Good morning and welcome to LLT121 Classical Mythology. We resume with the career of Theseus, the greatest hero of the city of Athens. The city of Athens, if you’ll remember from my interminable repetitions of this, is where about 85–90 percent of all Greek literature that survives today was written. It was either written by people from Athens, or people who were traveling from Athens, or people who were visiting in Athens, so on and so forth. As I’ve tried to suggest to you earlier, you know, in the last couple of weeks or what have you, that, aside from Heracles, each of these heroes had his own local hangout, his own city in which he was revered, his own city in which he was thought to be the number one bridge between the human and the divine. Theseus’s city was Athens. Theseus was worshipped as the hero of Athens. From there, it’s not really that large of a jump to understanding that Athenian literature, Athenian writers, Athenian people are going to do everything they can to make Theseus look important and good, because it reflects favorably on their hometown. I, on the other hand, laugh. I, on the other hand, say, “This is so transparent.”
You’ll recall in his Twelfth Labor, Cerberus, the three-headed hound from hell, Heracles found Theseus down there. Did you hear about that? Theseus was sitting on a bench with a buddy of his. Apparently, Theseus and his youth—the guy’s name was either Meleagar or something else—decided they were going to go down and look for babes. They were going to the underworld and hit on Persephone. Now, if you know anything, if you remember anything of what I’ve taught you, you do not go down to the underworld hoping to hit up on the wife of the king of the underworld. Hades was very polite to them. He said, “Gentleman, young men, Persephone will be out in a second, have a seat.” They sat down on the bench and they couldn’t get up. Trapped. “Help! I’ve sat down and I can’t get up!” Theseus and his buddy sat down there until Hercules was coming down to get Cerberus. One of the parerga— or side labors—of Hercules was, supposedly, to rescue Theseus from the underworld, to rescue him from the underworld by wrenching him up from the seat. Yes, Farrah Lynn, it makes my posterior hurt, too, to think about it. But right there you have a very powerful image of the respective status of Heracles and Theseus. Theseus came back to Athens and didn’t sit down for a good long time. You get to see who is more macho, Hercules or Theseus.
Let me just tell... well, I’m going to save the Procne and Philomela story for our B-movie myths. I want to cut to the chase. I want to start telling you about Theseus. He’s great. His father was this fellow by the name of Aegeus. Can you see that? Aegeus? Aegeus was having a problem. He could not seem to beget an heir. It’s very important for a king to beget an heir to a throne. Because, if I, Hughes the First, king of this class, do not beget an heir to my throne, a little boy who will be your king, or a little girl who will be your queen, eventually, you can all have a nice, big, long civil war to see who is going to be king or queen next. Does that make sense? That is to say it is important for royal couples to reproduce. The transition of power is much more smooth if the person who wants to be queen or king says, “I am the daughter or I am the son—or both—of the previous ruler.”
Aegeus has got a problem. He cannot seem to reproduce. He’s tried different marriages, I guess, and what not. Since they don’t have any fertility clinics in ancient Greece, where does Aegeus go? To the Delphic Oracle, very good. How often is the Delphic Oracle correct? One hundred percent of the time. Here he is. He travels all the way out there. He gets the following really great advice: “Don’t undo the hanging foot of the wineskin.” I know, Crystal. That you. What did that mean? A psychic once told my sister many years ago, “You will have a child, possibly a girl.” Yeah, and the other possibility is what? A litter of kittens? Actually, she did have a little baby last month, and it was a cute little girl. But you’re really going out on a limb. “You will have a child, possibly a girl.” “Don’t undo the hanging foot of the wineskin.” Aegeus has no idea on earth what that means, so he’s just bopping back home. He happens to be passing through the award-winning city of Troezen—that is where Hippolytus was when we last saw him—where he runs into his buddy, King Pittheus. They have a couple and Aegeus says, “Ah, Pittheus let me tell you. I go all the way out to the Delphic Oracle and ask, ‘Hey, look. I’m having trouble begetting an heir. Can you help me.’ The only advice I get is, “Do not undo the hanging foot of the wineskin.’” But Pittheus knows. I’m going to draw a light bulb over his head. Here’s what happens. He continues to get Aegeus drunk. Then he gets Aegeus into bed with his daughter, Aethra. The two get in bed. They get naked. They get it on. Aethra—because this is Greek heroic legend—gets pregnant.
