Chapter 23

Theseus and the Legends of Attica

The legends of Attica fall into three groups:

  • Foundation myths and legends of the early kings of Athens.
  • The saga of Theseus.
  • Legends involving Minos, king of Crete.


Cecrops. The Athenians said that they were autochthonous (sprung from the earth). The first king was CECROPS [see'kropz], or KEKROPS, who was autochthonous and half-serpentine. Attica was called "Cecropia" after him.
The contest between Poseidon and Athena for control of Attica took place in Cecrops’ time (see MLS, Chapter 8). For Cecrops’ daughters, see Erichthonius.

Erichthonius. The second king, ERICHTHONIUS [er-ik-thohn'i-us], or ERICHTHONIOS, was also autochthonous and half-serpentine, sprung from the semen of Hephaestus that fell to the ground when Hephaestus tried to violate Athena. Erichthonius was put in a basket and given to the daughters of Cecrops, who ignored the taboo against looking inside the basket. Driven mad, they killed themselves, and Erichthonius was brought up by Athena. He founded the festival of the Panathenaea and set up the wooden statue of Athena on the Acropolis (see MLS, Chapter 8). In another version, the daughters of Cecrops (Aglauros, Herse, and Pandrosos) did not kill themselves. Herse became mother of Cephalus by Hermes. Aglauros, because of her earlier disobedience and because she asked Hermes for gold as a reward for her help in bringing him to Herse, was punished by Athena with insatiable envy. Hermes turned her into a rock.

Erechtheus. The third king was ERECHTHEUS [e-rek'the-us]. He was later worshiped at Athens and was closely associated with Poseidon. The ERECHTHEUM [e-rek-thee'um], or ERECHTHEION, was a temple on the Acropolis dedicated to him and to Athena Polias (i.e., Athena as guardian of the city). It contained the wooden statue of Athena set up by Erichthonius, and the olive tree and salt “sea” produced in the contest of Poseidon and Athena. It also housed the tomb of Erechtheus.
Erechtheus defended Athens against Eumolpus, son of Poseidon and king of Eleusis. To secure the victory he sacrificed his daughter (sometimes called Chthonia). Erechtheus killed Eumolpus and was himself killed by a blow from Poseidon’s trident.

Creusa and Ion. In his drama Ion [eye'on], Euripides made CREUSA [kree-ou'sa], or KREOUSA, a daughter of Erechtheus who survives after all her sisters have been sacrificed to Earth to win the victory. By Apollo she became the mother of Ion, who was rescued from exposure by Hermes and brought up at Delphi. Later he was recognized by Creusa and returned to Athens. He became the ancestor of the Ionic tribes of Athens and the Greek colonies in Ionia.

Cephalus and Procris. CEPHALUS [se'fa-lus], or KEPHALOS, the son of Hermes and Herse (Cecrops’ daughter), married PROCRIS [pro'kris], or PROKRIS, a daughter of Erechtheus. Cephalus was a hunter loved by Eos, goddess of the dawn. In disguise he seduced his wife and she fled, becoming a follower of Artemis. When she returned to Cephalus, Artemis gave her a hound, Laelaps, which always caught its prey, and a javelin that never missed its mark. (The hound chased a fox that could not be caught and finally both were turned into stone.) Later Procris secretly watched Cephalus as he rested in the forest from hunting. When he called on the breeze (Latin aura) to cool him, she thought he was calling on the Dawn (aurora in Latin) and moved. Cephalus threw the javelin into the bushes where he had seen the movement and killed his wife.

Orithyia and Boreas and their Children. Another daughter of Erechtheus was ORITHYIA [or-i-theye'ya], or OREITHYIA. By BOREAS [bohr'e-as], the North Wind, she was the mother of ZETES [zee'teez] and CALAÏS [kay'la-is], or KALAÏS (who were winged), and of Cleopatra and Chione. Cleopatra married Phineus, king of Thrace (see MLS, Chapter 24) and Chione, by Poseidon, was the mother of Eumolpus, the king of Eleusis against whom Erechtheus fought (see above).

Pandion. The fourth king was PANDION [pan-deye'on]. Pandion was driven out of Athens by Metion. His four sons recovered the throne, and eventually Aegeus ruled as the fifth king of Athens, while his brother, Nisus, ruled at Megara.

