Obviously, I consider Theseus to be a hero. And just as obviously, there are certain pieces of his mythology which do not exactly match with how we might consider a hero to behave in these modern times. But I don't believe that Theseus's character is that of the jerk he is sometimes painted to be, and I absolutely don't think, as I have seen said elsewhere, that he was any kind of serial rapist. In fact, every time I think of that phrase being applied to him, it kind of makes me physically sick.
The major area, which you might have surmised, where Theseus comes under criticism is in his dealings with women. In particular, his relationship and abandonment of Ariadne, and later, the question of his relationship with the Amazon Queen who is named either Hippolyta OR Antiope. Today I'm going to focus on Ariadne and Plutarch's history of Theseus!
As Plutarch himself admits:
There are yet many other traditions about these things, and as many concerning Ariadne, all inconsistent with each other.And he isn't wrong. In Plutarch's Theseus, he gives us a fair rundown of the differing accounts, and I'll summarize them for you here, because quoting will make this the longest entry of all eternity. Generally, these stories fall into three camps:
- Theseus abandons Ariadne on Naxos purposely and with no regret and sails off.
- Theseus and his fellows spend the night on Naxos, and for reasons beyond Theseus's control he is forced to leave her behind (usually this means she married a priest of Dionysus, or Theseus's ship was blown back out to see and by the time he got back Ariadne was dead.)
- Theseus never took Ariadne at all, nor did she help him, but merely admired him from a distance.
Plutarch doesn't relate the stories which are commonly known in his time in any depth. (At which choice, I shake my fist in outrage from 2000 years in the future!) But it's okay, Plutarch isn't our only source on Theseus. He does mention two things I find interesting: firstly, that Ariadne may or may not have born Theseus sons (evidently whilst they were voyaging back from Crete, which is wow pretty fast gestation) who went off to found other cities/places, and secondly, he NEVER states that Ariadne asked for anything in return from Theseus in exchange for her help, only that Theseus takes her with him when he leaves.
Now, I would argue that the same young man, who, seeing the pain of the people in Athens at having to give up their own sons and daughters, volunteers himself to travel to Crete and be part of this tribute to do what he can to lift their suffering would not, after showing such empathy, then callously abandon a woman who mothered his sons (Plutarch tells us that with the other women he may or may not have met along the way previous to this who gave him sons, he then took responsibility for seeing them married.), or callously abandon any woman who might have helped him in general, even without children. After all, hasn't he just risked his life for seven virgin Athenian girls? And the last woman who helped him and offered him kindness on his quest against the Marathon Bull, he repaid by creating what amounts to an annual holiday in her name, to honor her in perpetuity with sacrifices.
Theseus was not raised in Athens. He did not even know who his father (the Aegeus half) was until he was a young man strong enough to lift a boulder. After being made Aegeus's heir it was probably wise of him to make nice to the people he would rule, but to appease them, all he would have needed to do was throw his name into the lottery-- or APPEAR to throw his name into the lottery. Who would have known otherwise? Plutarch specifically states (emphasis mine):
These things sensibly affected Theseus, who, thinking it but just not to disregard, but rather partake of, the sufferings of his fellow-citizens, offered himself for one without any lot.Now, it would be jerky of me not to admit that Plutarch had his own agenda in writing down the story of Theseus. Plutarch meant to show a parallel between Theseus and Romulus, the founder of Rome, and by doing so, demonstrate Rome's greatness by the greatness of its founder. In this, it behooved Plutarch to show Theseus in a favorable light so that favor would reflect on Romulus and Rome itself. The other bias of Plutarch is his habit of discounting all godly influence, and without the involvement of the gods, these mythologies alter pretty dramatically. A hero's character is made or broken by whether or not the gods compelled him to some behavior or other.
For instance, if Theseus was compelled to leave Ariadne behind that she might be made the bride of Dionysus, and through this, a goddess, that is a different thing entirely than his sailing off into the sunset to abandon her of his own accord, showing no regret. Or, in Paris's case, if Aphrodite swept Paris off the battlefield during that crucial fight with Menelaus against Paris's own wishes to deposit him in Helen's arms, that is a very different story than one in which Paris consciously flees from Menelaus, giving up the fight when he realizes he will die, and hiding in the palace in Helen's bed to let Hector do his fighting for him.
We'll take a look at some other sources on Theseus and Ariadne again, soon!