4. Aethra’s visit to Sphaeria suggests that the ancient custom of self-prostitution by unmarried girls survived in Athene’s temple for some time after the patriarchal system had been introduced. It can hardly have been brought from Crete, since Troezen is not a Mycenaean site; but was perhaps a Canaanite importation, as at Corinth.
5. Sandals and sword are ancient symbols of royalty; the drawing of a sword from a rock seems to have formed part of the Bronze Age coronation ritual (see 81. 2). Odin, Galahad, and Arthur were all in turn required to perform a similar feat; and an immense sword, lion-hilted and plunged into a rock, figures in the sacred marriage scene carved at Hattasus (see 145. 5). Since Aegeus’s rock is called both the Altar of Strong Zeus and the Rock of Theseus, it may be assumed that ‘Zeus’ and ‘Theseus’ were alternative titles of the sacred king, who was crowned upon it; but the goddess armed him. The ‘Apollo’ to whom Theseus dedicated his hair will have been Karu (‘son of the goddess Car’ – see 82. 6 and 86. 2), otherwise known as Car, or Q’re, or Carys, the solar king whose locks were annually shorn before his death (see 83. 3), like those of Tyrian Samson and Megarean Nisus (see 91. 1). At a feast called the Comyria (‘hair trimming’), young men sacrificed their forelocks in yearly mourning for him, and were afterwards known as Curetes (see 7. 4). This custom, probably of Libyan origin (Herodotus: iv. 194), had spread to Asia Minor and Greece; an injunction against it occurs in Leviticus xxi. 5. But, by Plutarch’s time, Apollo was worshipped as the immortal Sun-god and, in proof of this, kept his own hair rigorously unshorn.
6. Aetius’s division of Troezenia between Troezen, Pittheus, and himself, recalls the arrangement made by Proetus with Melampus and Bias (see 72. h). The Pittheus who taught rhetoric and whose treatise survived until Classical times must have been a late historical character.
THE LABOURS OF THESEUS
THESEUS set out to free the bandit-ridden coast road which led from Troezen to Athens. He would pick no quarrels but take vengeance on all who dared molest him, making the punishment fit the crime, as was Heracles’s way.1 At Epidaurus, Periphetes the cripple waylaid him. Periphetes, whom some call Poseidon’s son, and others the son of Hephaestus and Anticleia, owned a huge brazen club, with which he used to kill wayfarers; hence his nickname Corunetes, or ‘cudgel-man’. Theseus wrenched the club from his hands and battered him to death. Delighted with its size and weight, he proudly carried it about ever afterwards; and though he himself had been able to parry its murderous swing, in his hands it never failed to kill.2
b. At the narrowest point of the Isthmus, where both the Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs are visible, lived Sinis, the son of Pemon; or, some say, of Polypemon and Sylea, daughter of Corinthus, who claimed to be Poseidon’s bastard.3 He had been nicknamed Pityocamptes, or ‘pine-bender’, because he was strong enough to bend down the tops of pine-trees until they touched the earth, and would often ask innocent passers-by to help him with this task, but then suddenly release his hold. As the tree sprang upright again, they were hurled high into the air, and killed by the fall. Or he would bend down the tops of two neighbouring trees until they met, and tie one of his victim’s arms to each, so that he was torn asunder when the trees were released.4
c. Theseus wrestled with Sinis, overpowered him, and served him as he had served others. At this, a beautiful girl ran to hide herself in a thicket of rushes and wild asparagus. He followed her and, after a long search, found her invoking the plants, promising never to burn or destroy them if they hid her safely. When Theseus swore not to do her any violence, she consented to emerge, and proved to be Sinis’s daughter Perigune. Perigune fell in love with Theseus at sight, forgiving the murder of her hateful father and, in due course, bore him a son, Melanippus. Afterwards he gave her in marriage to Deioneus the Oechalian. Melanippus’s son Ioxus emigrated to Caria, where he became the ancestor of the Ioxids, who burn neither rushes nor wild asparagus, but venerate both.5
d. Some, however, say that Theseus killed Sinis many years later, and rededicated the Isthmian Games to him, although they had been founded by Sisyphus in honour of Melicertes, the son of Ino.6
e. Next, at Crommyum, he hunted and destroyed a fierce and monstrous wild sow, which had killed so many Crommyonians that they no longer dared plough their fields. This beast, named after the crone who bred it, was said to be the child of Typhon and Echidne.7