Philomela and Procne. Pandion was the father of PHILOMELA [fil-oh-mee'la] and PROCNE [prok'nee], or PROKNE. Procne went to Thrace as wife of TEREUS [teer'e-us], and her son was ITYS [eyet'is]. When Philomela visited her sister, Tereus raped and mutilated her and shut her up in a hut in the forest. Procne discovered the truth and revenged herself on Tereus by killing Itys and serving him to his father to eat. She was turned into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe. (For the Greeks, Procne became the nightingale and Philomela the swallow.)


AEGEUS [ee'je-us], or AIGEUS, son of Pandion and king of Athens, was father of Theseus by AETHRA [ee'thra], or AITHRA, daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen, where Theseus spent his childhood. Aegeus left a sword and pair of sandals under a rock as tokens by which he could recognize his son. When he was strong enough to lift the rock, Theseus recovered the tokens and set out for Athens.

The Labors of Theseus. On his journey from Troezen to Athens, Theseus performed six labors.
1. He killed a son of Hephaestus, PERIPHETES [pe-ri-fee'teez], also called Corynetes (“club-man”), from the club that was his weapon.
2. He killed SINIS [seye'nis], also called Pityocamptes (“pine-bender”), by tying him to two bent trees, which he then released; this had been the way in which Sinis killed his victims.
3. He killed the monstrous Sow of Crommyon.
4. He killed SCIRON [skeye'ron], or SKIRON, who kicked travelers on the narrow path on the sea-cliffs into the sea, where a huge turtle devoured them. Theseus killed him in the same way.
5. He wrestled to the death with CERCYON [ser'si-on], or KERKYON at Eleusis.
6. He killed PROCRUSTES [prokrus'teez], or PROKRUSTES (“the stretcher”), who would kill travelers by making them lie on a bed. He would hammer out those who were too short, until they fitted the bed, and he would shorten with a saw those who were too long. Theseus killed him by his own methods.

Theseus and Aegeus. Theseus arrived at Athens and was almost poisoned by Aegeus on the advice of Medea (see MLS, Chapter 24). Aegeus recognized his son in time by the sword that Theseus bore, which Aegeus had left in Troezen, and made him his successor. Pallas (brother of Aegeus) and his sons disputed Theseus’ claim to the throne and many of them were killed by Theseus.

The Bull of Marathon. Theseus caught the bull of Marathon and sacrificed it at Athens to Apollo. On his way to Marathon he was entertained by HECALE [hek'a-lee], or HEKALE, and after her death, on his orders, she was honored at the annual festival of Zeus Hecalus.

Theseus and Amphitrite

Theseus and Amphitrite, Attic red-figure cup   ca. 500 B.C.

Theseus Kills the Minotaur. Theseus’ most important myth is the killing of the MINOTAUR [mi'noh-tawr], the monstrous son of MINOS [meye'nohs] and PASIPHAË [pa-sif'a-ee], which was shut up in the Labyrinth in the palace of Minos at CNOSSUS [knos'sus], or KNOSSOS. While visiting Athens, Androgeos, son of Minos, was killed by the Athenians, and Minos attacked Athens (and her ally Megara), in a war of revenge. As a result, the Athenians agreed to send fourteen girls and boys every seven years to be devoured by the Minotaur, and Theseus volunteered to go. On the voyage to Crete, Minos challenged Theseus to prove that he was the son of Poseidon by recovering a ring that he threw into the sea. Theseus jumped into the sea and came to the palace of Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon, who gave him a robe and a wreath (and, presumably, the ring).

Theseus and Ariadne. At Knossos, Theseus, was helped by ARIADNE [a-ri-ad'nee]. Some say Ariadne gave Theseus the wreath to illuminate the Labyrinth, but others say she gave him a thread by which to find his way out of the Labyrinth. Thus Theseus slew the Minotaur and emerged from the Labyrinth. He sailed from Crete with Ariadne, whom he deserted on the island of NAXOS [nak'sos], also called Dia. She was rescued by Dionysus, who took her wreath and set it in the heavens as the constellation Corona, making Ariadne his wife (see MLS, Chapter 13).

Theseus, King of Athens. Theseus sailed from Naxos to Delos, where he danced the Crane dance (a traditional dance at Delos with labyrinthine movements). From Delos he sailed to Athens, forgetting to change his sails from black to white, the signal to Aegeus that he had been successful. When Aegeus saw the black sails he threw himself into the sea, which was thenceforth called the Aegean Sea, and Theseus became king of Athens.

Theseus and the Amazons. Theseus joined Heracles in his ninth labor (see MLS, Chapter 22) and fought the Amazons, bringing back with him the Amazon queen HIPPOLYTA [hip-pol'i-ta] (or, others say, ANTIOPE [an-teye'oh-pee]), with whom he fathered Hippolytus (see MLS, Chapter 10). He defended Athens from an attack by the Amazons during which Hippolyta (or Antiope) died.

