Theseus was the son of AEgeus, king of Athens, and of Aethra,
daughter of the king of Troezene. He was brought up at Troezene,
and, when arrived at manhood, was to proceed to Athens and
present himself to his father. AEgeus, on parting from Aethra,
before the birth of his son, placed his sword and shoes under a
large stone, and directed her to send his son to him when he
became strong enough to roll away the stone and take them from
under it. When she thought the time had come, his mother led
Theseus to the stone, and he removed it with ease, and took the
sword and shoes. As the roads were infested with robbers, his
grandfather pressed him earnestly to take the shorter and safer
way to his father's country, by sea; but the youth, feeling in
himself the spirit and the soul of a hero, and eager to signalize
himself like Hercules, with whose fame all Greece then rang, by
destroying the evil-doers and monsters that oppressed the
country, determined on the more perilous and adventurous journey
His first day's journey brought him to Epidaurus, where dwelt a
man named Periphetes, a son of Vulcan. This ferocious savage
always went armed with a club of iron, and all travellers stood
in terror of his violence. When he saw Theseus approach, he
assailed him, but speedily fell beneath the blows of the young
hero, who took possession of his club, and bore it ever
afterwards as a memorial of his first victory.
Several similar contests with the petty tyrants and marauders of
the country followed, in all of which Theseus was victorious.
One of these evil-doers was called Procrustes, or the Stretcher.
He had an iron bedstead, on which he used to tie all travellers
who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he
stretched their limbs to make them fit it; if they were longer
than the bed, he lopped off a portion. Theseus served him as he
had served others.
Having overcome all the perils of the road, Theseus at length
reached Athens, where new dangers awaited him. Medea, the
sorceress, who had fled from Corinth after her separation from
Jason, had become the wife of AEgeus, the father of Theseus.
Knowing by her arts who he was, and fearing the loss of her
influence with her husband, if Theseus should be acknowledged as
his son, she filled the mind of AEgeus with suspicions of the
young stranger, and induced him to present him a cup of poison;
but at the moment when Theseus stepped forward to take it, the
sight of the sword which he wore discovered to his father who he
was, and prevented the fatal draught. Medea, detected in her
arts, fled once more from deserved punishment, and arrived in
Asia, where the country afterwards called Media received its name
from her. Theseus was acknowledged by his father, and declared
The Athenians were at that time in deep affliction, on account of
the tribute which they were forced to pay to Minos, king of
Crete. This tribute consisted of seven youths and seven maidens,
who were sent every year to be devoured by the Minotaur, a
monster with a bull's body and a human head. It was exceedingly
strong and fierce, and was kept in a labyrinth constructed by
Daedalus, so artfully contrived that whoever was enclosed in it
could by no means find his way out unassisted. Here the Minotaur
roamed, and was fed with human victims.
Theseus resolved to deliver his countrymen from this calamity, or
to die in the attempt. Accordingly, when the time of sending off
the tribute came, and the youths and maidens were, according to
custom, drawn by lot to be sent, he offered himself as one of the
victims, in spite of the entreaties of his father. The ship
departed under black sails, as usual, which Theseus promised his
father to change for white, in case of his returning victorious.
When they arrived in Crete, the youths and maidens were exhibited
before Minos; and Ariadne, the daughter of the king, being
present, became deeply enamored of Theseus, by whom her love was
readily returned. She furnished him with a sword, with which to
encounter the Minotaur, and with a clew of thread by which he
might find his way out of the labyrinth. He was successful, slew
the Minotaur, escaped from the labyrinth, and taking Ariadne as
the companion of his way, with his rescued companions sailed for
Athens. On their way they stopped at the island of Naxos, where
Theseus abandoned Ariadne, leaving her asleep. For Minerva had
appeared to Theseus in a dream, and warned him that Ariadne was
destined to be the wife of Bacchus, the wine-god. (One of the
finest pieces of sculpture in Italy, the recumbent Ariadne of the
Vatican, represents this incident. A copy is in the Athenaeum
gallery, Boston. The celebrated statue of Ariadne, by Danneker,
represents her as riding on the tiger of Bacchus, at a somewhat
later period of her story.)
On approaching the coast of Attica, Theseus, intent on Ariadne,
forgot the signal appointed by his father, and neglected to raise
the white sails, and the old king, thinking his son had perished,
put an end to his own life. Theseus thus became king of Athens.
