Jason and the Argonauts and Theseus and the Minotaur

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Jason and the Argonauts
Jason and the Argonauts was the first nautical saga in Western Literature. Many of the events in the 3000-year-old story also took place in present-day Turkey and Georgia. The plot of the saga was this: Jason left Greece with a boat load of heroes — including Hercules, the twins Castor and Polux, and Orpheus — on a journey to Colchis (present-day Georgia) on the Black Sea to claim the Golden Fleece that came from a golden ram that long time ago carried a young Greek prince across the Black Sea to safety. Jason’s ship, the 50-oar “Argo”, contained a beam cut from the divine Dodona tree that could tell the future. Teeth of the sleepless serpent when sowed grew into armed soldiers. ["Jason's Voyage" by Tim Severin, September 1975 (⊛)]

Claiming the Golden Fleece was regarded as an impossible task. It hung in a sacred grove guarded by an enormous serpent. If Jason managed to bring it home he could reclaim his rightful place on his father’s throne taken from him by his uncle Pelias. For thousands of years gold dust has been extracted from the rivers draining the Caucasus area by placing sheepskins on the stream bottom to trap particles. The expression the golden fleece is believed to have possibly been derived from this practice.

On his journey to Colchis Jason was challenged by a barbarian in the Aegean Sea to a boxing match to the death; he was given directions in the Sea of Marmara by a blind prophet tormented by Harpies; and the crew was beguiled by women on island without men. After barely making it through the Bosporus, the “Argo” was almost swallowed by vessel-eating rocks in the Black Sea. But finally Jason and the Argonauts made it to his destination.

After reaching Colchis, the Argonauts sailed up the River Phasis. In Colchis, Jason was given a number of tasks by King Aettes, the king of the Cochians. These including putting yokes on dangerous bulls, plowing fields where dragon teeth grew into dragons and killing the sleepless snake that guards the fleece. Jason claimed the fleece, with the help of Medea, a princess who betrayed her family, by drugging the serpent. With the fleece in hand and the princess's father ships in pursuit Jason headed back to Greece where he claimed his throne. The story's postscript unfortunately is not a happy one. Jason later married another woman and the princess from Colchis got revenge by poisoning his bride and their children.⊛

Jason and the Golden Fleece is a story of heroism, treachery, love and tragedy. It features a classic triangle of hero, dark power and female helper, a form still very much alive in Hollywood films.The Argonauts are named after their ship, the Argo, designed by Athena. Jason, son of Aeson and Polymede, of Iolcus, was captain. Tiphys, son of Hagnias, was helmsman. The other argonauts, according to one list, were: 1) Orpheus, son of Oeagros (or Apollo); 2) Castor, son of Tyndareus, of Sparta; 3) Polydeuces [Pollux], son of Zeus, of Sparta; 4) Zetes, son of Boreas; 5) Calais, son of Boreas; 6) Telemon, son of Aeacus; 7) Peleus, son of Aeacus; 8) Heracles, son of Zeus [did not complete journey]; 9) Theseus , son of Aegeus, of Athens and Troezen; 10) Idas, son of Aphareus; 11) Lynceus, son of Aphareus; 12) Amphiareus, son of Oicles; 13) Coronus, son of Caeneus; 14) Palaemon, son of Hephaestus [or Aetolus]; 15) Cepheus, son of Aleus; 16) Laertes, son of Arceisius; 17) Autolycus, son of Hermes; 18) Atalante, daughter of Schoeneus; 19) Menoetius, son of Actor; 20) Actor, son of Hippasus; 21) Admetus, son of Pheres; 22) Acastus, son of Pelias; 23) Eurytus, son of Hermes; 24) Meleager, son of Oeneus; 25) Ancaeus, son Lycurgus; 26) Euphemus, son of Poseidon; 27) Poeas, son of Thaumacus; 28) Butes, son of Teleon; 29) Phanus, son of Dionysos; 30) Stalphylus, son of Dionysos; 31) Erginus, son of Poseidon; 32) Periclymenus, son of Neleus; 33) Augeas, son of Helios; 34) Iphiclus, son of Thestius; 35) Argus, son of Phrixus; 36) Euryalus, son of Mecisteus; 37) Peneleos, son of Hippalmus; 38) Leitus, son of Alector; 39) Iphitus, son of Naubolus; 40) Ascalaphus, son of Ares; 41) Ialmenus, son of Ares; 42) Asterius, son of Cometes; 43) Polyphemus, son of Elatus.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

History of the Jason and the Golden Fleece Story

Pelias sending forth Jason

The earliest complete descriptions of Jason’s adventures come from the “Argonautica”, an epic poem composed in the 3rd century B.C. by the Hellenistic poet Apollonius Rhodius. The unhappy ending was added later. [Source: Kristin Romey, Archeology magazine, March/April 2001]

Rhodious’s poem is not the first to mention Jason’s journey. The Argonaut legend is among the oldest known in the Greek world. Homer alluded to it the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” . Some of the participants in the Trojan War were described as the sons and grandsons of the Argonauts, which would placed the Argonaut’s story about 30 to 75 years before the Trojan Wars which are thought have taken place around 1200 B.C.

