Horrible Heroes: Theseus

Imagine a princess is about to help you defeat a beast. She’s mad into you but you’re not so into her. What do you do?

  1. Take her help but introduce her to your super chill friend Nathan later
  2. Refuse her help. You’re a hero, damn it.
  3. Take her help, lead her on, then abandon her off on a cannibal and drunk infested island.

If you chose 3, congratulations! You’re a lot like Theseus, and probably need some help ASAP.

If you want to learn more about Theseus and the princess Ariadne, go here. But I wanted to explore Theseus and his scumbaggery a little more. Some transparency is needed here though. There are so many versions of myths if you pick and choose the tales you can make anyone seem awful. But I digress, Theseus is a prick.

In Theseus’s early adventures he goes around tying people to trees, kicking old men off cliffs, and having sex with a girl among asparagus (after killing her father). You know, hero stuff. (To be fair, Theseus killed some nasty people. But his worst offences come later.)

After dropping off Ariadne (“Bye babe”) he sails back to his father, Aegeus, King of Athens.

Aegeus, Watching for the Ship , G.A. Harker

Unfortunately, Theseus didn’t change his sails from black (“Theseus is dead”) to white (“Good news, dad!”).

So Aegeus assumed his beloved son died. He threw himself into the sea.

It is said, moreover, that as they drew nigh the coast of Attica, Theseus himself forgot, and his pilot forgot, such was their joy and exultation, to hoist the sail which was to have been the token of their safety to Aegeus, who therefore, in despair, threw himself down from the rock and was dashed in pieces.

– Plutarch, Life of Theseus 22

Illustration in Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys
Illustration in Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys

“LOL, Sorry dad, I forgot. Was too busy dropping off this broad on an island.”

So Theseus becomes king.

That’s where most stories choose to end. Tragic… but the hero is king.

But his tale goes downhill from here.

In one ‘adventure’ he captures Queen Antiope of the Amazonians – or she left to go with him. Either way, they have a son Hippolytus. The Amazonians come to reclaim their queen. Or Theseus had eyes for another and Antiope calls upon her warriors.

Again, either way,  she dies in the battle. In Ovid’s version Theseus kills a pregnant Antiope.

Theseus’s new wife tells her step-son, Hippolytus what happens to his mother.

The first in courage among the women of the battle-axe bore you, a mother worthy of the vigour of her son; if you ask where [Antiope] is – Theseus pierced her side with the steel, nor did she find safety in the pledge of so great a son.

– Ovid, Heroides IV, Phaedra to Hippolytus

But wait, it gets worse!

Theseus then marries Phaedra, Ariadne’s sister. He couldn’t be bothered with the girl he promised to marry and leaves her on an island. But her sister will do just fine!

Phaedra, Alexandre Cabanel, 1880
Phaedra, Alexandre Cabanel, 1880

But, this is Greek mythology so you know something is up. A girl can’t be that surrounded by gauze and low-lighting and look so miserable.

Sure enough, Phaedra was obsessed with her step-son, Hippolytus. She tries to seduce him but he tells her to buzz off. In cruel retaliation Phaedra writes Theseus a letter declaring that his son tried to rape her.

Theseus immediately believes her. (Maybe he thought the apple didn’t fall far from the tree?) So in revenge Theseus kills his son Hippolytus by cursing him using a wish granted by Poseidon.

O father Poseidon, once didst thou promise to fulfill three prayers of mine; answer one of these and slay my son, let him not escape this single day, if the prayers thou gavest me were indeed with issue fraught.

– Euripides, Hippolytus

Hippolytus, Phaedra and Theseus, German School, 18th century
Hippolytus, Phaedra and Theseus, German School, 18th century

You think before ordering his son’s death he’d investigate a little more.

But no. Poseidon summons a sea monster to scare Hippolytus’s horses in his chariot. He dies knotted into the reins, unable to stop himself being dragged into the rocks (or sea).

…there issued from the wave a monstrous bull, whose bellowing filled the land with fearsome echoes, a sight too awful as it seemed to us who witnessed it. A panic seized the horses there and then, but our master, to horses’ ways quite used, gripped in both hands his reins, and tying them to his body pulled them backward as the sailor pulls his oar; but the horses gnashed the forged bits between their teeth and bore him wildly on […] While he, poor youth, entangled in the reins was dragged along, bound by a stubborn knot, his poor head dashed against the rocks, his flesh all torn…

-Euripides, Hippolytus

Hippolytus, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1860
Hippolytus, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1860
Death of Hippolytus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611
Death of Hippolytus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611

(I’m actually a bit suprised this isn’t a more popular painting subject. You have a half-clothed handsome youth, horses, and a wild sea.)

But, I guess Theseus gets over this pretty quickly. Or I have the timeline too jumbled.

Either way, enter Theseus’ major bromance with Pirithous.

They hunted together, fought together, and may have been lovers. They think they’re pretty hot stuff and decide they’re gonna marry daughters of Zeus.

Theseus and Pirithous abducting Elena, Pelagio Palagi, 1814
Theseus and Pirithous abducting Elena, Pelagio Palagi, 1814

Stop dancing and run girls. Run.

Theseus chooses Helen of Troy. When she was 13. They abduct her and in some versions draw straws on who ‘gets’ her.


Theseus wins and drops her off in Athens with his ma’.

Helen Carried Off by Theseus, Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, 17th century
Helen Carried Off by Theseus, Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, 17th century
Boy bye

Meanwhile, even dumber scumbag, Pirithous, declares that he’s going to marry the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone.

It goes about as well as you’d think.

They go to the Underworld. But before they can even say, “Hey girl”, they stop to rest. A rock engulfs them and they get stuck in the earth itself.  Also the terrifying Erinyes appear and torture them.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862
Orestes Pursued by the Furies, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862

Deus ex machina, Heracles, saves Theseus. In some versions Theseus literally can’t get off his ass, so he leaves it behind. Heracles tries to save Pirithous but the earth shakes as if to say no and won’t release him. Heracles shrugs and they leave Pirithous in the Underground. Theseus goes on to be a lonely assless scummy man.

OK! Theseus could single-handedly create his own #metoo movement. No wonder artists often focus on his defeat of the Minotaur. His later adventures certainly weren’t in my picture books.

3 thoughts on “Horrible Heroes: Theseus”

  1. Haha, I had so many chuckles reading about Theseus. If all Greek mythology stories were told in the same entertaining matter we’d all become experts. Great narration and selection of paintings.


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