One of the most celebrated of the adventures of Theseus is his
expedition against the Amazons. He assailed them before they had
recovered from the attack of Hercules, and carried off their
queen, Antiope. The Amazons in their turn invaded the country of
Athens and penetrated into the city itself; and the final battle
in which Theseus overcame them was fought in the very midst of
the city. This battle was one of the favorite subjects of the
ancient sculptors, and is commemorated in several works of art
that are still extant.
The friendship between Theseus and Pirithous was of a most
intimate nature, yet it originated in the midst of arms.
Pirithous had made an irruption into the plain of Marathon, and
carried off the herds of the king of Athens. Theseus went to
repel the plunderers. The moment Pirithous beheld him, he was
seized with admiration; he stretched out his hand as a token of
peace, and cried, "Be judge thyself, what satisfaction dost
thou require?" "Thy friendship," replied the Athenian, and they
swore inviolable fidelity. Their deeds corresponded to their
professions, and they ever continued true brothers in arms. Each
of them aspired to espouse a daughter of Jupiter. Theseus fixed
his choice on Helen, then but a child, afterwards so celebrated
as the cause of the Trojan war, and with the aid of his friend he
carried her off. Pirithous aspired to the wife of the monarch of
Erebus; and Theseus, though aware of the danger, accompanied the
ambitious lover in his descent to the underworld. But Pluto
seized and set them on an enchanted rock at his palace gate,
where they remained till Hercules arrived and liberated Theseus,
leaving Pirithous to his fate.
After the death of Antiope, Theseus married Phaedra, daughter of
Minos, king of Crete. Phaedra saw in Hippolytus, the son of
Theseus, a youth endowed with all the graces and virtues of his
father, and of an age corresponding to her own. She loved him,
but he repulsed her advances, and her love was changed to hate.
She used her influence over her infatuated husband to cause him
to be jealous of his son, and he imprecated the vengeance of
Neptune upon him. As Hippolytus was one day driving his chariot
along the shore, a sea-monster raised himself above the waters,
and frightened the horses so that they ran away and dashed the
chariot to pieces. Hippolytus was killed, but by Diana's
assistance Aesculapius restored him to life. Diana removed
Hippolytus from the power of his deluded father and false
stepmother, and placed him in Italy under the protection of the
Theseus at length lost the favor of his people, and retired to
the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros, who at first received him
kindly, but afterwards treacherously slew him. In a later age
the Athenian general Cimon discovered the place where his remains
were laid, and caused them to be removed to Athens, where they
were deposited in a temple called the Theseum, erected in honor
of the hero.
The queen of the Amazons whom Theseus espoused is by some called
Hippolyta. That is the name she bears in Shakespeare's Midsummer
Night's Dream, the subject of which is the festivities
attending the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Mrs. Hemans has a poem on the ancient Greek tradition that the
"Shade of Theseus" appeared strengthening his countrymen at the
battle of Marathon.
Mr. Lewis Morris has a beautiful poem on Helen, in the Epic of
Hades. In these lines Helen describes how she was seized by
Theseus and his friend:
----------"There came a night
When I lay longing for my love, and knew
Sudden the clang of hoofs, the broken doors,
The clash of swords, the shouts, the groans, the stain
Of red upon the marble, the fixed gaze
Of dead and dying eyes, that was the time
When first I looked on death, and when I woke
>From my deep swoon, I felt the night air cool
Upon my brow, and the cold stars look down,
As swift we galloped o'er the darkling plain
And saw the chill sea-glimpses slowly wake,
With arms unknown around me. When the dawn
Broke swift, we panted on the pathless steeps,
And so by plain and mountain till we came
to Athens, ----------."
Theseus is a semi-historical personage. It is recorded of him
that he united the several tribes by whom the territory of Attica
was then possessed into one state, of which Athens was the
capital. In commemoration of this important event, he instituted
the festival of Panathenaea, in honor of Minerva, the patron
deity of Athens. This festival differed from the other Grecian
games chiefly in two particulars. It was peculiar to the
Athenians, and its chief feature was a solemn procession in which
the Peplus or sacred robe of Minerva was carried to the
Parthenon, and suspended before the statue of the goddess. The
Peplus was covered with embroidery, worked by select virgins of
the noblest families in Athens. The procession consisted of
persons of all ages and both sexes. The old men carried olive-
branches in their hands, and the young men bore arms. The young
women carried baskets on their heads, containing the sacred
utensils, cakes, and all things necessary for the sacrifices.
