Theseus, the greatest Athenian hero, was the son of Aethra, a mortal woman. His father was either Aegeus (king of Athens) or Poseidon — or both. As Chapter 7 explains, Aethra lay with both Aegeus and Poseidon on the same night, and some myths hold that the son she bore had an immortal father and a mortal one.
Aethra lived in Troezen. When she was pregnant with Theseus, Aegeus showed her a great boulder. Beneath the boulder, he said, he had placed his sword and sandals. He told her that if her child was a boy, he could become heir to the Athenian throne if he could lift the boulder, remove the sword and sandals, and bring them to him. Then Aegeus returned to Athens.
When Theseus reached manhood, his mother showed him the boulder. He easily picked it up and retrieved the sword and sandals. Saying goodbye to his mother, he set out for Athens to meet his father for the first time.
The Journey to Athens
Theseus could travel to Athens by sea or by land. The sea route was easier and safer, but — young hero that he was — Theseus chose the more dangerous land route. Along the way, he overcame many challenges from robbers, murderers, and monsters. In each case, Theseus delivered justice by turning the tables on those who attacked him.
At Epidaurus, Theseus encountered Periphetes, son of Hephaestus, who possessed a huge club that he used to attack and kill passersby. When Periphetes attacked him, Theseus managed to wrestle away the club and kill the bandit with his own weapon. Theseus kept the club, which became one of his emblematic weapons.
Theseus next came upon a vicious Giant named Sinis, who robbed and killed travelers. The Giant would bend down two pine trees, tie his victim between the two trees, and then let the trees spring upright, ripping the traveler in half. Theseus overcame the Giant and killed him by his own method. He also raped Sinis's daughter, Perigune, who later gave birth to Theseus's son Melanippus.
At Crommyon, Theseus was attacked by a huge, monstrous sow. Most mortals ran away in terror from this beast, but Theseus stood his ground and killed the sow with Aegeus's sword.
Next to block Theseus's way was Sciron, a robber who waited for travelers on a narrow path along a cliff's edge. He demanded that travelers wash his feet before he'd allow them to pass. When a traveler bent down before him, Sciron kicked the person over the cliff, where a sea monster (in some versions, a giant turtle) consumed the unfortunate traveler. Theseus, however, didn't fall for Sciron's trick. He pretended to comply, but as soon as he positioned himself in front of Sciron, Theseus took hold of Sciron's legs and threw the robber over the cliff.
Theseus's next assailant was Cercyon, king of Eleusis. This man challenged all passersby to a wrestling match, promising his kingdom to anyone who could beat him. His opponent always lost, however, and was always put to death. Theseus, a great wrestler, won the match, killing Cercyon and winning his kingdom.
Cercyon had divine blood: According to different myths, he was the son of Poseidon or Hephaestus or the grandson of Apollo. He won his wrestling matches due to his incredible strength. Theseus, though not as strong, had better technique, so their contest illustrates the triumph of skill over brute strength.
Finally, Theseus happened upon an innkeeper named Procrustes. At first, the innkeeper seemed kind and hospitable, telling travelers that he had a marvelous bed that was a perfect fit for whoever slept in it. When a traveler lay down, however, Procrustes made that traveler fit the bed: A tall traveler would have his legs cut off, and a short traveler would be stretched or hammered like metal to fit. (Some myths say he had two beds, a long one and a short one, to ensure he could always murder his guests by this method.) Theseus turned the tables on Procrustes by making him fit his own bed (the myths don't say whether Procrustes was too tall or too short), killing him in the process.
Claiming the Throne
After a long and dangerous journey, Theseus finally reached Athens, but his trials were not over. Although he was welcomed warmly, he had not yet revealed himself to Aegeus. Aegeus was married to Medea, a skillful witch who wanted her own son to take over the throne. When Theseus arrived in Athens, Medea immediately recognized him as the rightful heir to the throne. She convinced her husband to distrust the newcomer.
Aegeus sent Theseus on a mission to kill the Cretan Bull, an exploit he believed would kill the young man. Always hungry for adventure, Theseus eagerly accepted the mission. Because he was such a skilled wrestler, Theseus overcame the bull by wrestling it to the ground. Then he tied a rope around its neck and led it back to Athens, where he presented the bull to Aegeus.
Of course, Medea was furious that the young man was still alive, so she decided to take matters into her own hands. At a banquet to celebrate Theseus's success, she poisoned the hero's cup. Just as Theseus was about to drink, Aegeus, who knew the cup was poisoned, recognized the sandals Theseus was wearing. The king dashed the cup from his son's hand.
Aegeus officially recognized Theseus as his son and named him as his successor. Medea was exiled (or fled) from Athens.
Even though Aegeus chose Theseus as his successor, Aegeus's brother Pallas wanted the throne for himself. Pallas raised an army of supporters and rebelled. To stop the rebellion, Theseus had to kill several of his cousins and force his uncle out of Athens.
Theseus had many other adventures. He slew the Minotaur (Chapter 18), abducted Helen, and was trapped in the Underworld with his friend Pirithous until he was rescued by Heracles (Chapter 8). Some myths name him as one of the Argonauts. Theseus abducted and married Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. (The abduction caused a war between the Amazons and Athens.) Aphrodite caused his second wife, Phaedra, to fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who rejected her. Phaedra falsely told Theseus that Hippolytus had tried to rape her, and Theseus either killed his son directly or cursed him, causing a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus's horses, which bolted and dragged him to his death.