Theseus and Aethra by Laurent de La Hyre

Theseus and Aethra by Laurent de La Hyre (ca. 1635–1636)

Theseus—son of Aegeus (or Poseidon) and Aethra—was by far the most important of the mythical heroes and kings of Athens. His heroic accomplishments included killing the Minotaur, though he was also remembered as a political innovator who transformed his city into a major regional power.

Theseus was raised by his mother in Troezen but moved to Athens upon reaching adulthood. He traveled widely and performed many heroic exploits, eventually sailing to Crete to kill the Minotaur.

As king of Athens, Theseus greatly improved the government and expanded the power of his city. He was sometimes seen as the mythical predecessor of the political unification of Attica.

Who were Theseus’ parents?

Theseus was the product of an affair between Aegeus, the king of Athens, and Aethra, a princess of Troezen. But in some traditions, the sea god Poseidon slept with Aethra the same night as Aegeus, making Theseus his son instead.

Theseus was raised by his mother Aethra in Troezen. The identity of his father was kept secret until Theseus had proven himself worthy of his inheritance.

Theseus and Aethra by Laurent de La Hyre

Whom did Theseus marry?

Theseus had a weakness for women and was not always loyal to them. He eventually married Phaedra, a princess from Crete. Their marriage ended disastrously, however, when Phaedra fell passionately in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ son by another consort.

Aside from Phaedra, Theseus had many lovers throughout his storied career. These included Phaedra’s own sister Ariadne; an Amazon queen named either Antiope or Hippolyta; and even the famous Helen, according to some traditions.

Ariadne by Asher Brown Durand, after John Vanderlyn

Ariadne by Asher Brown Durand, after John Vanderlyn (ca. 1831–1835)

How did Theseus die?

Like many Greek heroes, Theseus did not die happily. In the common tradition, he was exiled from Athens after his recklessness turned the city and its nobility against him. He traveled to the small island of Scyros, where he fell to his death from a cliff (or was thrown from the cliff by the local king).

Roman fresco of Theseus from Herculaneum

Roman fresco of Theseus from Herculaneum (ca. 45–79 CE)

Theseus Slays the Minotaur

Shortly after meeting his father Aegeus in Athens, Theseus voyaged to the island of Crete as one of the fourteen “tributes” sent annually as a sacrifice to the Minotaur—a half-man, half-bull hybrid imprisoned in the Labyrinth. Theseus vowed to kill the Minotaur and end the bloody custom once and for all.

In Crete, Theseus’ good looks won him the love of Ariadne, the daughter of the king. Ariadne helped Theseus on his mission by giving him a ball of thread that he unraveled as he made his way through the maze-like Labyrinth. After finding and killing the Minotaur, Theseus re-wound the thread to safely escape.

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur by Antoine-Louis Barye

Theseus Slaying the Minotaur by Antoine-Louis Barye (1843)

The name Theseus was likely derived from the Greek word θεσμός ( thesmos ), which means “institution.” Theseus’ name thus reflects his mythical role as a founder or reformer of the Athenian government.


In his iconography, Theseus is usually depicted as a handsome, strong, and beardless young hero. Theseus’ battle with the half-bull Minotaur was an especially popular theme in Greek art.

Theseus’ father was either Poseidon , the god of the sea, or Aegeus, the king of Athens. His mother was Aethra, the daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen.

Family Tree

Theseus was the son of Aethra, the daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen, and either Aegeus or Poseidon. Aegeus, who was the king of Athens, had no children and therefore no heir to his throne. Hoping to remedy this, Aegeus went to Delphi, where he received a strange prophecy:

The bulging mouth of the wineskin, O best of men, loose not until thou hast reached the height of Athens. [1]

On his way back to Athens, Aegeus stopped at Troezen, where he was entertained by King Pittheus. Aegeus revealed the prophecy to Pittheus, who understood its meaning and plied Aegeus with wine. Aegeus then slept with Pittheus’ daughter Aethra. 

Before leaving Troezen, Aegeus hid a sword and sandals under a large stone. He told Aethra that if she had a son, she should wait until he had grown up and bring him to the stone. If he managed to lift it and retrieve the tokens, he should be sent to Athens.

According to other versions, Aethra had also been seduced by the god Poseidon, and it was he who was Theseus’ father. [2] In any case, Theseus grew up to be a strong and intelligent young man. When he had come of age, his mother took him to the stone where Aegeus had long ago deposited his sword and sandals. Theseus successfully retrieved these tokens and left for Athens to find his father.

Journey to Athens

Instead of travelling to Athens by sea, Theseus decided to make a name for himself by taking the more dangerous overland route through the Greek Isthmus. At the time, it was plagued by bandits and monsters. On his way to Athens, Theseus cleared the Isthmus in what are sometimes called the “Six Labors of Theseus”:

At Epidaurus, Theseus met Periphetes, famous for slaughtering travellers with a giant club. Theseus killed Periphetes and claimed the club for himself.

Theseus then met Sinis, who would bend two pine trees to the ground, tie a traveller between the bent trees, and then let the trees go, thus tearing apart the traveller’s limbs. Theseus killed Sinis using this same method. He then seduced Sinis’ daughter Perigone, who later gave birth to a son named Melanippus.

Theseus next killed the monstrous Crommyonian Sow (sometimes called Phaea), [3] an enormous pig that terrorized travellers.

Near Megara, Theseus met the robber Sciron, who would throw his victims off a cliff. Theseus, as usual, used his opponent’s method against him and threw Sciron off a cliff.

At Eleusis, Theseus fought Cerycon , who challenged travellers to a wrestling match and killed whomever he defeated. Following this model, Theseus wrestled Cerycon, beat him, and killed him.

Finally, Theseus defeated Procrustes (sometimes called Damastes), who had two beds that he would offer to travellers. If the traveller was too tall to fit in the bed, Procrustes would cut off their limbs; if they were too short, he would stretch them until they fit. Theseus killed Procrustes by putting him on one of his beds, cutting off his legs, and then decapitating him.

Arrival at Athens

After clearing the Isthmus, Theseus finally arrived at Athens. He did not, however, reveal himself to his father Aegeus immediately. Aegeus became suspicious of the stranger and consulted Medea , whom he had married after sleeping with Aethra. 

Medea realized that Theseus was the son of Aegeus, but she did not want Aegeus to recognize him. She was afraid he would choose Theseus as his heir over her own son. Medea therefore tried to trick her husband into killing Theseus. 

In some stories, Medea convinced Aegeus to send Theseus to slay the monstrous Bull of Marathon, hoping that the bull would kill him first.

Theseus fighting the bull of Marathon kylix, circa 440-430 bce

Painting in tondo of kylix showing Theseus fighting the Bull of Marathon by unknown artist (c. 440–430 BC).

In other stories, Medea tried to poison Theseus. But Aegeus recognized Theseus by the sword he was carrying (the sword he had left with Aethra at Troezen) and stopped him from drinking the poison. Medea fled into exile.

Medea was not the only threat to Theseus’ standing in Athens. The sons of Aegeus’ brother Pallas (often called the Pallantides) had hoped to inherit the throne if their uncle Aegeus died childless. According to some sources, the sons of Pallas ambushed or rebelled against Theseus and Aegeus. This attempt failed, however, and after Theseus killed the sons of Pallas he was secured as the heir to the throne of Athens. [4]

The Minotaur

During Aegeus’ reign, the Athenians were forced to send a regular tribute of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls) to Minos , the king of the island of Crete. This was reparation for the murder of Minos’ son Androgeus in Athens several years before.

When the fourteen tributes reached Crete, they were fed to the Minotaur, a terrible bull-man hybrid born from an affair between a divine bull and Minos’ wife Pasiphae: 

A mingled form and hybrid birth of monstrous shape, ... Two different natures, man and bull, were joined in him. [5]

The Minotaur was imprisoned in the Labyrinth, a giant maze built by the Athenian architect Daedalus. None of the tributes who were sent into the Labyrinth ever made it out. 

Soon after his arrival in Athens, Theseus sailed off as one of the fourteen tributes dedicated to the Minotaur. According to some traditions, Theseus actually volunteered to go to Crete, vowing that he would kill the Minotaur and bring an end to the terrible tribute once and for all. [6]

The ship on which he and the other tributes embarked had a black sail; before the ship left for Crete, Aegeus made Theseus swear that if he managed to return alive he would have the black sail changed to a white one. 

At Crete, Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and agreed to help him kill the Minotaur if he would take her with him to Athens. Before Theseus entered the Labyrinth, Ariadne gave him a ball of thread. Theseus unravelled the thread as he moved through the Labyrinth, killed the Minotaur, and found his way out of the Labyrinth by following the thread back to the exit. Theseus and Ariadne then escaped from Crete with the other tributes.

Aison cup showing the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur in the presence of Athena

Detail of the Aison cup showing Theseus slaying the Minotaur in the presence of Athena (c. 435–415 BC).

On their journey back to Athens, Theseus stopped at the island of Naxos. There are different versions of what happened to Ariadne there. According to some, Theseus simply abandoned her. Another well-known story, however, claims that Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne while she was on Crete and carried her off for himself. In any case, Theseus arrived at Athens without Ariadne. [7]

Ariadne weeping as revenge points towards Theseus ship, Roman fresco

Ariadne weeps as Theseus' ship leaves her on the island of Naxos. Roman fresco from Pompeii at Naples Archaeological Museum.

Whether distracted by the loss of Ariadne or for some other reason, Theseus forgot to raise the white flag as he came back to Athens. Aegeus, who was watching from a tower, saw the black flag and thought that his son had died.

Overcome by grief, Aegeus killed himself by leaping into the sea (this is the origin, according to the Greeks, of the name of the “Aegean Sea”). Theseus arrived to find his father dead and so became king of Athens.

The Amazons

Like many heroes of Greek mythology, Theseus waged war with the Amazons . The Amazons were a fierce race of warrior women who lived near the Black Sea or the Caucasus. Their queens were said to be the daughters of the war god Ares . 