The procession formed the subject of the bas-reliefs by Phidias
which embellished the outside of the temple of the Parthenon. A
considerable portion of these sculptures is now in the British
museum among those known as the "Elgin marbles."
OLYMPIC AND OTHER GAMES
We may mention here the other celebrated national games of the
Greeks. The first and most distinguished were the Olympic,
founded, it was said , by Jupiter himself. They were celebrated
at Olympia in Elis. Vast numbers of spectators flocked to them
from every part of Greece, and from Asia, Africa, and Sicily.
They were repeated every fifth year in midsummer, and continued
five days. They gave rise to the custom of reckoning time and
dating events by Olympiads. The first Olympiad is generally
considered as corresponding with the year 776 B.C. The Pythian
games were celebrated in the vicinity of Delphi, the Isthmian on
the Corinthian isthmus, the Nemean at Nemea, a city of Argolis.
The exercises in these games were of five sorts: running,
leaping, wrestling, throwing the quoit, and hurling the javelin,
or boxing. Besides these exercises of bodily strength and
agility, there were contests in music, poetry, and eloquence.
Thus these games furnished poets, musicians, and authors the best
opportunities to present their productions to the public, and the
fame of the victors was diffused far and wide.
The labyrinth from which Theseus escaped by means of the clew of
Ariadne, was built by Daedalus, a most skilful artificer. It was
an edifice with numberless winding passages and turnings opening
into one another, and seeming to have neither beginning nor end,
like the river Maender, which returns on itself, and flows now
onward, now backward, in its course to the sea. Daedalus built
the labyrinth for King Minos, but afterwards lost the favor of
the king, and was shut up in a tower. He contrived to make his
escape from his prison, but could not leave the island by sea, as
the king kept strict watch on all the vessels, and permitted none
to sail without being carefully searched. "Minos may control the
land and sea,:" said Daedalus, "but not the regions of the air.
I will try that way." So he set to work to fabricate wings for
himself and his young son Icarus. He wrought feathers together
beginning with the smallest and adding larger, so as to form an
increasing surface. The larger ones he secured with thread and
the smaller with wax, and gave the whole a gentle curvature like
the wings of a bird. Icarus, the boy, stood and looked on,
sometimes running to gather up the feathers which the wind had
blown away, and then handling the wax and working it over with
his fingers, by his play impeding his father in his labors. When
at last the work was done, the artist, waving his wings, found
himself buoyed upward and hung suspended, poising himself on the
beaten air. He next equipped his son in the same manner, and
taught him how to fly, as a bird tempts her young ones from the
lofty nest into the air. When all was prepared for flight, he
said, "Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height,
for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too
high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be
safe." While he gave him these instructions and fitted the wings
to his shoulders, the face of the father was wet with tears, and
his hands trembled. He kissed the boy, not knowing that it was
for the last time. Then rising on his wings he flew off,
encouraging him to follow, and looked back from his own flight to
see how his son managed his wings. As they flew the ploughman
stopped his work to gaze, and the shepherd learned on his staff
and watched them, astonished at the sight, and thinking they were
gods who could thus cleave the air.
They passed Samos and Delos on the left and Lebynthos on the
right, when the boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the
guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven.
The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the
feathers together, and they came off. He fluttered with his
arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air. While his mouth
uttered cries to his father, it was submerged in the blue waters
of the sea, which thenceforth was called by his name. His father
cried, "Icarus, Icarus, where are you?" At last he saw the
feathers floating on the water, and bitterly lamenting his own
arts, he buried the body and called the land Icaria in memory of
his child. Daedalus arrived safe in Sicily, where he built a
temple to Apollo, and hung up his wings, an offering to the god.
Daedalus was so proud of his achievements that he could not bear
the idea of a rival. His sister had placed her son Perdix under
his charge to be taught the mechanical arts. He was an apt
scholar and gave striking evidences of ingenuity. Walking
on the seashore he picked up the spine of a fish. Imitating it,
he took a piece of iron and notched it on the edge, and thus
invented the SAW. He put two pieces of iron together, connecting
them at one end with a rivet, and sharpening the other ends, and
made a PAIR OF COMPASSES. Daedalus was so envious of his
nephew's performances that he took an opportunity, when they were
together one day on the top of a high tower, to push him off.
