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The Thesean cult of personality: power, politics and contingent mythologies within Classical Athens

Antonio Canova - Teseo defeats the centaur - Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien - Vienna Austria

Between the eighth to late sixth centuries BC, the mythic traditions related to the figure of Theseus, slayer of the Cretan Minotaur, illustrate him operating with heroic timbre. Yet in the context of Classical Athens (520-410 BC), myths related to the hero became subject to an intense elaboration and promotion. Operating within broader investigations of Thesean myth, this paper will examine the manifestation of Theseus in art, narrative and ritual contexts, aiming to illustrate his depiction as inherently tied to the socio-political fortunes of Classical Athens itself.[i] Myth as a narrative significant to its adherents and context of enunciation was inherently malleable within Classical Antiquity with multiple variants of an episode often existing in tandem.[ii] Mythical tradition thus provided an explanatory and reflective framework that manifested contextually. Indeed, Theseus emerges within the iconographic, literary and religious landscape in relation to the political revolution of Athenian Democracy and the startling victory within the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BC). In this context, Theseus became the focus of a prominent cult based around his personality. Indeed, depictions of his power, parental origin and political influence that appear in visual and textual culture produced at this time, indicate their acting in tandem with the social and political realities of Classical Athens.

The earliest illustrations of Thesean episodes which have survived to us are within the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here the hero is connected to four events: the Cretan adventure, battling the Centaurs, journeying into Hades, and the initial rape of Helen of Troy. This latter action resulted in his mother Aithra being kidnapped in turn by Helen’s brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes. With the Thessalian King Perithoös he both fought the drunken Centaurs and stole his way into Hades in an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap Persephone. The Cretan adventure is also mentioned in passing by Homer in Odyssey 11.322, but formed a major theme with poets between the seventh-sixth centuries BC, including Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC) and Sappho of Lesbos (died 580 BC), while informing the earliest iconographic depictions of Theseus.[iii] The version of Theseus evident in these earliest sources is the recognized son of King Aegeus of Athens and belonging to the ‘strongest generation of earth-born mortals’. Theseus here is entrenched within the Homeric heroic register of monster slaying, rapine and aiding ones friends. Yet from the sixth century BC, Theseus was represented within an aura of mass popularity that promoted versions of his mythic tradition related to the emergence of democracy and experience in the Persian Wars.

The cult of Thesean personality that manifested in the Classical era did so most vitally within ritualistic contexts, where he was presented as the authoritative founder of various religious rites. These primarily related to the Cretan adventure and illustrate an elaboration of narratives attached to pre-existing festivals, in order to allow for Thesean origins.[iv] One such was the Oschophoria. This traditional festival related to the vintage and autumn sowing, and included the carrying of vine branches from the shrine of the wine god Dionysos in Athens. Another was a ritual meal of beans and seeds sacred to Apollo - the Pyanopsia. After the sixth century BC, Theseus became the recognized founder of both these traditional rites relating to his departure and return from Crete; the procession out of Athens at the Oschophoria representing his leaving, and the meal at the Pyanopsia now representative of the last meal eaten before reaching harbour by Theseus and his comrades. The annual delegation to Apollo’s sacred shrine on Delos also became included into the Thesean mythological orbit, being supposedly founded after the return of the maidens and youths from Crete.

Hero cults were also ascribed with Thesean origins in the fifth century BC. The Kybernesia festival worshiped two ancient tombs at the harbour of Phaleron, now said to have been sailors on the Thesean voyage, with Theseus initializing their ritualized worship by the Samaminoi tribe. The purification rituals of the Phytalidai tribe also became ascribed to the myth of cleansing Theseus of blood-pollution.[v] The mythic foundation of the Panathenaia by the primordial King Erechtheus, now existed alongside versions that cited Theseus as its originator, the hero began to be worshiped alongside Poseidon on the eighth day of every month, something only mirrored by the hero Herakles. The development of this overt presence of Thesean myth within Athenian religious systems was connected to the emergence of the political geography of democratic Athens. In this context, the distinct voting tribes organized by Kleisthenes incorporated the unifying hero into both localized and pan-Attic communal ceremonial practice by citing him in their aetiological origin.[vi]

