Labors of Theseus (Draft)

“Loose not the wine-skin’s jutting neck, great chief of the people, until thou shalt have come once more to the city of Athens” (Thes 3.3).  Those were the oracle’s words to Aegeus, king of Athens; unfortunately, Aegeus did not heed these words.  Pittheus, founder king of Troezen, had a daughter named Aethra; Pittheus understood the message and used this opportunity to trick Aegeus into sleeping with Aethra (Thes. 3.1-4).  Aegeus did not know that this encounter would lead to the birth of his child, Theseus (Thes. 3.3).

Aegeus’ brother, Pallas, had many sons and Aegeus suspected they were plotting against him on account of his childlessness; Aegeus, in fear of the sons of Pallas, kept his encounter with Aethra secret (Thes 3.5).  In case Aethra bore a child, Aegeus left a pair of boots and a sword under a rock as tokens of his noble birth. Theseus was raised by Aethra in Troezen; once he was old enough to move the stone, Theseus claimed the items which represented his birthright (Paus 1.27.8, Thes 7.1, 4.1).  However, Theseus wanted his actions, not these tokens, to prove his nobility.  He felt that taking a simple voyage by boat to meet his father was behavior suitable for a fugitive, so instead he set out on foot for Athens from Troezen determined to do no man wrong and to punish violent men (Thes 7.1).  Along the way, he preformed six labors emulating the high achievements of the great Hercules (DS 4.59.1, Thes 11.1).

Theseus with Periphetes' club
Theseus with Periphetes’ club.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, October 1991. Philadelphia L-64-191.

While in Epidaurus Theseus first wrestled and slew Periphetes, the son of Hephaestus and Anticlia (APB 3.16.1).  Periphetes was also known as Corynetes (Club Man) since he carried a massive club which he used to kill passers-by (DS 4.59.2).  Theseus claimed this club, and carried it with him in a similar fashion as his precursor Hercules did with the skin of the Nemean Lion (Thes 8.1).

At the Isthmus of Corinth Theseus killed Sinis, son of Polypemon and Sylea (APB 3.16.2).  Sinis bound his victim’s arms between two

Theseus ties Sinis to a pine tree
Theseus ties Sinis to a pine tree.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums, 1990. Harvard 1927.148

bent pine trees, and then quickly released the pines; the resulting force caused his victims to be torn asunder (DS 4.59.3, Paus 2.1.4).  Sinis was slain by Theseus in this same manner (Paus 2.1.4).

Next Theseus killed Phaea the wild boar near a village called Crommyon between the Isthmus of Corinth and Megarid (APE 1.1).  Theseus slew the sow so that he could be said

Theseus and the sow of Crommyon.
Theseus and the sow of Crommyon.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 2000. Boston 21.1205

to have risked his life in battle with the nobler beasts, instead of just attacking

villainous men out of self defense (Thes 9.1).

At the Cliffs of Sciron Theseus met none other than Sciron himself.  Sciron forced passers-by to wash his feet and then kicked his victims into the sea; a giant turtle would then seize them, resulting in their untimely demise (Thes 10.1-3, APE 1.3).  Theseus grabbed Sciron by the feet and hurled him into the sea as punishment for his wicked deeds (APE 1.3).

In Eleusis Theseus slew Cercyon, son of Branchus and the nymph Argiope (APE 1.3).  Cercyon wrestled all the passers-by against their will and killed everyone he defeated; only Theseus was skilled enough to defeat Cercyon, and he did so by raising him high and dashing him to the ground (Paus 1.39.3).

Theseus’ final labor was to slay Procrustes, who is also known as Damastes or Polypemon (APE 1.4).  Procrustes forced travelers to lie down on his bed

and he sawed off parts of their body or stretched

Theseus and Sciron.
Theseus throws Sciron into the sea.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art, January 1992. Toledo 1963.27

their legs until they fit the bed properly (DS 4.59.5).  Theseus gave Procrustes the same fate that he had given to so many strangers (Thes 11.1).


Theseus wrestles Cercyon
Theseus wrestles Cercyon.