While among the Amazons, Theseus fell in love with their queen, Antiope (sometimes called Hippolyta), [8] and carried her off with him to Athens. The Amazons then attacked Athens in an attempt to get Antiope back. In some versions of the myth, the Amazons laid waste to the countryside of Attica and only left after Antiope was accidentally killed in battle. [9]  

In other versions, Theseus tried to abandon Antiope so that he could marry Phaedra, a princess from Crete; when the jilted Antiope tried to stop the wedding, Theseus killed her himself. [10] In all versions of the story, however, Theseus finally managed to drive the Amazons away from Athens after the death of Antiope, though only after Antiope had given him a son named Hippolytus.

After the death of Antiope, Theseus married Phaedra, the daughter of the Cretan king Minos and thus the sister of his former lover Ariadne. Phaedra bore Theseus two children, Acamas and Demophon . 

Mosaic showing Phaedra and Hippolytus, circa 3rd century ce

Roman mosaic of Phaedra and Hippolytus at House of Dionysus, Cyprus (ca. 3rd century CE).

Eventually, however, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, the son of Theseus’ first wife, Antiope. Phaedra tried to convince Hippolytus to sleep with her. When he refused, Phaedra tore her clothing and falsely claimed that Hippolytus had raped her. Theseus was furious and prayed to Poseidon that Hippolytus might be punished.

Poseidon, unfortunately, heard Theseus’ prayer and sent a bull from the sea to charge Hippolytus as he was riding his chariot near the coast. Hippolytus’ horses were frightened; he lost control of the chariot, became entangled in the reins, and was trampled to death.

Theseus discovered his son’s innocence too late; Phaedra, ashamed and guilty, hanged herself. [11]  

Abduction of Helen and Persephone

Theseus took part in several other adventures. Some sources include him among the Argonauts who sailed with Jason to retrieve the Golden Fleece, or with the heroes who took part in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. 

In many of these adventures, Theseus was accompanied by his best friend Pirithous , the king of the Lapiths of northern Greece. In one famous tradition, Theseus and Pirithous both vowed to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen, and Pirithous helped him abduct her from her father Tyndareus’ home in Sparta. 

Pirithous then chose Persephone as his bride, even though she was already married to Hades . Theseus left Helen in the care of his mother, Aethra, while he and Pirithous went to the Underworld to abduct Persephone. Predictably, this did not end well. Theseus and Pirithous were caught trying to abduct Persephone and trapped in the Underworld. 

While Theseus was away from Athens, Helen’s brothers, Castor and Polydeuces , retrieved her and took Aethra prisoner. Meanwhile, Theseus was eventually rescued from Hades by Heracles, but Pirithous remained trapped in eternal punishment for his impiety (in the most common version of the story). [12] When Theseus returned to Athens, he found that Helen was gone and that his mother had become her slave in Sparta.

Athenian Government and Death

Theseus was said to have been responsible for the synoikismos (“dwelling-together”), the political and cultural unification of the region of Attica under the rule of the city-state of Athens. In later times, some Athenians even traced the origins of democratic government to Theseus’ rule, even though Theseus was a king. Theseus was always seen as an important founding figure of Athenian history.

As an old man, Theseus fell out of favor in Athens. Driven into exile, he came to Scyrus, a small island in the Aegean Sea. It was in Scyrus that Theseus died. In some stories, he was thrown from a cliff by Lycomedes, the king of Scyrus. In 475 BCE, the Athenians claimed to have identified the remains of Theseus on Scyrus and brought them back to be reinterred in Athens.

Festivals and/or Holidays

The festival of Theseus, called the Theseia, was celebrated in Athens in the autumn. It was presided over by the Phytalidae, the hereditary priests of Theseus. The Phytalidae were said to have been the direct descendants of the fourteen tributes Theseus saved when he killed the Minotaur. [13] Little else is known of the festivals or worship of Theseus.

The hero-cult of Theseus was almost certainly concentrated solely in the city of Athens. The main sanctuary of Theseus, the Theseion, may have existed as early as the sixth century BCE. [14] It was most likely located at the center of Athens, in the vicinity of the Agora. Though the Theseion was probably the main center of Theseus’ hero-worship, little else is known about it, and there is still virtually no archaeological evidence of it. There were likely other sanctuaries of Theseus in Athens by the fourth century BCE.

Pop Culture

Theseus has had a rich afterlife in modern popular culture. The 2011 film Immortals is loosely based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur; Theseus is portrayed by Henry Cavill. Theseus also features in the miniseries Helen of Troy (2003), in which he kidnaps Helen with his friend Pirithous. 

The myths of Theseus are also retold in many modern books and novels. Mary Renault’s critically acclaimed The King Must Die (1958) is a historicized retelling of Theseus’ early life and his battle with the Minotaur; its sequel, The Bull from the Sea (1962), deals with Theseus’ later career. The myth of Theseus and Antiope is also reimagined in Steven Pressfield’s novel Last of the Amazons (2002).

Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The House of Asterion (published in Spanish in 1947) presents an interesting variation on the myth of the Minotaur, told from the perspective of the Minotaur rather than Theseus. The myth of Theseus inspired Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy (2008–2010).

Greek Gods & Goddesses

Not many heroes are best known for their use of silk thread to escape a crisis, but it is true of Theseus. The Greek demi-god is known for feats of strength but is even better remembered for divine intelligence and wisdom. He had many great triumphs as a young man, but he died a king in exile filled with despair.

Theseus grew up with his mother, Aethra. She was the daughter of Pittheus, the king of Troezen. Theseus had two fathers. One father was Aegeus, King of Athens, who visited Troezen after consulting the Oracle at Delphi about finding an heir. He married Aethra then left her behind, telling her that if she had a child and if that child could move a boulder and retrieve the sword and sandals he had buried underneath, then she should send that child to Athens. Theseus’ other father was Poseidon , the god of the sea, who joined Aethra for a seaside walk on her wedding night.

When Theseus grew up, he easily picked up the large boulder and found his father’s items, so his mother gave him directions to Athens. Rather than take the safer sea route, he chose to take the land route even though he knew there would be multiple dangers ahead. Along the road he had to fight six battles. He defeated four bandits, one monster pig and one giant, winning every battle through strength and cunning.

When Theseus arrived at Athens, he did not reveal himself to his father. His father had married the sorceress Medea . She recognized Theseus and wanted to kill him. First, she sent him on a dangerous quest to capture the Marathonian bull. When he was successful, she gave him poisoned wine. Medea’s husband knew of her plan. However at the last moment, Aegeus saw Theseus had the sword and sandals he had buried and knocked the cup from his hand. Medea fled to Asia. Aegeus welcomed Theseus and named him as heir to the throne.

Battle with the Minotaur

Sometime later came Theseus’ greatest challenge. Every seven years King Minos of Crete forced Athens to send seven courageous young men and seven beautiful young women to sacrifice to the Minotaur , a half-man, half-bull creature that lived in a complicated maze under Minos’ castle. This tribute was to prevent Minos starting a war after Minos’ son, Androgens, was killed in Athens by unknown assassins during the games. Theseus volunteered to be one of the men, promising to kill the Minotaur and end the brutal tradition. Aegeus was heartbroken, but made Theseus promise to change the ship’s flags from black to white before he returned to show that he had succeeded.

When Theseus arrived in Crete, King Minos’ daughter Ariadne fell in love with him and promised to help him escape the labyrinth if he agreed to take her with him and marry her. He agreed. Ariadne brought him a ball of silk thread, a sword and instructions from the maze’s creator Daedalus – once in the maze go straight and down, never to the left or right.

Theseus and the Athenians entered the labyrinth and tied the end of the thread near the door, letting out the string as they walked. They continued straight until they found the sleeping Minotaur in the center. Theseus attacked and a terrible battle ensued until the Minotaur was killed. They then followed the thread back to the door and were able to board the ship with the waiting Ariadne before King Minos knew what had happened.

That night Theseus had a dream – likely sent by the god Dionysus – saying he had to leave Ariadne behind because Fate had another path for her. In the morning, Theseus left her weeping on the Island of Naxos and sailed to Athens. Heartbroken, perhaps cursed by Ariadne, Theseus forgot to change the ship’s flags from black to white.

His father, seeing the black flags on the approaching ship, assumed Theseus was dead . Aegeus threw himself off the cliffs and into the sea to his death. The sea east of Greece is still called the Aegean Sea.

Ariadne would later marry Dionysus.

King of Athens

Theseus became King of Athens after his father’s death. He led the people well and united the people around Athens. He is credited as a creator of democracy because he gave up some of his powers to the Assembly. He continued to have adventures.

During one of his adventures, he travelled to the Underworld with his friend Pirithous, who was pursuing Persephone . Both friends sat on rocks to rest and found that they could not move. Theseus remained there for many months until he was rescued by his cousin Heracles , who was in the Underworld on his 12th task. Pirithous had been led away by Furies in the meantime and was not rescued.

On another adventure with Heracles, he set out to rescue the Amazon Queen Hippolyta’s girdle. After the quest, Theseus married her and they had a son named Hippolytus. When Hippolytus was a young man, he caused a fit of jealousy between the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis .

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, caused Phaedra, who was Theseus’ second wife and Ariadne’s younger sister, to fall in love with her stepson. Phaedra killed herself and left a note blaming Hippolytus’ bad treatment of her for her actions.

When Theseus saw the note, he called on his father Poseidon to take revenge on Hippolytus. A sea monster frightened the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot so that he was thrown from it, got tangled in the reins and dragged. Then Artemis let Theseus know he had been deceived and he ran to find his son, who died in his arms.

Due to his despair over losing his wife and his son, Theseus quickly lost popularity and the support of his people. He fled Athens for the Island of Skyros, where the king feared Theseus was plotting to overthrow him and pushed him off a cliff and into the sea to this death.

After His Death

Some ancient Greeks believed Theseus was a historical king of Athens. During the Persian Wars from 499 to 449 B.C., Greek soldiers reported seeing Theseus’ ghost on the battlefield and believed it helped lead them to victory. In 476 B.C., the Athenian Kimon is said to have found and returned Theseus’ bones to Athens and then built a shrine that also served as a sanctuary for the defenseless.

The ship Theseus used to sail to Crete was also believed to have been preserved in the city harbor until about 300 B.C. As wooden boards rotted they were replaced to keep the ship afloat. In time, people questioned whether any of the boards could have been from the original ship, which led to a question philosophers debate called the Ship of Theseus Paradox: “Is an object that has had all of its parts replaced still the original object?”

