Settle in, settle in, get comfy, polish up those pitchforks and torches, because if you don't hate this guy as much as I do when all is said and done, I have not done my job.
And like with any good Greek myth, we kick things off with Daddy Issues.
See, Theseus, the famous Attic prince, wasn't raised at home in Athens. His mother Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, the king of Troezen, didn't have a lot of courtship with King Aegeus of Athens. Things kicked off with a bang of dubious consent, and then was like, "Oop, well, you'll be a good mom, pretty sure."
So Theseus was actually being raised in Troezen in the Peloponnesian region to the west. Aegeus didn't want him knowing who his Real Dad was until he came of age, so rumors were allowed to swirl. Some thought he was Poseidon's kid, some thought maybe Zeus's, because, y'know, that covered about 75% of most of the Greek heroes anyway. Also, something something Bad Juju, something something Prophecy, and "DEAR GODS, LISTEN, because we don't want this go sideways like it did for that Oedipus Guy.
To know when the Time Was Right, Aegeus stuck a sword under a big ol' rock, and decreed that once Theseus was old enough to get the sword out from under it, then he could return to Athens and claim his birthright.
Theseus was not as cool as King Arthur, though, however much he'd like you to think otherwise.
Still, even as a boy, Theseus was clearly an Exceptional Guy. So, like, this one time at band camp the mighty Hercules came to dinner and tossed his lion-skin over a chair. And apparently the kids there were all morons, because most of them mistook it for a Real Giant Lion and hid in fear, except one. Yup, Theseus. Tiny Theseus decided to try and attack the impermeable lion-skin because he was a special kind of special.
Well, eventually Theseus grew to manhood, being told that there was a Special Surprise for him waiting under a rock once he was big enough to retrieve it, and so finally he got a sword and a pair of sandals (pre-broken-in by being squished under a boulder for almost two decades), and was told to head to Athens where he would learn everything he needed to know.
And thus began Theseus' crime spree...er, journey.
As he approached the area of Epidaurus, he came across a guy named Periphetes, who was big and mean and liked to club to death anyone who came to his neck of the woods. But, soon, Periphetes realized that Theseus wasn't just any old hapless mook. Naw, this was the kid who looked up to Hercules and tried to kill an already-dead lion skin. But, he was faster than Periphetes and at least marginally smarter, so he was able to grab the bronze club away from Periphetes and beat him to death instead, and decided to keep the club as a trophy.
Way to be a role model, Herc.
Next up, on the edge of the Peloponnese, was another dude, Sinis, the Pine Bender. He, too, was a big, strong, mean guy who liked to employ violence for entertainment, because apparently Bronze Age Greece was just full of sociopathic weirdos.
Now, in Sinis's case, he liked to bend pine trees and tie people to them and basically make homemade catapults to launch people into the wild blue yonder, or rip them in half, depending on what he felt like that day.
So, when Theseus got there, Sinis was all, "Hey, hey, come see my awesome flying machine! It will TOTALLY make you fly like a bird!"
And Theseus was all, "REALLY? This I gotta see. I don't believe it's real."
And Sinis was like, "Oh, it's totally real, come see."
And Theseus was all, "Nah, bro, I don't believe that would EVER work. You gotta prove it to me first."
So Sinis, being a man of great douchery and very little brain, decided to prove it--by putting himself into the
homemade pine-tree trap.
...yeah, it went exactly as well as you can imagine.
So Theseus out-douched Sinis, killing him in the process, oh, and according to our buddy Plutarch, left behind a little souvenir with Sinis' daughter Perigune: a son named Melanippus. Classy.
It's not clear which came first here, but he also killed a large wild sow named Phaea (who wasn't any sow, but a daughter of Typhon and Echidna, so, y'know, Hogzilla's great-times-a-lot-grandma) that was causing a lot of issues, and then also came across a dude named Skiron as he crossed the Isthmus near Corinth.
Skiron had a weird foot fetish, you see, where he liked to make travelers wash his feet in a weird perversion of the hospitality of the day--and then kick the people at his feet into the ocean and drown them.
And if the sea didn't get them, a giant man-eating turtle hanging out below Skiron's haunts would eat them instead. Either way, not much fun for the poor hapless victims. Fortunately for him, Theseus also saw this particular trap coming a mile away, and when he bent down to wash Skiron's feet, instead grabbed him by the ankle and yeeted him down to the sea turtle to be eaten before continuing on his way to Athens.
Next up, near Eleusis, was a wrestler named Kerkyon, who took his hobby a little too seriously.
