Theseus (Θησευς) was a legendary king of Athens, son of Aegeus (or of Poseidon). He may have originated in, or been based upon, an historical person or persons.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Birth and Childhood
3 Medea and the Marathonian Bull
4 Ariadne and the Minotaur
5 The Return to Athens
6 Hippolyte
7 Pirithous
8 Phaedra and Hippolytus
9 His Place in History
10 Other Stories and His Death
11 Books


Theseus was considered by Athenians as the great reformer. His name comes from the same root as θεσμoς -- "thesmos," Greek for institution. As we read in Frogs by Aristophanes, they credited him with inventing many of their everyday traditions.

Birth and Childhood

Aegeus (King of Athens) went to Troezena (a town southwest of Athens) where he met Aethra, daughter of Troezena's king, Pittheus. They had sex and then, in some versions, Aethra waded out to the sea to Sphairia and had sex with Poseidon. When she became pregnant, Aegeus decided to return to Athens. But before leaving, he buried his sandals, shield, and sword under a huge rock and told her that when their son grew up, he should move the rock and take the weapons for himself as evidence of his royal parentage.

When Theseus grew up and became a brave young man, he moved the rock and recovered his father's arms. His mother then told him the truth about his father's identity and that he must take the weapons back to the king and claim his birthright. To get to Athens, Theseus could choose to go by sea (which was the safe way) or by land, following a dangerous path thick with with thieves and bandits. Young, brave, and ambitious, Theseus decided to go by the land route, and defeated a great many bandits along the way.

One of these was Cercyon, King of Eleusis, who challenged passersby to a wrestling match and, when he had beaten them, killed then. Theseus beat Cercyon at wrestling and then killed him instead. (In some versions of the story, Cercyon was a "year-king," who was required to do annual battle for his life, for the good of his kingdom, and was succeeded by the victor. Theseus overturned this religious rite by refusing to be sacrificed.)

Another bandit was Periphetes, who robbed his victims and then killed them with an iron club. Theseus killed him, as well.

An elderly robber named Sciron forced travellers to wash his feet. While they knelt, he kicked them off the cliff behind them, where they were eaten by a sea monster (or, in some versions, a giant turtle). Theseus pushed him off the cliff.

Another was a robber named Siris. He would capture travelers, tie them between two pine trees which were bent down to the ground, and then let the trees go, tearing his victims apart. Theseus killed him by this method and married his daughter, Perigune, by whom he fathered Melanippus.

The last bandit was Procrustes, who had a bed which he offered to passersby. He then made them fit into it, either by stretching them or by cutting off the excess. Theseus killed him, too.

Medea and the Marathonian Bull

When Theseus arrived at Athens, he did not reveal his true identity immediately. He was welcomed by Aegeas, who was suspicious of the stranger. Aegeus's wife, Medea, tried to arrange to have Theseus killed by asking him to capture the Marathonian Bull.

On the way to Marathon, Theseus took shelter from a storm in the hut of an ancient woman named Hecale. She swore to make a sacrifice to Zeus if Theseus was successful in capturing the bull. Theseus did capture the bull, but when he returned to Hecale's hut, she was dead. Theseus subsequently built a deme in her honor.

When Theseus returned victoriously to Athens, Medea tried to poison him but at the last second, Aegeas recognized the sandals, shield, and sword and knocked the poisoned wine glass from Theseus's hand, and father and son were reunited.

Ariadne and the Minotaur

In those days, Athens was required to pay a horrible tax to Crete, the controlling power in the region: Each year, seven young men and seven young women were to be sent to Crete as sacrifices to the Minotaur, a monster in the Labyrinth constructed by Daedalus. Theseus volunteered to be one of the sacrifices, and the fourteen chosen sailed off to Crete on a ship with black sails, for mourning.

Soon after the Athenians arrived in Crete, King Minos raped one of the young women. Theseus protested and boasted of his parentage, as a son of Poseidon. Minos demanded he prove his claim by bringing up a golden ring he threw into the ocean, and in this Theseus was successful.

King Minos's daughter, Ariadne, was engaged to Dionysus. However, she fell in love with Theseus and gave him a magic sword with which to kill the Minotaur, and a spool of thread. Theseus unwound the thread as he wandered through the Labyrinth searching for the Minotaur, so that he could find his way out of the maze again. After killing the Minotaur with the magic sword, Theseus fled Crete with Ariadne, but Theseus abandoned her, at Athena's request, on the island of Dia, or possibly Naxos.

The Return to Athens

Sailing back to Athens, Theseus neglected to change the black sails for white ones, as he had promised his father he would do if he survived. His father, watching from the cliffs at Sounion Head, jumped to his death in despair over his son's presumed demise. When he finally reached Athens, Theseus had to put a stop to Pallas, who was organizing a rebellion to take the city away from him. He was successful, killed Pallas, and became king of Athens.