f. Following the coast road, Theseus came to the precipitous cliffs rising sheer from the sea, which had become a stronghold of the bandit Sciron; some call him a Corinthian, the son of Pelops, or of Poseidon; others, the son of Henioche and Canethus.8 Sciron used to seat himself upon a rock and force passing travellers to wash his feet: when they stooped to the task he would kick them over the cliff into the sea, where a giant turtle swam about, waiting to devour them. (Turtles closely resemble tortoises, except that they are larger, and have flippers instead of feet.) Theseus, refusing to wash Sciron’s feet, lifted him from the rock and flung him into the sea.9
g. The Megareans, however, say that the only Sciron with whom Theseus came in conflict was an honest and generous prince of Megara, the father of Endeis, who married Aeacus and bore him Peleus and Telamon; they add, that Theseus killed Sciron after the capture of Eleusis, many years later, and celebrated the Isthmian Games in his honour under the patronage of Poseidon.10
i. Now, sciron means ‘parasol’; and the month of Scirophorion is so called because at the Women’s Festival of Demeter and Core, on the twelfth day of Scirophorion, the priest of Erechtheus carries a white parasol, and a priestess of Athene Sciras carries another in solemn procession from the Acropolis – for on that occasion the goddess’s image is daubed with sciras, a sort of gypsum, to commemorate the white image which Theseus made of her after he had destroyed the Minotaur.12
j. Continuing his journey to Athens, Theseus met Cercyon the Arcadian, whom some call the son of Branchus and the nymph Argiope; others, the son of Hephaestus, or Poseidon.13 He would challenge passers-by to wrestle with him and then crush them to death in his powerful embrace; but Theseus lifted him up by the knees and, to the delight of Demeter, who witnessed the struggle, dashed him headlong to the ground. Cercyon’s death was instantaneous. Theseus did not trust to strength so much as to skill, for he had invented the art of wrestling, the principles of which were not hitherto understood. The Wrestling-ground of Cercyon is still shown near Eleusis, on the road to Megara, close to the grave of his daughter Alope, whom Theseus is said to have ravished.14
k. On reaching Attic Corydallus, Theseus slew Sinis’s father Polypemon, surnamed Procrustes, who lived beside the road and had two beds in his house, one small the other large. Offering a night’s lodging to travellers, he would lay the short men on the large bed, and rack them out to fit it; but the tall men on the small bed, sawing off as much of their legs as projected beyond it. Some say, however, that he used only one bed, and lengthened or shortened his lodgers according to its measure. In either case, Theseus served him as he had served others.15
1. Diodorus Siculus: iv. 59; Plutarch: Theseus 7 and 11.
2. Hyginus: Fabula 38; Apollodorus: iii. 16. 1; Pausanias: ii. 1. 4; Plutarch: Theseus 8.
3. Pausanias: loc. cit.; Ovid: Ibis 507 ff.; Apollodorus: iii. 16. 2; Scholiast on Euripides’s Hippolytus 977.
4. Ovid: Metamorphoses vii. 433 ff.; Apollodorus: loc. cit.; Hyginus: loc. cit.; Diodorus Siculus: iv. 59; Pausanias: loc. cit.
5. Plutarch: Theseus 8 and 29.
6. Parian Marble 35 ff; Plutarch: Theseus 25.
7. Plutarch: Theseus 9; Diodorus Siculus: iv. 59; Ovid: Metamorphoses vii. 433 ff.; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 1; Hyginus: Fabula 38.
8. Strabo: ix. 1. 4; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 2; Plutarch: Theseus 25.
9. Scholiast on Statius’s Thebaid i. 339; Pausanias: i. 44. 12; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 2–3.
10. Plutarch: Theseus 10 and 25.
11. Pausanias: i. 44. 10–12; Strabo: ix. 1. 4.
12. Scholiast on Aristophanes’s Parliament of Women 18; Aristophanes: Wasps 925; Etymologicum Magnum: sub Scirophorion.
13. Plutarch: Theseus 11; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 3; Hyginus: Fabula 38; Aulus Gellius: xiii. 21.
14. Ovid: Ibis 407 ff.; Apollodorus: loc. cit.; Pausanias: i. 39. 3; Plutarch: Theseus 11 and 29.
15. Diodorus Siculus: iv. 59; Apollodorus: Epitome i. 4; Pausanias: i. 38. 5; Hyginus: Fabula 38; Plutarch: Theseus 11.
1. The killing of Periphetes has been invented to account for Theseus’s brass-bound club, like the one carried by Heracles (see 120. 5). Periphetes is described as a cripple because he was the son of Daedalus the smith, and smiths were often ritually lamed (see 92. 1).
