Theseus was so prolific a Greek hero that there was a proverbial expression in 5th century Athens, “Theseus had a hand in it.” Plutarch mentions this in his biography of Theseus:
...[O]thers say that he accompanied Jason to Colchis and Meleager to the slaying of the Calydonian boar, and that hence it came to be a proverb, Not without Theseus; that he himself, however, without aid of any one, performed many glorious exploits, and that from him began the saying, He is a second Hercules.
The hero Theseus, despite (or, less judgmentally, in addition to) being an Athenian king, is associated with helping the weak in their struggle against oppression. On his journey from Troezen to Athens, Theseus fought mainly human villains who troubled travelers. Later, there was a temple known as the Theseion, to which, it is thought, slaves and probably laborers could go to seek the right of asylum.
Theseus also had a darker side.
Theseus may have helped the world against villains, but his private life was hardly exemplary. For one thing, he was a womanizer. Not only did he abandon Ariadne, possibly for Aigle [in a former Myth Monday – “Theseus Returns From Crete” (hopefully, soon to be revised and posted here)], but he was involved with:
- the daughters of Sinis and Kerkyon,
- Eriboia (or Periboia or Meliboia),
- Anaxo (or Iope),
- the Amazon queen Antiope (or Hippolyte),
- Phaedra*, and
It is possible to describe Theseus as a serial-rapist. Theseus carried off the Amazon Antiope while helping Hercules obtain the belt of Hippolyte. Then came Helen. In art, Helen sometimes appears compliant in her own abduction, just as, later in her mythological life, Helen is sometimes shown willing to go off to Troy with Paris. It is tempting to see this as a repeated example of blaming the victim. While the Trojan prince was a handsome young man, the Athenian king was probably no longer so. Theseus is thought to have been about 50 at the time, which was after his tragedy-producing marriage to Ariadne’s sister Phaedra.* Theseus may have deluded himself into thinking he could use the abduction of Helen to ally himself with the Dioscuri. Sometimes nobler motives are ascribed to Theseus, like protection against enemies. Sometimes Helen survives the rape still a virgin.
Helen may have given birth to Iphigenia as a result of Theseus’ rape, although elsewhere, Iphigenia is the daughter of Helen’s aunt Clytemnestra. Helen as Iphigenia’s mother causes trouble with the motivation for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan War, but such inconsistencies are rampant in Greek mythology.
Theseus’ Partner in Crime
Theseus couldn’t take Helen alone, but he didn’t need to. Theseus had a partner in crime named Peirithoos. (Peirithoos’ back-story involves the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths, which is elegantly carved into marble displayed at the British Museum.)
Why Theseus and Peirithoos Go to the Underworld
When Peirithoos wanted to rape an inappropriate woman of his own, Theseus couldn’t turn him down. How else could he retain his reputation for having a hand in everything? He accompanied Peirithoos on his fateful journey to the Underworld to carry off its queen, Hades’ wife, Persephone. (Alternative versions have the two men casting lots for Helen, with Theseus winning and the idea of Persephone coming up later as a consolation prize of sorts.)
This attempted kidnapping is referred to as the rape of Persephone, just as the abduction of Helen is referred to as Theseus’ rape of Helen. It is not just a case of 21st sensibilities that balk at this proclivity in the popular hero. Nor should the crime be reduced from rape to attempted abduction. Even Plato describes Theseus’ acts as dreadful:
And let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated, the tale of Theseus son of Poseidon, or of Peirithous son of Zeus, going forth as they did to perpetrate a horrid rape; or of any other hero or son of a god daring to do such impious and dreadful things as they falsely ascribe to them in our day: and let us further compel the poets to declare either that these acts were not done by them, or that they were not the sons of gods; — both in the same breath they shall not be permitted to affirm. We will not have them trying to persuade our youth that the gods are the authors of evil, and that heroes are no better than men-sentiments which, as we were saying, are neither pious nor true, for we have already proved that evil cannot come from the gods.
Plato Republic III.391d, translated by Benjamin Jowett
Hades Punishes Theseus
The gods were generally more powerful and smarter than mere mortals, so there was little contest when a mortal hero challenged them. Hades trapped Peirithoos and Theseus, binding them in the Underworld with about 300 chains or a chair of forgetfulness. It took Hercules’ katabasis (technical term to learn meaning ‘descent’, in this case, to Hades’ realm) to release Theseus. [See the 12th Labor of Hercules.] Hercules just happened to be in the vicinity because he needed to borrow Cerberus, Hades’ dog, to complete his final labor. While he was in the Underworld and Hades was in the mood to grant favors, he asked for the release of Theseus and Peirithoos. Hades agreed that Hercules could take Theseus, but not Peirithoos.
Theseus the King in Fifth-Century Athens, by John N. Davie. Greece & Rome Vol. 29, No. 1 (Apr. 1982), pp. 25-34.
Early Greek Myth, by Timothy Gantz
*Phaedra had fallen vainly in love with Theseus’ son by the Amazon queen. The chaste youth, Hippolytus, would have nothing to do with her, so the scorned woman accused her step-son of propositioning her. The end result was the death of both Phaedra and Hippolytus.