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Commentary

Chapter 23: Theseus and the Legends of Attica


Theseus is like Heracles in the range of his deeds, but he is the local hero of Athens and Attica, not the hero of all of Greece. He is closely connected with the Athenian community and its city, whereas Heracles could not fit easily into any community. They were honored together in the sculptures of the temple of Hephaestus (formerly called the “Theseum,” ca. 445 B.C.), which is still well preserved and overlooks the Agora in Athens.

As king of Athens, Theseus was credited with the political organization of Attica (the so-called synoecism or “living together”), a historical event whose precise date is unknown. Theseus became an important political symbol at Athens in the early fifth century B.C., the time when the poet Bacchylides wrote two dithyrambs in his honor (ca. 475 B.C.) and the political leader Cimon claimed to have discovered the hero’s bones on Scyros and brought them back to Athens, to be re-buried in a shrine in the center of the city. An important source for the legends of Theseus is the Life of Theseus by Plutarch (ca. 100 A.D.), in which myth is presented as history. Since Plutarch was interested in the moral excellence (or defects) of the people whose biographies he wrote, the relationship between myth and historical fact is not as distant as it would be for a modern biographer.

History and Legend. Theseus of all the legendary heroes has the strongest claims to being a real person. As stated above, he was for Plutarch a historical figure and he very likely was one of the kings of Athens perhaps in the ninth or eighth century B.C. But serious historical and chronological problems arise when we try to understand how he appears as the great conqueror of the legendary Minotaur and a king of Athens in the earlier Mycenaean Age and also a later king of Athens who has more serious claims to reality. Were there two Theseuses or only one, around whom all the stories clustered? Some scholars question the traditional dates established for the Dark Age that descended upon Greece after the fall of the Mycenaean kingdoms, ca. 1100–800 B.C.; on the basis of comparative studies, they would eliminate this Dark Age altogether or at least place the chronology of the legendary Mycenaean kings of Athens much closer in time to the chronology of the later historical monarchy, thus making one historical Theseus more comprehensible.

The excavations of Sir Arthur Evans in Crete seem to confirm details of Minoan-Mycenaean and Athenian saga. For one thing, the elaborate palace at Cnossus with its complexity of levels and maze of rooms does suggest a labyrinth. For the history and archaeology of the Minoan and Mycenaean period, see MLS, Chapter 2.

An entertaining novel retelling the life of Theseus in a very compelling fashion is The King Must Die by Mary Renault, who is exceptional in her ability to make classical mythology and legend come alive (Robert Graves is another so gifted, for example in his novel Hercules, My Shipmate). Renault has a firm grasp of both the ancient sources and modern archaeology, and by her sensitive art she is able to recreate the civilization and the characters in a most credible and exciting manner. Dominant is the overriding motif of Theseus caught in the archetypal battle between matriarchy and patriarchy. This young and inspiring hero could never fall victim to the horrifying, archaic ritual by which the king must die to insure the dominance and fertility of the earth mother.

Thematic Motifs. In the saga of Theseus we meet many familiar themes and motifs, all of which we shall not repeat here. Instead we single out some special characteristics of this legend, which should be identified and stressed.

Since many (although not necessarily all) of the elements in its composition are relatively late and modeled on the adventures of others heroes, especially Heracles, one can sometimes detect an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek, sophisticated amusement, e.g., in the whole aura of the telling of Theseus’ own labors.

Heroes do not always finish in a triumphant blaze of glory. Theseus ends his life badly as an exile, and the uncertain accounts of his death suggest that he slipped and fell off the highest cliff in Scyros or was pushed by Lycomedes.

Ariadne is a beautiful example of the abandoned heroine, who was once vital for the hero’s success. In the case of Ariadne, she finds love and salvation through Dionysus.

Such themes of a heroine’s help, her betrayal, and the dubious character and behavior of a hero appear with special clarity and force in the saga of Jason and Medea. The abandoned Medea is quite different in her nature and response from the abandoned Ariadne.

The Abandoned Ariadne. On the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C.) Theseus and the fourteen Athenian girls and boys whom he had rescued perform the Crane Dance at Delos in front of Ariadne. In other versions he leaves her on Naxos before going to Delos. The desertion of Ariadne on Naxos is the subject of a huge number works. Roman poets focused on the emotions of Ariadne before the coming of Dionysus: Catullus tells the story in Poem 64, and Ovid narrated it three times (in the Heroides, Ars Amatoria, and Metamorphoses). For the allegorical importance of the waking of Ariadne to the coming of Dionysus see MLS, Chapter 15.

The theme of the abandoned Ariadne has become an important motif in music. The early treatment by Monteverdi became very popular and still is to this day. His “Lamento d'’rianna” is all that survives from his complete opera Arianna, and many are the laments of Ariadne that have followed through the years, with musical texts that mirror her words and her varied emotions (despair, love, and hate) in the ancient accounts. A particular moving variation is to be found in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal). In her exquite aria of desolation, “Es gibt ein Reich,” Ariadne longs for death and awaits the arrival of the beautiful god Hermes who will free her from pain and bring her to the serene and pure kingdom of death. It is Bacchus, however, and not Hermes, who will save her as he declares his love in a thrilling final love duet.

Theseus in Literature. Towards the end of the fifth century B.C. several dramas show Theseus (and therefore the Athenians) in the favorable role of protector and champion of the helpless. The masterpiece of this portrayal is Sophocles’ last tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus (produced in 401 B.C., five years after the death of Sophocles). He offers refuge to Heracles in the Heracles Furens of Euripides (ca. 423 B.C.) and intervenes to protect the survivors of the Seven against Thebes in the Suppliant Women (ca. 424 B.C.). The portrait of the humane Theseus was further developed in the later middle ages and the Renaissance. This Theseus is the hero of Boccaccio’s epic in Italian, Teseïda (ca. 1340), from which Chaucer developed his character of Theseus in The Knight’s Tale (the first of the Canterbury Tales, 1395). Theseus is Duke of Athens, with Hippolyta as his consort, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595).

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