The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of Greek mythology’s most well-known tales. The young hero used cunning and fighting skills to kill a ferocious and terrifying monster.
The defeat of the Minotaur is only one of Theseus’s legends, however. Like many other heroes, there were many stories told about his life and further adventures.
This is especially true since Theseus was a legendary king of the city of Athens. Because the city had a rich literary culture, many stories survive of the hero’s exploits.
Theseus defeated many monsters before he encountered the Minotaur and had many adventures afterward. As one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, Theseus had a mythology that went far beyond his fight against the Minotaur!
When Theseus set out from his mother’s homeland, he had his choice of two routes to reach Athens. Traveling by sea was safer, but the land route offered more opportunity for glory.
The young hero chose the more dangerous land route between Toezen and Athens. This took him near six chthonic monsters that he would have to defeat to reach Athens and claim his place as the heir of King Aegeus.
At Epidaurus, Theseus encountered Periphetes, a bandit from the Underworld. Periphetes wielded a massive club that he used to pound his opponents into the dirt.
Periphetes was strong, but he also had only one eye and was lame in one leg. Theseus was able to outmaneuver him and steal his iconic bronze club.
The next entrance to the Underworld he passed was near the Isthmus of Corinth. It was guarded by Sinis, who killed his enemies in a particularly cruel way.
Sinis bent two young pine trees toward each other and tied his opponents between them. When the trees sprang apart, his foes were torn in half.
Theseus managed to kill Sinis with his own trap. He then seduced the bandit’s daughter. She later gave birth to Melanippus, who founded the settlements of Caria.
Near Crommyon, he defeated the wild Crommyonian Sow. The destructive wild pig was sometimes said to be the mother of the fearsome Calydonian Boar.
The fourth site was a cliff near Megara where another bandit, Sciron, kicked unwary travelers over the side to their deaths. Theseus threw him off the cliff before he had a chance to strike, and his body was eaten by a monstrous sea turtle.
Near Eleusis, Theseus was challenged to a wrestling match by Cercyon. He was the first man to beat the local king, who had killed every other person he had challenged and defeated before.
Theseus finally came across Procrustes, the Stretcher, on the plains of Eleusis. Procrustes killed his victims under a guise of hospitality.
Procrustes offered passers-by one of his two beds, each of which was an odd size. If they chose the shorter bed he would make them fit by cutting off their feet, but if they chose the longer bed he stretched them until death.
Theseus turned the tables on this last rogue, cutting off both his legs and his head.
Each of the enemies Theseus faced on the road guarded an entrance to the Underworld. By defeating them he not only proved himself as a hero, but also as a master over deadly forces.
When Theseus finally reached Athens, he was not immediately welcomed as the king’s son.
He did not announce his identity when he entered the city, preferring to see where he was and get a measure for his father’s court first. Because of this,King Aegeus was not the first person he met there.
Instead, he was seen by the king’s wife.He had married the witch Medea who was a cunning and merciless woman.
Medea was observant enough to immediately recognize the similarities between the newcomer and her husband. She rightly feared that the arrival of a legitimate heir to the throne of Athens would threaten her own position.
Since Aegeus had no sons, it was assumed that Medea’s son Medus would be named as his heir. The arrival of Theseus threatened this plan.
Medea hoped that she could get rid of the would-be prince before her husband ever learned of his arrival. She asked Theseus, as a hero, to prove his mettle by killing the Marathonian Bull.
The bull was, in fact, the Cretan Bull that had fathered the Minotaur. After it was brought to the mainland as one of the labors of Heracles, it had broken loose and ran amok throughout the area.
The bull had finally settled in near Marathon and was destroying farmland and villages there. Defeating it, which had been a task worthy of Heracles, would truly test Theseus’s abilities.
Theseus was up to the task, however. To the dismay of Medea, he was able to capture the Marathonian Bull and bring it back to Athens to be sacrificed.
The quest to kill the bull tested more than his physical prowess, however. It also demonstrated his nobility of character.
On the way to Marathon, Theseus was taken in by an elderly widow named Hecale. She gave him food and shelter from a storm and swore that she would offer a sacrifice to Zeus if Theseus managed to defeat the bull.
