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Aegeus, king of Athens, being twice married, and having no children, was so desirous of an heir to his throne that he made a pilgrimage to Delphi in order to consult the oracle. But the response being ambiguous, he repaired to Troezen to consult his wise friend Pittheus, who reigned over that city, by whose advice he contracted a secret marriage with his friend's daughter Aethra.

After passing some time with his bride, Aegeus prepared to take his departure for his own dominions; but before doing so he led Aethra to the sea-shore, where, after depositing his sword and sandals under a huge rock, he thus addressed her: "Should the gods bless our union with a son, do not reveal to him the name and rank of his father until he is old enough to possess the strength requisite for moving this stone. Then send him to my palace at Athens bearing these tokens of his identity."

A son was born to Aethra, whom she called Theseus, and who was carefully trained and educated by his grandfather Pittheus. When he had developed into a strong and manly youth his mother conducted him to the spot where the rock had been placed by Aegeus, and at her command he rolled away the stone, and took possession of the sword and sandals which had lain there for sixteen years, and which she now desired him to convey to his father Aegeus, king of Athens.

His mother and grandfather were anxious that the youth should travel by the safe sea route, the road between Troezen and Athens being at this time infested {260} with robbers of great ferocity and enormous strength. But feeling within himself the spirit of a hero, Theseus resolved to emulate the deeds of Heracles, with whose fame all Greece resounded, and therefore chose the more dangerous journey by land, as calculated to afford him an opportunity of distinguishing himself by feats of valour.

His first adventure occurred at Epidaurus, where he met Periphetes, a son of Hephæstus, who was armed with an iron club, with which he killed all travellers. Having received from his grandfather a full description of this savage, Theseus at once recognized him, and rushing upon him with his sword, succeeded after a desperate encounter in killing him. He appropriated the club as a trophy of his victory, and proceeded on his journey without hinderance until he arrived at the Isthmus of Corinth.

Here the people warned him to beware of Sinnis the robber, who forced all travellers to bend with him one of the branches of a tall pine-tree. Having dragged it to the ground, the cruel Sinnis suddenly released his hold, whereupon the bough rebounding high up into the air, the unfortunate victim was dashed to the ground and killed. When Theseus beheld Sinnis advancing towards him he steadily awaited his approach; then seizing his powerful club, he killed the inhuman wretch with one blow.

Passing through the woody district of Crommyon Theseus next slew a wild and dangerous sow which had long ravaged the country.

He then continued his journey and approached the borders of Megara, where, on a narrow path overhanging the sea, dwelt the wicked Scyron, another terror to travellers. It was his custom to compel all strangers who passed his abode to wash his feet, during which operation he kicked them over the rock into the sea. Theseus boldly attacked the giant, overcame him, and then flung his body over the cliff where so many of his victims had perished.

Theseus now journeyed on to Eleusis, where he found {261} another adversary in the person of King Cercyon, who forced all comers to wrestle with him, and killed those whom he vanquished; but Theseus overcame the mighty wrestler and slew him.

Near Eleusis, on the banks of the river Cephissus, Theseus met with a new adventure. Here lived the giant Damastes, called Procrustes or the Stretcher, who had two iron beds, one being long and the other short, into which he forced all strangers; In the short one he placed the tall men, whose limbs he cut to the size of the bed, whilst to the short ones he assigned the large bed, stretching them out to fit it; and thus he left his victims to expire in the most cruel torments. Theseus freed the country from this inhuman monster by serving him as he had done his unfortunate victims.

The hero now continued his journey, and at length reached Athens without meeting with any further adventures. When he arrived at his destination he found his father a helpless tool in the hands of the sorceress Medea, whom he had married after her departure from Corinth. Knowing, by means of her supernatural powers, that Theseus was the king's son, and fearing that her influence might be weakened by his presence, she poisoned the mind of the old king against the stranger, whom she represented as being a spy. It was accordingly arranged that Theseus should be invited to a banquet, and a strong poison mixed with his wine.

