Theseus, a legendary hero of Attica. He was the son of AEgeus, king of Athens, and AEthra, daughter of Pittheus, king of Trcezen. AEgeus on his departure from Trcezen hid his sword and shoes under a stone, and charged AEthra if she gave birth to a son to send him to Athens as soon as he was able to roll away the stone. When Theseus arrived at maturity his mother informed him of his parentage, and taking possession of the tokens he set out for Attica by land, destroying various robbers and monsters on the way. At Athens he was recognized by his father, but narrowly escaped death from the hands of Medea. He engaged in a war with the Pallantids, the sons and grandsons of Pallas, the brother of AEgeus, in regard to the succession to the throne, and was victorious. Next he voluntarily sailed to Crete as one of the tribute youths to be offered to the Minotaur, for the purpose of attempting the destruction of the monster. He gained the affections of Ariadne, daughter of Minos, who furnished him with a sword and a clue of thread, with which he killed the Minotaur and escaped from the labyrinth.
Hereupon he carried off Ariadne, whom however he left behind at the island of Naxos. Theseus, if successful, was on his return to hoist white sails instead of the black ones which this vessel always carried; but this arrangement was forgotten, and AEgeus, imagining his son was destroyed, threw himself into the sea. Theseus now aspended the throne. He invaded the territory of the Amazons, defeated them, and carried off their queen Antiope. In revenge the Amazons marched into Attica, and entered Athens itself, but were finally vanquished. He married Phaedra, and to her passion his son Hippolytus fell a victim. (See PHAEDRA.) Theseus figures in the principal heroic legends of ancient Greece. He was one of the Argonauts, was engaged in the Caly-donian hunt, fought with Pirithous and the Lapithae against the Centaurs, and also assisted Adrastus in regaining the bodies of those slain before Thebes. Aided by Pirithous, he carried off Helen from Sparta when she was only nine years old. Attica was in consequence invaded by Castor and Pollux. Me-nestheus incited the Athenians to rise against their ruler; and Theseus, finding it impossible to sustain himself, retired to the island of Scy-ros, where he was destroyed by the treachery of King Lycomedes. In 476 B. C. the oracle directed his bones to be brought from the island to Athens, and in 469, when Scyros was taken by Cimon, it was pretended the body was found.
His bones were laid in the interior of the city, and the temple called the Theseum, built over the spot, served as a sanctuary for poor men in dread of the powerful, and for slaves in case of cruel treatment. At the battle of Marathon Theseus was reported to have been seen armed and aiding the Athenians. Festivals in his honor were celebrated on the eighth day of each month, and the festival termed Oschophoria was said to have been originated by him after his return from Crete. To him was popularly ascribed the re-institution of the Pythian games.