As he returned, Theseus visited Hecale’s hut to tell her of his success and thank her for her hospitality. He discovered that she had died that day, however.
Theseus buried Hecale and completed the sacrifices she had sworn to give. Unable to thank her himself, he later honored her by naming one of the districts of Attica after her, making its citizens her honorary descendants.
When Theseus returned from killing the Minotaur with the surviving Athenian youths, his mind was preoccupied. He had undergone a great trial and been instructed by Athena to leave behind Ariadne, the woman he loved, so she could marry a god instead.
He forgot a promise to his father, therefore, that he would use the ship to signal the outcome of his quest. The ship that took the Athenian youths to Crete carried black sails of mourning, but if he succeeded he had promised to change the sails out for white ones.
When Aegeus saw black sails appear on the horizon, therefore, he believed that his son had failed. Theseus, along with the other young men and women, had fallen victim to the Minotaur.
In despair at the loss of his newfound heir, Aegeus threw himself into the sea. It was later named the Aegean in his memory.
Theseus therefore returned to Athens as a hero, but also to mourn his father’s death, which had been caused by his own negligence. According to Plutarch, he kept his ship in the harbor as a memorial to both Aegeus and the young people who had been sent to the Minotaur before his arrival.
The ship had to be kept seaworthy to honor a vow to Apollo. After Theseus’s success, the ship was taken to Delos each year to pay tribute to the god for supporting the Athenians against the Minotaur.
Over time, the ship began to show signs of decay. When planks rotted or sails tore away, Theseus ordered them to be replaced to maintain the memorial.
Eventually, every piece of the ship had been replaced. There was not a single board that was original to the ship that returned from Crete.
The Ship of Theseus was not a myth, but a philosophical problem. At what point, Plutarch asked, was the ship in the harbor of Athens no longer the ship that had come from Crete?
Plutarch questioned whether the Ship of Theseus still existed after every plank had been replaced. While the ceremonial galley was still called the Ship of Theseus, Plutarch challenged his readers to decide whether it could truly be said to still be the same ship.
The adventures of Theseus continued long after he became the king of Athens. Some of these involved his closest friend, Pirithous.
Pirithous was the king of the Lapiths, a legendary tribe from Thessaly. The two had become friends over a challenge.
Pirithous had heard of the Athenian king’s strength, but wanted to see for himself whether the stories were true. To test Theseus, he stole the cattle of Marathon and drove them out of Attica.
Theseus gave chase and soon caught up with the mischievous cattle thief. They prepared to fight but were so impressed with one another that they chose to become friends instead.
According to some sources,Pirithous finally got to see Theseus’s strength during the Calydonian Boar Hunt. While Atalanta was ultimately declared the winner for striking the first blow against the beast, Pirithous and Theseus continued to be impressed with one another’s skills.
Homer referenced a lost story in the Iliad in which the two friends joined forces to destroy “a savage mountain-dwelling tribe.” In the Iliad, Nestor described this as a meeting between the strongest men in history and the strongest enemies possible.
One story of Theseus and Pirithous that has survived, however, is the account of the latter’s wedding feast.
Pirithous married Hippodamia. As a gesture of peace and friendship, the centaurs who lived in Thessaly’s mountains were invited as guests to the wedding feast.
The centaurs, however, were famously ill-mannered. They drank too much wine at the feast and in their intoxicated state decided to abduct the women and young boys around them, including the bride.
The Lapiths gave chase. Led by Theseus and Pirithous, they easily defeated the centaurs, making them all but extinct in Thessaly.
According to Ovid, Theseus fought against Eurythus, the strongest and fiercest of all the centaurs. He had instigated the abduction, so Theseus showed him no mercy.
In one well-known story, however, Theseus was not the savior of a kidnapped woman. Instead, he was part of the plot to take her.
Theseus and Pirithous once decided that, as sons of Poseidon and Zeus respectively, they should marry daughters of the gods instead of mortal women. They plotted together to abduct two of Zeus’s daughters and force them into marriage.
Theseus chose Helen, who was still a young girl at the time. They kidnapped her and left her in the custody of his mother, Aethra, until she was old enough to marry.
