Theseus becomes king and makes Athens a democracy. He has several minor adventures while king: he helps the Argives after the War of the Seven against Thebes, when the Thebans refuse to allow the defeated to bury their dead (see Part Five, Chapter II); he helps Oedipus and his daughters (same chapter); and prevents Hercules from killing himself after his insanity (see Part Three, Chapter III). Theseus fights the Amazons twice—once attacking them, once defending their attack on Athens—and marries their queen, Hippolyta (also called Antiope), who bears him his son Hippolytus. He is one of the Argonauts (see Part Two, Chapter III) and a participant in the Calydonian Hunt (see Part Three, Chapter IV). He defeats the Centaurs, vicious half-men half-horse beasts, after they kill the bride of his best friend, Pirithoüs. Theseus helps his friend again, when Pirithoüs foolishly decides to pursue Persephone as his next wife. Hades outwits them, tricking them into his Chair of Forgetfulness, which makes their minds blank and paralyzes them. Hercules rescues Theseus, repaying his debt, but Pirithoüs remains there forever.
Theseus’s story becomes tragic. He marries Ariadne’s sister, Phaedra, who subsequently falls in love with his son, Hippolytus. Hippolytus rejects Phaedra, who kills herself and leaves a suicide note accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus curses and exiles Hippolytus, who soon dies. Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus. He then goes to visit his friend, King Lycomedes, who mysteriously kills him.
Analysis: Chapters I–II
These two stories reinforce earlier themes about fate and the danger of hubris. When King Acrisius tries to alter fate by locking Danaë up and casting her out to sea, his actions only set the stage for that very fate to be fulfilled. Likewise, when Theseus oddly oversteps his place in trying to help Pirithoüs steal Persephone, he fails for the first time and needs Hercules’ rescue. These myths explicate their moral lessons by showing that correct behavior is rewarded but rule-breaking—such as hubris towards the gods—is punished.
As Hamilton points out, Perseus’s story almost resembles a fairy-tale, with its magic objects and divine intervention. Hermes and Athena tell Perseus almost precisely what to do. Aside from his wily craftiness with the Graiae, his success is due entirely to his sandals, wallet, cap, and sword. Even his motivation is simple, driven by self-preservation and a desire for a beautiful wife. Once he has won these simple aims, he disappears from our view.
Theseus, on the other hand, has many great achievements, and embodies a more highly developed heroism than Perseus. Right from the start, he seeks challenges and wins by his own hand, lifting the rock his father has placed. Then, in the very act of setting off to find his father, he altruistically chooses to better the path for other travelers by killing the bandits. Theseus promptly volunteers himself as a victim for the Minotaur, out of a sense of kinship with the Athenian youth and a desire to end the unfair tribute in blood. Though Theseus escapes from the Labyrinth with Ariadne’s golden thread, he conquers the Minotaur himself. Never one to rest on his laurels, he initiates the institution of democracy, serves as a wise judge in disputes, and comes to the aid of justice when the rulers of Thebes withhold it from the Argives. His constant aim is the impartial and balanced protection of decency and the defenseless, and he faces each new challenge with wisdom, gravity, and bravery.
Theseus’s story is enduring and deeply culturally rooted, especially in his native Athens. Perseus’s tale, in contrast, is a straightforward adventure of pure good versus pure evil. Theseus’s story is more intricate, human, and realistic. Interestingly, few of Theseus’s challenges come from pure evil or malice—even the adventure of the Minotaur, which seems a case of simple monstrosity, is more complex and with longer roots. The whole tribute of Athenian flesh to Minos stems from Aegeus’s earlier wronging of Minos—the death of a son entrusted to Aegeus’s hospitality. Theseus is, then, caught in a complicated situation that predates him. In this sense, his story resembles the great Greek tragedies, which almost universally portray heroes or heroines who begin trapped in the complicated situations they have inherited, and which force them to make difficult decisions through a process of exhaustive soul-searching.