Theseus took Ariadne with him to be his bride. It was already dusk when they began their voyage home, but they sailed on until nightfall. In those days, it was common practice during voyages to find a place to spend the night. The nearest island was Naxos, so they found a convenient bay there and moored the ship. They went out to the beach to sleep, ready to set sail again at dawn. During the night, Dionysus appeared in Theseus’ dream. “Ariadne is mine and only mine” the god told him. “I have loved her since the first moment I saw her and she is meant to be my wife. Accept this and leave her behind on this island. Otherwise, your companions are not going to set eye on the Attica coasts again”. 

According to the myth, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos to satisfy the will of god Dionysus who then transformed into a panther and abducted her. Much like the way Zeus transformed into a bull in order to abduct Europa.  









 

 

 

Theseus woke up frightened by the strange dream and pulled his sword ready to fight the man he had seen in front of him. Quickly realizing that there was no one around and that all this was a dream, he understood that he had to surrender to the god’s will. Thus, with a heavy heart and without the slightest sound, he woke up the men and they all boarded the ship and sailed for Athens. Ariadne continued her sleep on the beach as Dionysus wanted. When the girl woke up, Dionysus was at her side surrounded by his entire entourage. He confessed his love for her: “From the moment I saw you, I knew you were the only woman for me. Marry me and I will make you my goddess!” Ariadne accepted and he made her immortal. 

 





Theseus continued his journey to Athens and reached Delos. There, he dedicated a wooden statue of Aphrodite to Apollo. The statue had been given to Theseus by Ariadne. After Delos, Theseus began the final leg of this voyage. Either due to their great joy for the rescue of the Athenian children and the abolition of the horrendous tax or due to their sorrow for the loss of Ariadne, Theseus and his companions forgot to replace the mourning black sails of the ship with the white ones Aegeas had given them as a symbol of their safe return. The unfortunate king was gazing at the sea waiting for the Athenian ship to appear on the horizon. Upon noticing the black sails, he leaped to his death unable to stand the pain of his son’s supposed death. Some narrators state that he fell off the Acropolis rock, while others that he fell off Cape Sounion and into the sea thus explaining the name of the Aegean Sea. 

This “sacrifice” concludes the cycle of the Minoan naval domination and marks the beginning of the era of the flourishing Athenian shipping. On a cultural level, the focus shifted from Knossos to Athens. 

 

 

Theseus kills the Minotaur.

The fame of Theseus and of his remarkable achievements preceded the young prince’s arrival in Athens.

 

                          

Many say that Theseus was not the son of Aegeas, but of Poseidon. The myth goes that King Minos was on board the ship that was taking Theseus and the Athenian children to Crete. Apparently, King Minos wanted to collect the heavy tax in person. Also on board the ship was Periboea who was the beautiful daughter of the king of Megara. Blinded by her beauty, Minos tried to fondle her. Periboea got scared and asked Theseus for his help. Theseus angrily threatened Minos: “Stop King! Or you will get a taste of the power of my hands. You are the son of Zeus, but I am the son of Poseidon”. Minos, then, asked Zeus to hurl his thunderbolt. Immediately afterwards, Minos threw his ring in the sea and told Theseus: “If you are truly the son of Poseidon as you say, bring the ring back!” Like a lighting flash, Theseus dived into the sea. Dolphins surrounded him instantly and led him to the palace of Poseidon at the sea bottom. There, he saw the Nereids and among them the wife of Poseidon, Amphitrite. It was Amphitrite who gave Theseus the ring and also placed a red chiton on his shoulders and a gold wreath on his head. When Theseus emerged from the sea, he was not wet. 






 
 

 

THE HERO'S ARRIVAL IN ATHENS

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. 