Helen was soon rescued by her brothers, Castor and Pollux, but Theseus and Pirithous decided to still go ahead with the second half of their plan.
Pirithous had chosen an even more renowned bride, and one who would be harder to kidnap. He wanted to marry Persephone.
Persephone was already the wife of Hades, but Theseus and Pirithous were undeterred. They traveled to the Underworld to find and steal its queen.
They wandered the Underworld aimlessly without finding Persephone’s whereabouts. Overcome by exhaustion, Theseus sat on a rock to rest.
As soon as he sat down, however, he was gripped with paralysis. Unable to move, he could not help Pirithous when his friend began to scream.
Pirithous had been set upon by the Furies, the avenging spirits who punished criminals. His plot to kidnap Persephone was an affront to the gods, and the Furies were merciless in their punishment.
As they led Pirithous away, Theseus remained immobilized on the rock. He stayed there for months, grieving for both himself and his best friend.
A reprieve finally came when Heracles was sent to the Underworld during his labors to capture Cerberus. When he recognized Theseus, he petitioned Hades and Persephone to show the heroic king mercy.
Persephone agreed to set Theseus free since the plan had not been his. Pirithous, however, could not be saved from the Furies.
Theseus eventually married a mortal woman who was the granddaughter, not the daughter, of Zeus. His wife was Phaedra, a daughter of King Minos and the younger sister of his first love, Ariadne.
The pair had two sons together, but there was little love between them. Eventually, Phaedra’s thoughts began to wander to another man.
That man, unfortunately, was her husband’s eldest son. Hippolytus was the son of Theseus and the Amazonian queen Hippolyta.
According to some accounts, her love for her stepson was not entirely Phaedra’s fault. Aphrodite cursed her when Hippolytus scorned the goddess to follow Artemis instead.
As a follower of Artemis, Hippolytus took a vow of chastity. Even if Phaedra were not his stepmother, he would have still rejected her out of devotion to his goddess.
Phaedra was so in love with her stepson that she decided that she could not live without him. Before killing herself, however, she wrote a letter to Theseus.
To keep her reputation from being tarnished in death, Phaedra claimed that Hippolytus had assaulted her and she was committing suicide to spare herself the shame. When Theseus heard this lie, he was enraged.
Poseidon had granted his son the power to make three wishes. Theseus used the first of these to curse his own son.
The curse caused Hippolytus’s horses to be frightened at the sight of a sea monster. Spooked, they ran wild and dragged their owner to death. Theseus was satisfied that justice had been served, until Artemis told him the truth of Phaedra’s deceit.
Artemis vowed that she would take vengeance on one of Aphrodite’s followers in return.
In later years, a belief emerged that Asclepius had resurrected Hippolytus and he lived on in Latium, Italy. Girls offered locks of hair to him before their weddings.
Theseus was regarded as one of the most powerful and influential heroes in Greek mythology. While he is best-known for defeating the Minotaur, he had many other adventures throughout his life.
On his trip to Athens, however, Theseus proved himself by choosing a more difficult route. He earned his reputation as a strong and cunning hero by defeating six guardians of the Underworld along the way.
He also defeated a legendary beast with close ties to the Minotaur. Medea hoped to kill him by sending him to fight the Marathonian Bull, which was another name for the Cretan Bull. Instead, however, he prevailed and her treachery was exposed.
Theseus was sometimes a flawed character, however. His thoughtlessness as he returned from Crete led to the death of his father by suicide.
Theseus kept the ship he returned on as a memorial and for ceremonial use. Plutarch wrote this into one of the ancient world’s most famous philosophical paradoxes, the question of the Ship of Theseus.
Theseus also conspired against the gods by helping his friend in an attempt to kidnap Persephone. While he was eventually rescued from the Underworld by Heracles, his friend Pirithous, King of the Lapiths, was given over to the Furies.
Tragedy struck within his own family, as well. A lie from his faithless wife caused Theseus to curse his own son, who was innocent of the crimes he was accused of.
According to one surviving account, Theseus eventually lost the support of the people of Athens. He was assassinated by a rival, but eventually honored again in his home city as one of its greatest heroes and kings.