Theseus, The Founding Hero Of Athens

Theseus was a notable Greek hero who combined strength, power, and wisdom. He was the mythical founder of Athens, Greece. According to Pausanias, Theseus was also the first to apply certain rules to the game of wrestling and elevate it to an art.

Angélique Mongez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Theseus’ Family

Theseus was the son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and his wife, Aethra. Aegeus was concerned that he had reached a certain age without having any descendants and went to Delphi to consult the Oracle of Delphi, but he received a prophecy that he could not understand. 

So he decided to stop at the city of Troezen on his way home and ask King Pittheus’s advice. But instead of helping him, Pittheus got Aegeus to sleep with his daughter Aethra, hoping that Aethra would father a child. However, Aethra had been seduced by the Poseidon, the god of the sea earlier that same night.

In this way, two divine origins were attributed to Theseus.

Theseus’ Childhood and Early Life

Before leaving for Athens, Aegeus left a sword and sandals under a rock and told Aethra to send him to Athens if his son was strong enough to lift the rock. Since Aethra knew who Theseus’ father actually was, she agreed.

Theseus grew up in the palace of Pittheus, and, indeed, he became an exceptionally strong man. At the age of 16, he was already able to lift the rock and go to Athens. 

Although Theseus was advised to travel by sea, he preferred to take the overland route from Troezen to Athens. Along the way, he had to face numerous adventures and obstacles, also known as the “Labors of Theseus.”

The Adventures in Athens

When Theseus reached Athens, he did not at first reveal his identity. Aegeus’ new wife, Medea, The Enchantress, who already had a child with Aegeus and possessed the gift of prophecy, saw Theseus as a threat and told Aegeus that Theseus was plotting against him. 

So Aegeus sent Theseus to Marathon to tame the Cretan Bull, The Mighty Beast. Theseus was able to accomplish the task, and back in Athens, he sacrificed the bull to Apollo Delphinius.

While in Athens, Medea again tried to harm Theseus by poisoning him. But then Aegeus recognized his son by his sandals and his sword and knocked the cup out of his hand. 

From that moment on, father and son were reunited, and Medea was banished to Asia with her son. Theseus became the king and founding hero of Athens and always had a special place in the hearts of the Athenians.

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Myths about Theseus

Theseus and the Thread of Ariadne

There once came a time when the Athenians were at war with Minos, the King of Crete, because they had killed his son Androgeos. The punishment was to send seven boys and seven girls to Crete every year in order to be devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.

In order to put an end to the Athenian’s grief, Theseus decided to go to Crete and slay the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. The Minotaur was imprisoned inside the labyrinth- a confusing, complex building constructed by Daedalus, The Labyrinth’s Mastermind. Once somebody entered the labyrinth, it was impossible for him to leave, and the monster devoured him.

However, King Minos’ daughter and princess of Crete, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus at first sight and promised to help him beat the Minotaur. She, therefore, gave Theseus a spool of thread that he let unwind through the labyrinth so that he wouldn’t lose his path.

Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur and, using this thread, get out of the labyrinth and finally escape from Crete.

Theseus Kidnaps Helen

When Theseus started coming of age, he desired to marry a daughter of Zeus before he died. His choice fell on Helen of Sparta, who, although still very young, was of exceptional beauty.

So Theseus, together with Pirithous, the king of Larissa, went out to Sparta and kidnapped Helen, The Most Beautiful Woman In The World. Then they brought her to Aphidnae, a small city outside of Athens, to be taken care of by Aethra, the mother of Theseus.

After that, it was Pirithous’ turn to choose a wife, and he opted for Persephone, The Enigmatic Queen of the Underworld. So the two friends descended to Hades in order to fetch her. But Hades, the god of the underworld understood that the intention of his visitors was to capture Persephone, so he threw Theseus into prison and let his dog Cerberus tear Pirithous to pieces.

By the time Theseus was in the prison of the Underworld, Helen’s brothers Castor and Pollux, also known as Dioscuri (dios kouroi), meaning the “Sons of Zeus,” invaded Aphidnae, rescued Helen and brought her back to Sparta.

Theseus and the Minotaur

By the time Aegeus was ruling Athens, just before the launch of the Trojan War, the Navy of Crete was very strong, and the Minoans, who were living in Crete, were attacking and terrorizing Greek cities.

In order to leave the city of Athens in peace, the Athenians made a pact with the King of the Minoans, Minos. Every nine years, they had to send a tribute of seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls to Crete, where they were devoured by the Minotaur, the dreadful monster of Minos that was half-human and half-bull. Only if somebody killed the Minotaur would this torture come to an end.