Indeed, Theseus became associated with the very foundation of Athenian political unity and democracy itself during the fifth century BC. The historian Thucydides (460-400 BC) noted the belief that ‘when Theseus became king, with his combination of power and intelligence, reformed the country […] and centralized all government in Athens’. Beyond this unification of Attica headed by Athens, the tragedian Euripides (480-406 BC) has Theseus state that he: ‘established the people in royal power’ and ‘the poor man too has an equal share’.[vii] The promotion of Theseus as initiating democracy indicates a selective emphasis on aspects of Thesean mythic traditions regarding his kingship, while eliding the tension between an overt cultural popularity for a Hero King within democratic ideologies. In narrating Thesean myth via the prism of democratization, the political reforms of Kleisthenes in 509 BC were provided an authoritativeness and religiosity. The establishment of Athenian democracy triggered the elaboration of dormant myths regarding Theseus; with his ‘democracy’ coming after a re-unification of Attica, just as within the Kleistheanic reorganization. This socio-political change also stimulated an inflection of democratic ideals within fifth century BC presentations of the mythic tradition of Theseus as king of Athens; aiding refugees, limiting kingship, valuing the free city and upholding moral order.[viii] The celebration of the mythical unification of Attica under Theseus was again attached to an older religious rite - the Synoikia - whilst the version of Theseus as beneficent democratic king became one of his lasting images in later antiquity.[ix]

A vivid example of the intersection of Thesean mythic tradition manifesting in relation to the political arena of Classical Athens, was that of the construction of the Theseion in the agora. This monumental building rose atop an already established sanctuary built to house Theseus’ sacralised remains. In 475 BC the Athenians received an oracle commanding them to locate and return the skeletal remains of Theseus back to Athens. A little while after this, the emerging politician and general Kimon, who was vying for position in the city, discovered the gigantic bones of the hero on the island of Skyros and returned them to the city. The fulfilment of the oracle and the establishment of the physical, totemic, presence of Theseus in Athens, who was by this time already enjoying escalating popularity, was greeted with mass celebration from the Athenian citizenry, who welcomed their favourite hero with processions and sacrifices.[x] The Theseion, as shrine and sanctuary, provided a centralised focus for the cult of Theseus inside Athens, even being assigned its own priests. Moreover, Kimon’s return of these Thesean relics likely stimulated the celebration of the Greater Theseia, an annual festival of the hero and his exploits that included athletic competition and religious sacrifice. Other myths relating Theseus’ death were concurrent in the fifth century, yet the focus on Skyros is firmly situated within the politico-military expansion of Athens under Kimon, who actually subdued the island.[xi] Indeed, the choice of Kimon to physically ensconce Theseus within the city was conducted in a wider promotion of Atheno-centrism, rising popularity of Theseus, and his own calcification of Athenian power inside the Delian League.[xii]

The development of the Theseion and Theseia acted as vital media for Kimonian political manoeuvring in the 470-60’s; operating in and stimulating further the overt popularity of the hero as a means of legitimization. Indeed the choice to return the Thesean remains to Athens can be seen as a reaction to the widespread vision of Theseus as the heroic and divine defender of the Athenians. Theseus was said to have fought alongside the soldiers that combated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), literally arising from the earth to aid the Athenians alongside the Olympian goddess Athena.[xiii] Miltiades, the father of Kimon, had been vital in obtaining victory at Marathon and so within the Theseion we may see the subtle celebration of the politicians own family and success.[xiv] In any regard the evident circulation of versions of this myth indicate the cult of Thesean personality as extending to direct divine intervention.

The vision of Theseus as defender of Athens also appeared in the metaphorically charged myth of the battle with the invading Amazons. A painting of this scene decorated the Theseion. Early associations between Theseus and the Amazons focus on his incursion into Amazonian territory to kidnap Queen Antiope.[xv] While this mythic episode remained in circulation during the Classical period, after 480 BC depictions of Theseus and the Amazons became intensely focused on his defence of Athens from the retaliatory Amazonian army. This included the shield of the statue of Athena Parthenos within the Parthenon which even depicted the Akropolis, and the western metopes of the same temple. The emphasis on this spatially specific point of the myth mirrored Theseus, leading the defence of the city with a heroic last stand atop the Akropolis, with recent events.[xvi] Indeed, this found an intense contemporaneous reflection of the Athenian’s own, unsuccessful, defence of the Akropolis against the Persians in 480 BC, which resulted in mass slaughter and the destruction of its temples. Thus, the focus on a version of the myth that emphasized the heroic and successful defence of Athens from the Akropolis can be understood as being triggered by a contingent desire to place the historical event into a wider cultural continuum, whilst allegorically referencing the eventual victory over Persia. Indeed the Amazons became a shorthand for the Persian ‘barbaric other’ during the fifth century BC. Thus the Amazonomachy as it manifested in Classical Athens emphasized Theseus as defender, rather than Theseus the invader, in reaction to the events and realities of the Greco-Persian Wars.

