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Birth and early years::Theseus

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Birth and early years

Theseus and Aethra, by Laurent de La Hyre

Aegeus (1282–1234 BC), one of the primordial kings of Athens, found a bride, Aethra who was the daughter of king Pittheus at Troezen, a small city southwest of Athens. Still without a male heir, Aegeus asked the oracle at Delphi for advice. Her cryptic words were "Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief." Aegeus did not understand the prophecy and was disappointed. This puzzling oracle forced Aegeus to visit Pittheus, king of Troezen, who was famous for his wisdom and skill at expounding oracles. Pittheus understood the prophecy and introduced Aegeus to his daughter, Aethra, when Aegeus was drunk. But following the instructions of Athena in a dream, Aethra left the sleeping Aegeus and waded across to the island of Sphairia that lay close to Troezen's shore. There she poured a libation to Sphairos (Pelops' charioteer) and Poseidon, and was possessed by the sea god in the night. The mix gave Theseus a combination of divine as well as mortal characteristics in his nature; such double paternity, with one immortal and one mortal, was a familiar feature of other Greek heroes.<ref>The theory, expounded as natural history by Aristotle, was accepted through the nineteenth century and only proven wrong in modern genetics: see Telegony (heredity). Sometimes in myth the result could be twins, one born divine of a divine father, the other human of a human sire: see Dioscuri. Of a supposed Parnassos, founder of Delphi, Pausanias observes, "Like the other heroes, as they are called, he had two fathers; one they say was the god Poseidon, the human father being Cleopompus." (Description of Greece x.6.1).</ref> After Aethra became pregnant, Aegeus decided to return to Athens. Before leaving, however, he buried his sandals and sword under a huge rock<ref>Rock "which had a hollow in it just large enough to receive these objects," Plutarch says.</ref> and told Aethra that when their son grew up, he should move the rock, if he were heroic enough, and take the tokens for himself as evidence of his royal parentage. In Athens, Aegeus was joined by Medea, who had left Corinth after slaughtering the children she had borne, and had taken Aegeus as her new consort. Priestess and consort together represented the old order in Athens.

Thus Theseus was raised in his mother's land. When Theseus grew up and became a brave young man, he moved the rock and recovered his father's tokens. His mother then told him the truth about his father's identity and that he must take the sword and sandals back to king Aegeus to claim his birthright. To journey to Athens, Theseus could choose to go by sea (which was the safe way) or by land, following a dangerous path around the Saronic Gulf, where he would encounter a string of six entrances to the Underworld,<ref>Compared to Hercules and his Labours, "Theseus is occupied only with the sacred Entrances that are local to the lands of Athens" (Ruck and Staples 1994:204).</ref> each guarded by a chthonic enemy. Young, brave, and ambitious, Theseus decided to go alone by the land route and defeated a great many bandits along the way.

The Six Labors

The deeds of Theseus, on an Attic red-figured kylix, c. 440–430 BCE (British Museum)
Detail of the kylix: Theseus and the Crommyonian Sow, with Phaea
Map of Theseus's labors
Theseus captures the Marathonian Bull (kylix painted by Aison, 5th century BC)
  • At the first site, which was Epidaurus, sacred to Apollo and the healer Asclepius, Theseus turned the tables on the chthonic bandit, Periphetes, the Club Bearer, who beat his opponents into the Earth, and took from him the stout staff that often identifies Theseus in vase-paintings.
  • At the Isthmian entrance to the Underworld was a robber named Sinis, often called "Pityokamptes" (Greek: Πιτυοκάμπτης, "he who bends Pinetrees"). He would capture travelers, tie them between two pine trees that were bent down to the ground, and then let the trees go, tearing his victims apart. Theseus killed him by his own method. He then became intimate with Sinis's daughter, Perigune, fathering the child Melanippus.
  • In another deed north of the Isthmus, at a place called Crommyon, he killed an enormous pig, the Crommyonian Sow, bred by an old crone named Phaea. Some versions name the sow herself as Phaea. The Bibliotheca described the Crommyonian sow as an offspring of Typhon and Echidna.
  • Near Megara, an elderly robber named Sciron forced travellers along the narrow cliff-face pathway to wash his feet. While they knelt, he kicked them off the cliff behind them, where they were eaten by a sea monster (or, in some versions, a giant turtle). Theseus pushed him off the cliff.
  • Another of these enemies was Cercyon, king at the holy site of Eleusis, who challenged passers-by to a wrestling match and, when he had beaten them, killed them. Theseus beat Cercyon at wrestling and then killed him instead. In interpretations of the story that follow the formulas of Frazer's The Golden Bough, Cercyon was a "year-King", who was required to do an annual battle for his life, for the good of his kingdom, and was succeeded by the victor. Theseus overturned this archaic religious rite by refusing to be sacrificed.
  • The last bandit was Procrustes the Stretcher, who had two beds, one of which he offered to passers-by in the plain of Eleusis. He then made them fit into it, either by stretching them or by cutting off their feet. Since he had two beds of different lengths, no one would fit. Theseus turned the tables on Procrustes, cutting off his legs and decapitating him with his own axe.

Theseus sections
Intro  Birth and early years  Medea and the Marathonian Bull, Androgeus and the Pallantides  The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur  Ship of Theseus  Theseus and Pirithous  Phaedra and Hippolytus  Other stories and his death  Adaptations of the myth  Atlantis  Notes   External links   

Birth and early years
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