In the Bronze Age, the definition of Hero was very different. The raiding and the stealing women and the warlording, the pirating. It's something we've touched on quite a bit on the blog in relation to Pirithous, particularly. But what about Theseus?
At a later age, Theseus was known both for his kindness to women and his kindness to slaves and the weak, and I've always felt that Theseus' myths reveal a great contradiction, even inside his own character, between what was considered heroic in that time period, and how he behaved -- for example, his abandonment of Ariadne (while perfectly in line with heroics of the time) doesn't really jive with his creation of this feast day to honor the woman who lent him her cow in order to tame the bull at Marathon, and the way he continued to honor her in perpetuity for her help. Would a man who repays that small help from a woman so grandly repay Ariadne for HER sacrifice and aid so cruelly as to abandon her without a moment's thought or regret?
I have a hard time reconciling it, personally, which is why I think keeping the gods in these myths is so important. Without the hands of the gods manipulating and abusing these heroes, their actions make so much less sense. Their *characters* make so much less sense.
Yes, Theseus must prove himself, and there are plenty of ways in which he does so in a way that is related more to self-sacrifice than self-service. Yes, his primary motivation is to preserve the memory of his name, to build reputation and be known. But Theseus takes up this call differently than, say, Heracles. He doesn't just go about looting and pirating for the sake of looting and pirating. He clears the Isthmus road of the monstrous villains who lurk upon it, making the way safe for travelers and trade. He goes to Crete to liberate Athens. He even gives up some small measure of his power as king to allow for his people to have a say in their governance, if the Theseus as the Father of Democracy is to be believed. These are the things Theseus is known for, the way in which his name is remembered.
No matter what the meaning of hero was in the bronze age (or the Homeric age), these are all still remarkable achievements, and it opens the door to allow for a slightly different KIND of hero, for that period. (With Pirithous at his side to remind us of all the less savory meanings of the word Hero, of course. The braggarting, the swagger, the arrogance and righteous belief that anything you had the strength to take was yours to make off with, the glory without consideration for anyone else, at the expense of everyone else.) Theseus would NEVER have sat out during the Trojan war, and let his fellow soldiers die just because his prize was stolen from him, and the slight to his honor as a result. But then again, Theseus would probably not have served under Agamemnon to begin with. (Would Agamemnon even have been able to hold so much influence, to be the warlord he was, if Theseus had still been King of Athens?)
But is it any wonder that the Athenians would latch on to these virtues? That Theseus would possess the seeds for them, when he is THEIR hero, particularly. The answer to Heracles. I mean, we can sit here and debate the chicken or the egg -- which came first, and what does it mean for the actuality and historicity of Theseus, King of Athens. Did the Athenians read all of these virtues back into their hypothetical founding father, or did he possess these virtues to begin with, and those ideals carried forward through the ages, a lasting mark of his reign?
For myself, I want to believe the latter. I want to believe that Athens developed as it did (in contrast to Sparta and the other city-states) BECAUSE there was some seed planted by those early kings. That Theseus came first, and the rest followed.