Michael Wood of the BBC wrote: “The Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece has been told for 3,000 years. It's a classic hero's quest tale - a sort of ancient Greek mission impossible - in which the hero embarks on a sea voyage into an unknown land, with a great task to achieve. He is in search of a magical ram's fleece, which he has to find in order to reclaim his father's kingdom of Iolkos from the usurper King Pelias. [Source: Michael Wood, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The story is a set a generation before the time of the Trojan War, around 1300 B.C. but the first known written mention of it comes six centuries later, in the age of Homer (800 B.C.). The tale came out of the region of Thessaly, in Greece, where early epic poetry developed. The Greeks have retold and reinterpreted it many times since, changing it as their knowledge of the physical world increased. |::|

“No one knows for sure where the earliest poets set the adventure, but by 700 B.C. the poet Eumelos set the tale of the Golden Fleece in the kingdom of Aia, a land that at the time was thought to be at the eastern edge of the world. At this point the Jason story becomes fixed as an expedition to the Black Sea. The most famous version, penned by Apollonius of Rhodes, who was head of the library at Alexandria, was composed in the third century B.C. after the invasion of Asia by Alexander the Great. |::|

“Since the 1870s a series of excavations at Mycenae, Knossos, Troy and elsewhere has brought the Greek Heroic Age - the imaginary time when the great myths were set - to life. The archaeologists' discoveries of Bronze Age (2300-700 B.C.) artefacts made it clear that the Greek myths and epic poems preserve the traditions of a Bronze Age society, and may refer to actual events of that time. The story could also perhaps represent an age of Greek colonisation around the shores of the Black Sea. |::|

And it seems possible that hero, dark power and female model was based on an even earlier myth. An excavation of the 1920s and 30s, at Boghaz Koy, in central Turkey, uncovered Indo-European tablets from a Hittite civilisation dating to the 14th century B.C. . One of these has an account on it of a story similar to that of Jason and Medea, and may reveal the prehistory of the myth. It is not known at what date the Greeks borrowed it, but it very possibly happened in the ninth or eighth century B.C. . This was the time when many themes were taken from the east and incorporated into Greek poetry. |::|

In villages in the Svaneti region of northwest Georgia, people still pan for gold using the fleece of a sheep. The first stop of the Argonauts was Lemnos, a real place. In the story it was populated entirely with women

Route of Jason and the Argonauts

Archeology and Recreating the Trip of Jason and the Argonauts

There is little archeological evidence to support the existence of Colchis and Greeks in the region in the 13th century B.C. but there is evidence of Greeks in Colchis from the mid 6th century B.C. onward. Some historians and archeologist believe the Argonauts myth reflects the earliest Greek explorations even though there is no physical evidence that the Greeks were exploring the Black Sea in 13th century B.C.

In 1984, adventurer Steve Severin built a 54-foot galley, like the one Jason used, and assembled a crew of strong rowers to follow Jason's route through along the Greek Adriatic and the Turkish Black Sea coasts. Researching and building the sail and oar vessel took three years and Severin used the same materials the Greeks used (mainly Aleppo pine) and fastened the timber together with mortise-and-tenon joints instead of nails, as the ancient Greeks did.

The 1,500 mile journey took three months. On average 10 of the 16 rowers rowed at one time and when there was no wind they averaged about three miles an hour. They navigated by following the land with their eyes as the Greeks did.⊛

Jason's Mission; Securing the Golden Fleece

Michael Wood of the BBC wrote: “According to the legend, Jason was deprived of his expectation of the throne of Iolkos (a real kingdom situated in the locale of present day Volos) by his uncle, King Pelias, who usurped the throne. Jason was taken from his parents, and was brought up on Mount Pelion, in Thessaly, by a centaur named Cheiron. Meantime his uncle lived in dread of an oracle's prophecy, which said he should fear the 'man with one shoe'. [Source: Michael Wood, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“At the age of 20 Jason set off to return to Iolkos - on his journey losing a sandal in the river while helping Hera, Queen of the Gods, who was in disguise as an old woman. On arriving before King Pelias, Jason revealed who he was and made a claim to the kingdom. The king replied, 'If I am to give you the kingdom, first you must bring me the Fleece of the Golden Ram'. |::|

“And this was the hero's quest. His task would take him beyond the known world to acquire the fleece of a magical ram that once belonged to Zeus, the king of the gods. Jason's ancestor Phrixus had flown east from Greece to the land of Cochlis (modern day Georgia) on the back of this ram. King Aietes, son of Helios the sun god, had then sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece in a sacred grove guarded by a dragon. An oracle foretold that Aietes would lose his kingdom if he lost the fleece, and it was from Aietes that Jason had to retrieve it. |::|

