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.


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