Labor 9

The abduction of Helen and descent to Hades

The abduction of Helen
Ancient Greek vase

  

Theseus was already 50 years old when he abducted and married Helen, even though she was too young to marry. He got help from his close friend from Thessaly, Pirithous. Together the two formed a pair equivalent to that of Dioskouri. Once, the friends found themselves in Sparta, where Theseus saw Helen dancing at the temple of Orthia Artemis and desired to have her. The hero abducted Helen, took her to Afidnes, and left her there under the care of his mother Aethra. He departed once again together with Pirithous to follow new adventures. Helen’s first abduction was also the cause of a bloody war (Helen’s second abduction started the Trojan War). Her brothers traveled to Afidnes to claim her back and fought with the champions of Afidnes. Theseus was absent from the battles. Instead, he was on a reckless mission to the Underworld.  Dioskouri (Helen’s twin brothers) succeeded in getting her back. They took Aethra with them as well, who later on followed Helen to Troy.
 

The descent to Hades was again triggered by the wish to abduct a woman. This time the woman was Persephone, the lady of death and rebirth. Plutarch tries to cover up the inconceivable act by writing that Theseus and Perithous visited the king of the Molossians in Epirus with the intent to abduct his daughter who was named Kore (!) It is obvious that Plutarch tried either to rationalize the situation by attributing a human dimension to an unimaginable and out-of-this-world venture or to blunt the shock caused by a pursuit so pointless. Most narrations though explicitly state that the reckless journey Theseus and Perithous made was to abduct the bride of Hades and that the destination was the Underworld from the very beginning. They gained entry to the kingdom of the dead by using an entrance located at Cape Tainaron (or Cape Matapan). They found a way to fool the ferryman Charon and managed to cross to the other side of the river even though they were alive. In the palace of Hades, the Lord of the Dead himself welcomed them. The two heroes tried to mislead Hades concerning their true intentions, but he was an equally formidable opponent when it came to guile. He made them sit on two thrones carved in a rock, while he offered them hospitality gifts. The god’s almighty weapon was oblivion (lethe in Greek). Oblivion held the two men prisoners as if they were chained by invisible chains or as if they had turned to marble. This time Theseus did not have the help of a divine female to guide him back to light. Persephone did not make her presence felt and her silence and absence condemned Theseus and Perithous to lethe. 

 

Naturally, the two heroes were initiates of the mysteries, otherwise they would not have managed to travel to the Underworld and come so far. Perhaps though, the two men overestimated their abilities, as their attempt to travel to the kingdom of the dead and abduct their Queen is a display of arrogance. The motive of this mission was neither the salvation of a city nor the common good. It was just a whim. Having no divine support, Theseus was left trapped and condemned to oblivion. Persephone would remain out of the reach of the legendary abductor of women, just like Ariadne. Robert Graves accurately observes that this mission of Theseus and the descent to Hades constitute two parts of the same myth. The seven – circuit Cretan Labyrinth, the Celtic spiral castle of Arianrhod, Isis’ descent to the Underworld through seven gates and the Underworld of Hades/ Pluto and Persephone all comprise aspects of the same mythological tradition.

 

The hubris he had committed by invading the Underworld and intending to kidnap Persephone could not remain unpunished because it was his intent to upset the balance of the cosmos. He was eventually rescued by Hercules who descended to Hades to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the Underworld. Hercules went to Eleusis to be initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries and be able to enter the underworld alive. According to the myth, it was Theseus who had encouraged Hercules to go to Eleusis for the Mysteries. Hercules saved Theseus by freeing him from the rock. He could not do the same for Perithous. Theseus’ loyal friend had already been devoured by Cerberus. 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Theseus overestimated the ability of the Athenian people for self governance in an effort to allow himself more time to pursue other personal aims. Despaired by his inability to impose discipline even by force, he left for the island of Skyros. There, as Plutarch describes, he met his death at the hands of Lycomedes, the King of Skyros. Lycomedes pushed Theseus off the top of a mountain; an end that resembles a disappearance rather than an actual death.  Neither Theseus’ tomb nor a memorial was discovered in Skyros, or anywhere else. His alleged remains were transferred later to Athens (following a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi – Pythia) and were placed in Theseion, which was a temple in honor of Theseus and which was established as a place of worship for the hero. Theseion is well – preserved today.  

Theseus was a great hero who was initiated into the Eleusinian and Cretan mysteries, fought with supernatural powers, descended to the depths of the Earth and managed to take a place in the pantheon of the Greek Gods.   

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