Theseus is the great Athenian hero. His father Aegeus is king of Athens, but Theseus grows up in southern Greece with his mother. When he is old enough, Theseus travels to the city to meet his father and overcomes many obstacles along the way. By the time he reaches Athens, he is known as a hero. Not realizing that Theseus is his son, King Aegeus is about to poison him, but just in time Theseus shows him a sword that his father left for him. Aegeus declares Theseus heir to the throne and sends him on an important journey.
Aegeus recounts the tragedy of Minos, the powerful ruler of Crete, who lost his only son Androgeus while the boy was in Athens. Aegeus had sent him on an expedition to kill a dangerous bull, but it killed Androgeus, and in revenge, King Minos vowed to destroy Athens unless every year seven maidens and seven men were sent to Crete. These sacrificial youth would be fed to the Minotaur, a monster, half-bull and half-human, who lived inside a labyrinth. Theseus comes forward to be offered as one of the victims. He promises his father that he will kill the Minotaur, and upon his successful return, his ship will carry a white sail.
When the fourteen men and women arrive in Crete, they are paraded through the town. Minos's daughter Ariadne sees and instantly falls in love with Theseus. She confers with Daedalus the architect to devise a plan for her beloved to stay safe. Then she meets with Theseus, who promises to marry her if he escapes from the labyrinth. Theseus follows Ariadne's plan, walking through the maze as he lets run a ball of string so he can retrace his steps. Theseus finds the Minotaur sleeping and kills it with his bare hands. Theseus, Ariadne, and the other Athenian youth all escape to the ship going back to Athens.
On the way back, Ariadne dies. Some say Theseus deserted her on an island. Others say he let her rest on an island because she was seasick, then got caught in a storm, and by the time he returned to the island she was dead. In any case, for some reason Theseus forgets to raise the white sail. His father, seeing the black sail, assumes his son has died and jumps into the sea. The sea has been called the Aegean ever since.
Theseus rules in a people-friendly fashion, and Athens becomes the happiest city in the world. In later years, however, sadness ensues after he marries Ariadne's sister Phaedra. Theseus already had a child, Hippolytus. When Theseus and Phaedra visit him, Phaedra falls madly in love with Hippolytus, her stepson. He refuses her advances, but she writes a letter falsely alleging that he violated her, and then she kills herself. Theseus finds the letter and banishes his innocent son. Artemis appears to Theseus and reveals the truth, but it is too late because the boy has already been killed at sea.
The story of Theseus is one of the most famous tales of Greek mythology. Indeed, Theseus is one of the best examples of a Greek hero. Not only does he use cunning and strength to kill the Minotaur, but he also works to reunite his family and his kingdom. He goes on to become a monarch who serves his people well. This myth also illuminates the perception that Athens was, in its day, the most respected and just land. The government of justice that Theseus oversaw became an idealized model for Greek and Roman culture throughout history.
The story's tragic end, however, suggests the fragility of goodness and mortal happiness even for a hero like Theseus. Like Bellerophon, he becomes a more complex character as the end of his life becomes more complex than its clearly heroic beginnings. Between Ariadne's death, Aegeus's suicide, and the Phaedra tragedy, Theseus becomes a complicated figure who outgrows his earlier, simpler role of hero.
The tale of Phaedra and Hippolytus may illustrate some of the gendered power relations in ancient Greek life. It was reasonable to imagine that a woman at that time might kill herself after being raped. Phaedra takes advantage of that expectation in revenge, being so distraught over her failure to seduce Hippolytus that she is willing both to kill herself and to ruin his life. Contrast this relationship to that of Theseus and Ariadne; without her, he could not have escaped the labyrinth.
Indeed, the relationship between Ariadne and Theseus is an interesting one as it speaks to the recurring theme of true love. Although in the beginning it seems as if these two lovers have found the true love that the gods support, Hamilton puts that idea into doubt when she reports the idea that Theseus may have left her on an island to die. Although such an action would seem out of place for his character, the alternative suggestion is that Ariadne died because he left her on an island for too long. When he marries her sister, tragic events unfold, and it seems that fate did not look happily on the affair. True love, it seems, is not simple at all--it can cause all kinds of trouble and lead to all kinds of quests and adventures.
The tragedy of Aegeus brings up the recurring theme of a tragic mistake. When Theseus forgets to raise the correct flag, his carelessness takes a fatal turn against someone he loves. Like Apollo killing his best friend Hyacinthus, Theseus clearly means well but makes a tragic mistake. Unlike the other fathers who lose sons, Aegeus is so distraught that he chooses to die himself.
Like the story of Perseus, the tales of Theseus take on an adventurous tone with epic proportions. From the Labyrinth to the Minotaur, Ariadne to Aegeus, the tales of Theseus have become iconic in the Western canon.