Now Theseus had resolved to reveal himself at this feast to the father whom he yearned to embrace. Before tasting the wine he put his plan into execution, and drew out his sword so that the eyes of the king might rest upon it. When Aegeus beheld once more the well-known weapon which he had so often wielded, he knew that it was his son who stood before him. He warmly embraced him, presented him as his heir to his courtiers and subjects, and then, no longer able to endure the sight of Medea, he banished her for ever from his dominions.

When Theseus was acknowledged as the rightful heir to the throne he was opposed by the fifty sons of Pallas, {262} the king's brother, who had confidently expected that on the demise of the old king the government of the country would devolve upon them. They therefore resolved to put Theseus to death; but their plans becoming known to him, he surprised them as they lay in ambush awaiting his approach, and destroyed them all.

Fearing, however, lest the Athenians might entertain a prejudice against him on account of his extermination of their fellow-citizens, the Pallantids, Theseus resolved to perform some signal service for the state, which should gain for him the hearts of the people. He accordingly decided to rid the country of the famous bull of Marathon, which had become a terror to the cultivators of the land. He captured the animal and brought him in chains to Athens, where, after publicly exhibiting him to the astonished multitude, he solemnly sacrificed him to Apollo.

The next enterprise undertaken by Theseus far surpassed all his other feats of heroic daring, and secured to him the universal admiration and gratitude of his fellow-citizens. This was the slaying of the Minotaur, which put an end for ever to the shameful tribute of seven youths and seven maidens which was exacted from the Athenians every nine years.

The origin of this barbarous tribute was as follows: Androgeos, the youthful son of Minos, king of Crete, having been treacherously murdered by the Athenians, his father, anxious to avenge the death of his son, declared war against their king Aegeus, and conquered Athens and the villages in its vicinity. The conqueror henceforth compelled the Athenians to send to him every nine years a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens of the noblest families of the land, who became the prey of the Minotaur, a monster, half-man, half-bull, whose lair was in the wonderful labyrinth, constructed by Dædalus for the Cretan king.

When Theseus informed his father of his heroic determination, he was overwhelmed with grief, and endeavoured, by every means in his power, to shake his son's resolution, but, confident of success, Theseus assured his {263} father that he would slay the Minotaur and return home victorious.

It was customary for the vessel bearing its unhappy freight of human victims to use on this voyage black sails only; but Theseus promised his father that, should he return in safety, he would hoist white ones in their place.

Before leaving Athens Theseus, by the advice of an oracle, chose Aphrodite as his guardian and protectress, and accordingly offered up a sacrifice to her. When he arrived in the presence of king Minos, the goddess of Love inspired Ariadne, the beautiful daughter of the king, with an ardent attachment for the noble young hero. During a secret interview, in which a mutual confession of affection took place, Ariadne furnished him with a sharp sword and a clue of thread, the end of which she desired him to fasten at the entrance to the labyrinth and to continue to unwind it till he reached the lair of the Minotaur. Full of hope as to the successful issue of his undertaking, Theseus took leave of the kind maiden, after expressing his gratitude for her timely aid.

At the head of his companions he was now conducted by Minos to the entrance of the labyrinth. Strictly adhering to the injunctions of the fair Ariadne he succeeded in finding the Minotaur, whom, after a fierce and violent struggle, he defeated and killed; then carefully feeling his way, by means of the clue of thread, he led his companions safely out of the labyrinth. They then fled to their ship, taking with them the lovely maiden to whose affection for their deliverer they owed their safety.

Arrived at the island of Naxos, Theseus had a dream, in which Dionysus, the wine-god, appeared to him, and informed him that the Fates had decreed that Ariadne should be his bride, at the same time menacing the hero with all kinds of misfortunes should he refuse to resign her. Now Theseus, having been taught from his youth to reverence the gods, feared to disobey the wishes of Dionysus. He accordingly took a sad farewell of the {264} beautiful maiden who so tenderly loved him, and left her on the lonely island, where she was found and wooed by the wine-god.