Quick Facts about Theseus

— Semigod ( demigod ) with two fathers, including the sea god Poseidon — Defeated the Minotaur — King of Athens credited with development of democracy — Lost his throne after the death of his wife and son — Aegean Sea is named for his human father — Frequently depicted in ancient and Romantic art — Experienced six tasks on his journey to Athens — Some believed him to be based on a historic kin

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Theseus, Great Hero of Greek Mythology

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Theseus is one of the great heroes of Greek mythology, a prince of Athens who battled numerous foes including the Minotaur , the Amazons , and the Crommyon Sow , and traveled to Hades, where he had to be rescued by Hercules . As the legendary king of Athens, he is credited with inventing a constitutional government, limiting his own powers in the process. 

Fast Facts: Theseus, Great Hero of Greek Mythology

  • Culture/Country: Ancient Greece
  • Realms and Powers: King of Athens
  • Parents: Son of Aegeus (or possibly of Poseidon) and Aethra
  • Spouses: Ariadne, Antiope, and Phaedra
  • Children: Hippolytus (or Demophoon)
  • Primary Sources: Plutarch "Theseus;" Odes 17 and 18 written by Bacchylides in the first half of 5th c BCE, Apollodorus, many other classic sources 

Theseus in Greek Mythology

The King of Athens, Aegeus (also spelled Aigeus), had two wives, but neither produced an heir. He goes to the Oracle of Delphi who tells him "not to untie the mouth of the wineskin until he arrived at the heights of Athens." Confused by the purposefully-confusing oracle, Aegeus visits Pittheus, the King of Troezen (or Troizen), who figures out that the oracle means "don't sleep with anyone until you return to Athens." Pittheus wants his kingdom to unite with Athens, so he gets Aegeus drunk and slips his willing daughter Aethra into Aegeus' bed. 

When Aegeus wakes up, he hides his sword and sandals under a large rock and tells Aethra that should she bear a son, if that son is able to roll away the stone, he should bring his sandals and swords to Athens so that Aegeus can recognize him. Some versions of the tale say that she has a dream from Athena saying to cross over to the island of Sphairia to pour a libation, and there she is impregnated by Poseidon . 

Theseus is born, and when he comes of age, he is able to roll away the rock and take the armor to Athens, where he is recognized as heir and eventually becomes king.

Appearance and Reputation 

By all the various accounts, Theseus is steadfast in the din of battle, a handsome, dark-eyed man who is adventurous, romantic, excellent with the spear, a faithful friend but spotty lover. Later Athenians credit Theseus as a wise and just ruler, who invented their form of government, after the true origins were lost to time.

Theseus in Myth

One myth is set in his childhood: Hercules (Herakles) comes to visit Theseus' grandfather Pittheus and drops his lion skin cloak on the ground. The children of the palace all run away thinking it is a lion, but the brave Theseus whacks it with an ax.

When Theseus decides to make his way to Athens, he chooses to go by land rather than sea because a land journey would be more open to adventure. On his way to Athens, he slays several robbers and monsters—Periphetes in Epidaurus (a lame, one-eyed club-wielding thief); the Corinthian bandits Sinis and Sciron; Phaea (the " Crommyonion Sow ," a giant pig and its mistress who were terrorizing the Krommyon countryside); Cercyon (a mighty wrestler and bandit in Eleusis); and Procrustes (a rogue blacksmith and bandit in Attica).

Theseus, Prince of Athens

When he arrives in Athens, Medea —then the wife of Aegeus and mother of his son Medus—is the first to recognize Theseus as Aegeus' heir and attempts to poison him. Aegeus eventually does recognize him and stops Theseus from drinking the poison. Medea sends Theseus on an impossible errand to capture the Marathonian Bull, but Theseus completes the errand and returns to Athens alive. 

As the prince, Theseus takes on the Minotaur , a half-man, half-bull monster owned by King Minos and to whom Athenian maidens and youths were sacrificed. With the help of the princess Ariadne, he slays the Minotaur and rescues the young people, but fails to provide a signal to his father that all is well—to change the black sails to white ones. Aegeas leaps to his death and Theseus becomes king.

King Theseus 

Becoming a king does not suppress the young man, and his adventures while king include an attack on the Amazons, after which he carries off their queen Antiope. The Amazons, led by Hippolyta, in turn invade Attica and penetrate into Athens, where they fight a losing battle. Theseus has a son named Hippolytus (or Demophoon) by Antiope (or Hippolyta) before she dies, after which he marries Ariadne's sister Phaedra.

Theseus joins Jason's Argonauts and participates in the Calydonian boar hunt . As a close friend of Pirithous, the king of Larissa, Theseus helps him in the battle of the Lapithae against the centaurs. 

Pirithous develops a passion for Persephone , the Queen of the Underworld, and he and Theseus travel to Hades to abduct her. But Pirithous dies there, and Theseus is trapped and must be rescued by Hercules. 

Theseus as Mythical Politician

As king of Athens, Theseus is said to have broken up the 12 separate precincts in Athens and united them in a single commonwealth. He is said to have established a constitutional government, limited his own powers, and distributed the citizens into three classes: Eupatridae (nobles), Geomori (peasant farmers), and Demiurgi (craft artisans).

Theseus and Pirithous carry off the legendary beauty Helen of Sparta , and he and Pirithous take her away from Sparta and leave her at Aphidnae under Aethra's care, where she is rescued by her brothers the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). 

The Dioscuri set up Menestheus as Theseus successor—Menestheus would go on to lead Athens into battle over Helen in the Trojan Wars . He incites the people of Athens against Theseus, who retires to the island Scryos where he is tricked by King Lycomedes and, like his father before him, falls into the sea. 

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904. Print
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  • Homer, Odyssey , 11.321
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece , 1.17.3
  • Thucydides, Histories , 2.15
  • Diodorus, Historical Library , 4.59

Theseus, the king of Athens

The semi-mythical, semi-historical Theseus was the great hero of ancient Athens . The numerous heroic deeds ascribed to him were seen by the ancient Athenians as the acts that led to the birth of democracy in the Attic city-state, the cradle of Greek democracy.

Since he is portrayed as the contemporary of Hercules, it can be assumed that he belonged to the generation previous to the Trojan War. His grand exploits against vicious villains and dreadful monsters are said to be an allegorical representation of how Theseus got rid of the tyrants, got the Athenians free from fear and brought an end to the burdensome tribute the city had to pay to foreign powers.

Discover the myth of Theseus, the legendary king

Having two fathers.

Aegeus, one of the prehistoric kings of Athens, although twice married, had no heir to the throne. So he made a pilgrimage to consult the celebrated oracle of Delphi . As he didn't get a clear-cut answer from the oracle, he sought advice from his wise friend Pittheus, king of Troezen (in Argolis). Pittheus happily gave away his daughter Aethra to his friend at a secret wedding.

Aethra, after having lain with her husband on her wedding night, decided to take a walk in the moonlight, which took her through the shallow waters of the sea to the Sferia island, on the opposite coast of Poros . There she found Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes. Aethra, in the middle of the night and under the moonlight, was seduced by Poseidon. Thus she got doubly impregnated with the seed of a mortal and a god, giving birth to our hero, Theseus, blessed to be born with both human and divine qualities.

King Aegeus apparently didn’t need a wife, only an heir. So, he decided to return to Athens after the birth of his son. Before his departure, however, he hid his sword and sandals beneath a huge rock in the presence of Aethra and told her to send Theseus to Athens when he was old enough and had the strength to roll away the rock and retrieve the evidence of his royal lineage.

Theseus grew up in Troezen under the care of his mother and grandfather. From a young age, the brave young man was fired up with ambition to emulate the awesome exploits of his hero, Hercules, who had also achieved fame by destroying many villains and monsters. When, at the right time, Aethra led her son to the rock of his destiny, he easily rolled it away and retrieved the sword and sandals of his father.

As Theseus was about to set out on his journey towards fate, Pittheus advised his grandson to avoid the robber-infested roads and travel by the shorter and safer sea-route to Athens. But our young hero would have none of it: he had already decided to make confronting and overcoming perils his lifetime hobby. So he chose the dangerous land-route around the Saronic Gulf on which he would shortly encounter a series of tremendous challenges.

Adventures on the way to Athens

It wasn't long before Theseus had his first adventure. At Epidaurus , a place sacred to the god Apollo and the legendary physician Asclepius, he met the famous Periphetes, son of Hephestus, who used to dash out the brains of travelers with an iron club. As his grandfather had already given him a description of Periphetes, Theseus immediately recognized him. In the savage encounter that followed Theseus paid back Periphetes in his own coin by dashing out the brains of the scoundrel with his own iron club. The brave youth kept the club as a trophy and soon reached the Isthmus of Corinth without further interruption.

The inhabitants at the Isthmus warned Theseus about another danger to face: Siris (or, Sinnis) the bandit, guarding the passage from Corinth to Athens, had a more interesting method of treating travelers than the previous villain. Siris would tie his helpless victim between two trees which he would bend to the ground and then abruptly release it. This improvised catapult would hurl the victims into the air and then onto the ground, dashing them to their deaths. Well, it didn't take much time for our hero to finish off this task, too. Then Theseus thought this was a good time to lose his virginity, so he raped the daughter of Siris, named Perigune, who would beget him a son, Melanippus.

The next adventure of Theseus occurred near the borders of Megara on a narrow trail leading to the edge of a cliff, where he found the evil bandit Scyron. This scoundrel would compel travelers to wash his feet with their backs to the sea, so that he could conveniently kick them into the waters below, where a sea monster or a giant turtle would eat them. This time, however, it was the villain Scyron who was eaten by the sea monster.

Little farther away from Eleusina, by the banks of the river Cephissus, Theseus encountered his final adventure on the journey to Athens. The last bandit to play dice with his life against our hero was the giant Procrustes, nicknamed "the Stretcher". This amiable scoundrel had an imaginative way of showing his hospitality to travelers, for whom he always kept ready two iron beds, one too long and the other too short. He would offer the too short bed to the tall ones and, to help them to fit comfortably into the bed, would cut off their limbs.

The same happened with the unlucky short men in the long bed: he would stretch their limbs to make a perfect fit, the victims dying in terrible agony when their limbs were ripped off. Theseus gave the Stretcher the same treatment, the giant Procrustes expiring in the short bed like his unfortunate victims. Today, Procrustes is known by the phrase "the Procrustean Bed".

