The classic hero story: Theseus

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur (above) is, in my opinion, the classical storyline, the archetypal Ur-Story. I much prefer it to the story of Hercules as I described it recently. It has:

  • unity
  • direction and momentum, propelling us forward
  • complexity, with characters male and female being fleshed out in a way that lets us empathize
  • relevance, collectively and individually, to our own life stories.

It is, in short, far superior to the myth of Hercules as a story.

Part I: Identity

As I interpret the story, it has distinct parts, which we see re-used, like Lego blocks, in our stories today. (If any of the parts remind you of stories, let us know in the comments.)

First, there is the boy who needs to find a) his identity and b) his calling.

Theseus grows up with his mother at the court of Troezen, where his maternal grandfather is king. But he does not know who his father is (ie, he does not yet know his identity).

This he discovers when he lifts a huge boulder and finds under it a sword. The sword was hidden there for him by his father, who is, as Theseus’ mother now reveals, the King of Athens, Aegeus (as in: Aegean Sea). In fact, there will always be some uncertainty about even that, since Theseus mother was visited by both Aegeus and the god Poseidon on the night of Theseus’ conception.

Theseus now sets out to find his father (= his identity, in my reading), which is of course a difficult path. A bit as Hercules had to complete his twelve labors, Theseus has to overcome and kill a series of villains who have been making the road to Athens unsafe. Thereby he delivers a public good. I won’t dwell on each adventure, except one: I’ve already told you about Procrustes, who either stretched or amputated his guests so that they fit into his special bed. Well, Theseus forces him into his own bed, with deadly effect.

Having prevailed (and thus established himself as a promising hero), Theseus arrives in Athens, where nobody yet knows who he is. Only Medea (who will also feature in another hero story, Jason’s), who is the king’s wife, intuits that he is Aegeus’ natural and rightful heir, and thus a threat to her own son. Using her feminine weaponry–guile–she persuades Aegeus that Theseus is dangerous and must be poisoned.

Aegeus reclines at a banquet to see the stranger drink the poisoned wine. But just then Theseus draws his sword, the same sword that Aegeus had hidden long ago for his heir to find, to cut a slab of meat. It is a recognition scene: Aegeus knocks away the poisoned cup and they re-unite. Medea, knowing her game is up, flees.

Part II: Quest

The stage is now set for Theseus, having found his identity, to go on a quest, on the one big task that will define him (in contrast to Hercules, who had twelve tasks but none that was definitive). It so happens that Athens is suffering. Every nine years, the Athenians, having lost a war with Crete, have to send seven maidens and seven boys to Crete as human sacrifice for a monster, half man and half bull, the Minotaur. The Minotaur lives in a labyrinth built be the greatest architect of Greece, Daedalus, and nobody who enters finds his way out again.

Theseus volunteers to be one of the seven youths on the next ship, heeding his “call to action” in the language of the mono-myth theory. The ship sets off with a black sail, and Theseus tells his father that, if he succeeds in slaying the monster and survives, he will return with a white sail.

And how different he is from Hercules even now, as he approaches his biggest task. Hercules occasionally had helpers in his labors, but they were mere stage props in the background. Theseus, on the other hand, is capable of love. He meets Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and they fall for each other.

Without this woman and her love, Theseus would fail. He is vulnerable. He needs an other, a woman, to complete him. And so Ariadne gives him her clew, telling Theseus to unravel its thread as he descends into the labyrinth in order to be able to follow it back out if he should survive his encounter with the Minotaur.

Theseus descends, finds the Minotaur and a ferocious fight ensues. This is his best moment (depicted above), his great act of heroism. He kills the Minotaur, follows Ariadne’s thread back out, and is ready to return home with the news that Athens has been liberated.

Part III: Return

But returns are never easy. Theseus elopes with Ariadne and they sail for Athens. But Theseus, now that the danger is past, falls out of love with her. She has done so much for him, and they have been so close. But now he abandons her on an island (where, in some versions, she will become the wife of Dionysus).

Did the Greeks think he was right to do so? Did they think he was bad? This is beside the point. Theseus, unlike Hercules, is complex. He is human. He gets confused, distracted, unsure.  We can see ourselves in him. He makes mistakes.

He makes a big one, in fact. He promised his father to set a white sail if he succeeded in slaying the Minotaur but evidently forgets and appears on the horizon before Athens with the black sail. Aegeus sees it, assumes that his son has failed and died, and throws himself off a cliff to his death.

But this tragedy marks another rite of passage. Theseus is the heir to the throne, so, having liberated Athens, he now becomes its king.

The story as model

At some later point, we’ll have to take stock of how Theseus (and all subsequent heroes in this thread on Heroes) fits into our debate about heroism. But for now, let’s just think of his story as such: as a story.

It’s all there. A search (for identity), a recognition and reunion (with Aegeus), evil (the Minotaur), a quest and a journey, love and dependency (Ariadne), a peak moment (the slaying), a return, betrayal, tragedy, destiny.

Are these not the parts out of which we build all our stories?

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13 thoughts on “The classic hero story: Theseus

  1. Knowing his father suffered from HTD (hair-trigger depression), I think our hero skipped switching the sails on purpose to off daddy so he would become king. In fact, the whole story sounds like an admittedly effective yet fairly roundabout strategy to accomplish precisely that; perhaps the most elaborate alibi creation on record (all sub-conscious, of course).

