Manipulating Mythology in Ancient Athens

Jerome Ruddick

It is hard to imagine how influential Greek mythology was within Ancient Greece. In our own society, we exist as a cacophony of beliefs; in this, as in many other cultures, a sharp line is drawn between the secular and the religious. In Ancient Greece there was no such line to draw. Imagine a world where every mountain and every grove across Greece was filled with the most fantastical stories.

On Mount Ida, Zeus was born, hidden from the watchful gaze of his cannibalistic father. Across the Hellespont, Leander attempted his disastrous swim. Around Mount Cithaeron in Boeotia, Actaeon spied Artemis in a state of undress and was punished for his (accidental) transgression. Cultic sites (sanctuaries, shrines within caves, etc.) existed around each corner and over every hill, enforcing territory and allowing for physical interaction with the myths they housed.

Actaeon is torn to pieces by his dogs on Atermis’ orders, sculpture by Paolo Persico and others, 1770s (Royal Palace of Caserta, Italy).

Some 2,500 years ago, Herodotus, the so-called ‘father of history’, made it clear that shared religious practices and myths bound the disparate cities of the Greek mainland together (Histories 8.144), contributing to their collective identity in the face of the Persian Invasion of 482–479 BC. Myth was a vital aspect of Greek identity. Zeus was not a figure to be acknowledged as and when a worshipper needed, but a living, breathing fixture in your city, who breathed down your neck as you made oaths, his itchy trigger finger tapping against his thunderbolt.

But just as myths shaped identity, so too could myth be shaped by the ones holding it. After all, someone needs to tell the tale… and this is where the Greeks get crafty.

The Acropolis of Athens by night.

The Saviour of Athens

We turn to Athens. The city held a certain demigod close to their hearts. His name was Theseus. A great hero, he was raised alone by his mother Aethra. Upon coming of age, he lifted a massive rock containing tokens left by father (whom we shall meet soon) and made his way to Athens, slaying monsters and righting wrongs as he did so. Upon reaching the city he found it in a state of distress. The great Cretan King Minos demanded the tribute of seven youths and maidens from the city, throwing them into the Labyrinth where he housed his monstrous (step-)son, the Minotaur.[1]

Theseus volunteered to slay the beast and stop this madness, sailing to Crete with Minos and his sacrificial victims-to-be. Along the way it was reported that he dove underwater to meet Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite. On Crete, Theseus met Minos’ beautiful daughter Ariadne, and with the help of her and Daedalus (architect of the Labyrinth), he slew the Minotaur and saved Athens. The death of King Aegeus, ruler of Athens, led to Theseus ascending the throne and later establishing democracy.[2] Truly a spectacular tale.

Many aspects of this myth are fixed (e.g., Theseus always goes to Crete) but the same could not be said about his parentage. In fifth-century Athens the fatherhood of Theseus was shared between a man and a god – Aegeus, King of Attica (the region where Athens is located), and Poseidon, God of the Sea. Variant myths like this would be presented in theatre or on sculpture and could bleed into the collective memory of the communities that encountered them. However, regarding Athens, evidence suggests that the varied stories of Theseus’ parentage might have been a clever attempt by the Athenians to manipulate the myth for their own purposes.

Kylix interior, showing Theseus with Amphitrite and Athena, signed Euphronios and attributed to Onesimos, c.500 BC (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Conquering Waves: Poseidon and Athens

The return of Theseus’ bones to Athens by Cimon (c. 475 BC) led to a resurgence in the hero’s popularity, attested by the frequency of his image in the fifth century. And in many of these images certain elements (such as Theseus underwater, implying that he can breathe in water) suggest his status as the son of Poseidon. For example, on the interior of a kylix (wine drinking cup, reproduced above), Theseus stands underwater, receiving the blessing of Amphitrite (Poseidon’s wife). On a column krater (vessel for diluting wine with water, reproduced below), Theseus shakes hands with the god himself. These depictions make the Athenians hero’s links to Poseidon clear, even if they do not prove parentage.

Column Krater (mixing bowl for wine and water) depicting Theseus and Poseidon, 480–470 BC (Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, MA, USA).

However, textual evidence makes this more explicit, in Bacchylides’ Ode 17 (477 BC). We mentioned earlier that Theseus dove into the sea on his way to Crete (to kill the Minotaur); the reason was the Cretan son of Zeus (Minos) throwing his ring into the water, challenging the stated heritage of Theseus as a son of Poseidon. Theseus dives into the water where he meets Amphitrite, who provides him with gifts from his father (as seen above) and the hero emerges: “the gifts of the gods were glowing around his limbs” (λάμπε δ’ ἀμφὶ γυίοις θεῶν δῶρ’, 17.12.45). His divine parentage is proven.

Why would Athens present Poseidon as the father though? Between 490 and 479 BC, Greece was invaded by the Persian Empire, but the victory of the Athenian fleet in the Battle of Salamis was integral towards the eventual defeat of Persia. The result was immense glory and respect for Athens, proving their naval superiority. In the aftermath of the Persian War, Athens dominated the newly-created Delian League (a Greek city state alliance founded in 478 BC) and began taking steps towards building an empire. The links to Poseidon justified Athenian dominance over the Aegean Sea, which were especially significant in Greece, a culture where sea trade and connections were crucial.

Furthermore, Poseidon contributed a genealogy of exceptional and royal children across the Mediterranean to which the Athenian hero Theseus could claim kinship. This interlinked genealogy, a core part of justifying ownership over land, aided Athens in her imperialistic expansion. Significantly, Bacchylides’ Ode 17 was very probably not performed in Athens but abroad in Ceos (a Cyclades Island) and at Delos (the sacred centre of the Delian League). The poem may have been an Athenian power-play abroad, acting as a performative demonstration of might to Athens’ allies, Ceos and Delos, and spreading the myth of Poseidon as Theseus’ father.

