The Legend of Theseus


I became fascinated with ancient history (and history in general) primarily because of two novels: The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault. Both were published right around 1960, just in time for me to come across a serious retelling of one of the important cycles of Greek mythology.
I had already been interested in the Greek myths, so the story of Theseus wasn’t altogether unfamiliar, especially the early part, in which he goes to Crete, kills the Minotaur, and returns triumphantly to Athens. I was, perhaps, just old enough to recognize the seriousness with which Renault treated Greek religion, seeing Theseus as a religious man, and not just an adventurer out to steal a throne. The novel made me realize that pagans took their religion seriously in Theseus’s Mycenaean age, if not later. And its reconstruction of that age made me believe that the story of Theseus could have happened in very much the way Renault portrayed it. Her novels may well have been a source of my intuition that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion.
That last assertion isn’t a popular view. Prior to the century or two before the birth of Jesus religious conflict based on theology was rare. Before then, religious conflict was usually the same as national conflict: if one nation could steal or destroy another nation’s gods (idols), they could conquer that nation. It was more frequent in Israel and Judah, where various prophets gave various kings hard times because of their propensity for worshiping Baal and other “foreign” gods instead of Yahweh.
When the Greeks invaded what is now Greece, some 4,000 years ago, there was conflict between the Mother goddess (who had many names and attributes, but was generally always the same) and the various male gods, who eventually (if not immediately) insisted that women become second-class citizens. The theme of The King Must Die in particular is the conflict between the two religious systems, particularly around the belief in sacrifice.
In the matriarchal societies in Greece and around the Mediterranean in general, a Sacred King was chosen each year (or each six months, or some other period), during which he married the Goddess (represented by a priestess). Their sexual relationship was intended to be magic: their fertility and sexual vitality would enable the community to produce enough living children to ensure survival, and also produce enough crops to feed everyone. The King was arguably the finest male specimen the community could produce–sacrificing damaged goods would be disrespecting the gods (though this happened at various times and places). The point of this sacrifice, though, was that the King had no choice. When his time came, he had to die.
By contrast, Renault’s portrayal of the patriarchal Greeks includes the need for sacrifice, but insists that the king must sacrifice himself voluntarily if the people who are his responsibility face a threat he can’t solve in any other way. In our culture, Jesus is the archetype of self-sacrifice for the benefit of all, but the idea goes back much further, and in an afterword Renault traces its practice back at least to the time of Theseus, in about the 13th century BC. She shows Theseus as ready, perhaps even eager for the sacrifice, but it does not take place. For anyone interested in reading the novel, I won’t explain why.
These two novels are my favorites of Renault’s, though her work (the best of which is almost exclusively set in ancient Greece) is of very high quality. Since there is little dependable history from Theseus’s Mycenaen era, she had to study the myth cycle closely to deduce Theseus’s character, while also studying Sir James Frazer and other interpreters of Greek religion. Pictures from the Minoan culture indicated what Theseus and the other young captives from Athens faced in Crete, and made it clear just who and what the Minotaur was. Many things seem to have fallen into place for her in constructing the novel.
Theseus is all accomplishment in his early years. After returning to Athens from Crete he becomes king, and undertakes various political initiatives to bind the people of Attica more closely together and give them a safe status among the other kingdoms. He is guided by his feeling that humans can be more than we usually are. That belief is underlined by his experience in Crete, in which he takes the Athenian prisoners and makes them into a team that manages to survive when most of the bull dancers die quickly. The cover of The King Must Die shows ancient Cretan portrayals of young men and women leaping to the bull’s horns and landing behind the bull. Renault portrays this dance as a sort of religious sacrifice that has become secularized and trivialized, but Theseus finds it a tremendously attractive challenge. He finds similar challenges in other areas too.
But later, after saving Athens and Attica from a large invasion from the east, he loses his impetus. His duties have become routine, and he doesn’t feel he has anything left to accomplish. When he has discharged his duties each year he goes sailing as a pirate.
Eventually he decides he has to get married and provide an heir to the kingdom, so he marries a royal lady who is heiress of the Crete he had helped to conquer, and whom he had met during his first visit to Crete. She bears him a son, who turns out to be a nice boy, but Theseus doesn’t see him as being king. He has another son, whom he finds very kingly indeed, but this son has taken a vow of chastity, and is devoted to the Mother Goddess. He can’t become king if he can’t provide an heir to the kingdom.
I won’t go into the drama that ensues, in which Theseus misunderstands the situation, uses his powers to curse his son (as a son of Poseidon he is able to predict earthquakes), then understands what has really happened too late. He returns to piracy, and pays less attention than ever to the kingdom.