“Why a fleece? Fleeces are connected with magic in many folk traditions. For the ancient Etruscans a gold coloured fleece was a prophecy of future prosperity for the clan. Recent discoveries about the Hittite Empire in Bronze Age Anatolia show celebrations where fleeces were hung to renew royal power. This can offer insight into Jason's search for the fleece and Aietes' reluctance to relinquish it. The fleece represented kinship and prosperity. |::|

Jason and the Argonauts in Black Sea Area

Michael Wood of the BBC wrote: “Jason's ship, the Argo, began its journey with a crew of 50 (which swelled to 100, including Hercules, in subsequent retellings of the myth) - known as the 'Argonauts'. The Greek claim that the Argo was the first ship ever built can not be true, but Jason's journey was seen by the ancient Greeks as the first long-distance voyage ever undertaken. [Source: Michael Wood, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Indeed, the voyage can be seen as a metaphor for the opening up of the Black Sea coast. Historically, once the Greeks learned to sail into the Black Sea they embarked on a period of colonisation lasting some 3,000 years - but the time they first arrived in the region is still controversial. |::|

“Lemnos, an island in the north-eastern Aegean was Jason's first stop. This was a place inhabited by women who had murdered their husbands after being cursed by Aphrodite. Next the Argo sailed to Samothrace, where the Argonauts were initiated into the Kabeiroi, a cult of 'great gods' who were not Greek and who offered protection to seafarers. From Samothrace the adventurers passed the city of Troy by night, and entered the Sea of Marmara the next day. |::|

“The Jason tale is a founding myth for many towns along this shore. It is, however, most likely that local accounts of events have arisen out of the story itself, rather than being based on historic facts that themselves became the basis of the myth. |::|

“It is along this stretch of coast that the Argonauts rescue a blind prophet, Phineus, by chasing away the Harpies - the ugly winged females Zeus had sent to torment Phineus. In return Phineus prophesies that Jason will be the first mariner to sail through the 'clashing rocks' that guard the entrance to the Black Sea. The myth arose when Greek sailors were first able to negotiate their way up the powerful currents of the Bosphorus to enter the Black Sea beyond. In time the sea was transformed in Greek eyes from Axeinos Pontus, the 'hostile sea' to Euxeinos Pontus, the 'welcoming sea'. |::|

Jason in Colchis

Jason secures the Golden Fleece

Michael Wood of the BBC wrote: “The story continues with the Argonauts finally reaching the land of Colchis, and the first part of their quest is achieved. The heroes land and hold council, deciding to walk up to the city of Aia. Along the way they see bodies wrapped in hides and hung in trees, a sight that travellers in Georgia recount right up to the 17th century. [Source: Michael Wood, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Once in Colchis Jason asks King Aietes to return the Golden Fleece. Aietes agrees to do so if Jason can perform a series of superhuman tasks. He has to yoke fire-breathing bulls, plough and sow a field with dragons' teeth, and overcome phantom warriors. In the meantime Aphrodite (the goddess of love) makes Medea, daughter of King Aietes, fall in love with Jason. Medea offers to help Jason with his tasks if he marries her in return. He agrees, and is enabled to complete the tasks. |

“King Aietes organises a banquet, but confides to Medea that he will kill Jason and the Argonauts rather than surrender the Golden Fleece. Medea tells Jason, and helps him retrieve the Fleece. From here the Argonauts flee home, encountering further epic adventures. The ancient storytellers give several versions of the route Jason took back to Greece, reflecting changes in Greek ideas about the geography of the world. |::|

“On the final leg of their journey, the Argonauts are caught in a storm, and after they pray to Apollo an island appears to them. The inhabitants of modern-day Anafi, 'the one which was revealed', and which is said to be the island in question, continue to celebrate their part in the story to this day. They regularly hold a festival inside an ancient temple to Apollo, built on the spot where legend says Jason gave thanks to the god for his rescue. |::|

City of Aia

Michael Wood of the BBC wrote: “The ancient Greeks speak of Aia as a real city on the River Phasis (the modern River Rhion). Archaeologists have yet to find it, although in 1876 gold treasure was found in this region at an ancient site near the town of Vani, and it was suggested that this might be the city of the Argonaut legend. Heinrich Schlieman, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae, proposed to dig here but was not given permission. |::|

“Then in 1947 excavations revealed that between 600 and 400 B.C. (the time the Jason legend took its final shape) Vani was indeed an important Colchin city. The city was not inhabited during the Heroic Age (when the Jason story is set), but it was the Colchin 'capital' at the time the Greek poets located the myth here. This suggests that some parts of the myth depict the culture of the historical Iron Age rather than the earlier Bronze Age of Jason. |::|

Jason’s Return Home

Michael Wood of the BBC wrote: “On his return to Iolkos Jason discovers that King Pelias has killed his father, and his mother has died of grief. Medea tricks Pelias by offering to rejuvenate him, and then kills him. Jason and Medea go into exile in Corinth, where Jason betrays Medea by marrying the king's daughter. Medea takes revenge by killing her own children by Jason. [Source: Michael Wood, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Pausanias, in his first-century guidebook to Greece, describes a shrine to the murdered children next to a temple to Hera, queen of gods, at Corinth. Centuries later, in the 1930s, a British excavation at Perachora uncovered an eighth-century B.C. temple to Hera, supposedly dedicated by Medea, near an oracle site with pilgrimage offerings left by women devotees over many centuries - perhaps there's a historic basis to the myth?