Theseus and his companions felt keenly the loss of their benefactress, and in their grief at parting with her, forgot that the ship still bore the black sails with which she had left the Attic coast. As she neared the port of Athens, Aegeus, who was anxiously awaiting the return of his son on the beach, caught sight of the vessel with its black sails, and concluding that his gallant son had perished, threw himself in despair into the sea.

With the unanimous approval of the Athenians, Theseus now ascended the vacant throne, and soon proved himself to be not only a valiant hero but also a wise prince and prudent legislator. Athens was at this time but a small city surrounded by a number of villages, each of which possessed its own separate form of government; but by means of kind and conciliatory measures Theseus induced the heads of these different communities to resign their sovereignty, and to intrust the administration of public affairs to a court which should sit constantly at Athens, and exercise jurisdiction over all the inhabitants of Attica. The result of these judicious measures was, that the Athenians became a united and powerful people, and that numbers of strangers and foreigners flocked to Athens, which became a flourishing maritime port and a commercial centre of great importance.

Theseus renewed the Isthmian Games, and also instituted numerous festivals, the principal of which was the Panathenæa, held in honour of Athene-Polias.

It is related that Theseus upon one occasion arrived during a voyage at the Amazonian coast. Anxious to ascertain the object of his visit, the Amazons sent Hippolyte, one of their number, with presents to the stranger; but no sooner did the fair herald set foot on board his vessel than Theseus set sail and carried her off to Athens, where he made her his queen. Enraged at this indignity the Amazons determined to be revenged. Some time afterwards, when the whole affair would {265} appear to have been forgotten, they seized the opportunity when the city of Athens was in a defenceless condition and landed an army in Attica. So sudden was their attack that they had penetrated into the very heart of the city before the Athenians could organize their forces; but Theseus expeditiously collected his troops and commenced such a furious onslaught upon the invaders that, after a desperate encounter, they were driven from the city. Peace was then concluded, whereupon the Amazons evacuated the country. During this engagement Hippolyte, forgetful of her origin, fought valiantly by the side of her husband against her own kinsfolk, and perished on the field of battle.


It was soon after this sad event that Theseus joined the world-renowned Calydonian Boar-hunt, in which he took a leading part. He also formed one of the brave band who shared in the perils of the Argonautic expedition.

The remarkable friendship which existed between Theseus and Pirithöus originated under such peculiar circumstances that it is worthy of mention.

Hearing upon one occasion that his herds, pasturing in the plains of Marathon, had been carried off by Pirithöus, Theseus collected together an armed force and sallied forth to punish the plunderer. But, when the two heroes met face to face, both were seized with an impulse of sympathetic admiration for each other. Pirithöus, holding out his hand in token of peace, exclaimed, "What satisfaction shall I render thee, oh Theseus? Be thou thyself the judge." Theseus seized the proffered hand and replied, "I ask nought save thy {266} friendship;" whereupon the heroes embraced each other and swore eternal fidelity.

When, soon afterwards, Pirithöus became united to Hippodamia, a Thessalian princess, he invited Theseus to the wedding-feast, which was also attended, among other guests, by a large number of Centaurs, who were friends of Pirithöus. Towards the end of the banquet Eurytion, a young Centaur, heated and flushed with wine, seized the lovely bride and sought by force to carry her off. The other Centaurs, following his example, each endeavoured to capture a maiden. Pirithöus and his followers, aided by Theseus, who rendered most valuable assistance, attacked the Centaurs, and after a violent hand-to-hand struggle in which many perished, forced them to relinquish their prey.

After the death of Hippolyte Theseus sought the hand of Phædra, the sister of his former bride Ariadne, to whom he became united. For some years they lived happily together, and their union was blessed by the birth of two sons. During this time Hippolytus, the son of the Amazonian queen, had been absent from home, having been placed under the care of the king's uncles in order to be educated. When, having grown to manhood, he now returned to his father's palace, his young stepmother, Phædra, fell violently in love with him; but Hippolytus failed to return her affection, and treated her with contempt and indifference. Filled with rage and despair at his coldness Phædra put an end to her existence; and when she was discovered by her husband she held in her hand a letter, accusing Hippolytus of being the cause of her death, and of having conspired against the honour of the king.