The Marathonian Bull

Theseus finally arrived at his destination, Athens, without encountering any further challenge. He decided to delay the meeting with his father Aegeus until he had a hold on the surroundings. Being a smart and a tough hero, he did some research about the city and its king and gathered some disturbing news, including the intelligence that king Aegeus was in the helpless clutches of the evil sorceress Medea. So, when he came face to face with his father for the first time, he kept the sword and sandals, the tokens of his paternity, hidden.

Medea, however, knew the true identity of the strange young newcomer through her occult powers. That didn't sit well with the sorceress who wanted her own son, Medus, to succeed to the kingdom of Athens. So, she conspired to poison the aged king's mind against the stranger, and suggested, in all innocence, to send the youth to capture the dreadful Marathonian Bull, a menace to the farmers of the countryside, so she could get rid of him easily, without resorting to the usual method on such occasions, murder.

The Marathonian Bull proposal revived the flagging spirit of our hero who was getting rather bored in the absence of any real challenges to face. On his way to Marathon, Theseus had to seek refuge during a storm in the humble abode of an aged woman called Hecale. She promised the brave youth to make a sacrifice to Zeus, chief of the gods, if he succeeded in capturing the bull.

Well, capturing the Marathon Bull was no big deal for our intrepid hero. But Hecale was dead when Theseus returned to her hut with the captured bull. Remembering her kindness to him, he would later name one of the regions of Attica "Hecale" to honor the old woman. This region exists with the same name till today, as Hecalei (Ekali, in modern Greek) in a luxurious area to the north side of Athems close to Kifisia.

When the victorious Theseus returned to Athens with the dead body of the Marathon Bull, Aegeus, goaded on by Medea, became still more suspicious of him. So he had to assent to the plan of the sorceress to poison Theseus during the feast to celebrate his victory.

However, as our hero was about to drink the poisoned wine, the eyes of Aegeus fell upon the sword and sandals the young stranger had just worn. Recognizing his son, Aegeus knocked the cup of poisoned wine off his hand and, embracing the youth with great joy and emotion, named Theseus as his son and successor before his subjects. Evil Medea was perpetually banished from Athens.

Set sail to kill the Minotaur

However, the adventures of Theseus did not end at this point. Soon, the young man learned that Athens was facing a great tragedy. For the past couple of decades, Aegeus had been paying a barbarous tribute to King Minos of Crete after he had been defeated in a long-running war, launched by the Cretans to avenge the murder of Androgens, the younger son of the Cretan king, by the Athenians.

The tribute consisted of seven boys and seven maidens from the noblest families of Athens to be sent at every nine years to Crete to be devoured by Minotaur, the fearful half-man half-beast, who lived in the Labyrinth, an impressive construction with crossed paths from which no man could escape.

Despite his father's objections, Theseus was determined to embark upon the perilous mission as one of the nine boys on the occasion of the third tribute. Before he set sail, he promised his father Aegeus that, should he return victorious from this task, the ship carrying him and the others would hoist white sails instead of the normal black sails.

Theseus set sail with his fellow boys and maidens only after taking some wise precautions. He consulted an oracle which told him to make Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, his patroness. After making the necessary sacrifices to the goddess, he embarked on his fateful journey to confront the dreadful Minotaur.

The love affair with Ariadne: truth or trick?

Theseus and his fellow sacrificial lambs were given an audience by King Minos at the palace where Ariadne, daughter of the Cretan king, fell madly in love with our hero, instigated by Aphrodite. Ariadne somehow managed to meet the noble youth alone where they swore eternal love and fidelity to each other. She also provided him with a sharp sword (to slay the Minotaur) and a skein of thread (to find his way back within the complex maze). Thus armed, Theseus and his company entered the inscrutable Labyrinth.

Following the advice of Ariadne, Theseus fastened the end of the thread at the entrance to the Labyrinth and continued to carefully unwind the skein as he was looking for the great beast. After a while, the brave youth finally found Minotaur in his lair. Their ensued a long and fierce battle which came to an end when Theseus killed the monster with the sword Ariadne had given him.

Following the line of the thread, Theseus and his companions safely came out of the Labyrinth where an anxious Ariadne was waiting for him. Then, the two quickly embarked on the ship to Athens, before king Minos learnt that Minotaur was killed and his own daughter had helped Theseus.

However, the happiness of the young lovers was to live short. At the island of Naxos, where the ship had touched, Theseus had a dream in which the wine-god Dionysus told him that Ariadne had been reserved by the Fates to be his bride and also warned him of innumerable misfortunes if he didn't give up the maiden. Although he had no fear of any monster or villain, Theseus had great respect for the gods and wanted to have their favour. So, Theseus and Ariadne took a tearful farewell of each other and the ship set sail to Athens.

Unfortunately, everyone in the ship was distraught at parting from Ariadne and forgot to change the ship's sails to white. Another more credible version of the story says that Theseus pretended to be in love with Ariadne in order to obtain her help. After they left Crete safely, our hero abandoned the lovely maiden at Naxos , as he had no more use for her. The heartbroken Ariadne cursed Theseus and his companions and they all forgot to change the ship's sail from black to white.

In any case, after Ariadne was abandoned to Naxos, god Dionysus made her his bride, lived together and had three sons, Thoas, Oenopion and Staphylus. Later on, Dionysus brought Ariadne to Mt Olympus to live with the other gods.

In the meanwhile, Aegeus was waiting in anxiety for his son to come back from Crete. Every evening, he was going to Cape Sounion , the southernmost area of Attica, to see the ship coming from Crete. However, months had passed and his son had not returned. One day, as he was standing on a cliff, at Sounion, he finally saw the ship but the sails were black! He immediately thought that his son was dead and, in total despair, he fell into the sea and got drowned. From then on, the Athenians named the sea, the Aegean Sea, in memory of their beloved king.

Becoming the king of Athens

As the eligible heir, Theseus became King of Athens in the place of his father. He won the approval and admiration of the Athenian citizens who saw in him a wise and far-sighted ruler as well as a brave and fearless warrior.

Theseus peacefully unified the disparate Attic communities into one powerful centrally-administered state. Agriculture and commerce flourished and Athens became a prosperous and important maritime port, as Theseus rightfully believed that the sea would give power to Athens. He also established the Isthmian Games to commemorate the tasks he had performed during his journey from Troizen to Athens and inaugurated many new festivals, including the Panthenaea festivals, dedicated to goddess Athena, the protector of the city.

The Amazon Antigone, his first wife

The next adventure of the restless Theseus got him into a lot of trouble and imperiled the safety of his kingdom. On a voyage of exploration, his ship set ashore on Lemnos, the land of the legendary female warriors, the Amazons . The lovely Antigone, sister of the Queen of the Amazons was sent as an emissary to find out whether the intentions of the strangers were peaceful or not.

Theseus took one look at the beautiful emissary and forgot all about diplomatic affairs. He immediately set sail to Athens with the dumbfounded Antigone. The warrior-lady must have been impressed with the intrepid king of Athens, as she apparently didn't object to her own abduction. When they reached Athens, Theseus made her his queen and Antigone bore her husband a son, Hippolytus.

The outraged Amazons did not waste their time and launched their attack towards Athens. Their attack was so strong that they managed to penetrate deep into the Athenian territory. Theseus soon organized his forces and unleashed a vicious counterattack that forced the Amazon warriors to ask for peace. The unfortunate queen Antigone, however, who had courageously fought alongside Theseus against her own people, died in the battlefield and was deeply mourned by her husband.

The next great episode in the life of Theseus was his celebrated friendship with Prithious, prince of the Lapiths, a legendary people from Mt Pelion, Thessaly. Prithious had heard lots of stories about the brave deeds and awesome adventures of Theseus and he wanted to test the renowned hero.

So he made an incursion into Attica with a band of followers and decamped with Theseus' herds of cattle. When our hero, along with his armed men, encountered Prithious, both of them were suddenly struck by an inexplicable admiration for each other. They swore eternal friendship and became inseparable friends.

According to legend, the new friends were said to have taken part together in the famed hunt for the Calydonian Boar as well as the battle against the Centaurs, creatures who were part-human, part-horse. The latter event occurred when one among the Centaurs invited to Prithious' wedding feast got drunk and tried to rape the bride Hippodamia, joined by the other Centaurs, all of whom also tried to rape any woman that was in the celebration. Prithious and his Lapiths, with the help of Theseus, attacked the Centaurs and recovered the honour of their women.

The abduction of Helen

Later on, the two friends decided to assist each other to abduct a daughter of Zeus each. The choice of Theseus was Helen, who was later to become famous as Helen of Troy. The fact that Helen was only nine years old at that timed didn't deter our hero, as he wanted to abduct her and keep her safe until her time to get married would come. The duo kidnapped Helen first and Theseus left her in the safe custody of his mother, Aethra, at Troizen for a few years. However, the brothers of Helen, Castor and Pollux, rescued the girl and took their sister back to Sparta, their homeland.

Phaedra, his second wife

After the death of his Amazonian wife Antigone, Theseus had married Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne, the woman he had once betrayed. Phaedra, a young woman that was to have a tragic fate, gave her husband two sons, Demophone and Acamas. Meanwhile Theseus' son by Antigone, Hippolytus, had grown into a handsome youth. When he turned twenty, he chose to become a devotee of Artemis, the goddess of hunting, hills and forests, and not of goddess Aphrodite, as his father had done.

The incensed Aphrodite decided to take her revenge, for this caused Phaedra to fall madly and deeply in love with her handsome stepson. When Hippolytus scornfully rejected the advances of his mother-in-law, she committed suicide from her despair. However, she had before written a suicide note saying that Hippolytus had raped and dishonored her, which is why she decided to kill herself.

The enraged Theseus prayed to the sea-god Poseidon, one of his fathers, to punish Hippolytus. Indeed, Poseidon sent a monster that frightened the horses drawing the chariot of Hippolytus. The horses went mad overturning the chariot dragging along the youth who had been trapped in the reins. Theseus, in the meanwhile, had learned the truth from an old servant of Phaedra. He rushed to save his son's life, only to find him almost dead. The poor Hippolytus expired in the arms of his grief-stricken father.

This great tradedy has inspired many authors and artists along centuries, starting from Hippolytus , the ancient tragedy of Euripides, till the numerous movies and plays that have been written based on this story.