Another painting to have decorated the Theseion was that of Theseus’ journey to the hall of Poseidon under the ocean. This indicates another aspect of the Thesean mythic tradition to undergo a socio-politically motivated re-emphasis during the Classical era; that of his paternity. As noted, Homeric sources cite King Aegeus as the father of Theseus, yet from the first quarter of the fifth century this title was increasingly transferred to the Olympian sea god Poseidon. This was vividly illustrated by the poet Bacchylides who composing in the 470’s BC, narrated the underwater journey of Theseus to Poseidon’s home while riding dolphins. The tragedian Euripides also highlights this version of Thesean paternity in the now fragmentary Theseus. Yet the same playwright also indicates the fact that Classical myth often co-existed with variant versions, as the role of Poseidon as Theseus’ father is itself doubted and questioned in the Hippolytus.[xvii] The contextual prevalence of Theseus’ godly paternity did not exclude Aegeus as his mortal father, but rather illustrates a focused promotion of divine origins associated with the political exterior. After the naval victory at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, which repulsed the Persians by a vastly outnumbered Athenian force, Poseidon increased in his visual presence, including depictions on the Parthenon, and religious popularity, which included the construction of a new temple in his honour at Sounion and the reinvigoration of his cult on the Akropolis.[xviii] Moreover, with the growing naval might of Athens inside the Delian League in the first half of the century, the connection between Theseus and the victorious sea journey to Crete became ever emphasized. The desire to elaborate and promote the tradition of Poseidon fathering the Athenian national hero was connected to Athens’ own emergence as a naval power.[xix]Moreover it illustrated Theseus as on par with Herakles, something evident in the claim that he, rather than King Sisyphus, founded the Corinthian Isthmian Games to honour Poseidon.[xx]

While Theseus is demonstrated as a slayer of chaotic monsters from the earliest sources, within the late fifth century this aspect of the hero was drastically re-emphasized in the development of what scholars address as the ‘Saronic Gulf Cycle’[xxi] These exploits narrated Theseus’ journey as a youth from the region of Troezen, northward along the Gulf to Athens. This myth appears within Attic iconography from 515 BC, yet the fullest version of this Thesean tradition comes in the first-century comparative biography by the Greco-Roman historian, ambassador and Delphic priest, Plutarch (46-120 A.D). Aegeus, after sleeping with the Troizenian princess Aithra, hid a pair of sandals and sword under a rock with the proviso that if she bore a son these tokens would identify him as heir to the throne of Athens. Theseus retrieved them, and on the road to Athens he is exemplified as a civilising hero endowed with both brain and brawn, ridding the land of criminals and wild beasts. He slays the club-wielding Periphetes, the torturer Sinis, a wild sow, the murdering thief Sceiron is thrown from the cliffs, out-wrestles a wrestler, and dispatches Damastes who would have otherwise dismembered travellers.

The Cretan adventure and slaying of the Minotaur remained vastly popular throughout antiquity, yet the elaboration of the mythic tradition of Theseus’ being born in Troezen within the Saronic Cycle emphasizes his operating as pacifying Atheno-centric force on the surrounding country.[xxii] This episode should be connected to the wider popularity of Theseus during the Classical era, but again illustrates a renewed stress of mythic versions in relation to socio-political realities of Athens itself. Visual depictions of the Cycle, which came to include the taming of the Marathonian Bull, first manifest in a period where the geography covered by Theseus on his journey was being violently contested between Athens and her neighbours.[xxiii] Moreover, the Cycle emphasized an image of Thesean power as on par with the Labours of Herakles, who while pan-Hellenic in his popularity was recognized as Spartan. The Athenian Treasury (c. 510-480 BC) at Delphi openly depicted the Saronic Gulf Cycle next to the Labours while Athena, Herakles’ traditional patroness, now showed favour to Theseus. The initiation of Athenian democracy under Kleisthenes in 509 BC was accomplished with Sparta assisting in expelling the tyrant Hippias. Thus the continued popularity of the Cycle embodies a deliberate elision of Spartan involvement in Athenian democratic foundation, with Theseus acting as an embodiment of Athens itself.