Kerkyon liked to enlist "students" to learn wrestling from him and then "accidentally" crush them to death as part of the lesson. Seeing Theseus as a promising "student," he enrolled him in said school of hard knocks. But, Theseus was such a good student that he beat Kerkyon at his own game, crushing him to death and thus closing the "wrestling school."
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE.
As he got closer to Athens, Theseus stopped by a little inn run by a guy named Procrustes, who took making his guests' stay perfect to a whole new level of crazy.
See, Procrustes wanted the bed his guests slept in to be just right, like some kind of demented Goldilocks. Except, instead of making the bed just the right size for the guest, he made the guest the right size for the bed. Bed too big? The bed became The Rack, to stretch the guest to the right height. Bed too small? Well, he could help you lose a foot or two--literally.
Now, Theseus, being a pretty big guy, he didn't fit so well into the little bed, so Procrustes was very eager to help him with that, and chop off a few bits here and there. But, again, Theseus outsmarted him with his own trap, making Procrustes test the bed out first. And dear, dear, the poor old man just didn't quite fit either, and Theseus was more than happy to get a head in this little game when Procrustes lost his.
Finally, with five bodies and some pork chops behind him, Theseus made it to Athens.
There he was greeted by Aegeus, who hadn't yet introduced himself as Dear Old Dad, and Aegeus's third or fourth wife, Medea.
Yes. That Medea.
Talk about your evil stepmother.
Now, see, Medea, she was a particular lady when it came to her kids, and she didn't want her own surviving kids to be supplanted on the Athenian throne by her husband's son from a previous relationship. So, she tried to convince Aegeus that Theseus was there to cause trouble--something Aegeus easily believed because he was very paranoid that his own older brothers would try to oust him because he had such a hard time securing his own legacy with a trueborn son. And, true to her usual form, Medea did everything she could to try and kill Theseus.
She sent him out on the most dangerous errands she could think of. She tried getting Theseus's cousins, the Pallantidae, to do him in. Didn't work. She tried sending Theseus to kill the Marathonian Bull. Nope, Theseus killed the bull and sacrificed it to Apollo. Also worth noting, this was the Cretan bull, highlighting what would soon be a stark indicator of the Athenian-Cretan relationship, which was Not Good. More on that here soon.
Heck, Theseus even went with Meleager to hunt the Calydonian Boar--interestingly enough, possibly the same boar Hercules tangled in his 7th Labor because, y'know, Herc is Theseus's heroic role model. And he hung out with Jason and his Argonauts for a while to help them with dangerous tasks, because Medea knew what a knucklehead Jason could be. Nope, still didn't manage to kill Theseus off.
Finally, Medea invited Theseus to dinner. With, of course, a special cup just for him.
But, before Theseus could drink from the poisoned cup, finally Aegeus recognized the sword Theseus was
carrying and the sandals he was wearing. So, he proclaimed Theseus his true-born heir at long last, and kicked Medea out.
So, now Theseus was Prince, and... being prince, he soon found out the dirty little secret about the relationship between Athens and Crete.
Now, see, the Cretan royal family wasn't entirely playing with a full deck either. King Minos had angered the gods by failing to properly sacrifice a great bull--the same bull that ended up terrorizing the Attic region, but not before the queen Pasiphae was made to fall in love with the bull, have one of the world's first recorded furry kinks, and give birth to the Minotaur that Minos had imprisoned in a great labyrinth.
To make matters worse, one of Minos's sons, Androgeus, had come to Athens to help deal with the bull and participate in some pan-Hellenic games, but it didn't go so well for Androgeus. He died, and Minos blamed the Athenians for it. He tried to attack Athens in revenge, but that didn't go so well, so instead, he decreed that every few years (every 7 in most versions), Athens would send 7 maidens and 7 youths to try and defeat the Minotaur in a cruel parody of Androgeus' death.
Generally, these Athenian kids were chosen by lottery, and wouldn't you know it, no sooner had Theseus gotten there than it was tribute time once more. In some versions, Theseus got picked at random, in others, he volunteered.
Either way, Aegeus wasn't happy about sending his heir, who had just gotten there after being gone for so many years, off to what was presumed certain death. But Theseus went anyway, and Aegeus figured if anyone could handle Minos' monster, it was Theseus. But it was not a sure bet, so he instructed that if Theseus survived and made it back, to have the ship fly white sails. If he failed and died, the ship was to have the usual black sails on the return journey.
So, Theseus and 13 other randos made it to Knossos in Crete. At first, they were treated as honored guests, but before long, they were to be forced into the Labyrinth to meet their dooms. Still, upon arrival, one of Minos's daughters, Ariadne, was immediately taken with the muscular, handsome Theseus.