An end unsuitable for a hero

This incident was the beginning of end for Theseus, who was gradually losing his popularity among the Athenians. His former heroic deeds and services to the state were forgotten and rebellions began to surface all around against his rule. Theseus finally abdicated his throne and took refuge on the island of Skyros.

There Lycomedes, the king of the island, thought that Theseus would eventually want to become king of Skyros. Thus, in the guise of friendship, he took Theseus at the top of a cliff and murdered him, pushing him off the cliff into the sea. This was the tragic end of the life of one of the greatest Greek heroes and the noblest among the Athenians.

Previous myth: Jason and the Argonauts | Next myth: The Amazons



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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Theseus, hero of athens.

Terracotta amphora (jar)

Terracotta amphora (jar)

Signed by Taleides as potter

Terracotta kylix: eye-cup (drinking cup)

Terracotta kylix: eye-cup (drinking cup)

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Attributed to the Diosphos Painter

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup)

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup)

Attributed to the Briseis Painter

Terracotta calyx-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Terracotta calyx-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)

Attributed to a painter of the Group of Polygnotos

Terracotta Nolan neck-amphora (jar)

Terracotta Nolan neck-amphora (jar)

Attributed to the Dwarf Painter

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Attributed to the Eretria Painter

Marble sarcophagus with garlands and the myth of Theseus and Ariadne

Marble sarcophagus with garlands and the myth of Theseus and Ariadne

Andrew Greene Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

August 2009

In the ancient Greek world, myth functioned as a method of both recording history and providing precedent for political programs. While today the word “myth” is almost synonymous with “fiction,” in antiquity, myth was an alternate form of reality . Thus, the rise of Theseus as the national hero of Athens, evident in the evolution of his iconography in Athenian art, was a result of a number of historical and political developments that occurred during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

Myth surrounding Theseus suggests that he lived during the Late Bronze Age, probably a generation before the Homeric heroes of the Trojan War. The earliest references to the hero come from the Iliad and the Odyssey , the Homeric epics of the early eighth century B.C. Theseus’ most significant achievement was the Synoikismos, the unification of the twelve demes, or local settlements of Attica, into the political and economic entity that became Athens.

Theseus’ life can be divided into two distinct periods, as a youth and as king of Athens . Aegeus, king of Athens, and the sea god Poseidon ( 53.11.4 ) both slept with Theseus’ mother, Aithra, on the same night, supplying Theseus with both divine and royal lineage. Theseus was born in Aithra’s home city of Troezen, located in the Peloponnesos , but as an adolescent he traveled around the Saronic Gulf via Epidauros, the Isthmus of Corinth, Krommyon, the Megarian Cliffs, and Eleusis before finally reaching Athens. Along the way he encountered and dispatched six legendary brigands notorious for attacking travelers.

Upon arriving in Athens, Theseus was recognized by his stepmother, Medea, who considered him a threat to her power. Medea attempted to dispatch Theseus by poisoning him, conspiring to ambush him with the Pallantidae Giants, and by sending him to face the Marathonian Bull ( 56.171.48 ).

Likely the most famous of Theseus’ deeds was the slaying of the Minotaur ( 64.300 ; 47.11.5 ; 09.221.39 ). Athens was forced to pay an annual tribute of seven maidens and seven youths to King Minos of Crete to feed the Minotaur, half man, half bull, that inhabited the labyrinthine palace of Minos at Knossos. Theseus, determined to end Minoan dominance, volunteered to be one of the sacrificial youths. On Crete, Theseus seduced Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who conspired to help him kill the Minotaur and escape by giving him a ball of yarn to unroll as he moved throughout the labyrinth ( 90.12a,b ). Theseus managed to flee Crete with Ariadne, but then abandoned her on the island of Naxos during the voyage back to Athens. King Aegeus had told Theseus that upon returning to Athens, he was to fly a white sail if he had triumphed over the Minotaur, and to instruct the crew to raise a black sail if he had been killed. Theseus, forgetting his father’s direction, flew a black sail as he returned. Aegeus, in his grief, threw himself from the cliff at Cape Sounion into the Aegean, making Theseus the new king of Athens and giving the sea its name.

There is but a sketchy picture of Theseus’ deeds in later life, gleaned from brief literary references of the early Archaic period , mostly from fragmentary works by lyric poets. Theseus embarked on a number of expeditions with his close friend Peirithoos, the king of the Lapith tribe from Thessaly in northern Greece. He also undertook an expedition against the Amazons, in some versions with Herakles , and kidnapped their queen Antiope, whom he subsequently married ( 31.11.13 ; 56.171.42 ). Enraged by this, the Amazons laid siege to Athens, an event that became popular in later artistic representations.

There are certain aspects of the myth of Theseus that were clearly modeled on the more prominent hero Herakles during the early sixth century B.C. Theseus’s encounter with the brigands parallels Herakles’ six deeds in the northern Peloponnesos. Theseus’ capture of the Marathonian Bull mirrors Herakles’ struggle with the Cretan Bull. There also seems to be some conflation of the two since they both partook in an Amazonomachy and a Centauromachy. Both heroes additionally have links to Athena and similarly complex parentage with mortal mothers and divine fathers.

However, while Herakles’ life appears to be a string of continuous heroic deeds, Theseus’ life represents that of a real person, one involving change and maturation. Theseus became king and therefore part of the historical lineage of Athens, whereas Herakles remained free from any geographical ties, probably the reason that he was able to become the Panhellenic hero. Ultimately, as indicated by the development of heroic iconography in Athens, Herakles was superseded by Theseus because he provided a much more complex and local hero for Athens.

The earliest extant representation of Theseus in art appears on the François Vase located in Florence, dated to about 570 B.C. This famous black-figure krater shows Theseus during the Cretan episode, and is one of a small number of representations of Theseus dated before 540 B.C. Between 540 and 525 B.C. , there was a large increase in the production of images of Theseus, though they were limited almost entirely to painted pottery and mainly showed Theseus as heroic slayer of the Minotaur ( 09.221.39 ; 64.300 ). Around 525 B.C. , the iconography of Theseus became more diverse and focused on the cycle of deeds involving the brigands and the abduction of Antiope. Between 490 and 480 B.C. , interest centered on scenes of the Amazonomachy and less prominent myths such as Theseus’ visit to Poseidon’s palace ( 53.11.4 ). The episode is treated in a work by the lyric poet Bacchylides. Between 450 and 430 B.C. , there was a decline in representations of the hero on vases; however, representations in other media increase. In the mid-fifth century B.C. , youthful deeds of Theseus were placed in the metopes of the Parthenon and the Hephaisteion, the temple overlooking the Agora of Athens. Additionally, the shield of Athena Parthenos, the monumental chryselephantine cult statue in the interior of the Parthenon, featured an Amazonomachy that included Theseus.

The rise in prominence of Theseus in Athenian consciousness shows an obvious correlation with historical events and particular political agendas. In the early to mid-sixth century B.C. , the Athenian ruler Solon (ca. 638–558 B.C. ) made a first attempt at introducing democracy. It is worth noting that Athenian democracy was not equivalent to the modern notion; rather, it widened political involvement to a larger swath of the male Athenian population. Nonetheless, the beginnings of this sort of government could easily draw on the Synoikismos as a precedent, giving Solon cause to elevate the importance of Theseus. Additionally, there were a large number of correspondences between myth and historical events of this period. As king, Theseus captured the city of Eleusis from Megara and placed the boundary stone at the Isthmus of Corinth, a midpoint between Athens and its enemy. Domestically, Theseus opened Athens to foreigners and established the Panathenaia, the most important religious festival of the city. Historically, Solon also opened the city to outsiders and heightened the importance of the Panathenaia around 566 B.C.

When the tyrant Peisistratos seized power in 546 B.C. , as Aristotle noted, there already existed a shrine dedicated to Theseus, but the exponential increase in artistic representations during Peisistratos’ reign through 527 B.C. displayed the growing importance of the hero to political agenda. Peisistratos took Theseus to be not only the national hero, but his own personal hero, and used the Cretan adventures to justify his links to the island sanctuary of Delos and his own reorganization of the festival of Apollo there. It was during this period that Theseus’s relevance as national hero started to overwhelm Herakles’ importance as Panhellenic hero, further strengthening Athenian civic pride.

Under Kleisthenes, the polis was reorganized into an even more inclusive democracy, by dividing the city into tribes, trittyes, and demes, a structure that may have been meant to reflect the organization of the Synoikismos. Kleisthenes also took a further step to outwardly claim Theseus as the Athenian hero by placing him in the metopes of the Athenian treasury at Delphi, where he could be seen by Greeks from every polis in the Aegean.

The oligarch Kimon (ca. 510–450 B.C. ) can be considered the ultimate patron of Theseus during the early to mid-fifth century B.C. After the first Persian invasion (ca. 490 B.C. ), Theseus came to symbolize the victorious and powerful city itself. At this time, the Amazonomachy became a key piece of iconography as the Amazons came to represent the Persians as eastern invaders. In 476 B.C. , Kimon returned Theseus’ bones to Athens and built a shrine around them which he had decorated with the Amazonomachy, the Centauromachy, and the Cretan adventures, all painted by either Mikon or Polygnotos, two of the most important painters of antiquity. This act represented the final solidification of Theseus as national hero.

Greene, Andrew. “Theseus, Hero of Athens.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (August 2009)

Further Reading

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland, and Paul T. Barber. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Boardman, John "Herakles." In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologicae Classicae , vol. V, 1. Zürich: Artemis, 1981.

Camp, John McK. The Archaeology of Athens . New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Gehrke, Hans-Joachim. "Myth, History, and Collective Identity: Uses of the Past in Ancient Greece and Beyond." In The Historian's Craft in the Age of Herodotus , edited by Nino Luraghi, pp. 286–313. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Harrison, Evelyn B. "Motifs of the City Siege of Athena Parthenos." American Journal of Archaeology 85, no. 3 (July 1981), pp. 281–317.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary . 3d ed., rev. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Neils, Jenifer. "Theseus." In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologicae Classicae , vol. VII, 1, pp. 922–51. Zürich: Artemis, 1981.

Servadei, Cristina. La figura di Theseus nella ceramica attica: Iconografia e iconologia del mito nell'Atene arcaica e classica . Bologna: Ante Quem, 2005.

