The Six Labours of Theseus

Well established as amongst the greatest of the heroes of Greek myth, Theseus is best known for successfully navigated the Cretan labyrinth and slaying the Minotaur. However, he had already confirmed himself a strong, intelligent young man long before his journey to the palace of Knossos and his battle with the creature that lived below. While his fellow demigod (and cousin) Heracles is better known for his Twelve Labours, Theseus himself overcame six great dangers on his first journey to Athens. His triumphs became collectively known as the Six Labours, setting the young Theseus on his path to becoming a legendary hero and the fabled founder of a unified Athens.  

A statue depicting Theseus’s most famous deed, slaying the minotaur. Image: Baltimore Museum of Art

Like many of the heroes of Greek mythology, Theseus’s parentage is a little complex. Born to the mortal woman Aethra, through the intervention of the goddess Athena Theseus was born the product of two fathers; the mortal Aegeus, King of Athens, and the god Poseidon. 

Leaving Theseus to be raised in the care of his mother, Aegeus left behind a sword and sandals before returning to Athens, buried beneath a massive rock. He left instruction that when his son had grown, he should retrieve the items and claim his birthright. That was, if he should be strong enough to lift the stone.   

Theseus Finds His Father’s Sword. a 1638 painting by Nicolas Poussin. Image: Conde Museum

Theseus grew up into a strong, brave young man, unaware of his true parentage. Once he was old enough, Aethra told him of Aegeus’ instructions. Theseus lifted the stone with ease and retrieved his father’s sword and sandals before setting out to travel to Athens.  

Rather than taking the relatively safe sea route, Theseus instead chose to travel by foot along the dangerous coastal road. Inspired by the earlier feats of Heracles, Theseus resolves to pick no quarrels on his journey. Instead, he would only take vengeance on those that attempted to waylay him, using the same method they had tried to employ. 

The Six Labours  

At Epidaurus, Theseus encountered the giant bandit Periphetes, son of the smith god Hephaestus. Some accounts reference a single eye in the centre of his face, suggesting Periphetes was one of the cyclops. Known by the nickname Coruntes, meaning ‘club-bearer’, he used his huge bronze club to kill travellers before robbing them. Theseus wrestled the club from his grasp and proceeded to beat him to death with it. Taken by the great weapon, he claimed it for himself.  

A statue depicting Theseus’s battle with the centaur Eurylus, wielding the club he took from Periphetes. Image: Kunsthistorisches Museum

For his second foe, Theseus faced the robber Sinis. An outlaw from Corinth, Sinis was a particularly cruel murderer, binding his victim’s hands to two pine trees bent low to the ground before letting the trees go, ripping the unfortunate traveller in two. Like with Periphetes, Theseus killed Sinis using the same method he had utilised on so many victims. He easily overpowering the bandit, bound him to two bent pines and tore him in two. Before continuing Theseus spent the night with Sinis’s daughter, resulting in his eldest son Melanippus being conceived.   

Next, he reached the village of Crommyon. The region had been ravaged by a giant boar that had slain many farmers, preventing them planting crops. Little details are given of the encounter, other than Theseus successfully hunting down and killing the monster known as the Crommyon sow.

Plutarch tells the tale slightly differently, claiming that ‘the sow’ instead referred to a violent and ill-mannered female robber named Phaia, who herself became the third great danger on the road to Athens slain by the young hero.  

A red-figure pottery depiction of Theseus’s battle with the Crommyon Sow. Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Close to the town of Megara, travellers encountered an old man alongside the clifftop road, who would beseech them to stop to wash his feet. Once they stooped to do so the man, a robber named Sciron, would kick them over the cliff. Below, they would be consumed by a monstrous sea turtle that haunted the waters. After he made the mistake of attempting the trick on Theseus, the hero snatched him up by the ankles and cast him far out to sea, killing him.  

Around 11 miles from Athens, the town of Eleusis was ruled over by the cruel king Cercyon. Possessing great strength that made him a formidable wrestler, Cercyon would insist that travellers take him on in a wrestling match. He promised his kingdom to any man that could beat him. However, his strength meant that those who attempted to wrestle him were invariably crushed to death. Relying on skill rather than sheer power, Theseus got the better of the wicked king. After lifting him above his head he dashed Cercyon to the ground, killing him instantly.

Theseus’s final opponent was the strange bandit known as Proscrustes the Stretcher. A former smith, Proscrustes would invite passers-by to spend the night on one of two iron beds he had crafted. Tall travellers were offered the smaller bed, while short ones the longer one. He would then attempt to ensure they fit the bed perfectly, either by stretching them out to fit or sawing off portions of their lower legs. Theseus killed Proscrustes using his own bizarre method, capturing and forcefully fitting him to one of his own beds.  

Red-figure pottery depicting Theseus overpowering Proscrustes. Image: Staatliche Antikensammlungen

Reaching Athens proved to be just the beginning of Theseus’s exploits. I will cover the remainder, including his struggle to claim his rightful position as heir to Aegeus and his great battle with the minotaur, in a future blog. 

1 Comment

  1. I didn’t know that Theseus had gone thru the labors… I only knew him as the hero who killed the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth. As your article suggests, the end of the six labors seems to be a prelude to his yet another adventure…

    Liked by 1 person

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