“In the end, Jason becomes a wanderer once more, and eventually returns to beached hull of the Argo. Here the beam of the ship (which was said to speak and was named Dodona) falls on him and kills him. His story has come full circle - as in all Greek myths, the hero's destiny is in the hands of the gods. |::|

“We know the story of Jason, but not exactly when it was first told. By classical times the myth had spread across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and it continues to fascinate us in our own day, informing archaeological investigations and bearing continued retellings - a testimony to the perennial appeal of the tale of the hero's quest. |::|

“Michael Wood is the writer and presenter of many critically acclaimed television series, including In the Footsteps of...series. Born and educated in Manchester, Michael did postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. Since then he has made over 60 documentary films and written several best selling books. His films have centred on history, but have also included travel, politics and cultural history.”

Sacrifice to Rhea: the Phrygian Mother-Goddess

On “A Sacrifice to Rhea, The Phrygian Mother-Goddess, Apollonius Rhodius wrote in “Argonautica,” I, 1078-1150: “After this, fierce tempests arose for twelve days and nights together and kept them there from sailing. But in the next night the rest of the chieftains, overcome by sleep, were resting during the latest period of the night, while Acastus and Mopsus the son of Ampycus kept guard over their deep slumbers. And above the golden head of Aeson's son there hovered a halcyon prophesying with shrill voice the ceasing of the stormy winds; and Mopsus heard and understood the cry of the bird of the shore, fraught with good omen. And some god made it turn aside, and flying aloft it settled upon the stern-ornament of the ship. [Source: translation by R. C. Seaton, in the Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1912), PP. 77-81]

“And the seer touched Jason as he lay wrapped in soft sheepskins and woke him at once, and thus spake: ‘'Son of Aeson, thou must climb to this temple on rugged Dindymum and propitiate the mother (i.e., Rhea) of all the blessed gods on her fair throne, and the stormy blasts shall cease. For such was the voice I heard but now from the halcyon, bird of the sea, which, as it flew above thee in thy slumber, told me all. For by her power the winds and the sea and all the earth below and the snowy seat of Olympus are complete; and to her, when from the mountains she ascends the mighty heaven, Zeus himself, the son of Cronos, gives place. In like manner the rest of the immortal blessed ones reverence the dread goddess.'

“Thus he spake, and his words were welcome to Jason's ear. And he arose from his bed with joy and woke all his comrades hurriedly and told them the prophecy of Mopsus the son of Ampycus. And quickly the younger men drove oxen from their stalls and began to lead them to the mountain's lofty summit. And they loosed the hawsers from the sacred rock and rowed to the Thracian harbour; and the heroes climbed the mountain, leaving a few of their comrades in the ship. And to them, the Macrian heights and all the coast of Thrace opposite appeared to view dose at hand. And there appeared the misty mouth of Bosporus and the Mysian hills; and on the other side the stream of the river Aesepus and the city and Nepian plain of Adrasteia. Now there was a sturdy stump of vine that grew in the forest, a tree exceeding old; this they cut down, to be the sacred image of the mountain goddess; and Argos smoothed it skillfully, and they set it upon that rugged hill beneath a canopy of lofty oaks, which of all trees have their roots deepest. And near it they heaped an altar of small stones and wreathed their brows with oak leaves and paid heed invoking the mother of Dindymum, most venerable, dweller in Phrygia and Titas and Cyllenus, who alone of many are called dispensers of doom and assessors of the Idaean mother-the Idaean Dactyls of Crete, whom once the nymph Anchiale, as she grasped with both hands the land of Oaxus, bare in the Dictaean cave. And with many prayers did Aeson's son beseech the goddess to turn aside the stormy blasts as he poured libations on the blazing sacrifice; and at the same time by command of Orpheus the youths trod a measure dancing in full armour, and dashed with their swords on their shields, so that the ill-omened cry might be lost in the air-the wail which the people were still sending up in grief for their king. Hence from that time forward the Phrygians propitiate Rhea with the wheel and the drum. And the gracious goddess, I ween, inclined her heart to pious sacrifices; and favourable signs appeared. The trees shed abundant fruit, and round their feet the earth of its own accord put forth flowers from the tender grass. And the beasts of the wild wood left their lairs and thickets and came up fawning on them with their tails. And she caused yet another marvel; for hitherto there was no flow of water on Dindymum, but then for them an unceasing stream gushed forth from the thirsty peak just as it was, and the dwellers around in after times called that stream, the spring of Jason. And then they made a feast in honour of the goddess on the Mount of Bears, singing the praises of Rhea most venerable; but at dawn the winds had ceased and they rowed away from the island.”

