Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The Champion of Athens

Æ THRA, a daughter of the King of Trœzēnē, was the wife of a foreign prince, and the mother of an only child, a boy, whom they named Thēseus. While Theseus was still an infant, his father said one day to Æthra—

"I am obliged to set off on a long and distant journey, through countries infested by wild beasts and robbers. If I should never return, take care of our child, bring him up like a king's son, and send him to the city of Athens as soon as he grows strong enough to lift that stone."

Æthra promised, and her husband left Trœzene never to return.

Having given up all hope of seeing her husband again, Æthra devoted herself to obeying his last commands. She gave Theseus the education of a prince; and every day, from the time he left her arms, she made him try to lift the stone. The child grew up to be the handsomest, strongest, and bravest youth in all the land, so that he had not a rival of his own age in all manly sports and feats of arms. But he could no more move the stone than he could fly.

At last, however, the moment came when the stone gave way a little. The next day he raised it a trifle further, and so on until he lifted it bodily from the ground, and rolled it away. Underneath it he found a splendid sword, with a curiously carved hilt, unlike any he had ever seen.

The time had therefore come for him to set out for Athens, according to his father's commands. His mother implored him to go by sea, and not by those perilous paths by which her husband had never returned. But Theseus was only tempted by the dangers; and so, taking the sword with him, he set out for Athens overland.

After a long journey through a wild and difficult country, he reached a village, where he sought for supper and a night's lodging. But the place seemed deserted, and it was only after a long search that he discovered an old shepherd, of whom he asked where a traveler might find food and shelter.

"Alas!" answered the shepherd, "there is not a scrap of food left in the place, not a house left unplundered. For Sciron has been here."

"And who is Sciron?" asked Theseus.

"Ah, you must be a stranger indeed! Sciron is the chief of all the robbers. Do you see yonder castle among the mountains? That is where he lives, and thence he issues forth, when he wants food for his gluttony, to plunder and lay waste all the country round. And he is as cruel and savage as he is greedy. Not content with carrying off our cattle and our stores of corn and wine, he seizes men and women, and makes them wait upon him while he feasts; and when the feast is over, he amuses himself by throwing them from a high rock into the sea."

"Thank you," said Theseus. "Then I will sup with Sciron." And off he started for the robber's castle, leaving the amazed shepherd to think him a madman.

It was a long climb to the castle, which stood on the peak of a high cliff looking down into the sea. Theseus knocked upon the gate with the hilt of his sword, and, when it was opened by a ferocious-looking brigand, announced himself as a stranger who requested hospitality.

"You've come to the right place for that!" said the brigand, grimly. "Come with me."

Theseus followed him into the hall, where broth was being brewed in caldrons, and a fat ox was being roasted whole. The robbers were all about—some preparing the feast, some already carousing, some quarreling over their plunder, some sprawling about the floor. In the midst of all the steam and din sat the chief, a huge and cruel-looking brute, whom Theseus did not need to be told was Sciron.

"So you want hospitality, do you?" asked Sciron. "Very well, as you're a traveler, and don't know the ways of the castle, you shall be let off easily. Of course you'll have to be thrown from the cliff after supper—that's the rule. But instead of being tortured, you shall only wash my feet for me and wait on me at table. You look as if you understood washing and how things ought to be served. Now, then, get some hot water and begin," he said, thrusting out a pair of feet which looked as if they had not been touched by water for years.

A grinning robber brought a bowl of hot water. Theseus took it and threw it in the face of Sciron. "That wants washing, too," said he.

Sciron rushed at him; but Theseus received him at the point of his sword, and the two fought furiously, while the robbers looked on, enjoying the game. Sciron was twice the size and weight of Theseus; but Theseus was the best swordsman in all Greece, and presently had him down.

"There," said he, pricking Sciron's throat with his sword, "you have had a lesson in manners. You shall wash my  feet and wait on me  before you go over the cliff after your victims. For I am not going away to leave a brigand like you alive behind me."

Sciron, like all such bullies, was a coward at heart, and his own men had no longer any respect for him now that he had been worsted by a stripling. Amid the laughter of the robbers, he had to wash the feet of Theseus, and to serve him humbly with meat and drink, and was finally punished for his many cruel murders by bring thrown into the sea.