I pause for a question, here. Well, you see he undid the hanging foot of the wineskin, obviously. Now, for those of you who have spent a little bit more time in the gutter, try to imagine a wineskin. Imagine the shape of the wineskin. Then think of other things that could be shaped like a wineskin that have been known to result in pregnancy. Why don’t you focus on this nice map here, Matt? Okay. You stay away. That is what a wineskin looks like upside down. Yes, it could be interpreted that way, too. Matt, yes, come on back. We’re back now. At any rate because this is Greek heroic legend, Aethra is pregnant. They wake up the next morning. Aegeus rubs his head and he realizes that he has, in one way or another, undone the hanging foot of the wineskin. His next move is to tell Aethra, “You are probably pregnant. If the child is a boy, I am going to bury beneath a rock, a pair of sandals and a sword. When he gets to be of age, you can have him pick up the rock, put on the sandals, pick up the sword and come on down to Athens to visit me.” I pause for a question here. I knew you were going to ask that question. Yes, it did. The question is, “What if the child had been a girl?” Now, if this child were a girl in the 1990s, heck, she could grow up to be Xena or Wonder Woman. I mean, now women in comics and television shows can kick posterior. It’s allowed now. But, since, Mark, this is ancient Greece, it’s got to be a boy, because, if it is a girl, we got no legend. Okay. I think so, too. I mean, yeah, let’s turn Thelma and Louise loose on Heracles. Now that would be pretty cool. Or Lorena Bobbet and Tanya Harding, or something. Well, at any rate, you know how this goes. Young Theseus, who is the baby of Aethra and Aegeus, grows up out of his hometown. He doesn’t grow up in his dad’s hometown. He grows up in a one-parent family. His mom won’t even tell him who his dad is. “The stork brought you.” “Yeah, right, ma. I just found out.”
When he grows up to be the right age, which is about 16 or 17, Aethra says, “There is this big rock, Theseus. Go over to the big rock and pick it up. If you can pick it up, you will find underneath there a sword and sandals. Put on the sandals, carry the sword and go introduce yourself to your dad, Theseus, go do that.” So he does. He goes to the great big rock, picks it up with ease. He picks up the sword and the sandals, puts on the sandals, picks up the sword, and decides to set off for Athens to go meet his dad for the first time. Ray, why are you folding your arms? Does this sound kind of familiar? A sword, a rock. I knew that’s where you were headed. We go back a ways, don’t we? Okay, does anybody know? Has anybody ever heard a story about this young kid? The Sword in the Stone. Remember there is this little slave boy and his name was like, Art or Artie or Artbo, or you know. They called him a churl, right? He was in charge of, you know, taking care of his two cousins or something like that. One day, there was an announcement. “There is a sword in the stone and whoever pulls the sword out of the stone is going to be the next King of England.” Am I telling this right? More or less? And all the great young heroes, all the great old heroes, all the really old heroes, who thought, “one more grab at the brass ring” lined up to pull that sword out and, you know, and Lady Farrah Lynn, the heroic and Sir Greer the fierce, you know, and Queen Elizabeth III, you know, and they’re all thinking.... They can’t yank it out, right? Then this Art—he’s played in the movie by Jaleel White, the kid who played Urkle, right? You know who Urkle is, that annoying little kid with the suspenders? Or something. Or maybe Gary Coleman, you know, he’s just this little twit. The little twit pulls the sword out of the stone! Oh great, that is our next king. And then he grows up to be King Arthur, great, brave, King Arthur. He is the founder of the Knights of the Round Table and so on and so forth. The guy who everybody laughs at grows up to be a mighty and powerful king. These legends date from about the year 800 AD in England. These stories date in ancient Greece from about the ninth century BC. For those of you who are English majors, or are considering a major in English, who came first? Theseus or King Arthur? It’s a nice theme. It exists in other myths, too. It exists in other legends. The young child, whose parentage is kind of up in the air, turns out to be the bastard son of the king and carries the token forth, etc.