Poseidon (or is it Zeus? The debate rages), bronze statue, c. 460 BC (discovered underwater in 1926, off Euboea’s Cape Artemision, and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece.

Finally, we find significance in the story of Athens’ (mythical) founding. Previously, Poseidon contested Athena for patronage of the city, Athens. He lost the contest (who wants a sea-salt fountain over an olive tree?) and has been, mythically, in a huff since then. But consider the construction of the Erechtheion, begun in 421 BC – a temple concerned, among other things, with Poseidon’s worship – which may show an intent to reconcile Poseidon with Athens.

In short, Athens’ victory over the Persian Empire resulted in naval dominance and imperial ambitions. The renewed interest in Poseidon as Theseus’ father probably helped to justify the former and aid the latter, through genealogy. Material culture, specifically pottery of various kinds, was the method of incorporating this new mythology into the city’s identity, for presentation to Athens’ neighbours.

Pulian red-figured volute-krater, showing Theseus with Aegeus (British Museum, London).

Holding Attica: Aegeus and Territory

This is not to downplay Aegeus; he too had an important role, perhaps even more so. King Aegeus was the childless King of Attica who, whilst intoxicated, lay with Aethra whilst he stayed in Troezen. A small caveat in this story is that, after this tryst, Aethra receives a vision from Athena which leads to her being impregnated by Poseidon also (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.15.7). There are often unusual surprises in Greek myth. The next morning, Aegeus leaves his sword and sandals under a great rock and instructs Aethra to have their (speculated) son retrieve the items and find him in Athens. The sword becomes a very important piece of iconography.

Note how throughout elements of the myth changes. According to Pausanias, the 1st century AD geographer, who was travelling around Attica, Aegeus was childless (1.14.7). However, within Athens itself Aegeus is the father of choice in 4th-century law speeches and other accounts have Aegeus demonstrating paternal affection by banishing his current wife Medea for attempted harm against the newly arrived Theseus. A fragmentary skyphos attributed to the Brygos Painter shows Theseus shaking hands with Aegeus; in the Bacchylides ode, Theseus is declared the descendant of Pandion, Aegeus’ father (17.15-16). In all of Theseus’ artistic depictions one element remains consistent: Aegeus’ sword at his side, affirming the Aegeus origin story and cementing his links with the Attic King. Through these links Theseus possesses rights to rule Attica and ties democracy (which Theseus, mythically, discovered) to the city’s former elite. In summary, we have contradictory evidence and iconography on who Theseus’ father was. Clearly, Athens is using visual and textual evidence across Athens to reaffirm these inconsistencies.

Theseus lifts the stone and proves his heritage as Aegeus’ son by reclaiming the sword and sandals left to him: Theseus and Aethra, Laurent de La Hyre, late 1630s (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary).

Athens tried to reap the benefits of both fathers. Poseidon’s divine lineage justified Athenian naval strength and provided a rationalisation for imperialistic expansion. On the mortal side, Aegeus’ parentage integrated Theseus into the city, established his royal claim to the land of Attica and insinuated the idea that democracy was a gift from Aegeus’ line. Athens proved that through careful sculpting of the mythology, aided by creative and sometimes cunning use of material imagery, the city could be the beneficiary of both god and king.

Jerome is currently a PhD candidate at Newcastle University. Previously an archaeologist for a number of years, Jerome gave in to his love for the Greeks and now incorporates archaeology and Classics to research myth and identity in Ancient Greece. He is strongly committed to inclusion and diversity in Classics, acting as Outreach Assistant in his current institution. He is always happy to be contacted about his research or to help support outreach.

Further Reading

If you are more interested generally in myth as an unconscious construction of reality (and why wouldn’t you be?!) then you can chase this avenue towards the notoriously complex works of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Probably best to leave this for later, however. Otherwise, simpler (though still quite dense) works would be Walter Burkert’s Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA) and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s essays “What is Polis Religion?” and “Further Aspects of Polis Religion” in Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (R. Buxton ed., Oxford UP, 2001). These are, I find, good starting points for tackling myth head-on as a subject. However, my most recommended work for an enjoyable and engaging read on mythology would be Sarah Iles Johnston’s The Story of Myth (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2018). With reference to modern society and a simple way of tackling the subject material, it is my number one recommendation for academic readings on myth. Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention Stephen Fry’s Mythos (Penguin, London, 2017) as a fantastic boots-on-the-ground recounting of the mythic stories.

Strongly recommended are Claude Calame’s Thésée et l’imaginaire athénien (Theseus and the Athenian Imaginary, Éditions Payot, Lausanne, 1990) and Susanne Turner’s “Who’s the Daddy? Contesting and Constructing Theseus’ Paternity in Fifth-Century Athens,” published in N. Mac Sweeney (ed.), Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies: Dialogues and Discourses (U. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2015). Both works contributed heavily to the discussion in this piece, even if the slant towards mythology and material culture is my own doing.

Finally, I recommend the old classic Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, written in the early second century AD. You can find the entire work, translated into English, on Perseus. This is the best text to consult as a well-written and concise narrative of the hero’s life.


1 The Minotaur himself is a tragic figure, the cruel result of the squabbles between mortals and god – but that is a story for another day.
2 See Plutarch, Theseus 24.2, in a mythic context, although in reality we can trace its roots to the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508/7 BC.