Shapiro, H. A. "Theseus: Aspects of the Hero in Archaic Greece." In New Perspectives in Early Greek Art , edited by Diana Buitron-Oliver, pp. 123–40. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991.

Shapiro, H. A. Art and Cult under the Tyrants in Athens . Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1989.

Simon, Erika. Festivals of Attica . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

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Theseus: The Greek Hero That Slayed the Minotaur

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Theseus was a hero in Greek mythology and a legendary king of Athens. The most famous myth involving Theseus is the one in which he slayed the dreaded Minotaur. Many stories about Theseus say he not only displayed courage and strength, but also wisdom and shrewdness. Moreover, as king of Athens, Theseus was responsible for strengthening the city and turning it into a regional power.  

Theseus’ Parents

According to Greek mythology, Theseus was born in Troezen, in the northeastern Peloponnese. His mother was Aethra, the daughter of Pittheus, the king of Troezen. Theseus seems to have had two fathers, a mortal one, Aegeus, the king of Athens , and a divine one, Poseidon. After the birth of Theseus, Aegeus left Aethra and his new-born son, and returned to Athens. Before leaving, however, the king left his sword and sandals under a huge rock. He told Aethra to send Theseus to Athens once he was able to retrieve these items from under the rock, so that he may inherit the kingdom.

Theseus was raised by his mother and grandfather in Troezen, and when he was old enough, moved the stone that was placed by Aegeus on his sword and sandals, and obtained these royal objects. Theseus decided to journey to Athens via a land route, during which he encountered a number of bandits. Theseus overcame these obstacles not only with strength, but also with wit.

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‘Theseus and Aethra’ (1635-1636) by Larent de la Hyre. (Public Domain)

‘ Theseus and Aethra’ (1635-1636) by Larent de la Hyre. ( Public Domain )

For instance, the first obstacle Theseus met on his way to Athens was a bandit by the name of Periphetes, who would kill his victims by bashing their heads with a club. Instead of trying to overcome his adversary with brute force, Theseus decided to use his wits. The hero started an argument with Periphetes by saying that he did not believe that his club was made of brass, as the bandit had claimed. Agitated by this, Periphetes allowed Theseus to inspect his weapon by handing it over to the hero. Once the club was in his possession, Theseus killed the bandit with it.

The Best-Known Theseus Story

The best known story about Theseus, however, is the one in which he slays the Minotaur . In this myth, Theseus volunteered to be one of the 14 sacrificial victims who were sent each year by the Athenians to King Minos of Crete, so that he may have a chance to slay the monster.

Theseus honored by the Athenians after he killed the Minotaur. (Public Domain)

Theseus honored by the Athenians after he killed the Minotaur. ( Public Domain )

Although Aegeus refused to allow his son to risk his life, he eventually relented, on the condition that if he returned from Crete alive, he was to change the ship’s sail from black to white. With the help of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos , Theseus succeeded in slaying the Minotaur. Unfortunately, the hero had forgotten to change the ship’s sail on his voyage back to Athens, and when Aegeus saw the black sail, he was so full of grief that he committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.

The King of Athens

Following Aegeus’ death, Theseus became the new king of Athens. He succeeded in unifying the various Attic communities, thus forming a powerful, centralized state. Additionally, he is credited with the establishment of the Isthmian Games, which were meant to commemorate his journey from Troezen to Athens, as well as the Panathenaea festivals, which were held in honor of the city’s patron deity, Athena. Furthermore, Athenian democracy has been traced back to Theseus’ reign, as he is said to have given up some of his powers as king to the Assembly.

Theseus embarked on many other adventures . For instance, Theseus is said to have accompanied Hercules on his Ninth Labor, which was to retrieve the Girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. Some sources also state that Theseus was one of the Argonauts who accompanied the hero Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece .

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Theseus’ cycle of deeds: centre, Minotaur; around, clockwise from top, Kerkyon, Prokrustes, Skiron, bull, Sinis, sow. Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci. (Twospoonfuls/CC BY SA 4.0)

Theseus’ cycle of deeds: centre, Minotaur; around, clockwise from top, Kerkyon, Prokrustes, Skiron, bull, Sinis, sow. Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci. (Twospoonfuls/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

How Did Theseus Die?

As Theseus aged, however, his wisdom left him, and he began making foolish decisions. Eventually, he lost popularity with the people of Athens, and rebellions broke out. In the end, Theseus abdicated, and left for the island of Skyros, where he was killed by Lycomedes, the island’s ruler, who thought that Theseus had come to seize his throne.

Theseus’ bones (or what were believed to be his) were eventually brought back to Athens during the time of the Persian Wars by the Athenian general Cimon, in accordance to a command given by the Oracle at Delphi.

‘Theseus and Achelous’ (1659-1660) by Jan Steen. (Public Domain)

‘Theseus and Achelous’ (1659-1660) by Jan Steen. ( Public Domain )

Top image: Theseus and the Minotaur. Source: kenernest63a/ Deviant Art

By Wu Mingren, 2018. Theseus. [Online] Available at:

Prof. Geller, 2018. Theseus. [Online] Available at:

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Theseus. [Online] Available at: , 2018. Theseus, the king of Athens. [Online] Available at: , 2018. Theseus. [Online] Available at:

amo Poseidon e Theseu .. amo a história.. amo mitologia .. praise the Gods

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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Theseus: A Legendary Greek Hero

Theseus is a legendary hero from ancient Greek mythology. He was the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens, and Aethra, the daughter of Pittheus of Troezen. The story of Theseus is well-known and involves several important events in Greek mythology. One of the most famous myths involving Theseus is his journey to Crete to confront the dreaded Minotaur.

Table of Contents

Who is Theseus?

Theseus stands as both a mystical hero that rivaled the legendary Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) and slew the minotaur, and as the king who was said to have united the villages of the Attic Peninsula into the city-state of Athens.

Sometimes called the “Last Mythical King of Athens, he was not only credited with founding the city’s democratic government but became one of its key emblems, with his likeness decorating everything from pottery to temples and his image and example being held as the ideal of the Athenian man.

Whether he ever existed as an actual historical figure is impossible to know, though it seems doubtful that he is any more grounded in literal history than his contemporary Hercules. That said, the story of Theseus is significant for its outsized impact on the mythology and culture of Greece, particularly on that of the city of Athens to which he is so strongly connected.

Birth and Childhood

The story of Theseus begins with another Athenian king, Aegeus, who despite two marriages still had no heir for his throne. In desperation, he journeyed to the Oracle at Delphi for guidance, and the Oracle obliged him with a prophecy. In the tradition of Oracular prophecies, however, it left something to be desired in terms of clarity.

Aegeus was told to “not loose the wineskin’s pendent neck” until he returned to Athens, as recounted in Medea , by Euripides. Finding the message undecipherable, Aegeus sought out the aid of his friend Pittheus, king of Troezen (in the Peloponnesus, just across the Saronic Gulf) and a man known for his skill at untangling the pronouncements of the Oracle.

The Siring of Theseus

He was also, as it happened, skilled at using such prophecies to his advantage. Despite the prophecy’s fairly clear admonition against wine before returning home, Pittheus invited his guest to imbibe heavily and used Aegeus’ drunkenness as an opportunity for his daughter, Aethra, to seduce him. The same night, as the legend goes, Aethra made a libation to the sea god Poseidon which also involved (depending on the source) either possession or seduction by the god.

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Thus was the future king Theseus conceived, with both mortal and divine fathers giving him a demigod-like status. Aegeus instructed Aethra not to reveal his paternity to the child until he came of age, then returned to Athens after leaving his sword and a pair of sandals under a heavy rock. When the boy was old enough to lift the rock and retrieve this inheritance, Aethra could reveal the truth so the boy could return to Athens and claim his birthright.

Over the intervening years, Aegeus married the sorceress Medea (formerly the wife of the mythic hero Jason) and produced another son, Medus (though in some accounts, Medus was actually the son of Jason). Meanwhile, Theseus thus grew up in Troezen, raised by his grandfather and unaware that he was the Prince of Athens, until he finally came of age, learned the truth, and retried the symbols of his birthright from under the stone.

The Journey to Athens

Theseus had a choice of two routes to Athens. The first was the easy way, simply taking a boat for the short journey across the Saronic Gulf. The second way, circumventing the Gulf by land, was longer and much more dangerous. As a young prince eager to find glory, Theseus unsurprisingly chose the latter.

Along this route, he was warned he would pass near six entrances to the Underworld. And each one was guarded by either a mythical being of the Underworld or a bandit of fearsome reputation, depending on which source you believe. These six battles (or Six Labors, as they were better known), formed the foundation of Theseus’ early status as a hero.

Theseus first encountered Periphetes, the club bearer, known for pounding enemies into the ground with a great club of either bronze or iron. After killing him, Theseus took the club for himself, and it became a recurring item in his various artistic depictions.

Known as “the Pine Bender,” Sinis was a bandit noted for executing his victims by binding them to two trees bent down, which when released would rip the victim in half. Theseus bested Sinis and killed him by his own gruesome method.

Crommyonian Sow

Theseus’ next battle was, according to legend, with an enormous killer hog bred from Typhon and Echidna (a giant duo responsible for a number of Greek monsters). More prosaically, the Crommyonian Sow may have simply been a ruthless female bandit who had earned the nickname “sow” for either her appearance, manners, or both.

At the narrow sea passage at Megara, Theseus encountered Skiron, who forced travelers to wash his feet and kicked them over the cliff when they bent down to do so. Falling into the sea, the hapless victim would be devoured by a giant turtle. Theseus, anticipating Skiron’s attack, kicked Skiron into the sea instead, feeding him to his own turtle.

Kerkyon guarded the northernmost point of the Saronic Gulf and crushed all passers-by after challenging them to a wrestling match. As with many of these other guardians, Theseus beat him at his own game.

Called “the Stretcher,” Procrustes would invite each passer-by to lay on a bed, either stretching them to fit if they were too short or cutting off their feet if they were too tall (he had two beds of different sizes, ensuring that the one he offered was always the wrong size). Theseus served up justice by cutting off his feet – as well as his head.

The Hero of Athens

Unfortunately, reaching Athens didn’t mean the end of Theseus’ struggles. On the contrary, his journey around the Gulf was just a prelude to the dangers that lay ahead.