Theseus, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth

Theseus-Minotaur mosaic
Theseus was another great Greek hero. The son of the King of Athens, he was raised in a distant land and didn’t arrive in Athens until he was a young man strong enough to lift a stone under which his father placed a sword and a pair of sandals. After becoming King of Athens he fought with Centaurs and battled Amazons

The story of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, according to to some, is set in Crete, presumably during the Minoan era. According to legend, King Minos was a wise leader and a just lawgiver who ruled Crete from Knossos and lived in a magnificent palace. One day the sea-god Poseidon gave him a magnificent white bull that was intended to be sacrificed in the sea god's honor. Minos greedily kept the bull instead and Poseidon got even with the king by casting a spell on his wife, which made her want to make love with the bull, which she did, producing the Minotaur. Daedalus, the Athenian architect who later tried to fly to Sicily with wings made of wax, built the Labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur.

After King Minos's son was killed in Athens the king captured Athens and secured an annual tribute of seven youths and seven virgins to be eaten by the Minotaur. One of youths offered to the Minotaur — Theseus — fell in love with King Minos's daughter. Daedalus gave Theses a ball of string so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth of he managed to kill the Minotaur. After slaying the Minotaur Theseus fled Crete with king’s daughter but as was true with heros in other Greek myths, such as Jason from the Argonauts, Theseus abandoned the girl after winning his freedom.

The Minoans believed that King Minos was the son of Europa, the daughter of King Sidon, and Zeus transformed into a bull. The association of the Minotaur myth with Knossos can be traced to Sir Arthur Evans, the British adventurer, who excavated Knossos in the 1890s. He reportedly was struck by the size of Knossos and its large number of rooms that he figured it must be the source of the labyrinth myth. Some have said he defied one of the cornerstones of archaeology by forcing evidence to fit his model rather than letting evidence speak for itself. Evans is also the source of some other dubious claims about Minoa.

Was Theseus a Real Person?

Theseus in a Pompeii fresco

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In the ancient Greek world, myth functioned as a method of both recording history and providing precedent for political programs. While today the word "myth" is almost synonymous with "fiction," in antiquity, myth was an alternate form of reality. Thus, the rise of Theseus as the national hero of Athens, evident in the evolution of his iconography in Athenian art, was a result of a number of historical and political developments that occurred during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. [Source: Andrew Greene, Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Myth surrounding Theseus suggests that he lived during the Late Bronze Age, probably a generation before the Homeric heroes of the Trojan War. The earliest references to the hero come from the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homeric epics of the early eighth century B.C. Theseus's most significant achievement was the Synoikismos, the unification of the twelve demes, or local settlements of Attica, into the political and economic entity that became Athens. \^/

“There are certain aspects of the myth of Theseus that were clearly modeled on the more prominent hero Herakles during the early sixth century B.C. Theseus's encounter with the brigands parallels Herakles's six deeds in the northern Peloponnese. Theseus's capture of the Marathonian Bull mirrors Herakles's struggle with the Cretan Bull. There also seems to be some conflation of the two since they both partook in an Amazonomachy and a Centauromachy. Both heroes additionally have links to Athena and similarly complex parentage with mortal mothers and divine fathers. \^/

“However, while Herakles's life appears to be a string of continuous heroic deeds, Theseus's life represents that of a real person, one involving change and maturation. Theseus became king and therefore part of the historical lineage of Athens, whereas Herakles remained free from any geographical ties, probably the reason that he was able to become the Pan-Hellenic hero. Ultimately, as indicated by the development of heroic iconography in Athens, Herakles was superseded by Theseus because he provided a much more complex and local hero for Athens. \^/

Theseus’s Life

Theseus was the son of Athira, daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen.. His father was either Aegeus, king of Athens; or Poseidon. There are several stories regarding his birth. According to one Poseidon slept with Aithra on the same night that King Aegeus of Athens slept with her (in a temple of Poseidon on an island off the shore of Troezen) and he was brought up at Troezen at the court of his grandfather. In another since he was the son of Aithra, daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen (a son of Pelops, and thus a brother of Atreus and Thyestes) he was therefore first-cousin of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Thyestes, Eurystheus, and Alcmene. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class]

