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N.S. Gill

Myth Monday - Theseus Returns From Crete

By October 12, 2009

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Kylix showing the deeds of Theseus, signed by Aison painter from late 5th century at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.
CC Flickr User Zaqarbal

October's Myth Mondays deal with a character introduced at the end of last week's installment, Theseus, the king of Athens credited with synoecism. Last week's kings brought civilization to the people of Athens and turned Athens into a city. Synoecism goes one step further. It is a technical term used in connection with Athens for Theseus' legendary uniting of the people of the villages of Attica under a capital at Athens. Today's episode ties the Athenian hero-king to last month's Myth Monday focus, Dionysus.

Like their gods, Greek heroes weren't perfect. They actively sought kleos 'glory', but also behaved in ways that keep them distinct from modern concepts of the hero. Greek heroes might pout, like Achilles, be perilously unfaithful, like Jason, and even madly murder, like Hercules. Rose Williams deals with just such heroic clay feet in her The Clay-Footed Superheroes. Usually, an explanation (or many conflicting ones) is given. In the case of Theseus, his return from the adventure for which he is best known presents two puzzles with explanations that aren't entirely satisfactory.

Theseus is best known for offering himself as one of the Athenian youths sent to the Cretan King Minos to become the monstrous, bull-headed, half-human Minotaur's dinner. Minos' step-son, the Minotaur, lived in a labyrinth built by Daedalus (of Icarus fame). Getting through the labyrinth without help was impossible, so simply being put in the labyrinth practically guaranteed the Athenian youth would die. However, King Minos must have done something wrong. He might have paraded the latest Minotaur-meal before his subjects. At any rate, at least one of Minos' daughters, Ariadne, fell in love with the vision of heroic manliness that was Theseus. She found a way to give him a ball of yarn, while Theseus waited, perhaps in a cell, for his turn in the labyrinth. With the ball of yarn leading to and from the door at the labyrinth entrance, Theseus knew he would be able to find his way out again, so with his bare hands he set about capturing the Minotaur. Alternatively, Theseus killed Ariadne's half-brother with a sword Ariadne must also have supplied. Ovid puts a club in Theseus' hands.

In return for her favor, Theseus took Ariadne away with him to marry her, but en route, he ditched her. This was the same trip on which Theseus forgot to change the colors of his sails, the result of which was the suicide of his father.


When Theseus left Crete, Plutarch says he put holes in the Cretan ships to prevent pursuit and took Ariadne and the surviving Athenian youths and young women who were to have been sacrificed with him.

"When he arrived at Crete, as most of the ancient historians as well as poets tell us, having a clue of thread given him by Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him, and being instructed by her how to use it so as to conduct him through the windings of the labyrinth, he escaped out of it and slew the Minotaur, and sailed back, taking along with him Ariadne and the young Athenian captives. Pherecydes adds that he bored holes in the bottoms of the Cretan ships to hinder their pursuit."
Plutarch Life of Theseus
On the trip, they landed at the island of Dia or Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne. In one version listed in Plutarch, Ariadne was pregnant when Theseus deserted her. Some sources (including The Ehoiai, according to Timothy Gantz) say Theseus fell in love with Aigle or Hippe. Aigle would seem to have been one of the Athenian young women who had been sent to the Minotaur.

The Syrian mythographer of the 6th century B.C. Pherekydes says Athena appeared to a sleeping Theseus on Dia to order him to abandon Ariadne, while Aphrodite told Ariadne she must marry Dionysus. At the end of The Theogony Dionysus and Ariadne marry, and Zeus makes Ariadne immortal. Another version has Artemis kill Ariadne for losing her virginity. In the Odyssey, Ariadne is dead and in the Underworld.

Dionysus may have been the one to kill Ariadne. The explanation that begins to make sense of this is that Dionysus had shown up in Crete before Theseus, had given Ariadne a crown as a gift, and Ariadne promised herself to the god. Then when Theseus came and she fell in love, she betrayed the god. This version would absolve Theseus of blame.

Black Sails

"When they were come near the coast of Attica, so great was the joy for the happy success of their voyage, that neither Theseus himself nor the pilot remembered to hang out the sail which should have been the token of their safety to Aegeus, who, in despair at the sight, threw himself headlong from a rock, and perished in the sea."
Plutarch Life of Theseus
When Theseus set sail from Athens, he had sailed under a black sail. Should his mission prove successful, he was to change the sail to white (or red) so his father, Aigeus, who would be keeping watch on the Acropolis by the Temple of Athena Nike, would know his son's fate. Since Theseus forgot to change the sail, Aigeus leapt to his death in the Aegean Sea or Cape Sounion. Although Theseus' claim to the throne was not uncontested, Theseus became king next. Was he impatient for the throne or was he really that forgetful? Aigeus hadn't known his son for long, since he had abandoned him at conception and had only gotten to know him a little while before Theseus set off for Crete. Was Aigeus really that heart-broken? Was lack of filial piety one of Theseus' vices?

Update re: Ariadne: I just read "Some Anomalies in the Myth of Ariadne," by Robert Eisner, in The Classical World, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Nov., 1977), pp. 175-177, which suggests Theseus could be acting as a foil to the fertility god Dionysus. To regain his status, Dionysus must beat the human, Theseus.


October 15, 2009 at 2:20 am
(1) Adrian Surubaru says:

I have read once more about my favourite hero, Achilles Pellides. In fact every incipient period is attractive, firstly because, as the Anglo-American poet T.S.Eliot said – my quotation springs from memory, – “In my beginning there is my end”. So if a beginning cannot always tell the end, knowing the starting point might certainly asure a better knowledge for the evolution that follows. Returning to my favourite Achilles, – for whom his beginning was his end – his mother held him by heel in order to ‘baptize’ her son, whereas it was his heeel his proverbial weak point, briging him death. But it was a mere tradition, for, though informing about the heel when being baptized, Homer left no word upon it. Whence we may derive that later on, long after the war was almost forgotten, the bard (one of the possible “Homers”) had to find a name for a promenent hero. And, since he had a name at hand, a name containing the present English noun ‘heel’- which Achilles’ abviously had within, the prefix ‘a’ being a greek negation, – he conceived the story of shoting an arrow into his heel. Or perhaps viceversa: his name generated the legend, only because the appropriation Achilles/heel, since we must give in, a heel was diffficult to hit, especially reminding the speed which was one of Achilles’ main qualities. Of course, it would be abnormal to talk about the English language long before Hastings, but it seems to me evident that Achilles’ name contains the English noun ‘heel’, tightly connected to his story.We must remember that, as even the Iliad shows, not only a single population went against Troy – the archaeology seems to have discovered a pan-European coalition, gathered under the name of ‘Sea Peoples’. And Achilles’ case seems not quite singular to me.I have developed a long and somehow crooked line of suppositions, somehow similar to Salvador Dali’s route from a rhino’s back to the sunflower, but still having as ground more (realistic) linguistic facts. Maybe one lucky day I could see them published. Bye and good luck!

October 17, 2009 at 3:00 pm
(2) ancienthistory says:

There are articles on this site about Achilles and the Achilles heel. A relevant one is here: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/achilles/ss/082109AchillesPhotos_8.htm .

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