Theseus and Athens

Theseus and Athens

Theseus and Athens

Theseus and Athens

Synopsis

Theseus is celebrated as the greatest of Athenian heroes. This work explores what he meant to the Athenians at the height of their city-state in the fifth century B.C. Assembling material that has been scattered in scholarly works, Henry Walker examines the evidence for the development of the myth and cult of Theseus in the archaic age. He then looks to major works of classical literature in which Theseus figures, exploring the contradictions between the archaic, primitive side of his character and his refurbished image as the patron of democracy. His ambiguous nature as outsider, flouting accepted standards of behavior, while at the same time being a hero-king and a representative of higher ideals, is analyzed through his representations in the work of Bacchylides, Euripides, and Sophocles. This is the only work of scholarship that examines the literary representation of Theseus so thoroughly. It brings to life a literary character whose virtues, flaws, and contradictions belong in no less a degree to his creators, the people of Athens.

Excerpt

I would like to tell, or rather warn, the reader what the scope of this work is. It is nothing like an analysis of the myth of Theseus as a whole. It concentrates instead on his image as an ideal ruler of Athens, and as a model for Athenian citizens to follow. I have always been surprised at the powerful grip that the idea of monarchy had on the citizens of Athens and has continued to hold on those of many other democracies since. There are no doubt strong psychological reasons for this rooted in the individual psyche, but I am more interested in the phenomenon as it affected the Athenians as a whole, so I tend to adopt more political explanations for it.

My work falls into two main parts. The first includes chapters 1 and 2, and examines the image of Theseus up until the the fifth century. I try to show why the Greeks were so interested in their former kings, and how Theseus developed in the imagination of the Athenians from a minor local ruler to a great democratic king of the entire country of Athens. The period with which I am dealing in this part is one of comparative obscurity in the history of Athens, and I shall have to rely considerably on the works of previous scholars in the field rather than on the evidence of the Greeks themselves, for they have left us very little indeed.

The second part is the core of my book. It focuses on the image of Theseus as Athenian citizen and king in several major works of classical literature from the fifth century--the poems of Bacchylides and the plays of Sophocles and Euripides. Each of the four chapters in this section examines the major contradictions in the fifth-century image of Theseus, which is what these writers were implicitly doing in their own creative works. Thus, each chapter asks a question about the way in which the Athenians visualized their early history, a past which was surrounded by an aura of mythical splendor. How could the Athenians accept a young warrior from . . .

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