Having received the thanks of the country for ridding it of such a scourge, Theseus traveled on till he came to another village, where he thought he would rest a little.

No sooner had he entered the place, however, than he was surrounded by a number of armed men, who gave him to understand that he was their prisoner.

"Is this the way you treat travelers in your country?" asked he.

"Assuredly," answered the captain of the troop. "You are in the country of King Cercyon, and the law is that no traveler may leave it until he has wrestled with the king."

"I ask for nothing better," said Theseus. "What happens to the traveler if he conquers Cercyon?"

"Then he may pass on."

"But if Cercyon conquers him?"

"Then he is tortured till he dies."

"It is strange," said Theseus, "that I never heard of such a law, or even a King Cercyon."

"Not at all strange," said the captain. "I don't see how you could have heard it, seeing that no traveler has ever lived to tell the tale. Cercyon has conquered and killed them all, as he will conquer and kill you."

And when he saw Cercyon Theseus could well believe it. The king was of immense height, with broad shoulders, and muscles that stood out like globes of iron. He smiled savagely when he saw Theseus, and stripped without a word. Theseus stripped also, and the two were soon clasping each other like a pair of fierce bears, or rather like a bear and a man.

It was a tremendous struggle, with all the brute strength on the side of Cercyon. But Theseus knew a hundred turns and twists of which the savage chieftain knew nothing; and at last, to the amazement of all who witnessed the struggle, Cercyon fell dead upon the ground with a broken spine. Thenceforth every traveler might pass through that country safely and without fear.

Theseus traveled on until he found himself benighted in a wild country, through which he wandered about until he reached a castle, where he craved a night's shelter. Here he was kindly received, and told that the lord of the castle and of the country round was one Procrustes, who never turned a traveler from his door; nay, even now there were two guests with him. And so it proved. Procrustes entertained Theseus and the other two travelers at supper pleasantly and generously, and when it was time to retire for the night, himself conducted them into a chamber, where a bed, with nothing remarkable about it, stood ready in a corner.

"That is the guest-bed," said Procrustes; "and I hope it will fit you."

"Fit us?" asked Theseus, puzzled.

"Yes; it is the law of the country that if the bed does not fit the traveler, the traveler must be made to fit the bed. Do you try the bed first," he said to one of the guests, the tallest of the three.

The traveler lay down, but found the bed rather short, and had to draw up his knees a little. "Be good enough to lie straight," said Procrustes. He did so, his feet appearing beyond the bottom. Instantly Procrustes, with a sharp hatchet, chopped them off, one after another. "You'll fit nicely now," said he. "It's your turn next," he said to the second traveler.

This one thought himself safe; for, being short, his toes did not reach the bed's end by a full two inches. Procrustes gave a signal and immediately two strong attendants seized the unfortunate man, one by the shoulders and the other by the legs, and proceeded to pull him out to the proper length, despite his yells of pain.

"Stretch him on the rack," said Procrustes. "Now," he said to Theseus, "it is your turn in the game, and I hope, for your sake, you will give less trouble than the rest of them."

Theseus had been taken aback at first by these extraordinary proceedings; but he now perceived that he had fallen upon another of those brigand chiefs who infested the country, and who resembled ogres rather than mere cruel and blood-thirsty savages.

So he drew his sword and closed with Procrustes; nor did he cease fighting till he had fitted the robber to his own bed by making him a whole head shorter. The robbers in the place, cowed by the death of their chief, submitted to Theseus, who went round the castle, and set at liberty hundreds of maimed victims of the slain monster's cruelty.

Having received such thanks as they could give him, he journeyed on and on until at last he reached Athens. What he was to do there he did not know; but there was no need for him to ask. Somehow the fame of his deeds had flown before him,—how he had rid the country of Sciron and Cercyon and Procrustes, and other wild beasts and brigands, and he was received as befitted his valor.

