Study Guide

Theseus: Later Adventures and Death Analysis

  • Context

    To the folks of ancient Athens, Theseus was the absolute man. They thought of him as the great king who brought law and order to Athens and Attica, the region that surrounded the famous city. Theseus was the guy who overturned all the wild and wooly ways of the past and helped pave the way for civilization. He's also credited with spreading the influence and power of Athens throughout Greece.

    Tales of his daring adventures were popular subjects of sculpture, pottery, and other art forms, and the myths surrounding him were the subject of many ancient writers. Plutarch, Apollodorus, Hyginius, Didorus Siculus, and lots of other dudes with crazy names all took a shot at chronicling the legendary life of Theseus. The Athenian hero also pops up as a character in some of the great tragedies such as Hippolytus by Euripides and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles. Like a whole lot of other Greek myths, the tale of Theseus, was also later retold by the Roman poet, Ovid, in his poem The Metamorphoses.

    Later on, other famous European writers wove Theseus into their work. The great warrior-king makes an appearance in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Racine's Phaedra, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Two Noble Kinsmen. These days Theseus is still kicking it. He's shown up in everything from B fantasy adventure movies, to cartoons, to TV Shows, and video games like God of War 2. He's even got his own movie: the 2011 epic adventure, Immortals. This movie doesn't have a whole lot to do with the original Greek myths, but hey, it's from the guys who made The 300, so it's probably going to rock.

  • Setting

    Overworld to Underworld

    The Land of the Dead is a pretty popular place for heroes to go in pretty much every culture's mythology. So, when Theseus and Pirithous head downtown they're not exactly being very original. Very often the journey to the Underworld represents a hero's greatest challenge. In Theseus's case, the challenge is too just too much for him to handle, and it eventually causes his downfall. Because he is trapped so long in the gloomy Land of the Dead he loses his throne in Athens and ends up dying like a total punk. So, Theseus's spirit heads back to the realm of Hades permanently, with all of eternity to think about where he went wrong.

    Heroic Age

    The myths of Theseus all take place a super long time ago. Even to the old guys who first wrote down Theseus's story, he was a legendary hero from the distant past. Sometimes the era that Theseus and his fellow heroes lived in is called the Heroic Age. Back in these days, the heroes were the sons of gods and the world was crammed with villains and nasty beasts that really needed slaying.

    It's important to think about the fact that even to ancient Greeks, Theseus was an ancient figure. It's pretty likely that the fact that heroes in the stories lived so long ago added to the highly fantastical and exaggerated nature of the tales. If a rumor gets passed around school long enough, it gets totally blown out of proportion, right? Well, it's the same way with myths. Someone tells another person about a cool thing somebody did, then after a thousand years of people retelling the story, it gets totally off the hook.

  • The Hero's Journey

  • Descent Into the Underworld

    Tales of heroes traveling to the Land of the Dead pop up in some form or another in every culture's mythology. This convention is so widespread that it even has its own fancy name: katabasis. So, Theseus and Pirithious are definitely part of a much larger tradition when they head down to the realm of Hades. Although, we have to point out that most of the time the heroes' intentions are a lot more pure than Theseus and Pirithous's, who want to kidnap Persephone, queen of the Dead.

    There's a bunch of other examples of the katabasis even in Greek mythology: Orpheus heads down in a failed attempt to rescue his lover Eurydice; Psyche journeys there to regain the love of Eros (Cupid); Odysseus travels there on his quest to return home; Persephone, herself, travels back and forth every year. Also, we can't forget Heracles who travels there to capture the hellhound Cereberus and ends up rescuing Theseus while he's at it.

    The oldest example of a hero journeying to the Underworld happens in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is thought to be the world's oldest surviving piece of literature. In this story, the warrior-king Gilgamesh travels to Land of the Dead to learn how to be immortal from a dude named Utnapishtim. Just as Theseus and Pirithous fail in their quest to kidnap Persephone, wife of Hades, Gilgamesh fails to in his quest and never learns how to live forever. Just like most everybody else, Gilgamesh eventually relocates to the Land of the Dead for good.

    The Christian religion is totally inspired by a journey to death and back. The resurrection of Jesus after being dead for three days is one of the cornerstones of the entire faith. Some Christians take the idea even further and believe the Christ literally went to the Land of the Dead. This journey is sometimes called the "harrowing of hell." Different branches of Christianity have different versions of this story.

    Some Christians say he went to Hell to shame the souls being punished there, while others say that he went to Limbo to inspire those that hadn't quite made it to Heaven--there are tons of variations. No matter which way you shake it, though, there are about 2.1 billion people in the world who believe that a journey and return to the Land of the Dead is completely possible.

  • Amazons = Girl Power

    Throughout the centuries, the Amazons were the poster girls for girl power. In a time where men dominated the Earth, these warrior women lived without male authority. They pretty much only associated with men when they wanted to have babies, and when those babies were boys, they killed them. This probably seems extreme, but it becomes more understandable when you think about the complete and total powerlessness of women in ancient Greece and like every other society.

    When Theseus comes along a kidnaps Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, it seems pretty symbolic of how much power men had over women back in the day. Even though the Amazons launch a full-scale assault on Athens, they are unable to rescue their Queen. It says a lot that even the toughest ladies to ever to walk the face of the earth are still powerless against King Theseus. Despite legends of their defeat at the hands of male warriors, some modern feminists have embraced the legendary warrior women as a symbol of the power of females. Amazonian Feminism is a movement that celebrates the physical power of women.