2. Since the North Wind, which bent the pines, was held to fertilize women, animals, and plants, ‘Pityocamptes’ is described as the father of Perigune, a cornfield-goddess (see 48. 1). Her descendants’ attachment to wild asparagus and rushes suggests that the sacred baskets carried in the Thesmophoria Festival were woven from these, and therefore tabooed for ordinary use. The Crommyonian Sow, alias Phaea, is the white Sow-Demeter (see 24. 7 and 74. 4), whose cult was early suppressed in the Peloponnese. That Theseus went out of his way to kill a mere sow troubled the mythographers: Hyginus and Ovid, indeed, make her a boar, and Plutarch describes her as a woman bandit whose disgusting behaviour earned her the nickname of ‘sow’. But she appears in early Welsh myth as the Old White Sow, Hen Wen, tended by the swineherd magician Coll ap Collfrewr, who introduced wheat and bees into Britain; and Demeter’s swineherd magician Eubuleus was remembered in the Thesmophoria Festival at Eleusis, when live pigs were flung down a chasm in his honour. Their rotting remains later served to fertilize the seed-corn (Scholiast on Lucian’s Dialogues Between Whores ii. 1).
3. The stories of Sciron and Cercyon are apparently based on a series of icons which illustrated the ceremony of hurling a sacred king as a pharmacos from the White Rock. The first hero who had met his death here was Melicertes (see 70. h), namely Heracles Melkarth of Tyre who seems to have been stripped of his royal trappings – club, lion-skin, and buskins – and then provided with wings, live birds, and a parasol to break his fall (see 89. 6; 92. 3; and 98. 7). This is to suggest that Sciron, shown making ready to kick a traveller into the sea, is the pharmacos being prepared for his ordeal at the Scirophoria, which was celebrated in the last month of the year, namely at midsummer; and that a second scene, explained as Theseus’s wrestling with Cercyon, shows him being lifted off his feet by his successor (as in the terracotta of the Royal Colonnade at Athens – Pausanias: i. 3. 1), while the priestess of the goddess looks on delightedly. This is a common mythological situation: Heracles, for instance, wrestled for a kingdom with Antaeus in Libya (see 133. h), and with Eryx in Sicily (see 132. q); Odysseus with Philomeleides on Tenedos see 161. f). A third scene, taken for Theseus’s revenge on Sciron, shows the pharmacos hurtling through the air, parasol in hand. In a fourth, he has reached the sea, and his parasol is floating on the waves – the supposed turtle, waiting to devour him, was surely the parasol, since there is no record of an Attic turtle cult. The Second Vatican Mythographer (127) makes Daedalus, not Theseus, kill Sciron, probably because of Daedalus’s mythic connexion with the pharmacos ritual of the partridge king (see 92. 3).
4. All these feats of Theseus’s seem to be interrelated. Grammarians associate the white parasol with a gypsum image of Athene. This recalls the white pharmacos dolls, called ‘Argives’ (‘white men’), thrown into running water once a year at the May purification of temples (see 132. p); also the white cakes shaped like pigs, and made of flour mixed with gypsum (Pliny: Natural History xvii. 29. 2), which were used in the Thesmophoria to replace the pig remains recovered from Eubuleus’s chasm – ‘in order not to defraud his sacred serpents’, explains the scholiast on Lucian’s Dialogues Between Whores. The Scirophoria Festival formed part of the Thesmophoria. Thes has the same meaning in Thesmophoria as in Theseus: namely ‘tokens deposited’ – in the baskets woven of wild asparagus and rush which Perigune sanctified. They were phallic tokens and the festival was an erotic one: this is justified by Theseus’s seduction of Perigune, and also by Hermes’s seduction of Herse (see 25. d). The priest of Erechtheus carried a parasol, because he was the president of the serpent cult, and the sacred functions of the ancient kings rested with him after the monarchy had been abolished: as they rested at Rome with the Priest of Zeus.
5. Cercyon’s name connects him with the pig cult. So does his parentage: Branchus refers to the grunting of pigs, and Argiope is a synonym for Phaea. It will have been Poseidon’s son Theseus who ravished Alope: that is to say, suppressed the worship of the Megarean Moon-goddess as Vixen (see 49. 2).