Much later we find that he has had what we now recognize as a stroke. He finds an old lover who takes care of him until he has regained much of his function, and evaluates news of Athens. In his absence someone has taken over who causes conflict (only from the best motives), and doesn’t try to build consensus. A younger stronger Theseus might have tried to fix the situation. This one is too old and tired.
He accepts the hospitality of a king of one of the islands of the Aegean, and wakes one night after a dream of the future in which he returns to help save Athens from invasion from the East again. When he wakes it’s the middle of a beautiful night. His bedroom overlooks the sea, and he feels the power of his ability to sacrifice his life return a long time after he had misused his powers. His mortal father, Aegeus, and his father too had sacrificed themselves by leaping from a cliff into the sea. Theseus now does the same, uncertain whom his sacrifice will benefit, but certain it’s the right thing to do.
Self-sacrifice is never particularly popular, but Renault shows its power, and notes a couple of later examples in Greek history. Self-sacrifice seems particularly unpopular now, when politicians force anyone but themselves and their clients to sacrifice for their benefit. In Theseus’s milieu kings had privileges others didn’t, but were expected to give them up for the benefit of their kingdoms. They didn’t always, but the idea was current, and understandable to all. Now nobody wants to compromise, let alone sacrifice.
Theseus isn’t portrayed as being perfect, but he has the necessity of sacrifice in his DNA, and returns to it at the end of his life. Now even those of us who might be willing to do so, don’t know what difference we can make, and hesitate. Perhaps this is where faith should come in, or perhaps we need to learn more about how to make our lives matter.


The Mars Mystery


Mars and Venus have incited imaginations forever. For the last 150 years or so, it’s because people thought these were the only two other planets in our solar system that might have life like ours. Within the last 40 to 50 years, it’s been conclusively shown that Venus can’t possibly have our kind of life: it’s way too hot (often as much as 800 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface), and has too many chemicals antithetical to life as we know it.
Mars is a little different. We know there’s no civilization there, unless it’s underground, but there’s still some question about bacterial life. Conditions on Mars are harsh, but bacterial life has been found in harsh conditions on our planet too.
What may still be true is that Mars was once a planet much like ours, and may have had a high civilization besides. Percival Lowell, in the 19th century, asserted that he had seen canals on Mars, which he thought proved civilization existed there. With advances in astronomical technology, those canals have not been found. But with the spacecraft that have orbited Mars and produced many photos features have been found that do seem artificial.
Among these are a structure known as “the Face”, which looks like a human face staring into the sky. Possibly even more significant are structures that look like pyramids, and their placement.
One of these is a very large structure, a mile by 1,6 miles. Those proportions are significant in themselves, because they’re very close to the Phi ratio, one which artists use to make their creations attractive. It’s also one that occurs in nature, in animals, vegetables and us. It doesn’t occur spontaneously in stone, though. Other mathematical concepts that don’t occur in nature are also found in this pyramid: pi, and the square roots of 2, 3, and 5. There is always some doubt, but it’s nearly impossible that these ratios should have occurred naturally. Intelligence, and very high intelligence, seems to be responsible.
Especially since pyramid complexes in Egypt and Mexico recapitulate much of the Martian structures, including their placement on their respective planets. That seems like a very big coincidence.
But looking at conditions on Mars now, it seems obvious that nothing very much like us could live on the surface of the planet, and the Face looking up from the Martian surface does look humanoid. So what happened to Mars? Its surface seems to say that it was once much like earth, with abundant water and atmosphere.
What happened was three large asteroids that hit the planet, penetrated into it, seem to have knocked much of the crust of the northern hemisphere off into space (the northern hemisphere averages 3 kilometers lower than the south), and done other damage too. Hancock thinks someone survived, though, to build these monuments, since they seem to have been built after the damage was done. But why?
Graham Hancock, in The Mars Mystery thinks the structures on Mars were a message to us. This planet has also had asteroids hit it, as various bodies have hit at least the first five planets, and our moon. The earth had an extinction episode about 250 million years ago, in which about 90% of life died. Another came about 94 million years ago, and then one at 65 million years. That one we know something about: it killed the dinosaurs.
It was an asteroid that landed on or near the Yucatan, and blew up. The speeds at which cosmic debris travels is so high that even a relatively small object can cause great destruction, and this was fairly large, just not as large as the three (at least) bodies that hit Mars. In Siberia in 1908 a meteor calculated to have been about 70 meters in diameter exploded, flattened a large area of forest, and was heard and seen for hundreds of kilometers. The Trans-Siberian railroad had to shut down for a few hours to prevent the cars from derailing. Had the object intersected earth just three hours later, it would have exploded over Moscow.
