A – Labors of Theseus

Θησεὺς δὲ γεννηθεὶς ἐξ Αἴθρας Αἰγεῖ παῖς, ὡς ἐγένετο τέλειος, ἀπωσάμενος τὴν πέτραν τὰ πέδιλα καὶ τὴν μάχαιραν ἀναιρεῖται, καὶ πεζὸς ἠπείγετο εἰς τὰς Ἀθήνας. φρουρουμένην δὲ ὑπὸ ἀνδρῶν κακούργων τὴν ὁδὸν ἡμέρωσε. πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ Περιφήτην τὸν Ἡφαίστου καὶ Ἀντικλείας, ὃς ἀπὸ τῆς κορύνης ἣν ἐφόρει κορυνήτης ἐπεκαλεῖτο, ἔκτεινεν ἐν Ἐπιδαύρῳ. πόδας δὲ ἀσθενεῖς ἔχων οὗτος ἐφόρει κορύνην σιδηρᾶν, δι᾽ ἧς τοὺς παριόντας ἔκτεινε. ταύτην ἀφελόμενος Θησεὺς ἐφόρει. [2] δεύτερον δὲ κτείνει Σίνιν τὸν Πολυπήμονος καὶ Συλέας τῆς Κορίνθου. οὗτος πιτυοκάμπτης ἐπεκαλεῖτο: οἰκῶν γὰρ τὸν Κορινθίων ἰσθμὸν ἠνάγκαζε τοὺς παριόντας πίτυς κάμπτοντας ἀνέχεσθαι: οἱ δὲ διὰ τὴν ἀσθένειαν οὐκ ἠδύναντο, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν δένδρων ἀναρριπτούμενοι πανωλέθρως ἀπώλλυντο. τούτῳ τῷ τρόπῳ καὶ Θησεὺς Σίνιν ἀπέκτεινεν.

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This excerpt (Library 3.16.1-2; Epitome 1.1-4), recounting Theseus’ six labors on his journey from Troezen to Athens, falls in the midst of the Library’s discussion of the kings of Athens and Athenian-Cretan stories surrounding Theseus and the Minotaur.  Childless and without an heir, Theseus’ father Aegeus sought advice from the Delphic oracle, who answered him, saying “Loose not the bulging mouth of the wineskin until reaching the height of Athens.”  On his return to Athens, Aegeus stops at Troezen where the king Pittheus, understanding the oracle, makes Aegeus drunk and makes him sleep with his daughter Aethra.  On the very same night, Poseidon also slept with her.  And as Aegeus departs, he tells Aethra that he has left a sword and sandals under a heavy rock, and when the boy is strong enough to roll away the rock, she should send him to Athens.

This story is typical of the Library, telling the story in such a way as to focus on the hero.  It is so compressed that it leaves out key details, such as the meaning of the oracle or why Theseus is visiting Troezen on his way from Delphi or why Aethra sleeps with both a god and a human on the same night that she conceives Theseus.  Nor does this telling of the tale show any acknowledgment of Aethra’s perspective and how she might have felt that fateful night.  So who do you think is the primary audience of this tale?

Read the culture essay, “The Labors of Theseus.”

Watch the Ancient Greek Review video on the Past Tenses in Greek – Imperfect and Aorist 


Complete the Practice exercises on the aorist and imperfect.

Although Apollodorus does not explicitly mention it, Theseus was raised by his mother Aethra in Troezen.  Look up Troezen in the Oxford Classical Dictionary or similar resource.  What connection does Troezen have with Athens?  Why would it make sense to link Theseus with Troezen and Athens?

Theseus’ Six Labors (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)…

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Apollodorus of Athens was the last in the great tradition of scholars connected with the great Library of Alexandria, Egypt.  Born around 180 BCE, he studied under the Stoic Diogenes, moved to Alexandria where he collaborated with Aristarchus, extended Eratosthenes’ Chronicles (Χρονικά) to his death in 120 or 110 BCE, wrote a commentary on Homer’s Catalogue of Ships (Περὶ τοῦ τῶν νεῶν καταλόγου) that offered a geographical account of the Homeric age, and authored an extensive account on Homeric religion called On the Gods (Περὶ θεῶν).  In deference to his immense learning, a number of works were later attributed to Apollodorus, most famously the mythological handbook known as the Library (Βιβλιοθήκη).  Organized around extended family relationships of the gods and heroes, the Library utilizes these genealogical links to clarify how the vast number of muthoi fit together in a coherent way and to connect various poleis through their divine and heroic family networks.  The straightforward storytelling of the Library made it popular as a handbook to students learning Greek myths in antiquity, just as it does today.  The last half of Book 3 breaks off after the first two Labors of Theseus and an Epitome provides a shorter account of the last four labors.

The Bibliotheca is an example of a larger genre known as mythography, the collection and organization of mythical stories, often geographically or chronologically.  By definition, mythography encompasses a wide range of material, beginning with the Homeric Catalogue of Ships and Hesiod’s Theogony.  Mythography is often organized through the use of catalogues, genealogies, theogonies, cosmogonies, and chronological “cycles.”  The earliest examples of mythography can be found in the scholia (notes on canonical texts by ancient scholars), the hypotheses (summaries) of tragic drama, or as digressions in geographical or astronomical works, but by the first century BCE, the most common form becomes manuals or handbooks for the reading public, such as the Library.  The Library is organized both chronologically and genealogically, beginning with the creation of the cosmos and then by various family trees.

Family Tree of Theseus
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.
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