In the context of Classical Athens the established heroic figure of Theseus experienced a drastic expansion in his religious, visual and narratological presence. This was framed by a cult of personality where myths relating the foundation of democracy, religious rites and heroic defence, became increasingly emphasized. These versions of Thesean myth did not manifest in a vacuum, and multiple versions of the same myth and hero could and did exist laterally. Indeed, the non-monolithic and inherently malleable quality of myth in the ancient world, as differentiated from the exercises of historical narrative and investigation of Herodotus and Thucydides in this period, allowed for a manifestation of Theseus overtly in unison with the socio-political phenomena of the Greco-Persian conflict and the establishment of democracy.[xxiv] The protective, authoritative and civilizing presence of Theseus in the fifth and fourth centuries BC developed in connection with Athens’ fortunes and ambitions, where the hero as ‘another Herakles’, represented a city self-described as the ‘school of Greece’.[xxv]

Ben S. Cassell, recently awarded an MA in Classical Studies from the Open University, currently MPhil-PhD Student at King's College London. Research project relates to the roles of ritual and space inconstruction of social memory in 5th-4th century Attica

[i] Seminal monographs relating to the figure of Theseus include, Walker Theseus and Athens (1995, Oxford University Press); Mills Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (1997, Oxford University Press); Shapiro Theseus in Kimonian Athens (1992, Mediterranean Historical Review) and, Calame Thésée et l'imaginaire Athenien (1996 Payot Publishing). More focused examinations have recently come in, Athanassaki Political and Dramatic Perspectives on Archaic Sculpture: Bacchylides’ Fourth Dithyramb (Od 18) and the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi (2016, Brill); Zaccari The Return of Theseus to Athens: A Case Study in Layered Tradition and Reception (2015 Histos) and, Larson, Understanding Greek Religion (2016, Routledge).

[ii] For the definition of ‘myth’ see Csapo Theories of Mythology pp. 1-10 (2005 Blackwell), and, Seagal Myth: A Very Short Introduction pp.3-5. (2004 Oxford University Press). For the contingent quality and co-existence of differing versions of the same myth in antiquity see: Dowden, (2008) The Uses of Greek Mythology, pp.3-22 (2008 Routledge) and, Edmunds Approaches to Greek Myth pp.1-17 (1990 John Hopkins).

[iii] Edwards, in Ward, The Quest for Theseus pp.28-32 (1970 Pall Mall). References to Thesean myth in Homer can be found at: Iliad 1.265; 3.143-4.Odyssey 3. 322-25, 631. (Trans.) Lattimore, R. Other works include the Hesiodic Apis (182), and Catalogue of Women (fr. 147), and the Descent of Perithoös mentioned by Pausanias (9.31), Alcman fr. 21 and, Sappho fr.206.

[iv] For Theseus in the Classical Athenian calendar see: Larson, Understanding Greek Religion pp. 211-19 (2016, Routledge) and, Simon, in Neils, Worshipping Athena pp.9-13 (1996 Wisconsin University Press). A detailed examination of the festivals and associated myths can be found in Parke, Festivals of the Athenians (1986 Thames and Hudson) and, Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (1997 Oxford University Press).

[v] Kearns, Heroes of Attica, pp. 96-97, 117-124 (1987, Institute of Classical Studies), has provided a detailed examination of the accumulation of local heroes into a Thesean orbit during the Classical period and notes that Theseus’ politicized manifestation in the fifth century greatly informed his later reception.

[vi] Larson, 2016, p.214.

[vii] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, section 2.15. Euripides, Suppliant Women, sections 358-60.

[viii] Aristotle Athenian Constitution fr. 4.41.2, Euripides Suppliants, section 404.