Theseus and an Amazon

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Theseus's life can be divided into two distinct periods, as a youth and as king of Athens. Aegeus, king of Athens, and the sea god Poseidon. Both slept with Theseus's mother, Aithra, on the same night, supplying Theseus with both divine and royal lineage. Theseus was born in Aithra's home city of Troezen, located in the Peloponnese, but as an adolescent he traveled around the Saronic Gulf via Epidauros, the Isthmus of Corinth, Krommyon, the Megarian Cliffs, and Eleusis before finally reaching Athens. Along the way he encountered and dispatched six legendary brigands notorious for attacking travelers. [Source: Andrew Greene, Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus was recognized by his stepmother, Medea, who considered him a threat to her power. Medea attempted to dispatch Theseus by poisoning him, conspiring to ambush him with the Pallantidae Giants, and by sending him to face the Marathonian Bull . \^/

“There is but a sketchy picture of Theseus's deeds in later life, gleaned from brief literary references of the early Archaic period, mostly from fragmentary works by lyric poets. Theseus embarked on a number of expeditions with his close friend Peirithoos, the king of the Lapith tribe from Thessaly in northern Greece. He also undertook an expedition against the Amazons, in some versions with Herakles, and kidnapped their queen Antiope, whom he subsequently married. Enraged by this, the Amazons laid siege to Athens, an event that became popular in later artistic representations.” Theseus died by leaping (or being pushed) into the sea from the Island of Skyros when he was the guest of its king Lykomedes. Achilles hid on the island of Skyros before being drafted for the Trojan War!

Theseus Legends

During Theseus’s journey to Athens to claim his inheritance from his father Aegeus,: 1) he cleaned up the coast road from Troezen through Corinth, Megara, Eleusis and Athens of bandits and robbers: 2) enocuntered Sciron, Procrustes, Corynetes (at Epidauros), Sinis and the Crommyonian sow (compare this to the Erymanthian boar of the Heracles' story) and wrestled with and killed King Kerkyon of Eleusis Theseus formed a friendship with Perithoos (King of Thessalian Lapithai), attending his wedding banquet and taking part in the Battle of the Lapiths with and Centaurs. He visited the Underworld: in an attempt to rescue Persephone but got trapped there when he sat down on stone chairs ('Thrones of Memory') and was unable to get up. He was eventually freed by Heracles. Theseus is also featured in Euripides' play “Hippolytus.” [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class]

Theseus and the Centaur

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “One of the Troezenian legends about Theseus is the following. When Heracles visited Pittheus at Troezen, he laid aside his lion's skin to eat his dinner, and there came in to see him some Troezenian children with Theseus, then about seven years of age. The story goes that when they saw the skin the other children ran away, but Theseus slipped out not much afraid, seized an axe from the servants and straightway attacked the skin in earnest, thinking it to be a lion. This is the first Troezenian legend about Theseus. The next is that Aegeus placed boots and a sword under a rock as tokens for the child, and then sailed away to Athens; Theseus, when sixteen years old, pushed the rock away and departed, taking what Aegeus had deposited. There is a representation of this legend on the Acropolis, everything in bronze except the rock. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“Another deed of Theseus they have represented in an offering, and the story about it is as follows: The land of the Cretans and especially that by the river Tethris was ravaged by a bull. It would seem that in the days of old the beasts were much more formidable to men, for example the Nemean lion, the lion of Parnassus, the serpents in many parts of Greece, and the boars of Calydon, Eryrmanthus and Crommyon in the land of Corinth, so that it was said that some were sent up by the earth, that others were sacred to the gods, while others had been let loose to punish mankind. And so the Cretans say that this bull was sent by Poseidon to their land because, although Minos was lord of the Greek Sea, he did not worship Poseidon more than any other god. They say that this bull crossed from Crete to the Peloponnesus, and came to be one of what are called the Twelve Labours of Heracles. When he was let loose on the Argive plain he fled through the isthmus of Corinth, into the land of Attica as far as the Attic parish of Marathon, killing all he met, including Androgeos, son of Minos.

“Minos sailed against Athens with a fleet, not believing that the Athenians were innocent of the death of Androgeos, and sorely harassed them until it was agreed that he should take seven maidens and seven boys for the Minotaur that was said to dwell in the Labyrinth at Cnossus. But the bull at Marathon Theseus is said to have driven afterwards to the Acropolis and to have sacrificed to the goddess; the offering commemorating this deed was dedicated by the parish of Marathon.”