The early labors of Theseus. Theseus has to get from point T, Troezen, to point A. On his way there he undergoes six labors. They are actually more like laborettes because none of them can hold a candle to Heracles’s. Moreover, there is a certain cloying sameness about these early labors. I’m going to see who among you can figure out how this works. Number one is Periphetes, the clubman. Periphetes’s MO, which stands for modus operandi, which stands for way of killing people or way of committing a crime, is to take people and beat them upside the head repeatedly with a club. Yuh! Theseus takes the club away from Periphetes and beats him upside the head until he dies. That was really novel and exciting. Number two is Sinis, the Pine-Bender. Sinis’s MO, or his modus operandi, is to bend down a couple of pine trees, then put the miscreant in the middle. When the time comes, thwap, cut the ropes and strings and—Jeremy is sitting here laughing. He thinks this is hilarious.—the poor person gets ripped in half. It really sucks. Does anybody want to guess in what novel and interesting way Theseus takes care of Mr. Sinis the Pine-Bender? Yes, he ties down the pine, it goes thwap. That is the last we see of Mr. Pine-bender Sinis. Number three is Man-Eating Sow. Guess what happens to the man-eating sow? He eats it. You see we’re running out of material here.
Letter D—this is really cool—is a hero named Sciron. Sciron is a very interesting hero because Sciron was thought to have been, at one time very early on in his career, the local hero of the town of Megara, which is a town in ancient Greece. Probably, the people of Megara had all sorts of great legends about how Sciron the Brave conquered animals and killed the enemies of Megara and stuff. But after Athens took over Megara, after Athens gained control guess what? Sciron wasn’t so important anymore. Can you see why that would be? Yes? No. If you are trying to dominate another captive culture, the first thing you try to do is knock down their cultural icons. Sciron becomes a bit player in a bit myth of Theseus. In this version of the story, Sciron is a fellow who sits along a big cliff. Or he sits next to the cliff. He sits on a chair next to the cliff. He tells travelers—down here is the ocean—he tells travelers to wash his feet. When the traveler does what Sciron says—washes his feet—Sciron very thoughtfully punts him over the cliff and into the ocean, where he is devoured by a large turtle. You laugh at the turtle. You would find it less funny if it happened to you or somebody you love. We’re talking about human tragedy here, you ghouls. Pardon. Why, don’t you think? It’s like—I can see the guy punting somebody into the ocean, but why a turtle. That is true. The turtle represents wisdom in many instances. That is a good answer, Ray. It’s not the right answer. It’s much more subtle, thoughtful, and intricate than mine. There is probably a rock formation. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out. The rock formation becomes smooth, right? Some ancient kid looks up to his or her ancient mom and says, “Mom, what is that? It looks like a turtle.” “Oh, yeah, yeah, it is a turtle. It used to eat people. Stay away from it. Don’t swim near it. It’s bad.” Not only have you scared the dickens out of your kid, your kid isn’t going to go jump in the water anymore. There must have been a rock formation that reminded somebody of a turtle. Well, I’m stalling. Does anybody want to guess in what clever and novel way, Erika, that Theseus does in this Sciron fellow? And? The turtle turns to stone.
