Sculpture Of The Day: Theseus

Sculpture of The Day


Theseus~ Theseus and the Centaur ~


Antonio Canova

Theseus was the son of Aegeus, king of Athens, and of Aethra, daughter of the king of Troezen. He was
brought up at Troezen, and when arrived at manhood was to proceed to Athens and present himself to his
father. Aegeus on parting from Aethra, before the birth of his son, placed his sword and shoes under a large
stone and directed her to send his son to him when he became strong enough to roll away the stone and take
them from under it. When she thought the time had come, his mother led Theseus to the stone, and he
removed it with ease and took the sword and shoes. As the roads were infested with robbers, his grandfather
pressed him earnestly to take the shorter and safer way to his father's country--by sea; but the youth, feeling in
himself the spirit and the soul of a hero, and eager to signalize himself like Hercules, with whose fame all
Greece then rang, by destroying the evil-doers and monsters that oppressed the country, determined on the
more perilous and adventurous journey by land.

His first day's journey brought him to Epidaurus, where dwelt a man named Periphetes, a son of Vulcan. This
ferocious savage always went armed with a club of iron, and all travellers stood in terror of his violence.
When he saw Theseus approach he assailed him, but speedily fell beneath the blows of the young hero, who
took possession of his club and bore it ever afterwards as a memorial of his first victory.

Several similar contests with the petty tyrants and marauders of the country followed, in all of which Theseus
was victorious. One of these evil-doers was called Procrustes, or the Stretcher. He had an iron bedstead, on
which he used to tie all travellers who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he stretched their
limbs to make them fit it; if they were longer than the bed, he lopped off a portion. Theseus served him as he
had served others.

Having overcome all the perils of the road, Theseus at length reached Athens, where new dangers awaited
him. Medea, the sorceress, who had fled from Corinth after her separation from Jason, had become the wife of
Aegeus, the father of Theseus. Knowing by her arts who he was, and fearing the loss of her influence with her
husband if Theseus should be acknowledged as his son, she filled the mind of Aegeus with suspicions of the
young stranger, and induced him to present him a cup of poison; but at the moment when Theseus stepped
forward to take it, the sight of the sword which he wore discovered to his father who he was, and prevented
the fatal draught. Medea, detected in her arts, fled once more from deserved punishment, and arrived in Asia,
where the country afterwards called Media received its name from her, Theseus was acknowledged by his
father, and declared his successor.

The Athenians were at that time in deep affliction, on account of the tribute which they were forced to pay to
Minos, king of Crete. This tribute consisted of seven youths and seven maidens, who were sent every year to
be devoured by the Minotaur, a monster with a bull's body and a human head. It was exceedingly strong and
fierce, and was kept in a labyrinth constructed by Daedalus, so artfully contrived that whoever was enclosed
in it could by no means, find his way out unassisted. Here the Minotaur roamed, and was fed with human

Theseus resolved to deliver his countrymen from this calamity, or to die in the attempt. Accordingly, when the
time of sending off the tribute came, and the youths and maidens were, according to custom, drawn by lot to
be sent, he offered himself as one of the victims, in spite of the entreaties of his father. The ship departed
under black sails, as usual, which Theseus promised his father to change for white, in case of his returning
victorious. When they arrived in Crete, the youths and maidens were exhibited before Minos; and Ariadne, the
daughter of the king, being present, became deeply enamored of Theseus, by whom her love was readily
returned. She furnished him with a sword, with which to encounter the Minotaur, and with a clew of thread by
which he might find his way out of the labyrinth. He was successful, slew the Minotaur, escaped from the
labyrinth, and taking Ariadne as the companion of his way, with his rescued companions sailed for Athens.
On their way they stopped at the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, leaving her asleep.
[Footnote: One of the finest pieces of sculpture in Italy, the recumbent Ariadne of the Vatican, represents this
incident. A copy is owned by the Athenaeum, Boston, and deposited, in the Museum of Fine Arts.] His excuse
for this ungrateful treatment of his benefactress was that Minerva appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to do so.
On approaching the coast of Attica, Theseus forgot the signal appointed by his father, and neglected to raise
the white sails, and the old king, thinking his son had perished, put an end to his own life. Theseus thus
became king of Athens.

One of the most celebrated of the adventures of Theseus is his expedition against the Amazons. He assailed
them before they had recovered from the attack of Hercules, and carried off their queen Antiope. The
Amazons in their turn invaded the country of Athens and penetrated into the city itself; and the final battle in
which Theseus overcame them was fought in the very midst of the city. This battle was one of the favorite
subjects of the ancient sculptors, and is commemorated in several works of art that are still extant.
The friendship between Theseus and Pirithous was of a most intimate nature, yet it originated in the midst of
arms. Pirithous had made an irruption into the plain of Marathon, and carried off the herds of the king of
Athens. Theseus went to repel the plunderers. The moment Pirithous beheld him, he was seized with
admiration; he stretched out his hand as a token of peace, and cried, "Be judge thyself--what satisfaction dost
thou require?" "Thy friendship," replied the Athenian, and they swore inviolable fidelity. Their deeds
corresponded to their professions, and they ever continued true brothers in arms. Each of them aspired to
espouse a daughter of Jupiter. Theseus fixed his choice on Helen, then but a child, afterwards so celebrated as
the cause of the Trojan war, and with the aid of his friend he carried her off. Pirithous aspired to the wife of
the monarch of Erebus; and Theseus, though aware of the danger, accompanied the ambitious lover in his
descent to the under-world. But Pluto seized and set them on an enchanted rock at his palace gate, where they
remained till Hercules arrived and liberated Theseus, leaving Pirithous to his fate.

After the death of Antiope, Theseus married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete. Phaedra saw in
Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, a youth endowed with all the graces and virtues of his father, and of an age
corresponding to her own. She loved him, but he repulsed her advances, and her love was changed to hate.
She used her influence over her infatuated husband to cause him to be jealous of his son, and he imprecated
the vengeance of Neptune upon him. As Hippolytus was one day driving his chariot along the shore, a
sea-monster raised himself above the waters, and frightened the horses so that they ran away and dashed the
chariot to pieces. Hippolytus was killed, but by Diana's assistance Aesculapius restored him to life. Diana
removed Hippolytus from the power of his deluded father and false stepmother, and placed him in Italy under
the protection of the nymph Egeria.

Theseus at length lost the favor of his people, and retired to the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros, who at
first received him kindly, but afterwards treacherously slew him. In a later age the Athenian general Cimon
discovered the place where his remains were laid, and caused them to be removed to Athens, where they were
deposited in a temple called the Theseum, erected in honor of the hero.

The queen of the Amazons whom Theseus espoused is by some called Hippolyta. That is the name she bears
in Shakspeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream,"--the subject of which is the festivities attending the nuptials of
Theseus and Hippolyta.

Mrs. Hemans has a poem on the ancient Greek tradition that the "Shade of Theseus" appeared strengthening
his countrymen at the battle of Marathon.

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