On Theseus and the Bull of Marathon, Plutarch wrote: “Theseus, longing to be in action, and desirous also to make himself popular, left Athens to fight with the bull of Marathon, which did no small mischief to the inhabitants of Tetrapolis. And having overcome it, he brought it alive in triumph through the city, and afterwards sacrificed it to the Delphinian Apollo. The story of Hecale, also, of her receiving and entertaining Theseus in this expedition, seems to be not altogether void of truth; for the townships round about, meeting upon a certain day, used to offer a sacrifice which they called Hecalesia, to Jupiter Hecaleius, and to pay honour to Hecale, whom, by a diminutive name, they called Hecalene, because she, while entertaining Theseus, who was quite a youth, addressed him, as old people do, with similar endearing diminutives; and having made a vow to Jupiter for him as he was going to the fight, that, if he returned in safety, she would offer sacrifices in thanks of it, and dying before he came back, she had these honours given her by way of return for her hospitality, by the command of Theseus, as Philochorus tells us.” [Source: Plutarch, “Life of Theseus,” A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

Theseus and the Minotaur

Minotaur labyrinth

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ Athens was forced to pay an annual tribute of seven maidens and seven youths to King Minos of Crete to feed the Minotaur, half man, half bull, that inhabited the labyrinthine palace of Minos at Knossos. Theseus, determined to end Minoan dominance, volunteered to be one of the sacrificial youths. On Crete, Theseus seduced Minos's daughter, Ariadne, who conspired to help him kill the Minotaur and escape by giving him a ball of yarn to unroll as he moved throughout the labyrinth. Theseus managed to flee Crete with Ariadne, but then abandoned her on the island of Naxos.” where she was taken up by Dionysus, “during the voyage back to Athens. King Aegeus had told Theseus that upon returning to Athens, he was to fly a white sail if he had triumphed over the Minotaur, and to instruct the crew to raise a black sail if he had been killed. Theseus, forgetting his father's direction, flew a black sail as he returned. Aegeus, in his grief, threw himself from the cliff at Cape Sounion into the Aegean, making Theseus the new king of Athens and giving the sea its name.” [Source: Andrew Greene, Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]

On the Minotaur story, Plutarch wrote: “Not long after arrived the third time from Crete the collectors of the tribute which the Athenians paid them upon the following occasion. Androgeus having been treacherously murdered in the confines of Attica, not only Minos, his father, put the Athenians to extreme distress by a perpetual war, but the gods also laid waste their country; both famine and pestilence lay heavy upon them, and even their rivers were dried up. Being told by the oracle that, if they appeased and reconciled Minos, the anger of the gods would cease and they should enjoy rest from the miseries they laboured under, they sent heralds, and with much supplication were at last reconciled, entering into an agreement to send to Crete every nine years a tribute of seven young men and as many virgins, as most writers agree in stating; and the most poetical story adds, that the Minotaur destroyed them, or that, wandering in the labyrinth, and finding no possible means of getting out, they miserably ended their lives there; and that this Minotaur was (as Euripides hath it): “"A mingled form where two strange shapes combined, /And different natures, bull and man, were joined." [Source: Plutarch, “Life of Theseus,” A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

“But Philochorus says that the Cretans will by no means allow the truth of this, but say that the labyrinth was only an ordinary prison, having no other bad quality but that it secured the prisoners from escaping, and that Minos, having instituted games in honour of Androgeus, gave, as a reward to the victors, these youths, who in the meantime were kept in the labyrinth; and that the first that overcame in those games was one of the greatest power and command among them, named Taurus, a man of no merciful or gentle disposition, who treated the Athenians that were made his prize in a proud and cruel manner. Also Aristotle himself, in the account that he gives of the form of government of the Bottiaeans, is manifestly of opinion that the youths were not slain by Minos, but spent the remainder of their days in slavery in Crete; that the Cretans, in former times, to acquit themselves of an ancient vow which they had made, were used to send an offering of the first-fruits of their men to Delphi, and that some descendants of these Athenian slaves were mingled with them and sent amongst them, and, unable to get their living there, removed from thence, first into Italy, and settled about Japygia; from thence again, that they removed to Thrace, and were named Bottiaeans; and that this is the reason why, in a certain sacrifice, the Bottiaean girls sing a hymn beginning Let us go to Athens. This may show us how dangerous it is to incur the hostility of a city that is mistress of eloquence and song. For Minos was always ill spoken of, and represented ever as a very wicked man, in the Athenian theatres; neither did Hesiod avail him by calling him "the most royal Minos," nor Homer, who styles him "Jupiter's familiar friend;" the tragedians got the better, and from the vantage ground of the stage showered down obloquy upon him, as a man of cruelty and violence; whereas, in fact, he appears to have been a king and a law-giver, and Rhadamanthus, a judge under him, administering the statutes that he ordained.

Theseus killing the Minotaur

“Now, when the time of the third tribute was come, and the fathers who had any young men for their sons were to proceed by lot to the choice of those that were to be sent, there arose fresh discontents and accusations against Aegeus among the people, who were full of grief and indignation that he who was the cause of all their miseries was the only person exempt from the punishment; adopting and settling his kingdom upon a bastard and foreign son, he took no thought, they said, of their destitution and loss, not of bastards, but lawful children. These things sensibly affected Theseus, who, thinking it but just not to disregard, but rather partake of, the sufferings of his fellow-citizens, offered himself for one without any lot. All else were struck with admiration for the nobleness and with love for the goodness of the act; and Aegeus, after prayers and entreaties, finding him inflexible and not to be persuaded, proceeded to the choosing of the rest by lot. Hellanicus, however, tells us that the Athenians did not send the young men and virgins by lot, but that Minos himself used to come and make his own choice, and pitched upon Theseus before all others; according to the conditions agreed upon between them, namely, that the Athenians should furnish them with a ship and that the young men that were to sail with him should carry no weapons of war; but that if the Minotaur was destroyed, the tribute should cease.