While Theseus journeyed towards Athens, the public affairs were full of confusion and dissension, and the private affairs of Aegeus were in a

distressing condition.  Medea, a sorceress from Colchis, chanced upon Aegeus and promised him that she would use her magic to relieve Aegeus’ childlessness; in return Aegeus swore that Medea

would be protected by him and that she would always have a place in his land (Eur Med 663-758).  Medea had recently fled to Athens from Corinth. Jason, her husband, had remarried Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth in order to increase his own political station; in an act of

Theseus and Procrustes
Theseus prepares to cut off Procrustes’ feet.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art, January 1992. Toledo 1963.27

vengeance Medea killed both Jason’s children and Glauce (APB 1.9.28).  After arriving in Athens, Medea married Aegeus and bore a son, Medus (APB 1.9.29).

Theseus did not receive a warm welcome when he reached Athens (Thes 12.1-3).  Medea knew Theseus’ identity, while Aegeus was ignorant.  Fearing that Theseus’ presence would cause Medus not to inherit the throne, she suggested that Aegeus entertain Theseus as guest, and then poison him so that Aegeus would not be threatened by this glorious youth.  Since Aegeus was constantly afraid of the sons of Pallas and his private life was in such a disorganized state, he readily agreed to this scheme.  During dinner, Theseus drew his sword to cut his meat, revealing his true identity to his father.  Aegeus immediately knocked over the cup of poison and formally recognized his son before an assembly.  Theseus did not remain idle, but desiring to do good for his people, he continued to perform great deeds (Thes 14.1).

Theseus and the Marathonian bull
Theseus and the bull of Marathon.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, October 1991. Philadelphia L-64-185

Theseus went out to tame the Marathonian bull, which had been causing great mischief to the inhabitants of Tetrapolis (Thes 14.1).  Once he mastered the bull, he drove it alive through the city and sacrificed it to Apollo (Thes 14.1).

Theseus fighting Minotaur
Theseus fighting the Minotaur flanked by two women.
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art, October 1991. Tampa 1986.36

Theseus’ next exploit was to slay the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull hybrid, in the Labyrinth at Crete (Thes. 14.2).  Androgeos, son of the Cretan king Minos, was killed tragically while in Attica; war ensued and peace was obtained only when Aegeus promised to send a tribute of seven young men and seven young women to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur every nine years (Thes 14.1-2).  Theseus offered himself as one of these sacrifices, and took off for Crete with his comrades (Thes 17.1-2).  Theseus was able to slay the Minotaur, and with a string he had been given by Ariadne, daughter of Minos, he escaped safely from the labyrinth (Thes 19.1).

Unfortunately, Theseus had forgotten one thing: he was supposed to change the black sails of his ship to white as a sign to his father that he was successful (Thes 17.2, 22.1).  Aegeus, in a state of utter despair when he saw the ship, hurled himself into the sea that bears his name, the Aegean (Thes 22.1).  As the new king of Athens, Theseus unified Attica into a single political system and refounded the Isthmian Games (Thes 24-25).

Theseus in combat with Amazons
Theseus in combat with Amazons.
From Caskey & Beazley, plate XXX. With permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.. Boston 95.48

Theseus later went to the Euxine Sea and waged a campaign against the Amazons with Hercules; Theseus received the Amazon Antiope (or Hippolyta according to Herodotus and other authorities) as spoils of war, and they later had a son, Hippolytus (Thes 26.1-2, 28.2).  Theseus’ campaign resulted in a difficult war with the Amazons within Athens itself; the war continued for three months, at which point Antiope was able to negotiate a peace treaty (Thes 27.1-4).

Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs
Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs. Frieze over the Opisthodomos. Temple of Hephaistos, Athens.

Theseus was involved in many other heroic actions, most famous of which is the battle with the centaurs.  Theseus was a guest at the wedding of Peirithous and Deidameia; the Lapithae and the centaurs were also present (Thes 30.3).  The centaurs became drunk on wine, and began to lay their lands on the women; Theseus and the Lapithae responded with vengeance by slaying the centaurs and expelling them from the country (Thes 30.3).




Additional Materials:

Gallagher-Theseus Family Tree



Paus- Pausanias

APB- Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca

APE- Apollodorus’ Epitome

Thes- Plutarch’s Life of Theseus

Eur Med- Euripides’ Medea

DS- Diodorus Siculus

Sources with full story of labors:  DS 4.59,  APB 3.16 and APE 1.1.1-4, Thes 8-11.