The next was Cercyon. Cercyon was this ferocious wrestler, giant wrestler, who got strength from the earth. Have you heard this one before? This is the same story as Antaeus, okay? Antaeus was the son of Gaia who gained strength when he was on the earth so Hercules had to pick him up and put him in the atomic spin hold and choke him. Well, change his name to Cercyon, and guess what? This is now a Theseus story. It’s like making up this hero called Super Joe, you know, who flies through buildings at a single bound or stuff like that. Or listen to the story of a guy named Matt, you know. It is pretty lame. It is plagiarism. Number six. My favorite. Procrustes. Too small, too tall, one size fits all, try our new Procrustean bed. Heather what happens if you’re too big for Procrustes’s bed? Phil. He will cut him up. “This guy’s too big? Now he’s the right size.” What happens if you are too small for Procrustes bed? He stretches you out on a rack until you fit, exactly. Now I want Mark to guess in what novel and exciting way Theseus manages to kill Procrustes. Why does he cut him up? Pardon? Well, why doesn’t he have to pound him out? Well, which did he do Mark? Come on, Mark. Usually the answer is, “well, obviously, he was probably a giant, so he cut him up.” But if you had said that, Mark, I would ask you, “What if he was this really dinky, little mean guy?” You couldn’t win. There is no way you could answer that question correctly. It made me feel good to ask you. Well, Procrustes joins the ranks of the grateful dead. Theseus is saying, “Well, this is a good warm-up. I’m going to go to Athens and meet my daddy.”
It so happens that Aegeus by this time is married to a wonderful woman, daughter of the sun god or granddaughter of the sun god, named Medea. Medea is kind of like… well, her name in ancient Greek means thinking person, female. Okay, a woman with a brain. Guess what kind of personality she gets to have in ancient Greek mythology? She’s a witch. She is ruthless and, literally, she doesn’t eat her young, literally, but kills them. Well, let’s erase this stupid looking pig, too. Medea and Aegeus—who has found the secret of fertility, again—have a couple of kids. You can imagine how thrilled Medea is to see this strapping 17, 18-year-old lad come marching up into the palace to meet his dad, Aegeus. Do you see how this works? How many of you in this room have mothers? Just a quick check, right? You know the drill where a woman who is perfectly nice and mild mannered. The only thing you can do to push her over the brink is mess with her kid. Well, Medea is a real bad you know what to start out with. Here comes with bastard son of the king, her husband, who is going to put her two little kids over in the retirement home, you know? So she decides to poison him. “Yeah, come on down, sonny. Yeah, whoever you are. Here, let me pour you a drink.” And pours him a drink of poison wine. It is nothing. She literally has killed her two earlier kids. This is in the Jason and the Argonauts story, which we haven’t gotten to yet. And Aegeus kind of snickers at it. “Ha, ha, ha, Medea. Always poisoning people, you little minx.” Stuff like that. But then, at the right, moment Theseus pulls out his sword to cut into his filet mignon, or whatever. The story says he distinctly pulls out his sword, or maybe it’s a dagger, to cut his meat, and Aegeus recognizes it. He throws down his sword, slaps the cup out of his way, and says, “Don’t drink that!” He calls him his Pa and he calls him his son. He walks away with a different point of view, because now he has got this 17-year-old son. This is the stuff of bad situation comedies and movies—actually, a very good one in which this young African-American woman finds out that Whoopi Goldberg is her mom. Well, she knew that all along, but Ted Danson is her dad. I don’t know what the name of the movie was, but it was really hilarious.
It so happens that they need a hero at this time. If you look up here at the map, you will see Athens. Down here, right below the blackboard just a little bit, is the fine island of Crete. Supposedly, the people of the city of Athens are compelled to give, every year, their seven best-looking young men and their seven best-looking young women to the king of Crete, to King Minos, who is the king of Crete. This myth is sometimes used as evidence that Crete may have had power over Athens at one point. It might have happened that way. Similar arrangements have been noticed in other cultures. The idea is that this seven beautiful young men and seven beautiful young women must go to Crete every year or every other year—this doesn’t really concern us. It was time to send off another boatload to a place called the labyrinth, where they were going to become Minotaur fodder, Minotaur chow. The labyrinth is this big, dark complex of unmarked passageways. In the middle of it lives the Minotaur, who is half bull and half human. Over here. That is not a very good one, but it’s the best I can do on such short notice. The idea is that the Minotaur eats them.