Hippolyte was queen of the Amazons and possessed a magic girdle given to her by Ares. One of Heracles's Twelve Labors was to retrieve this girdle. He had succeeded but, at the last moment Theseus, who was his traveling companion, kidnapped Hippolyte's sister, Antiope. The Amazons attacked because Hera had spread a rumor that Heracles was there to attack them or to kidnap Hippolyte, but Heracles and Theseus escaped with the girdle and Antiope, whom Theseus later married. The Amazons then attacked Athens to get back their queen, but lost.

From this point in the story, versions vary:

  1. Heracles kidnapped Hippolyte's sister, Melanippe, and demanded the girdle as ransom. Hippolyte complied and Heracles released her.
  2. Heracles killed Hippolyte as they fled with the girdle.
  3. Antiope was killed in the battle for the girdle, or in the battle for Athens.
  4. Antiope and Theseus both survived and were married, and had a son named Hippolytus). Theseus eventually left her for Phaedra.
  5. Hippolyte and Theseus both survived and were married, and had a son named Hippolytus). When Theseus left for Phaedra, Hippolyte brought her warriors to the wedding and swore to kill everyone present, she was instead killed by Theseus's men, or was killed accidentally by Penthesilea, another Amazon.
  6. Theseus married Hippolyte, who gave birth to Hippolytus but died before Theseus marries Phaedra.


Theseus's best friend was Pirithous, Prince of the Lapiths. Pirithous had heard stories of Theseus's courage and strength in battle but wanted proof, so he rustled Theseus's herd of cattle and drove it from Marathon, and Theseus set out in pursuit. Pirithous took up his arms and the pair met to do battle, but were impressed with each other they took an oath of friendship and joined the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. Later, Pirithous was preparing to marry Hippodamia. The centaurs were guests at the wedding feast, but got drunk and tried to abduct the women, including Hippodamia. The Lapiths won the ensuing battle.

Theseus and Pirithous Meet Hades

Theseus and Pirithous pledged themselves to marry daughters of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen and together they kidnapped her, intending to keep her until she was old enough to marry. Pirithous chose Persephone. They left Helen with Theseus's mother, Aethra, and travelled to the underworld, domain of Persephone and her husband, Hades. Hades pretended to offer them hospitality and laid out a feast, but as soon as the two visitors sat down, snakes coiled around their feet and held them fast. Or, in some versions, the stone itself grew and attached itself to their thighs.

Heracles freed Theseus but the earth shook when he attempted to liberate Pirithous, and Pirithous had to remain in Hades for eternity. When Theseus returned to Athens, the Dioscuri had taken Helen and Aethra back to Sparta. When Heracles had pulled Theseus from the chair where he was trapped, some of his thigh stuck to it; this explains the supposedly lean thighs of Athenians.

Phaedra and Hippolytus

Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's son by Hippolyte. According to some versions of the story, Hippolytus had scorned Aphrodite to become a devotee of Artemis, so Aphrodite made Phaedra fall in love with him as punishment. He rejected her. Alternatively, Phaedra's nurse told Hippolytus of her mistress's love and he swore he would not reveal the nurse as his source of information -- even after Phaedra killed herself and blamed it on his seduction of her in her suicide note. In revenge, Phaedra wrote Theseus a letter claiming that Hippolytus had raped her. She then killed herself. Theseus believed her and, using one of the three curses he had received from Poseidon, Hippolytus's horses were frightened by a sea monster and dragged their rider to his death. In other viersions, after telling Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her, he killed his son himself and Phaedra committed suicide out of guilt, for she had not intended for Hippolytus to die. Artemis later told Theseus the truth. In yet another version, Phaedra simply told Theseus this and did not kill herself; Dionysus sent a wild bull which terrified Hippolytus's horses.

His Place in History

A cult grew up around Hippolytus, associated with the cult of Aphrodite. Girls who were about to be married offered locks of their hair to him. The cult believed that Asclepius had resurrected Hippolytus and that he lived in a sacred forest near Aricia in Latium.

More broadly, Theseus is the founding hero and primary political mythic figure of Athens and Attica because he was responsible for the "synoikismos" ("dwelling together") -- the political unification of Attica under Athens. Because he was the unifying king, Theseus built and occupied a palace on the fortress of the Acropolis that may have been similar to the palace excavated in Mycenae. Pausanias reports that after the synoikismos, Theseus established a cult of Aphrodite Pandemos ("Aphrodite of the People") and Peitho on the southern slop of the Akropolis.

Other Stories and His Death

According to some sources, Theseus also was one of the Argonauts though Appollonius of Rhodes states in the Argonautica that Theseus was still in the underworld at this time. With Phaedra, Theseus fathered Acamas, who was one of those who hid in the Trojan Horse during the Trojan War. Theseus welcomed the wandering Oedipus and helped Adrastus to bury the Seven Against Thebes. Lycodemes of Scyrus threw Theseus off a cliff after he had lost popularity in Athens.


  • Mary Renault, The King Must Die (1958). -- A dramatic retelling of the Theseus legend and, while fictional, is generally faithful to the spirit and flavor of the best-known variations of the original story. The sequel is The Bull from the Sea (1962), about the hero's later career.

See also Ship of Theseus.