Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Defense of Theseus' Honor (Part One)

The other day when I went through tagging Theseus entries, I realized I had yet to do a proper entry on him, as I have for others, and since I started the argument about his character in the post about The Hunger Games, it seemed only right to finish it.

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:
  1. Theseus abandons Ariadne on Naxos purposely and with no regret and sails off.
  2. 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.) 
  3. Theseus never took Ariadne at all, nor did she help him, but merely admired him from a distance.
The third is by far the least well known today, but you can see that these are the same contradictions that accompany the stories of Helen's abduction by Paris. No one really agrees, and different places and different poets had their own interpretations of what happened and who in the party was wronged.

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!


  1. I tend to feel a bit sorry for everyone in mythologies that involve gods and goddesses. Poor people, you do what you want against a deity's wishes and you die...you do what they tell you to and you still have a tenancy to die. (I'm being very general here.)

  2. Absolutely-- Being a Hero Sucks, there is no two ways about it. No matter how devout you are, or how rebellious you are, there's no winning. But at least they are allowed to die and lay down their burdens. We don't give that to our modern heroes anymore. They always end up resuscitated or brought back to life to fight another day, somehow.

  3. I don't have a problem with Heros acting appallingly human, it always makes me outraged when the gods themselves act so basely human. Theseus's rise and fall of a tragic hero is interesting and, while possibly muddled, is kind of compelling. When Zeus or Apollo who are insanely powerful, go around raping women and tormenting people it makes me far angrier.

    Theseus: Tragic Hero
    Apollo: Dick

  4. Haha!!
    Yes, I would definitely agree. The fact that the gods can't keep it in their pants is far more appalling. Zeus's rape of women in the form of different animals alone is awful, but then the poor kids suffer for it the rest of their lives.

  5. AGREE!!! Also with other posters, Theseus (and others) are human, and must rise to overcome insurmountable obstacles at the whims of the gods. As for my own thoughts on Theseus, I could never swallow the idea that he ditched Ariadne on the island for no reason at all. She took a huge risk helping him and he wouldn't have bothered taking her out of there at all if he was just some jerk. A jerk would have been like, "Thanks for the help, ha ha I'm outtie, byeeee!!!" and left as soon as he got out. I feel like he got the attention of the gods by getting out of there, and so did she by helping him. A girl who captures the attention of the gods rarely comes out of anything unharmed, and I think Dionysis wanted her for himself. Although I do think it would be just like the fates to have him leave her on the island and return too late to find her dead, I just don't think that was the case this time. Anyway, that's how I feel about him. Nice post, as always!! I really like coming to your blog. It's my favorite place to go when I should be revising and need a nice place to not revise for a while. *crunches another Oreo*

  6. Thank you, Diana! If only it also had a magical oreo dispenser...

    Obviously I agree with you about how a jerk might behave :) And you have a great point about Ariadne capturing the attention of the gods and what they usually means for women! Your comment has sparked a thought that I must now explore through fiction! Thank you!!!

  7. Great post! I'm familiar with most of these myths on only the most superficial level - Theseus: Athens, labyrinth, Minotaur, ball of string… well, you get the picture - so it's fascinating to learn the different variations/interpretations. Personally, I really hope Theseus wasn't a jerk, but clearly, Plutarch was. Your comment, "At which choice, I shake my fist in outrage from 2000 years in the future!" Made me laugh out loud. :)

  8. Hahaha. Well! I mean, thanks for nothing, Plutarch! He's just lucky that there are other sources, or I would have to find a time machine to go back and wave my fist under his nose. Or something. But he was writing for a specific audience, and so I guess I can't blame him for not wanting to bore them with things they already knew!

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :) I loved writing it, which is probably obvious by its length! ha!

  9. Wonderful post, Amalia. I was going to read it all yesterday over my lunch break when I got distracted by the link to Plutarch, and caught up in just what you described at the end--his comparison of Romulus and Theseus. So, I finished it today!

  10. There's another piece (essay?) that Plutarch writes which is a direct comparison between them: http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/r_t_comp.html

    If you're interested :) I haven't slogged through that one yet, because I care a lot less about Romulus and Rome than I do about Theseus himself. It is on my to-read list :)

  11. What a great post! And I think I enjoyed the comments just as much. I also laughed out loud at the "shake my fist in outrage" line. Can. So. Relate. Looking forward to reading more about Theseus!

  12. Thanks Vicky! And thanks for stopping by the blog! I wonder how much we leave out, assuming everyone knows the story already. Hopefully I won't give people any reason to shake their fist at me :)

    I want to at least cover Apollodorus's accounts of Theseus yet, so I'm sure there will be one more post when I get back from Hiatus. I think he might end up with a novel of his own before I'm done!


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