The Unwelcome Heir

From the moment Theseus arrived in Athens, Medea – jealously guarding her own son’s inheritance – conspired against him. When Aegeus initially didn’t recognize his son, Medea tried to convince her husband that this “stranger” meant him harm. As they prepared to serve Theseus poison at dinner, Aegeus recognized his sword at the last minute and knocked the poison away.

Yet Medea’s son Medus wasn’t the only one vying with Theseus to be next in line for Aegeus’ throne. The fifty sons of Aegeus’ brother, Pallas, arranged to ambush to kill Theseus in hopes of winning succession for themselves. Theseus learned of the plot, however, and as described by Plutarch in chapter 13 of his Life of Theseus , the hero “fell suddenly upon the party lying in ambush, and slew them all.”

Capturing the Marathonian Bull

Poseidon had gifted an exemplary white bull to King Minos of Crete to be used as a sacrifice, but the king had substituted a lesser bull from his herds so as to keep Poseidon’s magnificent gift for himself. In retribution, Poseidon enchanted Minos’ wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull – a union that spawned the fearsome minotaur. The bull itself raged across Crete until it was captured by Heracles and shipped to the Peloponnese.

But the bull later escaped to the area around Marathon, causing the same havoc it had in Crete. Aegeus sent Theseus to capture the beast – in some accounts, persuaded to do so by Medea (who hoped the task would be the end of the hero), though in most versions of the tale Medea had been exiled after the poison incident. If it was Medea’s idea to send Theseus to his death, it didn’t go according to her plan – the hero captured the beast, dragged it back to Athens, and sacrificed it to either Apollo or Athena .

Slaying the Minotaur

And after dealing with the Marathonian bull, Theseus set out for perhaps his most famous adventure – dealing with the bull’s unnatural offspring, the Minotaur . Each year (or every nine years, depending on the account) Athens was required to send fourteen young Athenians to be given to Crete as a sacrifice, where they were sent into the Labyrinth which contained the Minotaur in retribution for the death of King Minos’ son in Athens years earlier. Upon learning of this twisted custom, Theseus volunteered himself to be one of the fourteen, pledging that he would enter the Labyrinth, slay the beast, and bring the rest of the young men and women safely home.

Ariadne’s Gift

He was fortunate enough to recruit an ally when he arrived in Crete – King Minos’ own daughter, Ariadne. The girl fell in love with Theseus at first sight, and in her devotion beseeched the designer of the Labyrinth, the artist, and inventor Daedalus , for advice on how Theseus might succeed.

Based on Daedalus’ advice, Ariadne presented Theseus with a clew , or ball of yarn, and – in some versions of the story – a sword. The Prince of Athens was then able to navigate to the innermost depths of the Labyrinth, unspooling the yarn as he went to provide a clear trail back out. Finding the monster at the Labyrinth’s center, Theseus killed the Minotaur either by strangling it or cutting its throat and successfully led the Athenian youths back to safety.

Once free of the Labyrinth, Theseus – along with Ariadne and the Athenian youths – set sail for Athens, stopping along the way at the island now known as Naxos, where they spent the night sleeping on the beach. The next morning, however, Theseus set sail again with the youths but left Ariadne behind, abandoning her on the island. Despite Theseus’ inexplicable betrayal, Ariadne fared well, being found by – and ultimately marrying – the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus .

The Black Sail

But despite Theseus’ victory over the minotaur, the adventure had a tragic end. When the ship with Theseus and the youths had left Athens, it had raised a black sail. Theseus had told his father that, if he successfully returned from the Labyrinth, he would replace it with a white sail so Aegeus would know his son still lived.

Unfortunately, Theseus apparently forgot to switch the sail before returning to Athens. Aegeus, seeing the black sail and believing his son and heir had perished in Crete, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea which now bears his name, the Aegean. So it was that, as a result of his most remembered victory, Theseus lost his father and ascended to the throne as the King of Athens.

On a quick side note – the ship in which Theseus returned to Athens was supposedly kept as a memorial in the harbor for centuries. Since it sailed once a year to the isle of Delos to pay homage to Apollo , it was kept always in a seaworthy condition, with rotted wood being continually replaced. This “Ship of Theseus,” eternally being remade with new planks, became an iconic philosophical puzzle on the nature of identity.

The New King

Theseus is labeled in Greek mythology as the “Last Mythical King of Athens,” and that title points to his attributed legacy as the founder of Greek democracy. He was said to have united the traditional twelve villages or regions of Attica into a single political unit. Additionally, he is credited with founding both the Isthmian Games and the festival of the Panathenaea .

In legend, the reign of Theseus was a prosperous time, and it is supposedly during this time that Theseus increasingly became the living emblem of the city. The treasury building of the city displayed his mythic feats, as did an increasing amount of public and private art. But Theseus’ reign wasn’t a time of unbroken peace – in the classic Greek tradition, the hero tended to create his own trouble.

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Battling the Amazons

The fierce warrior women known as the Amazons, supposedly descendants of Ares , were said to dwell near the Black Sea. While spending some time among them, Theseus was so taken with their queen Antiope (called, in some versions, Hippolyta), that he abducted her back to Athens, and she bore him a son, Hippolytus.

Enraged, the Amazons attacked Athens to retrieve their stolen queen, penetrating well into the city itself. There are even some scholars who claim to be able to identify specific tombs or place names that show evidence of the Amazon incursion.

In the end, however, they were unsuccessful in rescuing their queen. She was said to be either killed accidentally in battle or murdered by Theseus himself after she had given him a son. The Amazons were beaten back or, with no one to rescue them, simply gave up the fight.

Braving the Underworld

Theseus’ closest friend was Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, who was rumored to be a son of Zeus just as Theseus was said to be a son of Poseidon. The two decided it would be fitting for them to claim wives who also had divine origins and set their sights on two in particular.

Theseus decided to abduct Helen, though she was too young to marry at the time. He left her in the care of his mother, Aethra, until she came of age. This plan would prove futile, however, when Helen’s brothers invaded Attica to retrieve their sister.

Pirithous’ ambitions were even grander – he had his sights set on Persephone , the wife of Hades . The two traveled into the Underworld to abduct her but found themselves trapped instead. Theseus was ultimately rescued by Heracles, but Pirithous was left behind in eternal punishment.

A Family Tragedy

Theseus next married Phaedra – the sister of Ariadne, whom he’d abandoned on Naxos years earlier. Phaedra would bear him two sons, Acamas and Demophon, but this new family would end tragically.

Phaedra would come to fall in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ son by the Amazon queen (some tales credit this forbidden longing to the influence of the goddess Aphrodite after Hippolytus became a follower of Artemis instead of her). When the affair was exposed, Phaedra claimed rape, causing Theseus to call on Poseidon to curse his own son.

This curse would come to pass later when Hippolytus would be dragged to death by his own horses (who were supposedly panicked by a beast Poseidon had sent). In shame and guilt over her actions, Phaedra hung herself.

The End of Theseus

In his later years, Theseus fell out of favor with the people of Athens. While his tendency to single-handedly provoke invasions of Athens may have been a factor, public sentiment against Theseus also had an instigator in the form of Menestheus.

The son of Peteus, a former king of Athens who had been expelled by Theseus’ father, Aegeus, Menestheus was said in some versions of the story to have made himself ruler of Athens while Theseus was trapped in the Underworld. In others, he simply worked to turn the people against Theseus after he returned.

Whatever the case, Menestheus would ultimately displace Theseus, forcing the hero to leave the city. Theseus would take refuge on the island of Skyros, where he had inherited a small portion of land from his father.

Initially, Theseus was warmly welcomed by the ruler of Skyros, King Lycomedes. In time, however, the king became fearful that Theseus might desire his throne. Out of paranoid caution, legend says Lycomedes killed Theseus by pushing him off a cliff into the sea.

In the end, however, the hero would still come home to Athens. His bones were later recovered from Skyros and brought to the Temple of Hephaestus , which would commonly come to be known as the Theseium for its depictions of Theseus’ deeds, and which still stands today as one of Greece’s best preserved ancient temples.

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More stories of theseus from greek mythology.

If all you know about Theseus is that he killed the Minotaur, you only know half the story! Keep reading to discover more adventures of Theseus in Greek mythology!

theseus greek mythology death

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of Greek mythology’s most well-known tales. The young hero used cunning and fighting skills to kill a ferocious and terrifying monster.

The defeat of the Minotaur is only one of Theseus’s legends, however. Like many other heroes, there were many stories told about his life and further adventures.

This is especially true since Theseus was a legendary king of the city of Athens. Because the city had a rich literary culture, many stories survive of the hero’s exploits.

Theseus defeated many monsters before he encountered the Minotaur and had many adventures afterward. As one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, Theseus had a mythology that went far beyond his fight against the Minotaur!

The Six Trials of Theseus

When Theseus set out from his mother’s homeland, he had his choice of two routes to reach Athens. Traveling by sea was safer, but the land route offered more opportunity for glory.

The young hero chose the more dangerous land route between Toezen and Athens. This took him near six chthonic monsters that he would have to defeat to reach Athens and claim his place as the heir of King Aegeus.

At Epidaurus, Theseus encountered Periphetes, a bandit from the Underworld. Periphetes wielded a massive club that he used to pound his opponents into the dirt.

Periphetes was strong, but he also had only one eye and was lame in one leg. Theseus was able to outmaneuver him and steal his iconic bronze club.

The next entrance to the Underworld he passed was near the Isthmus of Corinth. It was guarded by Sinis, who killed his enemies in a particularly cruel way.

Sinis bent two young pine trees toward each other and tied his opponents between them. When the trees sprang apart, his foes were torn in half.

Theseus managed to kill Sinis with his own trap. He then seduced the bandit’s daughter. She later gave birth to Melanippus, who founded the settlements of Caria.

Near Crommyon, he defeated the wild Crommyonian Sow. The destructive wild pig was sometimes said to be the mother of the fearsome Calydonian Boar.

The fourth site was a cliff near Megara where another bandit, Sciron, kicked unwary travelers over the side to their deaths. Theseus threw him off the cliff before he had a chance to strike, and his body was eaten by a monstrous sea turtle.

Near Eleusis, Theseus was challenged to a wrestling match by Cercyon. He was the first man to beat the local king, who had killed every other person he had challenged and defeated before.