    Are these the parts out of which we build all our stories? I suppose so. They’re certainly all in the plot of Clueless: quest, journey, recognition, reunion, etc., including the peak moment where Cher Horowitz gets mugged.

    • well, having only ever read your re-telling… the part that struck me hardest was indeed what you label “tragedy”. ditto to peter g. sounds like Theseus got some ‘xplaining to do ’bout that sail!

    • He probably pulled a laundry excuse. The white sails hadn’t come back from the ship’s dry cleaning or something.

      About three restaurants ago (I have Perpetual Waiter Syndrome, and I keep getting fired–hence my peculiar way of measuring time) I worked at a little Mediterranean place on Ninth Avenue. We used white napkins. One day, out of the blue, the owner decided that he wanted all black napkins. So from then on it was all black napkins. One day, a few months later, the laudry delivery of black napkins was late, so the busboys set up the dining room with our old white napkins instead. When I arrived for work, the whiteness of these napkins almost knocked me back out onto the sidewalk. Even though, objectively speaking, they weren’t any whiter than they had been prior to the changeover to black, since my eyes had gotten so used to the black ones, the white ones, by contrast, suddenly looked like white to the power of googol. Looking into the dining room was like staring straight into the Sun.

      The point being (a) our perceptions are not absolute but are in large measure a function of contrast, and (b) having just become acquainted with Theseus and his sails, I now wonder whether our whilom napkin switcheroos were as innocuous as they appeared at the time. Specifically, I wonder if their were any suspicious suicides within, say, a two-block radius from 52nd and Ninth Ave at the time of our switching to black, then again when we switched back to white, and then back to black again (once the black napkins arrived from the laundry). I’m also curious whether our owner had read the story of Theseus right before ordering the color change, and whose slaughter he may have been trying to signal.

    • Sounds harmless enough, but should this sudden urge to tap yourself suddenly escalate into a sudden urge to smash your head through a window pane, make sure to get help. We’re only talking about tragic stories here. We’re not acting them out.

    • Yes, but maybe Aegeus got the last laugh. I’ve heard that the Aegean Sea got it’s name because that is the sea he threw himself into.

      Also, have you noticed that in myths no one ever ‘jumps off a cliff’ or ‘jumps into the sea?’ They always ‘throw [or hurl] themselves.’

  2. You have the Minotaur representing evil, but isn’t the true evil Mad King Minos, ex-pirate, who traps Daedalus in the labyrinth to thank him for building it, and who traps Queen Pasiphae’s adulterous offspring in the same labyrinth? I’ve always seen the Minotaur as a mindless but amoral monster, but Minos as the dastard twirling his moustache and running The show. Incidentally he represents authority too, authority over the subjugated Athenians, which fits my personal model of heroism quite nicely.

    • Very good point, Jens. I had overlooked that.

      To recap for the others: Poseidon sent Minos a white bull, expecting Minos to sacrifice the bull to him. Minos did not. In return, Poseidon made Minos’ wife fall in love with the bull. She mated with the bull, and out came the Minotaur.

      And Minos = authority.

      Your thesis has legs.

  3. Since your posting on Theseus and my reading the Lords of the Seahave intersected, thought I might chime in here.

    After the successful Battle at Salamis (won by the Greeks over the mighty Persians), the strategist and founder, so to speak, of the Athenian Navy, Themistocles, was replaced by a young general, Cimon.

    Cimon’s most famous quest was to find and return to Athens the bones of Theseus. According to John Hale, “he [Theseus] was supposed to have died on the island of Skyros, but no one knew his burial place.”

    With the help of the Oracle at Delphi, Cimon went to Skyros and saw “an eagle tearing at a mound of earth.”

    After digging they did discover “a sarcophagus, a sword, a spear, and a skeleton of a very big man.”

    Dr. Hale goes on for two more pages about Theseus. Let me cite, in short version here:

    1.A genealogist/mythologist Pherecydes rewrote the Theseus myth.
    2. Another mythologist, Demon, changed the myth again. (The minotaur is changed into a general named Taurus).
    3.These changes (above) all allude to Theseus’ naval abilities.

    I’ll end with another fascinating quotation from the story.

    “Other additions to Theseus’ myth enhanced his role in Attica, established the first democratic assembly, encouraged the immigration of resident aliens, and stood as champion to the poor and oppressed, even to slaves. Thus the primeval founder of the city’s sea power also became the originator of Athenian liberty, unity, and democracy.”

    • That sounds like a good book.

      While you’re at it, let me add another tidbit:

      The Athenians preserved the ship of Theseus. But over the years and centuries, its various parts rotted and decayed. So the Athenians replaced one plank here, another plank there. At some point, they began to wonder:

      Is a ship that has had all its parts replaced still the same ship? It’s become a famous paradox since.

    • ……Is a ship that has had all its parts replaced still the same ship……..?

      Given that we who are human lose, each seven years, all our cells, which are replaced by new ones over that period, you might also ask: Are we the same person (people) we were seven years ago?

    • has story slipped to philosophy then to science (metaphysics) in 11 short posts, or maybe 3 since peter posts “our perceptions are not absolute but are in large measure a function of contrast”?

      plato vs aristotle and some bertrand russel… or am making another obscure tangent connection?

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