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Thursday, April 22, 2021

A to Z Challenge 2021 - T Is For Theseus And Thetis

Theseus and the Minotaur Wikipedia Commons

Theseus is a demigod who has two fathers, King Aegeus of Athens and Poseidon the sea god. (Robert Graves thinks the character might originally have had a mortal twin, like Heracles). 

Here is how it happened. It starts with King Aegeus going to the Delphic oracle to find out how he could have a child, as neither of his late wives had had any children. The oracle tells him only that he must not open his bulging wineskin till he gets home, or he will one day die of grief. Oracles were like that, never giving you a straight answer. And in Greek myth, people quite often don’t interpret them as they should. Aegeus doesn’t figure out what “wineskin” means. 

On the way home he stops by the seaside city of Troezen, to visit his old friend King Pittheus. Pittheus had a daughter, Aithra, who had been engaged to Bellerophon(remember him?) before he got into trouble and set off on his adventures. In those days, virginity was not a thing, unless you were following Artemis, of course. In some places, girls were required to lose their virginity before marriage, dedicating it to a goddess. So Pittheus gets Aegeus drunk and sends him to bed with his daughter. Later that night, Aithra has a Dream and heads off to a nearby island, where she encounters the sea god. So Theseus can take his pick of fathers.

Aegeus leaves his sword and sandals under a rock and tells Aithra that if any son she might have is able to lift the rock and collect the tokens, she is to send him to Athens. 

Young Theseus, now sixteen, does lift the rock and collect the goodies. In The King Must Die, in which Theseus isn’t a giant bulging with muscles, he uses his brains to work out how to lift that rock. 

Setting off on his travels, he goes via the Isthmus of Corinth instead of the safer sea route, wanting to clear the area of bandits, which he does, fighting villains such as Cercyon(with scientific wrestling), Sinis(by giving him a taste of his own medicine, tying him to two trees and letting go) and Procrustes, the guy with the “Procrustean bed” and the charming habit of stretching or cutting off his guests’ legs.

Reaching Athens, he is nearly poisoned by Medea, who is his father’s lover and wants her own son as heir to the throne, but survives it when his father recognises his tokens. She flees...again. This time she takes her child with her.

Everyone rejoices in the arrival of Aegeus’s son. 

Soon after, the Cretans turn up to collect their tributes, seven boys and seven girls to be fed to the Minotaur at the centre of the Labyrinth. Theseus volunteers, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, which was inspired by this story. Aegeus is devastated, but makes his son promise to paint his sail white if he comes back safely. 

In Crete, Theseus catches the eye of the king’s daughter, Ariadne, who helps him to kill the monstrous Minotaur(her brother, by the way), giving him a ball of thread(which must have been very long) so he can find his way back. 

A lot of killing follows and the Athenians return, led by Theseus...who forgets to change the colour of his sail. Hence, the oracle is fulfilled and Aegeus dies of grief, thinking he is dead, and falls off the cliff. 

Ariadne, who has joined the returnees, is left on the island of Naxos. She is no Medea, poor girl. But the god Dionysus arrives and takes her away to live happily ever after, which is more than can be said for Theseus. 

Theseus has many more adventures, some with his BFF, Peirothous. Among other things, he captures and marries the Amazon Hippolyta, who bears him a son, Hippolytus, and dies in battle. He marries Ariadne’s sister, Phaedra, who eventually does a Potiphar’s wife on his son. Cursed, the boy is wiped out by the sea while driving his chariot along the beach. 

He loses his friend Peirothous while the two of them are raiding the Underworld and, in the end, is pushed off a cliff on Skyros by its king, Lycomedes. 

You really should read The King Must Die to see how Mary Renault interprets all the events in his story; she makes them believable, with no need for magic or real gods.

Thetis by Rubens. Public Domain

Finally in this post, I’ll tell you about Thetis. Thetis is the mother of Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. And “mother” is pretty much what she is, once her son is born. 

Thetis is a sea goddess, one of the Nereids, daughters of Nereus. She can shape change like her father, an Old Man of the Sea, and her suitor, Peleus, has to deal with that.

Zeus wanted her as one of his many conquests, but found out that any son she bore would be greater than his father. To make sure she isn’t going to affect his rule, he finds her a nice mortal, Peleus, to marry, but Peleus has to grab her and hold her through her shape changes, a bit like Janet and Tam Lin(though it was the other way around in that story, with Janet holding Tam Lin). Anyway, Thetis gives in and marries him, with all the gods invited to the party, except Eris, goddess of strife, sister of the war god Ares, who gets her revenge by throwing that golden apple among three goddesses, leading to the Trojan War, in which Thetis’s son will shine. 