But Minerva, who favors ingenuity, saw him falling, and arrested
his fate by changing him into a bird called after his name, the
Partridge. This bird does not build his next in the trees, nor
take lofty flights, but nestles in the hedges, and mindful of his
fall, avoids high places.
The death of Icarus is told in the following lines by Darwin:
"---------- with melting wax and loosened strings
Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings;
Headlong he rushed through the affrighted air,
With limbs distorted and dishevelled hair;
His scattered plumage danced upon the wave,
And sorrowing Nereids decked his watery grave;
O'er his pale corse their pearly sea-flowers shed,
And strewed with crimson moss his marble bed;
Struck in their coral towers the passing bell,
And wide in ocean tolled his echoing knell."
CASTOR AND POLLUX
Castor and Pollux were the offspring of Leda and the Swan, under
which disguise Jupiter had concealed himself. Leda gave birth to
an egg, from which sprang the twins. Helen, so famous afterwards
as the cause of the Trojan war, was their sister.
When Theseus and his friend Pirithous had carried off Helen from
Sparta, the youthful heroes Castor and Pollux, with their
followers, hasted to her rescue. Theseus was absent from Attica,
and the brothers were successful in recovering their sister.
Castor was famous for taming and managing horses, and Pollux for
skill in boxing. They were united by the warmest affection, and
inseparable in all their enterprises. They accompanied the
Argonautic expedition. During the voyage a storm arose, and
Orpheus prayed to the Samothracian gods, and played on his harp,
whereupon the storm ceased and stars appeared on the heads of the
brothers. From this incident, Castor and Pollux came afterwards
to be considered the patron deities of seamen and voyagers (One
of the ships in which St. Paul sailed was named the Castor and
Pollux. See Acts xxviii.II.), and the lambent flames, which in
certain sates of the atmosphere play round the sails and masts of
vessels, were called by their names.
After the Argonautic expedition, we find Castor and Pollux
engaged in a war with Idas and Lynceus. Castor was slain, and
Pollux, inconsolable for the loss of his brother, besought
Jupiter to be permitted to give his own life as a ransom for him.
Jupiter so far consented as to allow the two brothers to enjoy
the boon of life alternately, passing one day under the earth and
the next in the heavenly abodes. According to another form of
the story, Jupiter rewarded the attachment of the brothers by
placing them among the stars as Gemini, the Twins.
They received divine honors under the name of Dioscuri (sons of
Jove). They were believed to have appeared occasionally in later
times, taking part with one side or the other, in hard-fought
fields, and were said on such occasions to be mounted on
magnificent white steeds. Thus, in the early history of Rome,
they are said to have assisted the Romans at the battle of Lake
Regillus, and after the victory a temple was erected in their
honor on the spot where they appeared.
Macaulay, in his Lays of Ancient Rome, thus alludes to the
"So like they were, no mortal
Might one from other know;
White as snow their armor was,
Their steeds were white as snow.
Never on earthly anvil
Did such rare armor gleam,
And never did such gallant steeds
Drink of an earthly stream.
. . . . . . . . .
"Back comes the chief in triumph
Who in the hour of fight
Hath seen the great Twin Brethren
In harness on his right.
Safe comes the ship to haven
Through billows and through gales,
If once the great Twin Brethren
Sit shining on the sails."
In the poem of Atalanta in Calydon Mr. Swinburne thus describes
the little Helen and Clytemnestra, the sisters of Castor and
"Even such I saw their sisters, one swan white,
The little Helen, and less fair than she,
Fair Clytemnestra, grave as pasturing fawns,
Who feed and fear the arrow; but at whiles,
As one smitten with love or wrung with joy,
She laughs and lightens with her eyes, and then
Weeps; whereat Helen, having laughed, weeps too,
And the other chides her, and she being chid speaks naught,
But cheeks and lips and eyelids kisses her,
Laughing; so fare they, as in their blameless bud,
And full of unblown life, the blood of gods."
"Sweet days before them, and good loves and lords,
And tender and temperate honors of the hearth;
Peace, and a perfect life and blameless bed"
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