Every time the Athenians had to send children to Crete, the whole city was in grief and despair. Theseus, the hero of Athens, could not bear this situation, and, much to the dismay of his father, he decided to help the Athenians and kill the Minotaur. 

One day, he took the place of the youth that should be sent and got into the boat for Crete. The boat had a black sail as an expression of the Athenians’ mourning. Theseus promised his father that, in case he achieved victory, he would hoist white sails- if he failed, this would mean failure, and the sails would remain black.

Theseus arrives in Crete

When Theseus and the other children arrived in Crete, King Minos and his daughter Ariadne were already expecting the party. Immediately, King Minos ordered to send them into the Minotaur to be devoured the next day.

But Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and wouldn’t allow any harm to him. So, the other day, when the youth was sent to the Minotaur, Ariadne gave Theseus a sword and a ball of thread to find his way out of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. [See: Theseus and Ariadne’s thread]. 

This way, Theseus and the other children managed to escape from the monster and rushed into the vessel to escape. Ariadne followed them.

On their way back home, the children were so full of joy that they forgot to change the black sail. King Aegeus was expecting them, standing on a high rock and staring at the sea. 

When he saw the vessel coming and realized the sails were black, he fell fainting into the sea and died. In memory and honor of King Aegeus, the sea has been named the “Aegean Sea.”

Theseus and the Amazons

Theseus accompanied the Greek hero Heracles, The Strongest Hero on his labor against the Amazons. But while in the land of the Amazons, Theseus fell in love with their queen Antiope, a daughter of the war-god Ares, the god of war, and abducted her.

Back in Athens, Theseus married Antiope in a fairytale wedding. A while later, the couple gave birth to a son and named him Hippolytos. Furiously, the Amazons marched against the city of Athens to retrieve their queen. Soon, they settled at the gates of the city and imprisoned the Athenians inside the Acropolis area.

Many battles were held, but the Amazons were not able neither to take back their queen nor conquer Athens. Many of the Amazons lost their lives and were buried in the surrounding areas. Others were injured severely and had to be sent by their queen to the nearby city of Chalcis to recover.

One day there came the decisive battle, which took place on the Hill of the Muses, The Divine Inspirations Behind Art, Science, and Culture. During this battle, Antiope, who was deeply in love with her husband, betrayed the Amazons and fought on the side of the Athenians. But a terrible death awaited her. 

A fellow Amazon shot an arrow into Antiope’s chest, and Antiope fell at the feet of Theseus. Heartbroken, the Amazons buried Antiope along with the Athenians. After four months, the battle finally came to an end, and the Amazons returned to their distant homeland to mourn their dead queen.

The Pine-Bender of Corinth

The next day after killing the club-man of Epidaurus, Theseus arrived in the region of Corinth.

While he was walking carelessly, suddenly a giant jumped in front of him, shouting. His name was Sinis.

Not only did Sinis rob all passers-by, he also killed them in a horrible way. He forced them to bend two pine trees to the ground and hold them down. Should they lose their strength and let the trees go, they were hurled into the air.

For this reason, Sinis was known in the region as “Pityokamptes”(the “Pine-Bender”). Theseus killed Sinis in exactly the same way. Then the night set in, and Theseus found himself a quiet place, laid down, and fell asleep.

The Bandit Sciron

By the first light of day, Theseus woke up and set off for the city of Megara. Just outside the city, he noticed some cliffs descending steeply into the sea. Right above the cliffs was the haunt of a terrible villain. His name was Sciron, and he was the son of the Olympic hero Pelops (or god Poseidon).

Sciron’s habit was to rob passers-by and then force them to wash his feet. As they did so, he gave them a kick into the sea. With all his might, Theseus grasped the bandit by his feet and hurled him into the deep. As soon as Sciron fell into the sea, a giant sea turtle (or a monster) reached out and devoured the bandit.

This place, which was named “Scironian Rocks” because of the bandit, is nowadays known as the “Wicked Stairway.”

The Wrestler Cercyon

In the surroundings of Eleusis, there lived Cercyon, a huge wrestler and notorious robber. He was the son of Branchos (or Poseidon, or Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths) and the Nymph Argiope. Cercyon forced passers-by to wrestle with him and killed and robbed them one by one during the fight.

But when Theseus encountered the bandit, he had no fear because he was strong and was known for his talent in wrestling. So he fought with the bandit and, banging his head to the ground, killed him with ease.

Featured Image Credit: Olivierw, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Evangelia Hatzitsinidou is the creator and author of which has been merged with She has been writing about Greek Mythology for almost twenty years. A native to Greece, she teaches and lives just outside Athens.