We still have a couple of minutes. That clock is notoriously fast. So I’ll tell you a different story. It may be a bit confusing. How do you get a Minotaur? One day—this is back in ancient Crete—Minos, King Minos and his wife, Queen Pasiphae; they already had two lovely daughters named Ariadne and Phaedra. Ariadne got married to Dionysus. Phaedra got married to Theseus, but that was later, much later. They were saying, “You know, we’re sitting by the bay. Poseidon if you would send us this big, huge, lovely bull out of the sea, we would sacrifice it to you.” So Poseidon listens to their prayer and sends them this big, huge, studly-looking bull. A bull from the sea. A sea-born bull comes washing up. He is so handsome, so beautiful and charming. So charming. Looks like good breeding stock. So guess what? They Bogart. They hold out on Poseidon. They send him on over to the pasture to meet all the local cows. They don’t kill him. It’s not nice to do that to Poseidon. Poseidon thinks, “How am I going to mess this family up? I know. I’m going to make Pasiphae, the Queen of Crete, fall in love with the bull.” That’s grotty enough.
She tries to figure out how to come on to a bull. She walks up to him and says, “Moo, uh, moo?” Bats her eyes, but, you know, the bull isn’t buying it. So she consults this fellow who revels in name of Daedalus. He’s a real smart guy. We’ll meet him later. She says, “Could you help me?” Daedalus says, “What the heck do I look like? A bleeping dating service?” Eventually he cooperates by building a wooden cow with wooden udders and all of that and a trap door in the back. The idea being that Pasiphae climbs in, they close the door on her, she starts making her cow noises again. This time the wonder bull gets interested. Bulls aren’t much on courtship. One thing leads to another. It turns out that Pasiphae is expecting a Minotaur. She’s not very proud of this kid. So her next thing to do is she asks Daedalus to build a great big huge labyrinth so they could hide the Minotaur in there. He grows up and is kind of a nice looking kind of part bull, part human. Well, at any rate Theseus says to Aegeus, “Dad I want to go on that expedition. I think I can kill him.” Now it’s like one of these Arnold Schwartzeneggar movies where you know, at first glance, the chances are very slim to none that Theseus will ever wind up as anything but Minotaur chow. Aegeus tries to talk him out of it, but Theseus is young. He’s full of something else and vinegar. He says, “I want to do it,” because how else is he going to find out whether he’s a hero or not. So he gets in the boat, and Aegeus is all depressed. His last words to Theseus are, “Theseus, you have a black sail on your boat, which is a sign of whoa. If you come back to me, your old dad, change the sail to a white sail so I can know you’re alive. I’m going to be standing there watching for you to come back.” The chances for Theseus actually coming back are not very good. The Minotaur is actually not that friendly. The chances are very slim that Theseus will make it back. On the other hand we all know that he does. How? Why? When? All to be answered in the next exciting episode of Classical Mythology. Thank you. You’ve been a very good class.
Supplemental: Why your parents are always right
Number three on the Herometer, which was my invention, designed by me to help compare the ancient Greek heroes of yore, says that the hero has to overcome opposition. We’ve seen in the case of Theseus how he overcomes opposition a number of times. As he moves from Troezen, where he was born, to Athens, home of his true father, Aegeus, Theseus encounters six monsters. We’ve discussed them already. One of them is Procrustes, Cercyon another. It is in proving himself by killing these monsters that he supposedly becomes worthy to approach his father, he becomes the sort of son that Aegeus, his father, had wanted him to be. Once he reaches Athens, once he is identified by Aegeus as Aegis’s son, “You’re my son, Theseus. Yahoo.” Theseus is presented with another challenge. Theseus finds out that, every year, seven attractive young Athenian women, seven attractive young Athenian men, go to Crete to become Minotaur fodder. Aegeus tells his son, “Theseus, don’t go. You don’t have to go. You’re already heroic stuff.” I don’t know what Aegeus said to him. Of course, we know that Theseus has to go join the expedition to Crete, that Theseus has to take a chance of becoming Minotaur fodder, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be much of a hero at all. Therefore, what we have here is a situation where a father says to his son, “Don’t go. It’s dangerous. Don’t go. You don’t have to. Don’t go. I don’t want you to get hurt.” And Theseus, in order to become a hero, in order to vanquish the Minotaur, in order to be the heroic sort of stud that it seems the people of Athens need him to be, has to disobey his father, has to go off and kill the Minotaur. The great mythological scholar, Joseph Campbell, has observed in a number of his works that the activating feature, the—oh, I don’t know—the raison d’etre, the reason for so much of heroic myth, the journey of the hero and whatnot, is a search for the father, reunion with the father, being one with the father. Well, Theseus has already found his father and, in order to be more of a hero, he has to disobey his father and run off. It’s not too difficult to invest this father/son relationship—and, you know, the necessary details change. You can call it mother/daughter relationship, mother/son, father/daughter. I mean you can disobey your parents, regardless of gender. You can invest this with great philosophical significance, but I suggest that it appeals to us, that it grabs our attention in the first place because of its own relationship to our real lives. An old joke my father and I had is that—it’s an old Mark Twain joke. Mark Twain thought of it first—is, when I was 14, you know, my dad was so ignorant I could hardly stand to be around him. By the time I got 21, he had gotten a little smarter, but not much. And every year since then, the old coot seems to get smarter, and smarter, and smarter. That’s true, and as you get older you’ll find it out. But, obviously, it’s important for Theseus’s career to disobey his father, probably so he can be his father, so he can have the status of his father and what not.