Not wanting Theseus to meet the same fate as so many others, the princess went to the Labyrinth's architect, Daedalus, and made him tell her the secrets of the maze. Triumphant, she then snuck off to Theseus's room that night, presenting him with a ball of thread (in some cases, enchanted thread) to help him find his way through the maze. In repayment of this assistance, Theseus agreed to marry Ariadne if he was able to defeat both the monster and the maze, and finally put to rest the animosity between the two powers.
So, the fateful morning came, and Theseus and the others were all shoved into the Labyrinth, with Theseus hiding his secret weapon in a pocket.
The others got lost, doomed to starve to death or be killed by the Minotaur, but Theseus made his way to the innermost part of the maze, where he found the Minotaur, and battled it, ultimately killing it. And, thanks to his ball of thread, was also able to make it back out alive, where Ariadne was waiting.
In a not-douchebag story, this would normally be the part where the prince married the princess and they all lived happily ever after.
NOT IN THIS STORY.
It varies a bit here. In some, Theseus married Ariadne in a quiet ceremony as they headed for Athens, in others, he promised the nuptials would take place upon arrival in Athens.
She never made it to Athens, though.
Naw, like three days into the return trip, they stopped at an island called Naxos, where Theseus just dumped her and sailed off without her.
Some try to be generous and say he forgot to do a headcount, some say he was already in love with another woman and never wanted to marry Ariadne anyway. A few try to blame Dionysus for it, as the god was the one who ultimately married Ariadne (talk about trading up). But either way, Prince Douchebag broke his promise to her.
Oh, yeah, and remember his promise to his dad about the sails? Yeah, Theseus conveniently "forgot" to change them from black to white. Upon seeing the black sails on the horizon and assuming his heir had died, Aegeus threw himself into the sea and drowned--which is why we call it the Aegean.
And now Theseus was King Jerkface.
Being king, keep in mind that Greece was pretty fragmented into lots of little city-states and mini-governments. And Theseus decided he was going to bring all of the nearby ones under Athenian rule. His rule. A process called synoecism. Now, this is usually considered one of Theseus's more laudable accomplishments, but honestly? I think it was a bit more... like a mob boss.
Now, one point in Theseus's favor, was that he actually didn't suck too badly at governing. Under him, the Attica region had a pretty prosperous and peaceful period. He even became best friends with the king of the Lapiths, Pirithous.
However, just hanging around and doing Government Stuff wasn't really Theseus's speed.
He still wanted Adventure and Excitement.
So, to liven things up, he instituted the festival of the Panathenaea and the Isthmian Games. But still not enough excitement for King Theseus.
At one point, Hercules, Theseus's childhood hero, remember, dropped by and Theseus immediately dropped everything to go and raid some Amazons along with his hero-buddy, in particular looking to steal the girdle of their queen.
Herc got to keep the girdle, and as for Theseus, well, he claimed Queen Hippolyta herself as his prize.
They got married, and had a son together, Hippolytus. ...yeah, Theseus wasn't exactly the most creative guy on the block.
Pirithous was along for a few Amazon adventures too, and also tried to take a wife from among them. However, his wedding didn't go as smoothly as his buddy's. Nope, centaurs came and crashed the party and made a real orgiastic mess of everything so... it was a very, very short marriage.
And now, you'd think that Theseus would be content. He was king, he'd gotten a fierce wife, an heir, he got to kill some centaurs, and had the entire Attica region sucking up to him. Life should be good, yes?
Naw, he still liked following around his hero buddies on adventures, and hunting boars, and one two-for-one deal off those involving the Calydonian Boar. But still, he got bored.
So, eventually he dismissed Hippolyta as his wife to trade her in for a newer model. AND GUESS WHERE KING DOUCHEFACE WENT LOOKING. Crete. Yeah, Wifey Number 2 was none other than Princess Phaedra, Ariadne's little sister.
Because clearly he didn't cause enough trouble with Crete the last time.
Now, at first things seemed OK. Phaedra had two kids by Theseus, Acamas and Demophon. But thing was, Phaedra was less into her husband and more into... her stepson, Hippolytus.
So, in a scene out of a badly-written porno, Phaedra tried hitting on Hippolytus. It did not go like it would have in a porno, however. He actually rejected her. Which... good on him, I guess, but that opened up a whole new can of worms.
Feeling hurt, Phaedra went to Theseus and claimed that Hippolytus had raped her. And Theseus, instead of being a good dad and maybe talking to his son or trying to get the whole story, instead went to Poseidon, his kinda-dad, to have Hippolytus cursed.
Poseidon, always glad to have an excuse to cause some mayhem, set wild horses on Hippolytus that ultimately dragged the boy to his death. Phaedra, meanwhile, ended up committing suicide by hanging in her grief over her boytoy stepson and fear that Theseus would turn on her if he knew the truth.