Now Poseidon had upon one occasion promised to grant Theseus whatever request he should demand; he therefore called upon the sea-god to destroy Hippolytus, whom he cursed in the most solemn manner. The father's awful malediction fell but too soon upon his innocent son; for, as the latter was driving his chariot along the sea-shore, between Troezen and Athens, a {267} monster, sent by Poseidon, rose out of the deep, and so frightened the horses that they became altogether unmanageable. As they rushed on in their mad career the chariot was dashed to pieces, and the unfortunate youth, whose feet had become entangled in the reins, was dragged along until life was nearly extinct.

In this condition he was found by the unhappy Theseus, who, having ascertained the true facts of the case from an old servant of Phædra, had hastened to prevent the catastrophe. But he arrived too late, and was only able to soothe the last moments of his dying son by acknowledging the sad mistake which he had committed, and declaring his firm belief in his honour and innocence.

After these events Theseus was persuaded by his friend Pirithöus, who had also about this time lost his young wife, Hippodamia, to join him in a journey through Greece, with the object of carrying off by force the most beautiful maidens whom they should chance to meet.

Arrived at Sparta they beheld, in the temple of Artemis, Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda, who was engaged in performing sacred dances in honour of the goddess. Although the maiden was only nine years old the fame of her beauty, which was destined to play so important a part in the history of Greece, had already spread far and wide. Theseus and Pirithöus forcibly abducted her, and then having cast lots for her, she fell to Theseus, who placed her under the charge of his mother Æthra.

Pirithöus now requested Theseus to assist him in his ambitious scheme of descending to the lower world and carrying off Persephone, the queen of Hades. Though fully alive to the perils of the undertaking Theseus would not forsake his friend, and together they sought the gloomy realm of Shades. But Aïdes had been forewarned of their approach, and scarcely had the two friends set foot within his dominions when, by his orders, they were seized, bound with chains, and secured to an enchanted rock at the entrance of Hades. Here the two {268} friends languished for many years, until Heracles passed by in his search for Cerberus, when he released Theseus; but in obedience to an injunction of the gods, left Pirithöus to endure for ever the punishment of his too daring ambition.

While Theseus was imprisoned in the under world Castor and Pollux, the brothers of Helen, invaded Athens, and demanded the restoration of their young sister. Seeing his country threatened with the horrors of warfare, an Athenian citizen named Academus, who knew of Helen's place of concealment, repaired to the camp of the Dioscuri, and informed them where they would find her. Æthra at once resigned her charge, whereupon the brothers took leave of Athens, and, accompanied by Helen, returned to their native country.

But the prolonged absence of Theseus gave rise to other troubles of a more serious character. Thinking the opportunity favourable for a revolt, a faction, headed by Menesthius, a descendant of Erechtheus, arrogated to themselves supreme power, and seized the reins of government.

Returned to Athens, Theseus at once took active measures to quell the insubordination which existed on all sides. He expelled Menesthius from office, rigorously punished the ringleaders of the revolt, and placed himself once more upon the throne. But his hold upon the people was gone. His former services were all forgotten, and, finding at length that dissensions and revolts were rife, he voluntarily abdicated the throne, and retired to his estates in the island of Scyros. Here Lycomedes, king of the island, feigned to receive him with the utmost friendship; but being, as it is supposed, in league with Menesthius, he led the old king to the summit of a high rock, under pretence of showing him his estates, and treacherously killed him by pushing him over the cliff.

Many centuries after his death, by the command of the oracle of Delphi, Cimon, the father of Miltiades, at the conclusion of the Persian war, brought the remains of Theseus, the great benefactor of Athens, to that city, {269} and in his honour a temple was erected, which exists to the present day, and serves as a museum of art.

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