Other Adventures. Theseus took part in the Argonauts’ expedition (see MLS, Chapter 24) and the Calydonian boar hunt (see MLS, Chapter 25).

Theseus and Phaedra. At some time after his encounter with the Amazons and the birth of Hippolytus, Theseus married PHAEDRA [fee'dra], daughter of Minos and sister of Ariadne (see MLS, Chapter 10).

Theseus’ Friendship with Pirithoüs. PIRITHOÜS [pi-ri'thoh-us], or PIRITHOÖS, son of Ixion and king of the Thessalian Lapiths, was Theseus’ friend. Theseus attended the marriage feast of Pirithoüs and Hippodamia and fought against the drunken centaurs (see MLS, Chapter 5). They later decided each to take a wife worthy of their divine ancestry. Together they seized Helen for Theseus.

Theseus and Helen. While Theseus was away in the Underworld, he left Helen with his mother, Aethra, in the Attic village of Aphidnae. The Dioscuri, Helen’
s brothers, rescued her and took Aethra back to Sparta as Helen’s slave. She went with Helen to Troy.

Theseus and Pirithoüs in the Underworld. After seizing Helen, the two friends then descended to the Underworld to seize Persephone for Pirithoüs. There Hades imprisoned them on magic chairs; Heracles set Theseus free during his twelfth labor, but Pirithoüs was left in the house of Hades for ever.

Theseus the Protector. Theseus protected Oedipus in his old age and was present at his “translation” at Colonus. He championed the mothers and widows of the Seven against Thebes (see MLS, Chapter 17), and he offered a refuge at Athens to Heracles after he had murdered his wife and children (see MLS, Chapter 22).

Theseus’ Death and Successors. Theseus was driven out of Athens by the usurper Menestheus and went to the island of Scyros, where King Lycomedes probably killed him. Demophon, son of Theseus, succeeded Menestheus as king and rescued his grandmother, Aethra, at the fall of Troy. He gave refuge to Alcmena, mother of Heracles, and helped the Heraclidae (see MLS, Chapter 22).
The last king of Athens was Codrus, who gave up his life to bring victory to Athens.


Minos was the son of Europa and Zeus (see MLS, Chapter 17), and much of his legend has been told above.

Minos and Scylla. In his war against Athens and Megara, because of the murder of his son Androgeos, Minos attacked Megara. SCYLLA [sil'la], or SKYLLA, daughter of Nisus, king of Megara, betrayed her father out of love for Minos, by cutting off a magic purple lock from the head of Nisus. Rejected by Minos, she clung to his ship as he sailed away and was turned into a sea bird, the ciris.

Daedalus, Pasiphaë, and the Minotaur. The Athenian craftsman and inventor DAEDALUS [dee'da-lus], or DAIDALOS, fled from Athens to Crete after he had hurled PERDIX [per'diks], the inventor of the saw, off the Acropolis. Perdix was turned into a partridge.
Minos had kept for himself a bull, sent from the sea by Poseidon, instead of sacrificing it to the god as he had vowed. Poseidon caused PASIPHAË [pa-sif'a-ee] to fall in love with the bull, and Daedalus built a hollow wooden cow, into which Pasiphaë climbed to mate with the bull. From this union came the MINOTAUR [mi'noh-tawr], which was shut up in the Labyrinth, built by Daedalus.

Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus escaped from Crete by flying with the aid of wings that he invented for himself and his son, ICARUS [ik'a-rus], or IKAROS. Icarus, flying too near the sun, fell into the sea, but Daedalus came to Sicily, where he was protected by King Cocalus. The story of Daedalus and Icarus is similar in its motifs to that of Apollo and Phaëthon (see MLS, Chapter 3).

The Death of Minos. Minos followed Daedalus to Sicily and there was killed by the daughters of Cocalus. As son of Zeus he became a judge in the Underworld.

The Children of Minos. Of the children of Minos, Ariadne and Phaedra have been mentioned. His son Catreus was associated with Rhodes, where he was worshiped as a hero. Another son, Deucalion, was the father of the Trojan war hero Idomeneus (see MLS, Chapters 19 and 20). A third son, GLAUKUS [glaw'kus], or GLAUKOS, was miraculously brought back to life (after falling into a vat of honey) by the seer Polyidus. The death of the fourth son, Androgeos, has already been mentioned.

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