Now the King of Athens at that time was Ægeus; and the queen was no other than the great and dreadful sorceress Medea, who had come to Athens after the murder of her children, and had married the king. Ægeus took a fancy to Theseus from the young stranger's first appearance in Athens, gave him a high place at Court, and treated him as if he had been his own son. But with Medea it was different. She had a son of her own, and she was filled with jealousy lest Ægeus should make Theseus the heir to his throne. Moreover, she envied and hated him for his courage and his fame, in which he so far surpassed her own son Medus; and she feared him too, for she failed to bring him under her spells. So she plotted to destroy him in such a way that his death should never be brought home to her, just as she had made the daughters of Pelias the seeming murderesses of their own father.

She therefore pretended a great admiration for Theseus, and got the king to hold a great festival in his honor. It was arranged that Ægeus, during the feast, should send him a golden cup filled with wine, in which Medea secretly steeped one of her deadliest poisons.

All went as she had planned. Ægeus sent the poisoned goblet by one of the cup-bearers to Theseus, who stood up to drink the health of the king and queen. But—

"Hold!" suddenly cried Ægeus, starting; "what sword is that at your side?"

Theseus put down the cup to answer:—

"It is the sword with which I fought my way to Athens. I wear it to-day as my sword of honor."

"But how comes it at your  side?"

Then Theseus told the story of how it had been left by his unknown father under a stone at Trœzene, and how his mother's name was Æthra. Scarcely had he finished when Ægeus, leaving his throne, fell upon his neck, exclaiming:—

"I was that father! You are my first-born son, and the heir to my crown!"

The Athenians, who already looked upon Theseus as their national hero, greeted their prince and future king with shouts of joy; and when the first excitement was over, Medea was seen no more. Enraged at the failure of her plot, and fearing discovery and vengeance, she vanished from Athens: some said they had seen her borne by dragons through the air. And this is the last of her.

Freed from her evil influence, the old love of Ægeus for Æthra revived, and he could not make enough of his and Æthra's son. But Theseus did not become idle, and became in all ways the champion and protector of his father's people. It was he who caught alive the famous wild bull of Marathon, which had ravaged the country for years, and sacrificed it to Minerva. He never spared himself, and he never failed.

At last, however, drew nigh that evil hour of Athens—that day in every year when the seven youths and seven maidens had to be sent to King Minos of Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur. The rule was to choose the victims by lot: so that none felt safe who had sons and daughters young enough to suit the taste of the monster. The seven girls were first chosen. But when it came to drawing lots for the youths, Theseus said:—

"You need draw only six this year. I will myself be the seventh. It may be that I shall find a way to deliver Athens from this tribute; if not, it is for a prince who cannot save his people to perish with them."

Ægeus was in despair. But no entreaties could turn Theseus from his desperate resolve: neither the prayers of his own father, nor those of all the fathers and mothers in Athens, who would have drawn the seventh lot rather than he who was the pride and hope of the city should go to certain destruction. The ship which bore the yearly victims to Crete always carried black sails in token of public mourning. Theseus, in order to leave a little hope behind him, promised that, if he came back alive, he would hoist a white sail while returning, so that his safety might be seen from afar. Then, in solemn procession, amid the weeping of the crowd, the youths and maidens embarked in the black-sailed ship, Theseus leading them with the calmness of the only true courage—that which can, in cold blood, face danger for the sake of duty. None would have thought the worse of him had he stayed behind: and if he perished it would be as a mere victim, and without glory. Nor was it as if he were encouraged by any oracles, or helped by gifts from the gods. He is the first hero who was both a mere man and who never had any help but his own manfulness. And for all these reasons I think that his voyage to Crete is the finest story I have yet told.

When the ship reached Crete, the fourteen victims were conducted to the Labyrinth, there to be imprisoned until they should be given to the Minotaur. As they passed before Minos and his Court, the king's youngest daughter, Ariadne, was filled with pity and love for Theseus, and set her thoughts to work how she might save him from his doom. But how in the world was such a thing to be done? None without the clue could either enter or escape from the maze: and even were that possible, it was not likely that the Minotaur would let himself be balked of his prey.

But she watched and waited: she hovered round the Labyrinth night after night, examining every door: until at last she was rewarded by finding, just within one of them, a little silken skein hidden away in a dark corner. The next night, having procured a torch and a sword, she bravely entered the door where the skein was, and, by winding up the silk, followed the clue. Through one twisting passage after another she wandered on and on, up and down long flights of steps, sometimes through great halls confused with columns, and sometimes through tunnels in which it was scarcely possible to stand. There seemed no end to the way. At last, however, the end of the silken thread told her that she had reached the inmost hall: and there her torch showed a sight that froze her with fear.