“On the two former occasions of the payment of the tribute, entertaining no hopes of safety or return, they sent out the ship with a black sail, as to unavoidable destruction; but now, Theseus encouraging his father, and speaking greatly of himself, as confident that he should kill the Minotaur, he gave the pilot another sail, which was white, commanding him, as he returned, if Theseus were safe, to make use of that; but if not, to sail with the black one, and to hang out that sign of his misfortune. Simonides says that the sail which Aegeus delivered to the pilot was not white, but "Scarlet, in the juicy bloom Of the living oak-tree steeped," and that this was to be the sign of their escape.”

Images of Theseus

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The earliest extant representation of Theseus in art appears on the François Vase located in Florence, dated to about 570 B.C. This famous black-figure krater shows Theseus during the Cretan episode, and is one of a small number of representations of Theseus dated before 540 B.C. Between 540 and 525 B.C., there was a large increase in the production of images of Theseus, though they were limited almost entirely to painted pottery and mainly showed Theseus as heroic slayer of the Minotaur. [Source: Andrew Greene, Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Around 525 B.C., the iconography of Theseus became more diverse and focused on the cycle of deeds involving the brigands and the abduction of Antiope. Between 490 and 480 B.C., interest centered on scenes of the Amazonomachy and less prominent myths such as Theseus's visit to Poseidon's palace. The episode is treated in a work by the lyric poet Bacchylides. Between 450 and 430 B.C., there was a decline in representations of the hero on vases; however, representations in other media increase. In the mid-fifth century B.C., youthful deeds of Theseus were placed in the metopes of the Parthenon and the Hephasteion, the temple overlooking the Agora of Athens. Additionally, the shield of Athena Parthenos, the monumental chryselephantine cult statue in the interior of the Parthenon, featured an Amazonomachy that included Theseus. \^/

Theseus and Athens

Temple of Theseus in Athens

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The rise in prominence of Theseus in Athenian consciousness shows an obvious correlation with historical events and particular political agendas. In the early to mid-sixth century B.C., the Athenian ruler Solon (ca. 638–558 B.C.) made a first attempt at introducing democracy. It is worth noting that Athenian democracy was not equivalent to the modern notion; rather, it widened political involvement to a larger swath of the male Athenian population. Nonetheless, the beginnings of this sort of government could easily draw on the Synoikismos as a precedent, giving Solon cause to elevate the importance of Theseus. Additionally, there were a large number of correspondences between myth and historical events of this period. As king, Theseus captured the city of Eleusis from Megara and placed the boundary stone at the Isthmus of Corinth, a midpoint between Athens and its enemy. Domestically, Theseus opened Athens to foreigners and established the Panathenaia, the most important religious festival of the city. Historically, Solon also opened the city to outsiders and heightened the importance of the Panathenaia around 566 B.C. [Source: Andrew Greene, Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009, metmuseum.org \^/]

“When the tyrant Peisistratos seized power in 546 B.C., as Aristotle noted, there already existed a shrine dedicated to Theseus, but the exponential increase in artistic representations during Peisistratos's reign through 527 B.C. displayed the growing importance of the hero to political agenda. Peisistratos took Theseus to be not only the national hero, but his own personal hero, and used the Cretan adventures to justify his links to the island sanctuary of Delos and his own reorganization of the festival of Apollo there. It was during this period that Theseus's relevance as national hero started to overwhelm Herakles's importance as Pan-Hellenic hero, further strengthening Athenian civic pride. \^/

“Under Kleisthenes, the polis was reorganized into an even more inclusive democracy, by dividing the city into tribes, trittyes, and demes, a structure that may have been meant to reflect the organization of the Synoikismos. Kleisthenes also took a further step to outwardly claim Theseus as the Athenian hero by placing him in the metopes of the Athenian treasury at Delphi, where he could be seen by Greeks from every polis in the Aegean. \^/

“The oligarch Kimon (ca. 510–450 B.C.) can be considered the ultimate patron of Theseus during the early to mid-fifth century B.C. After the first Persian invasion (ca. 490 B.C.), Theseus came to symbolize the victorious and powerful city itself. At this time, the Amazonomachy became a key piece of iconography as the Amazons came to represent the Persians as eastern invaders. In 476 B.C., Kimon returned Theseus's bones to Athens and built a shrine around them which he had decorated with the Amazonomachy, the Centauromachy, and the Cretan adventures, all painted by either Mikon or Polygnotos, two of the most important painters of antiquity. This act represented the final solidification of Theseus as national hero.” |^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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