In the case of Daedalus and Icarus we have the opposite example, a kid who doesn’t listen to his father and pays the price for it. In a way, you could call this a doublet of the Helios and Phaëthon myth. You’ll recall from very early in the class that Helios the sun god promised his son, Phaëthon, anything in the world. “You name it, I swear by the river Styx you can have it.” Phaëthon asks to drive the chariot of the sun. Helios says, “Well, I meant anything but that.” And of course, Phaëthon, with all the stubbornness of youth, says, “No, dad, you said I could have the chariot.” And Helios says, “Don’t fly too high. Don’t fly too low, blah, blah, blah.” So, immediately, young Phaëthon flies too high, flies too low, and gets smacked by Zeus because he’s messing up the sun.
Precisely the same thing happens in the instance of Daedalus and Icarus. They’re supposed to fly out of Crete because Crete’s getting too weird. The queen’s fallen in love with a bull and she’s just had a calf and all of that. This is not the sort of place, not the sort of family values, I want my son to grow up with. It’s time for us to fly back to Athens. Daedalus makes these wonderful wings of wax and string and he tells Icarus, “Don’t fly too high. Don’t fly too low. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And, again, as in the Phaëthon, when your dad tells you to do something, or your spouse tells you to do something, or not to do something, more precisely, it seems to be your sacred responsibility to do it. Icarus flies to high, he flies too low, and he crashes. And in some strange way, this form of the myth, this form of the story, this variant of the story, seems to be the more popular one.
Icarus gets mentioned a lot more in modern day society than does Phaëthon, so we’re forced to conclude that perhaps his story is that much more valid, that much more right, has that much more to say to us. But what on earth does it say to us? I think that, much more so than in the Helios and Phaëthon story, the Icarus and Daedalus story basically has this moral: Listen to your mom and dad. They’re right. They know what’s better for you. And the appeal of the story—you know, the moral aside. We all know lots of stories with all sorts of meaningful morals that we toss out almost instantly. The appeal of the story is that it is so true to human life.
Poor Daedalus. He makes it to Athens all right and, as legend has, it he was so depressed, so bummed out about losing his son that he traveled to Italy and built houses and palaces in Italy and whatnot. And even to this extent, you know the story is dealing with the grief of a parent for a child who has died, and, as we’ve seen in the case of Demeter, various offspring of Zeus’s, too, this is a very poignant myth. You might almost call it the search of the parent for the dead child. We’ve had a lot of nice movies made about that,
So what’s the point? All of us have moms and dads. I’ve found myself—and I’m not all that old quite yet—but the older you get the more you realize that your mom and dad were, in fact, right. If you get to live long enough, you get to, in effect, become your mom and dad. Icarus never got that chance, obviously. Perhaps there’s something to listening to your mom and dad. I hate to end a lecture with a moral, but there’s no getting around it. People, your mom and dad are right.