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?

Bookmark and Share