Theseus is still important and depicted as a hero to this day, having spent his entire life as a warrior, completing daring feats, and being used as the hero character in contemporary media. The ancient Athenians saw the various heroic acts accredited to him as the actions that contributed to the establishment of democracy in Athens, the birthplace of Greek democracy (Hornblower et al.). Greek and Roman mythology continues to have an impact in the twenty-first century, and the tale of Theseus exemplifies this effect by demonstrating that Athens can be governed as a free state.
Theseus was born of Aethra, the mother and two fathers, a god, and a mortal. Despite being twice married, Aegeus, one of Athens’ prehistoric kings, had no successor to the throne, so he sought Aethra’s hand in marriage. He had consulted an oracle in Delphi where he had set pilgrimage. He asked for advice from his good friend Pittheus, a Troezen king, after the oracle failed to provide a straightforward response. Pittheus happily married his friend’s daughter Aethra secretly. Theseus, the seed of Poseidon and Aegeus, was born divine with human characteristics since her mother laid with both Aegeus and Poseidon on her wedding night (Hornblower et al.).
Aegeus decided to return to Athens but left behind his sandals and sword hidden under a boulder. He asked her to have his son roll the rock to take his royal inheritance once he came of age and was strong enough. When he came of age and retrieved his father’s sandals and sword Theseus decided to take a dangerous route on a journey set for his destiny despite being advised to take a safer route by his grandfather Pittheus.
On his journey to Athens, Theseus encountered various monsters and challenges. He defeated four bandits, Periphetes, Skiron, Sinis, and Procrustes; he also defeated the monster pig, Phaia, and a giant, a marathonian bull. His first challenge was Perithes at Epidaurus. Perithes who used to beat up travelers with an iron club died the same way in the hands of Theseus, who took his club and kept it as a trophy (Hershkowitz 180).In Corinth, Theseus encountered the second bandit, Sinis, who used to tie his victims on trees and catapult them to their death. Theseus battled him just to end him by the same means the bandit Sinis used to kill his victims.
In Megara, Theseus met his third challenge, Skiron, who would bully travelers to wash his feet close to the cliff, then he would kick them off the cliff to be either killed by the fall or be eaten by a sea monster. Theseus challenged him and threw Skiron off the cliff to be devoured by the sea monster. Along the river Cephissus, Theseus met a bandit by the name of Procrustes who used to torture his victims to death. He had a board where he tied his victims, and if they were taller than the board, he could chop off their limbs, and if they were shorter than the board, he would stretch them out for them to fit. Procrustes met the same demise in the hands of Theseus. After killing the four bandits on his way to Athens, Theseus encountered an ill-tempered sow known as Phaia as his last challenge to Athens, with ease like the four bandits before Theseus defeated and killed the sow. Upon reaching Athens, Theseus was faced with another challenge where Medea sorceress poisoned Aegeus’ mind to send his son to kill the marathonian bull, thinking that he would die in that encounter. Theseus killed the marathonian bull and came back to Athens to claim his throne.
Though already in Athens, his challenges did not end as he was yet to face his greatest challenge. King Minos of Crete used to sacrifice to the Minotaur by sending seven young men and seven young women to the Minotaur. Theseus volunteered to go, but before he left, he promised his father that he would return victorious. In this encounter, Theseus won, but on his way back, he forgot to hoist white sails to signify a win, so his father thought he had died and threw himself off a cliff (Hershkowitz 208).
As the rightful heir to Athens, Theseus became the king and declared to the people that he did not wish to rule over them but wanted a people’s government where all would be equal. Theseus transformed Athens into a strong and powerful business stop through the seas and ports they had. He also established isthmian games, which unified the many small settlements of the area into a single political unit, remembering the challenges he faced on his journey to Athens from Troizen.
The Influence of Theseus on Culture
Theseus has been the subject of many art and literature pieces over the centuries. Both Sophocles and Euripides wrote tragedies defending democracy and citing Theseus as the best example and the father of democracy. Vases painted in black, a good example is the François vase depicts scenes from the two most challenging battles Theseus had to face, that is, with the marathon bull and the Minotaur (Hershkowitz 320).
Theseus has had a great influence over the past decades, and until today he still has an influence on our culture. This can be seen in popular movies like the Hunger Games and Inception. In ‘The Hunger Games,’ Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen. Suzanne Collins, the author of the novels, describes Katniss as “a revised Theseus” (Collins). In a 2010 movie by Christopher Nolan, Inception, the main character has the ability to enter the world of people’s dreams but needs someone to pull him back, and that’s how he meets Ariadne, who helps him. This is a very open inspiration from the ancient stories of Theseus, who met Ariadne, a princess in Minoa, and they fall in love. She eventually plays a huge role in the victory of Theseus against the Minotaur. Christopher Nolan adapts the mythical story of Theseus being helped by Ariadne and creates a story of a modern Ariadne helping Dom Cobb in the movie Inception.
A labyrinth is a maze of complex irregular networks of passages or paths where finding one’s way is difficult. Card Labyrinths are still important today, found on holy grounds, in parks, and across recovery campuses around the world though they were built thousands of years ago (Nguyen 17). The Chartres Labyrinth, located on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France and still intact after 800 years, is the world’s most walked-through labyrinth.
All his life Theseus has been a hero to his people even though he possessed powers from his father Poseidon, his rule on Athens was democratic, and it set an example for all Greece to follow. It is clear that despite the passage of time, the dauntless protector of Athens, Theseus, remains an important and a depicted hero to this day, having spent his entire life as a warrior, carrying out daring labors, and being used as a hero role in modern media.
Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay (Hunger Games, Book Three). Scholastic Inc., 2010.
Hershkowitz, Aaron. “Getting carried away with Theseus: The evolution and partisan use of the Athenian abduction of Spartan Helen.” Myth, Text, and History at Sparta. Gorgias Press, 2016. 169-324.
Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, eds. The Oxford classical dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Nguyen, Dao. “Asian American Women in the Academy: Multiple Success Case Study of their Leadership Labyrinths and Practices.” American Journal of Qualitative Research 4.3 (2020): 14-44.