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Chapter 23: Theseus and the Legends of Attica


Read the Commentary on Chapter 23.


Familiarize yourself with the map of Theseus’ trek to Athens.


From the Perseus Vase Catalog investigate the images of Erichthonios and Theseus.

View Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne.

Examine Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.


Compare and contrast Apollodorus’ account of the early kings of Athens and Theseus and Plutarch’s Life of Theseus.

Read Isocrates 10.22–1.37, which contains a lengthy digression on Theseus.

Read Ovid’s Heroides 4, a letter from Phaedra to Hippolytus, and Heroides10, a letter from Ariadne to Theseus.

Consult selections from Pausanias regarding incidents in the legend of Theseus.

You may wish to reread the sections of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, in which Theseus, a man to whom exile was not unknown, offers refuge to the fugitive Oedipus.

Read Chaucer's “The Knight’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, in which the story of Theseus is told. Compare Chaucer’s telling with the ancient sources you have read.

Provide a critique of Mary Renault’s novel The King Must Die.

Compact Discs and Videos

Here is another operatic masterpiece by Richard Strauss that everyone should experience: Ariadne auf Naxos. The second act depicts the desolate, abandoned Ariadne redeemed by an ardent Bacchus. See the Commentary for Ariadne’s Lament.

Errand into the Maze, the ballet by Martha Graham, with music by Gian Carlo Menotti, offers a psychological interpretation of the killing of the Minotaur, to which you should give a critical response.

You may pursue further the complexity of the maze-archetype by watching the video Labyrinth, The History of the Maze. What are the motifs that have the most meaning for you?

A landmark in the history of early opera is Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna. Study the text and assess the appropriateness of the musical setting. Compare this Ariadne’s lament to the cantata by Haydn, Arianna a Naxos.

If you are so inclined, listen to at least one of two rock songs “Icarus Ascending,” and “Icarus—Borne on the Wings of Steel.”


What is the meaning of labyrinth; and a Procrustean bed? What is the nature of an Icarian act?

Essay Questions

  1. Relate the story of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus.

  2. Identify archtypal motifs or themes in the saga of Theseus.

  3. The bull image runs through tales of Athens as well as of Crete. Trace the use of this image in the stories you have read. What might be the significance of its ubiquitous presence?

  4. Compare and contrast the legends of Icarus and Phaëthon.

  5. What relationships do you detect between Minoan-Mycenaean excavations and the legend of Theseus?

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