6. Sinis and Sciron are both described as the hero in whose honour the Isthmian Games were rededicated; Sinis’s nickname was Pityocamptes; and Sciron, like Pityocamptes, was a north-westerly wind. But since the Isthmian Games had originally been founded in memory of Heracles Melkarth, the destruction of Pityocamptes seems to record the suppression of the Boreas cult in Athens – which was, however, revived after the Persian Wars (see 48. 4). In that case, the Isthmian Games are analogous to the Pythian Games, founded in memory of Python, who was both the fertilizing North Wind and the ghost of the sacred king killed by his rival Apollo. Moreover, ‘Procrustes’, according to Ovid and the scholiast on Euripides’s Hippolytus (977), was only another nickname for Sinis-Pityocamptes; and Procrustes seems to be a fictional character, invented to account for a familiar icon: the hair of the old king – Samson, Pterelaus (see 89. 7), Nisus (see 91. 1), Curoi, Llew Llaw, or whatever he may have been called – is tied to the bedpost by his treacherous bride, while his rival advances, axe in hand, to destroy him. ‘Theseus’ and his Hellenes abolished the custom of throwing the old king over the Molurian Rock, and rededicated the Games to Poseidon at Ino’s expense, Ino being one of Athene’s earlier titles.
THESEUS AND MEDEA
ARRIVED in Attica, Theseus was met beside the River Cephissus by the sons of Phytalus, who purified him from the blood he had spilled, but especially from that of Sinis, a maternal kinsman of his. The altar of Gracious Zeus, where this ceremony was performed, still stands by the riverside. Afterwards, the Phytalids welcomed Theseus as their guest, which was the first true hospitality he had received since leaving Troezen. Dressed in a long garment that reached to his feet and with his hair neatly plaited, he entered Athens on the eighth day of the month Cronius, now called Hecatomboeon. As he passed the nearly-completed temple of Apollo the Dolphin, a group of masons working on the roof mistook him for a girl, and impertinently asked why he was allowed to wander about unescorted. Disdaining to reply, Theseus unyoked the oxen from the masons’ cart and tossed one of them into the air, high above the temple roof.1
b. Now while Theseus was growing up in Troezen, Aegeus had kept his promise to Medea. He gave her shelter in Athens when she fled from Corinth in the celebrated chariot drawn by winged serpents, and married her, rightly confident that her spells would enable him to beget an heir; for he did not yet know that Aethra had borne him Theseus.2
c. Medea, however, recognised Theseus as soon as he arrived in the city, and grew jealous on behalf of Medus, her son by Aegeus, who was generally expected to succeed him on the Athenian throne. She therefore persuaded Aegeus that Theseus came as a spy or an assassin, and had him invited to a feast at the Dolphin Temple; Aegeus, who used the temple as his residence, was then to offer him a cup of wine already prepared by her. This cup contained wolfsbane, a poison which she had brought from Bithynian Acherusia, where it first sprang from the deadly foam scattered by Cerberus when Heracles dragged him out of Tartarus; because wolfsbane flourishes on bare rocks, the peasants call it ‘aconite’.3
d. Some say that when the roast beef was served in the Dolphin Temple, Theseus ostentatiously drew his sword, as if to carve, and thus attracted his father’s attention; but others, that he had unsuspectingly raised the cup to his lips before Aegeus noticed the Erechtheid serpents carved on the ivory sword-hilt and dashed the poison to the floor. The spot where the cup fell is still shown, barred off from the rest of the temple.
e. Then followed the greatest rejoicing that Athens had ever known. Aegeus embraced Theseus, summoned a public assembly, and acknowledged him as his son. He lighted fires on every altar and heaped the gods’ images with gifts; hecatombs of garlanded oxen were sacrificed and, throughout the palace and the city, nobles and commoners feasted together, and sang of Theseus’s glorious deeds that already outnumbered the years of his life.4
f. Theseus then went in vengeful pursuit of Medea, who eluded him by casting a magic cloud about herself; and presently left Athens with young Medus, and an escort which Aegeus generously provided. But some say that she fled with Polyxenus, her son by Jason.5
g. Pallas and his fifty sons, who even before this had declared that Aegeus was not a true Erechtheid and thus had no right to the throne, broke into open revolt when this footloose stranger threatened to baulk their hopes of ever ruling Athens. They divided their forces: Pallas with twenty-five of his sons and numerous retainers marched against the city from the direction of Sphettus, while the other twenty-five lay in ambush at Gargettus. But Theseus, informed of their plans by a herald named Leos, of the Agnian clan, sprang the ambush and destroyed the entire force. Pallas thereupon disbanded his command, and sued for peace. The Pallantids have never forgotten Leos’s treachery, and still will not intermarry with the Agnians nor allow any herald to begin a proclamation with the words ‘Akouete leoi!’ (‘Hearken, ye people!’), because of the resemblance which leoi bears to the name of Leos.6