The victims had been delivered over to the Minotaur. Crowded together in a corner of the hall were six youths and seven girls: stamping and tossing his horned head was the horrible monster, furious with hunger and the sight of human food. Between the Minotaur and his despairing prey stood Theseus, facing the monster, so that he, by being the first victim, might prolong the lives of the others. He had no hope: he could not even struggle, for his hands were bound behind him with cords.

The sight of his courage gave back Ariadne hers. She darted forward, and cut his bonds with her sword. "Fly!" she cried: "follow me—I have the clue!" But as soon as Theseus felt the touch of the steel, he seized the sword from her hand, and, instead of flying, set upon the Minotaur with such fury that the monster bellowed with rage, amazement, and pain.

It was the hardest fight Theseus had ever fought: the wild bull of Marathon had been nothing to the Minotaur, who fought with a bull's strength and a man's skill and cunning. But the champion of Athens prevailed at last: and the monster fell down dead with a groan which echoed through the Labyrinth like the bellowing of thunder.

"It will wake the whole city!" cried Ariadne: "follow me!" Theseus and his companions, scarce knowing that they were saved, followed Ariadne, who wound up the clue as she ran. When they reached the entrance-gate, the alarm of their escape had been given. Making straight for the shore, they found their black-sailed ship, sped on board, and, thanks to a kindly wind, were out at sea before they could be pursued.

The wind carried them to the island of Naxos: and here they remained—Theseus, Ariadne, and the rest—till the breeze should blow towards Athens. Such a breeze came in time; and then Theseus set sail for home with his thirteen companions, leaving Ariadne behind, to her great sorrow. Nor can anything make me believe that he meant this for a real parting, or that she thought so. One can think of many reasons why she should remain in Naxos for a while: it is quite certain that her powerful father Minos, who had already conquered the Athenians, and shown, by a cruel vengeance, how he hated them, would have attacked them again with all his fleets and armies if he had heard that they were giving shelter to a daughter who had betrayed him. So, leaving Ariadne safe in Naxos, Theseus returned to Athens as the savior of his city and the slayer of the Minotaur.

Meanwhile his father, Ægeus, had been every day and all day long looking out to sea from the farthest point of the shore for the return from Crete of the ship of mourning. He had but little hope, but nobody can help having a little: nor did he quite despair until one morning he saw on the horizon a vessel which he felt sure was the one he was watching for in such agony of mind. Nearer and nearer it came—alas! its sails were still as black as when it was outward bound. Theseus had forgotten to hoist the white sail which was to be the sign of safety.

So Ægeus, giving up his son for lost, threw himself into the sea and perished, just when Theseus was within sight of home. And that sea is called the Ægean, or the Sea of Ægeus, to this day. And thus Theseus, to the joy of the people, but with sorrow in his own heart, found himself king.

And the best of kings he made. The strength of his rule was only equaled by its gentleness. He made wise laws; he took care that all men received justice; he honored the gods; he obtained the respect and friendship of foreign nations; he taught the Athenians to be free, and to govern themselves, so that when he died they remained as great a people as while he was alive.

He sent for his mother, Æthra, and kept her in all love and honor. I wish I could tell you that he sent for Ariadne also. But he never had any other wife: and she was lost to him. There is a strange, mysterious story of how, when she was left sorrowing in Naxos, the god Bacchus (of whom you read in the First Story of Midas)—the god of the bounty of Nature and of the joy that men and women find in her—comforted Ariadne, and made her his bride, and raised her above the earth, giving her a crown of seven stars, which is still to be seen in the sky, and is called "Ariadne's Crown."

And there is a yet stranger story of how Theseus, after he was king, had the very wildest of all adventures—nothing less than an attempt to rescue from Hades the goddess Proserpine, and other imprisoned souls. But what happened to him there, and how he escaped the punishment of his daring, belongs to another story. It is as the hero and champion of Athens that he is remembered: and as such we will leave him.

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