One might think this was just bad luck, but if Hancock’s picture of it is accurate, the universe is a much more dangerous place than we’ve generally assumed. There are comets and asteroids all around us, some in orbits which will come close to our planet sooner or later. There are also about 100 billion of them in the Oort cloud that surrounds this solar system, and the system picks up more of them at various times, but especially when it travels through a spiral arm or into the core of the galaxy. Coming close to various astronomical objects can disturb the orbits of the comets or asteroids, causing them to fall towards the inner solar system, where they may be disturbed more, and eventually hit one of the planets or moons there. This means that getting hit with cosmic debris isn’t bad luck, but is virtually inevitable, and that our vulnerability rises and falls according to where the sun is in the galactic region, and how many comets are coming our way at any time. There are always some, but sometimes there are more.
This picture, if accurate, leads back to the question I asked before: why did the Martians (presumably) build the structures on Mars, that seem to have been built after Mars was ruined? And why were some of the great monuments of ancient times built, including the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico? Hancock suggests that a civilization more ancient than we know built these monuments to warn us of the danger in our skies. Why were they so concerned? Perhaps they were aware of the disaster on Mars. But if not, they were certainly aware of the disaster that struck this planet at the end of the last ice age.
That ice age had been stable for about 100,000 years, arguing that that climate was normal for this planet. But the age ended suddenly, in geologic terms, melting down over about a 7,000 year period, during which the planet was very unstable, with lots of earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods. As Hancock says, this period is the best recent candidate we know for the Great Flood told about in the Bible and many other places. Some 70% of animals died during this time, especially in the Americas. A 20th century scientist found evidence suggesting that the world’s crust had, in some places, slid some 2,000 miles, causing a great many mammoths to suddenly freeze to death in Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon, all of which had had mild climates during the ice age. What would cause such geological instability?
According to Hancock, more presents from the sky. There seem to have been two that landed in the ocean off southeast Asia at about the right time. And there is also evidence that many legends began around that time, about the most memorable occurrence there had been. These legends almost universally included numbers relating to the precession of the equinoxes, another cyclical phenomenon not directly related to the path our sun travels on. But its cyclical nature means that danger recurs, and we are never finally done with it, though the recurrence may be infrequent.
Hancock suggests we ought to be thinking about protecting our planet from the kind of thing that happened to Jupiter about 20 years ago when comet Schumacher-Levy got too close and dropped 21 separate masses. One of these caused a depression about the size of the earth, which means that if it had hit us instead of Jupiter I would not be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it.
The problem is, what CAN we do about it? We don’t presently have the technology to protect this planet. The idea of intercepting an asteroid and either destroying it or changing its direction means constantly scanning the skies for asteroids headed this way, having space ships ready to go to catch any intruder early enough to prevent any collision with the earth, probably by blowing it up or deflecting it with nuclear weapons. We don’t currently have spacecraft dependable enough for that, and if we did, it would still depend on seeing the asteroid soon enough to do anything. Another problem is that they often travel in swarms. 21 objects would be more than we could handle. So might two or three.
So thinking about how to protect our planet from the rest of the universe is rather depressing. And the threat in the sky is paralleled by the threat on the ground. As above, so below, you might say. As a race we have chosen not to live in harmony with ourselves, each other, and our environment, so if the asteroids don’t get us, we’re likely to do the job ourselves. Not just through war, which is destructive enough, but through pollution and environmental degradation. Some people have been trying to change their lifestyles to reduce their impact on the ecology, but not enough to make much of an impact yet. Some want a new age to be born; others like the old ways, and don’t want to change. And won’t, until they realize it’s a matter of survival. Most of us would rather not believe that’s really true, but some have a REALLY hard time with it.
The Mars Mysteryis where Hancock really puts together his thesis about the evidence for civilization being much older than we’re accustomed to thinking, and asking what happened to the ancient civilization he finds evidence for. Pretty much the same thing that happened to Mars. The bodies that hit Mars were bigger, while Mars was always a smaller planet than ours. Hancock thinks there were three impacts within a period of about 6-7,000 years, the biggest of which he puts at about 10,500 BC, which may be about the time Atlantis was destroyed (if that was the name of the high civilization, as seems likely). The time period Plato indicates in his writing on the subject is about the same, and depictions in Egypt and Cambodia of constellations (the Great Pyramid and Giza complex, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) are of how the stars looked in that era. Hancock believes somebody wanted us to look at that time, so far we haven’t done it (except as individuals), and we’re entering the danger period again, when we can expect more stones from the sky.