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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.

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