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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pirithous, Theseus, and that Ill-advised Trip to the Underworld (II)

Theseus merely went after a demigod when he abducted Helen, and while I won't say he didn't suffer for his share of the unfortunate agreement he made with Pirithous, he certainly did not suffer for it to the same extent that Pirithous did. It's said, however, that Pirithous went after Persephone because Zeus SENT him, for the sole purpose of seeing him punished.
When Jove saw that they had such audacity as to expose themselves to danger [kidnapping Helen], he bade them in a dream both go and ask Pluto on Pirithous’ part for Proserpine in marriage (Hyginus, Fabulae, 79).
another shot of Ceres/Demeter
So it wasn't even the pact to marry daughters of Zeus that provoked the gods, so much as how they went about kidnapping Helen herself. This isn't, like with Paris, an example of violating the laws of hospitality, though. It's their nerve which offends Zeus, their needless risk-taking -- and that sounds a lot more like Hubris, to me. Or like a father whose given up on bailing out his sons when they insist on going out and causing their own trouble.

Regardless, I have to wonder: would Pirithous have thought to abduct Persephone if it hadn't been for Zeus's influence and irritation with the pair of them? Granted, there aren't a lot of other daughters of Zeus for him to claim who aren't goddesses (according to Theoi, he only has two: Helen and Herophile of Libya), but might he have been more inclined to go on some less hazardous adventure elsewhere to find one?

Now, Hyginus also says that Heracles pulls them both back out of the underworld, but Apollodorus says otherwise in The Libraries:
And being come near to the gates of Hades he found Theseus and Pirithous, him who wooed Persephone in wedlock and was therefore bound fast. And when they beheld Hercules, they stretched out their hands as if they should be raised from the dead by his might. And Theseus, indeed, he took by the hand and raised up, but when he would have brought up Pirithous, the earth quaked and he let go.

Pirithous being Pirithous, I'm not sure it would surprise me all that much if he got it into his own head that Persephone wanted him, and it would be a good idea to go steal her, for which he would then deserve the punishment of being trapped in Hades for eternity. But if he only went after Persephone because of Zeus? Well, that changes things. Why shouldn't Pirithous follow the direction of the King of the Gods, with all hope of success in his venture? With Zeus' blessing, how could he fail?

It isn't all that different from Paris' motivations in stealing Helen, much later. Not that his excursion worked out any better, really. But it certainly changes things, either way. In this instance, even if Pirithous might have had the gall to go after Persephone on his own, would Theseus have had the audacity to go with him? Would he have leant his support to such a venture, pact or not? Would they have turned around and come home, halfway there?

Theseus might have returned before Helen's brothers arrived to steal her back, preserved his throne and his kingship, and Pirithous might have not spent the rest of eternity in the chair of forgetfulness. Perhaps they both would have gone on to Troy, forming a trio of cronies with Nestor, and lived or died there instead.

How many sins did the gods first impose upon their heroes, just for the excuse of punishing them? And was Pirithous a victim of his own Hubris, or the gods' desire to remind him just WHO exactly was boss? But one thing I don't wonder about when I read these stories is this: the gods matter to the outcomes, and neither the characters nor the stories themselves are the same when you strip them out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pirithous, Theseus, and that Ill-advised Trip to the Underworld (I)

Ceres/Demeter searching for Persephone
The story goes that Pirithous and Theseus made a pact that they should both marry daughters of Zeus, because they were demigods and as such deserving of marriage to women of divine lineage. Leaving aside the fact that a daughter of Zeus would also be Pirithous' half-sister and the marriage slightly incestuous, a demigod deciding he deserves some kind of honor or another for himself is never really a good idea. Hubris is never, ever, ever a recipe for success for any demigod or mortal. The gods just do not put up with it.

BUT, I can certainly see the appeal a demigod daughter of Zeus might have had for Pirithous and Theseus, both of whom suffered from a certain amount of bad luck when it came to their wives. Pirithous's wife, Hippodamia was assaulted during their wedding feast; and Theseus' lost his Amazon Queen, Antiope, to the war with the amazons, and his second wife, Phaedra to the curse of the gods, after she fell in love with his son, Hippolytus, accused him of raping her (which resulted in *his* death) and then killed herself. I could see Theseus and Pirithous both feeling that they'd like a wife who was a little bit more hardy -- of stronger stock, so to speak.

Just making off with Helen wasn't really such a terrible thing for the times. Abducting women was a pretty normal activity for demigods, and provided they didn't break the laws of hospitality by doing so, didn't normally result in any extreme consequences. At the time of her abduction by Theseus, Helen was still unpromised, and we know that even stealing wives isn't unheard of or unsurprising, because later on, Helen was so desired, that her suitors were required to swear an oath not to kill the man who won her, or steal her from her rightful husband after the fact. Raiding was an accepted part of life, be it for gold, goods, food, cattle, or women. And of course we can't forget that Hades himself carried Persephone off to the Underworld to be his bride in the first place, which resulted in Persephone spending 6 months in Hades, and Demeter's joy which results in the shift in season to spring when Persephone returns to the world and her mother's arms again. (To say nothing of Zeus and Poseidon's myriad woman-stealing adventures.)