Side note that in some stories Hippolytus did get better thanks to another (and better) demigod named Asclepius, who was able to cure death with Gorgon blood, and did as Theseus asked... but that act ended up causing Asclepius's death because he wasn't supposed to bring people back from the dead anymore. Doing so pissed off both Hades and Zeus and got him struck dead by lightning. So... thanks for that too, Theseus.
(Don't worry, Asclepius got better, too, thanks to his dad Apollo, but that's another story.)
Well, you would think that by now, Theseus would have had enough excitement to last a lifetime. And again, you'd be wrong.
Now, Theseus's king-buddy Pirithous was still without a wife after that nasty business with the centaurs, and he and Theseus hatched what they thought would be an AWESOME plan: Abduct the goddess Persephone to marry Pirithous.
Yeahhhh. Definitely a genius plan right there.
These two knuckleheads went down to the Underworld where Persephone was hanging out with her husband with her husband Hades. You know, the guy already pissed off because of the whole "let's resurrect Hippolytus" bit. It didn't take long for the plan to go sideways, because Kings Tweedledee and Tweedledum saw two empty thrones that they thought were the Seats of the Underworld, and decided to park their keisters in them.
These were not, in fact, the thrones of the Underworld, but rather enchanted chairs that held the both of them in place, so nobody was going to be going anywhere, let alone Persephone and some mortal guy trying to abduct her.
As luck would have it, guess who also decided to pop by the Underworld? Yup, Theseus's favorite hero, Hercules, who was there trying to kidnap Hades's dog Cerberus. Poor Hades just could not catch a break with these jerks. Well, Hercules recognized Theseus, and with some persuasion got him out of the chair. But, that caused a major earthquake, and Herc didn't really want to deal with the whole Underworld caving in, so while Theseus got to go back topside, he left his mortal best buddy to languish forever strapped to a magic chair.
Upon getting back topside, Theseus was now wife-less and best-friend-less and it didn't take long for him to once again become bored and lonely. So, he figured now would be a great time to take a third wife.
And the lucky bachelorette he decided to set his sights on? The barely-pubescent young Helen. Yes. THAT Helen. She who would one day launch 10,000 ships.
Having apparently learned nothing about kidnapping women, Theseus went to Sparta, made nice with Tyndareus, the king of Larissa, Helen's dad... and kidnapped her in the dead of night and decided to hand her off to his mom until she was old enough for... wifely duties.
Some versions have this happening before trying to kidnap Persephone and so Pirithous was with him, but even so.
Well, this angered Helen's big brothers, the Dioscuri, who not only rescued their little sister, but they chased Theseus out of Attica entirely.
In the vacuum of power left behind, someone else became the new sheriff in Athens, a guy named Menestheus. Theseus was pretty much entirely without backup now, having no wife, no best friend, and a whole lot of people he'd pissed off. So, he decided to flee to the island of Scyros, hoping to persuade the local king Lycomedes to help him overthrow Menestheus and regain his seat as the king of Athens.
See, Lycomedes, who was normally a pretty decent guy (he even let Achilles hide out among his daughters to avoid the Trojan war), had heard plenty of stories about Theseus, his ambition, and his douchebaggery. He knew exactly why Theseus was there, even if he pretended otherwise. And, as it turned out, Lycomedes was also friends with Menestheus.
Now, Lycomedes wasn't stupid. He had a feeling that if he refused to help Theseus overthrow Menestheus, Theseus was just as likely to try and pull a hostile takeover of Scyros, and, well, he just couldn't have that.
So, Lycomedes decided to play nicey-nice and pretend to hear Theseus out and be his friend for a few days. He even offered to take Theseus on a nice tour of the island. The highlight of the tour would be a climb to the highest cliff on the island, perfect for a sunset bromance alliance.
Once they were up there, Lycomedes wasted no time in shoving Theseus off said cliff to his death.
Thus ended the reign of Theseus, who finally got out-douched after all those years.
The main story ends there, but we do have an epilogue.
Many generations passed, and Theseus the Douchebag was largely forgotten up into the Persian wars. Then, Athenian soldiers started claiming to see the ghost of their long-ago king in full armor, because, even dead, Theseus kept itching for a fight. But, they thought he was helping them to win, so the Athenian general Cimon received a command from the Oracle at Delphi to find Theseus' bones and return them to Athens. He did so, and the gigantic skeleton of Theseus (because this dude was quite literally believed to be larger than life--like 15 feet tall) was reburied in a magnificent tomb in the heart of Athens, which thereon, in a height of irony, served as a sanctuary for the defenseless and the oppressed of the world.