Friday, December 17, 2010

The Fall of Theseus AND the Monument of Eponymous Heroes

In The Pericles Commission, Nico, the main character, wonders briefly why Theseus is not included among the statuary at the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes in Athens. Ever since I read it, I've been turning the problem over in my mind as well (a compliment to you, Gary Corby, because I love nothing better than a book which gives me something to chew on in regard to history and myth!).

But I think I might have an idea which explains, at least in part, why. Of course it's all conjecture. It's always conjecture and educated guesswork.

Theseus Minotauros Staatliche Antikensammlungen SL471
Theseus vs. the Minotaur
The reason Theseus was not among them might have been related to his return to Athens from the Underworld and subsequent dismissal. Theseus lost the flesh from the back of his thighs when he was ripped out of the chair of forgetfulness by Heracles, and therefore he would have returned to Athens no longer WHOLE. There is plenty of plenty of plenty of evidence for the Athenian admiration for the perfection of the human body, from art to athletics, and I imagine that this vision of their hero, their magnificent King, must have come as something of a shock. Theseus would no longer have been in the position to continue on as a warrior if he were recovering from a wound like that--unnatural to say the least, and no doubt jarring.

My personal theory is that this is one reason why his people wanted nothing more to do with him as King by the time he got back-- we see it echoed later in Byzantium MUCH later, where members of the royal family who they never wanted back near the throne again had their noses cut off, because if they were not whole they could not RULE-- and so, perhaps it was this same rejection which knocked him out of the running for that series of statues. Not just because he couldn't rule, but also because his very appearance was an affront to Athenian sensibilities about beauty. Theseus might very well have been better off dying with honor than coming back to Athens so physically disgraced.
Theseus Slaying Minotaur by Barye
Theseus vs The Minotaur. Again.

Add to this that most of the imagery we have of Theseus revolves around his youthful adventures: his trip to Crete to battle the Minotaur, his capture of the Marathon Bull, MORE of Theseus slaying the Minotaur (seriously it is EVERYWHERE), Theseus battling along the six entrances to the Underworld, and you wonder if he was admired as a King at all. Even in modern art and discussion, we gloss over his adventures as an adult. Both Mary Renault and Margaret George completely disregard his abduction of Helen, while Rick Riordan implies that he did not live to old age when Theseus' shade appears to Percy Jackson as a youth.

In fact the latter half of his life is just one long fall from grace so full of tragedy that it isn't really even all that heroic, completed with his death falling from a cliff. The only idea of Theseus as King we really have is the Sanctuary of Theseus in Athens, where slaves could flee to claim protection. This too, may not have made him a very popular King among the political elite, since it might have been construed as an upset to the status quo.

Now, of course there could have been other reasons, and in fact the website I linked to above states that it was simply a decision made by an oracle after a larger list was submitted. BUT, I don't think anyone researching Athens can forget the political nature of, well, everything they did. I humbly submit after laying all of this evidence before you, that perhaps Theseus's exclusion had a lot to do with the fact that Athens really preferred to forget about the fact he was ever their king, not ONLY because of his disfigurement, but certainly as the final nail in his coffin.

Ultimately, Athens had no use for a disgraced King, hero or not. Not when his father could do the job without the taint of dishonor and failure, certainly!


  1. Poor Theseus! He slew the minotaur! Hello! Jesh...

  2. Yeah, pretty sure that Minotaur is the only thing anyone ever remembers about him, IF THAT. Sad story :(

  3. Theseus SHOULD have he own tag! Haha.

    This is so interesting. I never knew that about Athenian culture but your reasoning makes sense!

    I suppose once he returned he was the opposite of strength and perfection, he was flawed.

    Great post!

  4. Yup! Exactly! Unfortunately for Theseus, he did not age GRACEFULLY as a hero.

  5. Thanks for an idea, you sparked at thought from a angle I hadn’t given thoguht to yet. Now lets see if I can do something with it.

  6. Sorry for the late comment, but I only just came across this. Great piece! This is what Edith Hamilton in MYTHOLOGY, says about Theseus after his return from killing the minotaur:

    "So Theseus became King of Athens, a most wise and disinterested king. He declared to the people that he did not wish to rule over them: he wanted a people's government where all would be equal. He resigned his royal power and organized a commonwealth, building a council hall where the citizens should gather and vote."

    So, when Theseus realized that his father had died because of him, he "created" democracy. An interesting myth for the creation of democracy. What's your take on that interpretation?

  7. No comment is ever too late!

    You know, it seems to me that Theseus is frequently credited for odd events here and there- he's kind of a catch all for the things that can't be pinned on anyone else specifically.

    I think that Theseus probably was revolutionary, but I don't think we can really consider him to be a father of democracy (and this is the first mention of it that I've heard, I'll have to do some more research! How fascinating!). Then again, who knows! I can believe that he was disinterested--I imagine he was busy hero-ing it up a lot of the time, and he really came to the kingship as a very young man if we're to believe he went to Crete as a youth. I can't believe the circumstances surrounding his inheritance of Athens would have been easy, even if he came home a hero from Crete. Then too, if he were the real father of democracy, that makes it even odder that he would have been left out of the Monument of Eponymous Heroes.

    In Mary Renault's novels on Theseus, she implies that he does quite a bit to empower his people, but stops short of turning Athens into a democracy. I will definitely comb through the primary sources and see what I can see! Maybe I can make it a follow up post!

  8. Well, I added the "created democracy" interpretation to Hamilton's description above which may not be fair. Still, the quote sure does "suggest" that it was by his hand that democracy got its first stirrings.

    When I talk to kids about the myths, I mention this interpretation as a kind of foundational myth for democracy. I'm fascinated by Hamilton's take. I always wondered about the circumstances of Theseus becoming king because, it could be seen that Theseus on purpose left the black sail up, intentionally causing the death of his father, the king, so that he could take the throne.

    But since he never seemed so much interested in power as in glory, it may be yet another story to explain his "disinterested" nature in ruling.

    I too wonder what Hamilton's sources were for that tidbit (and its implications). Looking forward to your take on it!

  9. It looks like her source is Plutarch--and why everyone always uses Plutarch primarily for their Theseus stuff, I do not know!-- but I'm not sure I'd really trust him 100% in that regard, since he's deliberately drawing parallels between Theseus and Romulus for the purpose of extolling Rome. I'll take a closer look at it and write something up for January :)

    Thanks for the topic idea!!

  10. Indeed, Puasanias (1.3.3) even disagrees with this assessment of Theseus as bringer of democracy.


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