When Achilles is born, Thetis makes an effort to make him invulnerable, either by dipping him into the Styx, river of the Underworld, or burning him in the fire and rubbing in ambrosia. In both cases, she doesn’t protect his heel, making him not quite invulnerable and giving us a body part called the Achilles’ tendon. 

Personally, if I had only one vulnerable spot, that’s the bit I’d protect, but Thetis gets him a set of armour made by Hephaestus, the smith god. As I said...a mother, first and foremost, not running around having lots of affairs like the other gods. 

When the Trojan War is about to happen, she sends him to Skyros, to the court of her friend Lykomedes(yes, the one who shoved Theseus off that cliff), disguised as a girl. But Odysseus, who got pushed into the war himself, tricks him into revealing himself by setting off an invasion alarm.

When Achilles’ lover Patroclus is killed wearing his armour, Thetis has another set made(it’s in the Iliad). 

Thetis shows up a lot in the Iliad, and she appeared as a character in Clash Of The Titans, played by Maggie Smith, much younger than as Professor McGonagall and Julie Christie(Madame Rosmerta in Harry Potter) in Troy, where she appeared in a scene in which she was telling her son his two choices while splashing around in the water. 

Achilles was offered the choice of a short life with glory or a long dull life. He chose the short one, but we can guess which Thetis, that very loving mother, would have preferred.

Tomorrow we are off to the Underworld! 


AJ Blythe said...

I like the version of The King Must Die where he uses his brains to work out how to lift the rock. I like that approach. Too much mythology relies on brawn over brain.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, agreed, Anita, a hero tends to be one with a lot of muscles. Even Theseus in the original myth. They found some huge bones in Athens and decided they belonged to him. I like the one in Mary Renault better, though I wouldn’t want to be his wife.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I have never liked Theseus. He's the model for every asshole man who has ever used a woman to get what he wants/needs to further his career and then dumps her once her usefulness is over. It's an old, old story indeed. In fact, it was probably Ariadne who created the original "First Wives' Club."

Achilles and Patroclus *sigh* what a love story!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Theseus was the villain in Poul Anderson’s The Dancer From Atlantis, although he gets such a shock from the results of the Thera explosion that he settles into a good king. Theseus in Mary Renault’s book is very much for the Patriarchy, but also leadership is his first priority and he is willing to die for his people. He respects the strong women in his life, including his fellow bull dancers, and the love of his life is Hippolyta, who shares his idea of leadership and practises it. He is in love with Ariadne, but ends up leaving her on Naxos after she participates in the tearing apart of the sacred king there. He just can’t bring himself to take her back to Athens after that.

Not really a fan of Achilles, I’m afraid. The whole of the Iliad is about him going on strike over a woman who is just another piece of loot to him, but not so much her but because he has been disrespected by Agamemnon. Patroclus tries to restore his honour and dies. After that, Achilles goes bonkers and drags Hector’s body behind his chariot, then dumps it to rot in the Greek camp, something totally dishonourable. I doubt Patroclus would have approved.

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I remember telling the myth of Theseus to a bunch of 5th graders, and they immediately recognized it from the Hunger Games :D

The Multicolored Diary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Zalka! Susanne Collins actually said that the myth of Theseus was one of the things that inspired her.

Jayashree Srivatsan said...

In the Mahabaratha , towards the end of the war Duryodhana is almost defeated. His mother wants to save him and asks him to come and meet her naked. She has been blindfolded for years and years because of which she has so much energy stored in her eyes. She opens his eyes and his whole body becomes strong as diamond except for his pelvis and thighs as he has wrapped a banana leaf around his only vulnerable part becomes the thigh

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Jayashree! The Mahabharata has been on my TBR list for a very long time. I think it’s about time for me to read it. It’s somewhere on my classics book case.

I’m fascinated, but not surprised by that story. I’m guessing that there are many others on that theme. Zalka could tell us... Zalka?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

The bit about inviting all the gods except Eris sounds just like all the fairy tales where you neglect to invite the one wicked fairy to the christening...
Black and White: T for Tatooine

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Anne! I suspect that this is where the folktales got it. And it is very frustrating, you can’t win. You avoid inviting the goddess of strife, she causes strife just to annoy you, but what if you did invite her? Causing trouble is her JOB, after all. The wicked fairy ... as I recall, nobody had heard of her in years, or she might have been invited. There is a Studio C skit in which Maleficent turns up to the baby’s christening with onesies as a gift...

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

I like Thetis. Though she should probably just have sent an open invitation to the wedding...

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Tooth Faeries

Sue Bursztynski said...

Alas, Ronel, that’s how these stories go. Look at Sleeping Beauty! Frankly, I’d probably have left the goddess of trouble off my guest list too. 😉