[ix] Diodorus Siculus, section 4.61, Plutarch, Theseus, sections 24.2-4, Pausanias, section 1.3.3. Apollodorus, Epitome section 1.10. The Synoika was celebrated on the sixteenth of Hekatombaion (Jul/Aug). Although in the fifth century BC., Thesian origins were attributed to this public festival, the divine recipients of Zeus Phartrios and Athena Phratria (‘’brotherhood/kin’’) indicate an older celebration of Attic unification (Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens, p. 281, 2005, Oxford University Press).

[x] Plutarch, Cimon, section 8. Theseus, section 36. For the Thesean remains see: Podlecki (1971 Journal of Hellenic Studies) Theseus’ Bones and and McCauley, ‘Heroes and Power: The Politics of Bone Transferal’ in Hagg (ed.), 1999, Ancient Hero Cult, Paul Åströms Förlag, pp.86-96

[xi] Diodorus Siculus (11.60.2). For other versions of Theseus’ death, including his retirement on Crete, see Grimal Dictionary of Classical Mythology, p. 435 (1991, Penguin).

[xii] Walker, Theseus and Athens, pp.55-61, (1995 Oxford University Press). The Delian League was founded in 478 BC as an association of various city states in the aim to compensate ‘their losses by ravaging the territory of the king of Persia’ (Thucydides, section 1.96). The move from the Leagues meeting point and treasury on the island of Delos to Athens in 454 illustrated the city’s leading role by this time.

[xiii] Plutarch, Theseus, section 35.5. Pausanias, section 1.15.4.

[xiv] This connection was also evident on the Stoa Poikile which contained depictions of Marathon with Miltiades represented leading the charge. Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon, section 186.

[xv] Antiope was interchangeable with Hippolyta in the Classical era. Sources that mention the invasion include Aeschylus, Eumenides, section 684-7, and the fragments of Hellanikos (fr. 17a = Plutarch, Theseus, 27.1) and Philochorus (fr. 110 = Plutarch, Theseus, 26.1). For an an examination of the Amazon as the Persian ‘other’ see Stewart, Imag(in)ing the Other: Amazons and Ethnicity in Fifth-Century Athens (Poetics Today, 1995, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 571-597).

[xvi] The Amazonomachy was represented on the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike. The first literary appearance comes in 458 BC (Eumenides, section 684-7). It also decorated the Stoa Poikile (Paus, sections 1.15.2, 7.2) and the shield of Athena Parthenos of Phidias (Paus section 1.17.2). See Harrison, Motifs of the City-Siege on the Shield of Athena Parthenos (1981, American Journal of Archaeology) for the shield of Athena Parthenos. For the sack and last stand on the Akropolis: Herodotus, sections 8.51-56.

[xvii] Bacchylides deals with this episode in, dithyramb, section 17, the Euripidean Theseus (fr.386b 5-10) clearly marks out Theseus as the son of the god, while the Hippolytus (section 169) tragically implies that this belief is, in fact, misguided (section 1282). Plutarch also discounts this version of Theseus’ origins (Thes., fr.6.1).

[xviii] For the religious revival of Poseidon see, Neils The Parthenon Frieze pp. 186-191 (2006, Cambridge University Press).

[xix] For the Theseion (Paus, 1.17.3). For the emphasis with sea power and Poseidon: Shapiro, Theseus in Kimonian Athens: The Iconography of Empire (1992 Mediterranean Historical Review).

[xx] Hellanikos F15 = Plu, Thes. 25.5. This version of the Games foundation operated in the national propaganda disseminated by Athens during the fifth century (Harding, The Story of Athens, 2008, Routledge, p.63).

[xxi] For development of the ‘Saronic Gulf Cycle’ in iconography see: Neils Inventing the Other: The Opponents of Theseus (1995 Source: Notes in the History of Art).

[xxii] See Walker, Theseus and Athens, (1995 Oxford University Press), p.41. Fifth century BC textual sources that mention this episode include Bacchylides, sections 18.15-30, and Euripides, Hippolytus sections 975-80.

[xxiii] This included the dispute for the island of Salamis, which when granted to Athens by Spartan arbitration in 509 BC, strengthened her position against Megara.

[xxiv] For the differentiation and non-differentiation of myth and history in Herodotus, Thucydides and Plato see Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology (2008, Routledge), pp. 39-49.

[xxv] Plu, Thes, fr. 28.3. Thucydides section 2.41.

Photo: Antonio Canova - Teseo defeats the centaur - Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien - Vienna Austria. Photo by: Simone Crespiatico,,

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