Theseus finally came across Procrustes, the Stretcher, on the plains of Eleusis. Procrustes killed his victims under a guise of hospitality.

Procrustes offered passers-by one of his two beds, each of which was an odd size. If they chose the shorter bed he would make them fit by cutting off their feet, but if they chose the longer bed he stretched them until death.

Theseus turned the tables on this last rogue, cutting off both his legs and his head.

Each of the enemies Theseus faced on the road guarded an entrance to the Underworld. By defeating them he not only proved himself as a hero, but also as a master over deadly forces.

Medea and the Marathonian Bull

When Theseus finally reached Athens, he was not immediately welcomed as the king’s son.

He did not announce his identity when he entered the city, preferring to see where he was and get a measure for his father’s court first. Because of this,King Aegeus was not the first person he met there.

Instead, he was seen by the king’s wife.He had married the witch Medea who was a cunning and merciless woman.

Medea was observant enough to immediately recognize the similarities between the newcomer and her husband. She rightly feared that the arrival of a legitimate heir to the throne of Athens would threaten her own position.

Since Aegeus had no sons, it was assumed that Medea’s son Medus would be named as his heir. The arrival of Theseus threatened this plan.

Medea hoped that she could get rid of the would-be prince before her husband ever learned of his arrival. She asked Theseus, as a hero, to prove his mettle by killing the Marathonian Bull.

The bull was, in fact, the Cretan Bull that had fathered the Minotaur. After it was brought to the mainland as one of the labors of Heracles, it had broken loose and ran amok throughout the area.

The bull had finally settled in near Marathon and was destroying farmland and villages there. Defeating it, which had been a task worthy of Heracles, would truly test Theseus’s abilities.

Theseus was up to the task, however. To the dismay of Medea, he was able to capture the Marathonian Bull and bring it back to Athens to be sacrificed.

The quest to kill the bull tested more than his physical prowess, however. It also demonstrated his nobility of character.

On the way to Marathon, Theseus was taken in by an elderly widow named Hecale. She gave him food and shelter from a storm and swore that she would offer a sacrifice to Zeus if Theseus managed to defeat the bull.

As he returned, Theseus visited Hecale’s hut to tell her of his success and thank her for her hospitality. He discovered that she had died that day, however.

Theseus buried Hecale and completed the sacrifices she had sworn to give. Unable to thank her himself, he later honored her by naming one of the districts of Attica after her, making its citizens her honorary descendants.

The Ship of Theseus

When Theseus returned from killing the Minotaur with the surviving Athenian youths, his mind was preoccupied. He had undergone a great trial and been instructed by Athena to leave behind Ariadne, the woman he loved, so she could marry a god instead.

He forgot a promise to his father, therefore, that he would use the ship to signal the outcome of his quest. The ship that took the Athenian youths to Crete carried black sails of mourning, but if he succeeded he had promised to change the sails out for white ones.

When Aegeus saw black sails appear on the horizon, therefore, he believed that his son had failed. Theseus, along with the other young men and women, had fallen victim to the Minotaur.

In despair at the loss of his newfound heir, Aegeus threw himself into the sea. It was later named the Aegean in his memory.

Theseus therefore returned to Athens as a hero, but also to mourn his father’s death, which had been caused by his own negligence. According to Plutarch, he kept his ship in the harbor as a memorial to both Aegeus and the young people who had been sent to the Minotaur before his arrival.

The ship had to be kept seaworthy to honor a vow to Apollo . After Theseus’s success, the ship was taken to Delos each year to pay tribute to the god for supporting the Athenians against the Minotaur.

Over time, the ship began to show signs of decay. When planks rotted or sails tore away, Theseus ordered them to be replaced to maintain the memorial.

Eventually, every piece of the ship had been replaced. There was not a single board that was original to the ship that returned from Crete.

The Ship of Theseus was not a myth, but a philosophical problem. At what point, Plutarch asked, was the ship in the harbor of Athens no longer the ship that had come from Crete?

Plutarch questioned whether the Ship of Theseus still existed after every plank had been replaced. While the ceremonial galley was still called the Ship of Theseus, Plutarch challenged his readers to decide whether it could truly be said to still be the same ship.

The Centaurs at the Wedding

The adventures of Theseus continued long after he became the king of Athens. Some of these involved his closest friend, Pirithous.

Pirithous was the king of the Lapiths, a legendary tribe from Thessaly. The two had become friends over a challenge.

Pirithous had heard of the Athenian king’s strength, but wanted to see for himself whether the stories were true. To test Theseus, he stole the cattle of Marathon and drove them out of Attica.

Theseus gave chase and soon caught up with the mischievous cattle thief. They prepared to fight but were so impressed with one another that they chose to become friends instead.

According to some sources,Pirithous finally got to see Theseus’s strength during the Calydonian Boar Hunt. While Atalanta was ultimately declared the winner for striking the first blow against the beast, Pirithous and Theseus continued to be impressed with one another’s skills.

Homer referenced a lost story in the Iliad in which the two friends joined forces to destroy “a savage mountain-dwelling tribe.” In the Iliad , Nestor described this as a meeting between the strongest men in history and the strongest enemies possible.

One story of Theseus and Pirithous that has survived, however, is the account of the latter’s wedding feast.

Pirithous married Hippodamia. As a gesture of peace and friendship, the centaurs who lived in Thessaly’s mountains were invited as guests to the wedding feast.

The centaurs, however, were famously ill-mannered. They drank too much wine at the feast and in their intoxicated state decided to abduct the women and young boys around them, including the bride.

The Lapiths gave chase. Led by Theseus and Pirithous, they easily defeated the centaurs, making them all but extinct in Thessaly.

According to Ovid, Theseus fought against Eurythus, the strongest and fiercest of all the centaurs. He had instigated the abduction, so Theseus showed him no mercy.

Theseus in Hades

In one well-known story, however, Theseus was not the savior of a kidnapped woman. Instead, he was part of the plot to take her.

Theseus and Pirithous once decided that, as sons of Poseidon and Zeus respectively, they should marry daughters of the gods instead of mortal women. They plotted together to abduct two of Zeus’s daughters and force them into marriage.

Theseus chose Helen, who was still a young girl at the time. They kidnapped her and left her in the custody of his mother, Aethra, until she was old enough to marry.

Helen was soon rescued by her brothers, Castor and Pollux, but Theseus and Pirithous decided to still go ahead with the second half of their plan.

Pirithous had chosen an even more renowned bride, and one who would be harder to kidnap. He wanted to marry Persephone.

Persephone was already the wife of Hades , but Theseus and Pirithous were undeterred. They traveled to the Underworld to find and steal its queen.

They wandered the Underworld aimlessly without finding Persephone’s whereabouts. Overcome by exhaustion, Theseus sat on a rock to rest.

As soon as he sat down, however, he was gripped with paralysis. Unable to move, he could not help Pirithous when his friend began to scream.

Pirithous had been set upon by the Furies, the avenging spirits who punished criminals. His plot to kidnap Persephone was an affront to the gods, and the Furies were merciless in their punishment.

As they led Pirithous away, Theseus remained immobilized on the rock. He stayed there for months, grieving for both himself and his best friend.

A reprieve finally came when Heracles was sent to the Underworld during his labors to capture Cerberus . When he recognized Theseus, he petitioned Hades and Persephone to show the heroic king mercy.

Persephone agreed to set Theseus free since the plan had not been his. Pirithous, however, could not be saved from the Furies.

Phaedra and Hippolytus

Theseus eventually married a mortal woman who was the granddaughter, not the daughter, of Zeus. His wife was Phaedra, a daughter of King Minos and the younger sister of his first love, Ariadne.

The pair had two sons together, but there was little love between them. Eventually, Phaedra’s thoughts began to wander to another man.

That man, unfortunately, was her husband’s eldest son. Hippolytus was the son of Theseus and the Amazonian queen Hippolyta.

According to some accounts, her love for her stepson was not entirely Phaedra’s fault. Aphrodite cursed her when Hippolytus scorned the goddess to follow Artemis instead.

As a follower of Artemis, Hippolytus took a vow of chastity. Even if Phaedra were not his stepmother, he would have still rejected her out of devotion to his goddess.

Phaedra was so in love with her stepson that she decided that she could not live without him. Before killing herself, however, she wrote a letter to Theseus.

To keep her reputation from being tarnished in death, Phaedra claimed that Hippolytus had assaulted her and she was committing suicide to spare herself the shame. When Theseus heard this lie, he was enraged.

Poseidon had granted his son the power to make three wishes. Theseus used the first of these to curse his own son.

The curse caused Hippolytus’s horses to be frightened at the sight of a sea monster. Spooked, they ran wild and dragged their owner to death. Theseus was satisfied that justice had been served, until Artemis told him the truth of Phaedra’s deceit.

Artemis vowed that she would take vengeance on one of Aphrodite’s followers in return.

In later years, a belief emerged that Asclepius had resurrected Hippolytus and he lived on in Latium, Italy. Girls offered locks of hair to him before their weddings.

Theseus in Greek Mythology

Theseus was regarded as one of the most powerful and influential heroes in Greek mythology. While he is best-known for defeating the Minotaur, he had many other adventures throughout his life.

On his trip to Athens , however, Theseus proved himself by choosing a more difficult route. He earned his reputation as a strong and cunning hero by defeating six guardians of the Underworld along the way.

He also defeated a legendary beast with close ties to the Minotaur. Medea hoped to kill him by sending him to fight the Marathonian Bull, which was another name for the Cretan Bull. Instead, however, he prevailed and her treachery was exposed.

Theseus was sometimes a flawed character, however. His thoughtlessness as he returned from Crete led to the death of his father by suicide.

Theseus kept the ship he returned on as a memorial and for ceremonial use. Plutarch wrote this into one of the ancient world’s most famous philosophical paradoxes, the question of the Ship of Theseus.

Theseus also conspired against the gods by helping his friend in an attempt to kidnap Persephone. While he was eventually rescued from the Underworld by Heracles, his friend Pirithous, King of the Lapiths, was given over to the Furies.

Tragedy struck within his own family, as well. A lie from his faithless wife caused Theseus to curse his own son, who was innocent of the crimes he was accused of.

According to one surviving account, Theseus eventually lost the support of the people of Athens. He was assassinated by a rival, but eventually honored again in his home city as one of its greatest heroes and kings.

theseus greek mythology death

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