A demigod stealing a demigod or a normal woman isn't news, just as a god stealing a woman isn't anything shocking, but when Theseus and Pirithous traveled to the Underworld for Persephone, they seem to have crossed the line. Not only were they stealing a goddess, they were stealing the consort of a god, and as we all know, those gods? They weren't all that forgiving.

It seems simple, then. A clear-cut case of a demigod overreaching -- of Hubris, even.

But the sources don't all agree and next week, we'll touch on why.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Fall of Theseus (II)

Last week I mentioned that Theseus went on two (related) adventures, which are, in my opinion, at the heart of why we overlook his twilight years, and directly related to his fall from grace. I know the suspense has been killing you, so let's just get to the good stuff:

photo by me!
Rodin's The Bronze Age
And yes, it is the same sculpture,
different medium.
First, Theseus kidnapped Helen from Sparta, which resulted in Sparta choosing the next King of Athens; and Second, which goes hand in hand with the first, he acted against the gods and abandoned Athens by accompanying Pirithous on his quest to the underworld to steal Persephone. And he didn't mess with just any god, but Hades, the lord of the dead, to whom all Greeks entrusted their shades at the end of their lives. Not only that, Theseus returned to Athens less whole than he left it, the backs of his thighs torn off when he was pulled from the Chair of Forgetfulness. Rescued by Heracles. (If he'd only just stayed home, would he have kept his kingdom AND Helen? I wonder...)

When Theseus returns to Athens after these adventures, he wasn't warmly received by his people. In his absence, his cousin was appointed as King by Helen's brothers, who by the way, also took their sister after threatening the city, and Athens wasn't interested in giving him back his throne. Whatever good Theseus had done for them, his time was over, and his people exiled him. It isn't really a triumphant ending for a hero. It isn't even a glorious death. Possibly crippled and forsaken by his own city, Theseus seeks a quiet retirement on the island of Skyros -- where he either slips, or is pushed off a cliff to his death. The end. There isn't any elevation to godhood for Theseus, like Heracles. He just dies. Pathetically.

Ultimately, Theseus isn't a hero anymore. He's a man stripped of everything who comes to an ignominious end. So of course the stories told more frequently come from his glory days, his youth, before he messed it all up as a King. Maybe people wanted to remember him as a paragon of virtue and brilliance, not as the guy who got kicked out of his own kingdom.

And honestly? I'm still kind of hoping to find some reference to his living out the rest of his days at the bottom of the sea in Poseidon's palace. I mean, after all the rest of the tragedy that was his life, I think he at least deserves that much.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Fall of Theseus (I)

Rodin's The Bronze Age
photo by me!
Most of the stories about Theseus revolve around his early years -- his youthful vanquishing of the monstrous men along the gates to the underworld on the Isthmus road, his defeat of the Minotaur and the subsequent abandonment of Ariadne -- and a lot less attention is paid to his later life.

Most of the people who write fiction about Theseus or Helen of Troy skate over the place where their paths cross,* and we get kind of a highlights reel of his other adventures. Maybe he went with Heracles to see the Amazons. Maybe he brought democracy to Athens. He was for sure a king, and there's that business with his stolen Amazon bride, and the war with the Amazons, the death of Hippolytus, and his epic bromance with Pirithous... But most people don't know those stories very well. Most people aren't familiar with KING Theseus.


Well, it's probably in part because Theseus wasn't adopted by the Romans the same way that Heracles was. He didn't get a new name and new adventures, and he was never played by Kevin Sorbo in a live action tv show. (We will not speak of the atrocity that was IMMORTALS.) We have Plutarch, comparing Theseus to Romulus and glorifying both of them in a propaganda piece, and to be honest, there isn't really a lot of compelling storytelling about his twilight years. Theseus doesn't get his own letter, written by Ovid. And none of the surviving plays by Euripides are titled THESEUS. (There is Euripides' play about Hippolytus, of course, which is the exception to this rule, and also Euripides' play about Heracles, in which King Theseus guest stars, and has some really interesting things to say about the gods, as a contrast to Heracles himself.)

But I think there's maybe a reason why Theseus, ultimately, didn't get adopted by the Romans. Because there are two hugely problematic adventures which Theseus undertakes after he becomes King, and neither one of them ends well for Athens.

Which adventures were they? We'll lay them out next week!

*People skate over it because it's a later addition to the mythology. But I don't think it makes it any less significant or relevant -- it was important enough that they thought it was something that SHOULD be part of his story, and that's good enough for me.