Theseus (mythology)

Theseus and the Minotaur
   In Greek legend, Theseus was the national hero of Attica. He was a son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and Aethra, a princess of Troezen. Aegeus was obliged to leave Aethra before the birth of the child. He placed his sword and sandals beneath a large stone and charged Aethra that, when their son should be strong enough to roll the stone away, she should send him to his father. When the mother thought the time had come, she led Theseus to the stone which he moved with­out difficulty. The youth then chose that road to his father which he knew to be beset with the greatest difficulties. On the way he fought and slew a son of Hephaes­tus, who was in the habit of terrifying and attacking travelers. He also killed Pro­crustes, the "Stretcher." Procrustes had an iron bedstead to which he fitted every person whom he could persuade to lodge with him. If the guest was too short for the bed he was stretched; if he was too long, a piece was chopped off. Several other evildoers were met by Theseus and disposed of before he reached Athens.

   Medea, the sorceress, who had fled from her husband Jason to Athens, had now married Aegeus and, at once recognizing Theseus, she tried to poison him, but his father rec­ognized the sword he carried and his life was saved. Theseus met with many ad­ventures. The most notable was slaying the Minotaur. The Athenians were forced each year to send seven youths and seven maidens as a tribute to Minos, king of Crete. These were devoured by the terrible Mino­taur. Theseus offered himself as one of the victims and set off with the other thir­teen in a ship with black sails. Theseus promised his father to return with white sails if he was successful. With the aid of Ariadne, daughter of Minos, he slew the Minotaur, saving his companions. Then taking Ariadne with him, he started to return to Athens. Directed by Minerva, Theseus left Ariadne asleep on the Island of Naxos and went on without her. Per­haps this little episode distracted his mind, for he forgot to change his sails. His fa­ther, seeing the ship returning with black sails, believed his son was slain and took his own life. Theseus now became king of Athens.

   One of the famous episodes of Theseus' career was a war with the Ama­zons. He carried off their queen and they pursued him into the very heart of the city where he finally overthrew them. This bat­tle was a favorite subject with sculptors. After many adventures and exciting experi­ences, Theseus at last lost favor with his people and retired to Scyros, where he was slain. Theseus is a semi-historical char­acter. It is supposed that he united the several tribes of Attica into one state, but it is impossible to separate fact from legend in an account of his life.