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Greece, Heroes

THESEUS: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 2

Recently I enjoyed a cinematic experience. The title of the movie was “Immortals”, and it was made by the same people who did “300”.

“Immortals” trailer

Aesthetically, it was quite pretty. Very enjoyable for the sake of entertainment. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the mythical Greek hero Theseus, however, even though that is the name of the protagonist of this CG-enhanced adventure. (Although there was an allusion to a fight with a minotaur and the inclusion of a bull… and even I didn’t actually get the reference until the very end. Then I laughed.) For anyone who cares about historical accuracy (or accuracy of any sort), this movie will be very frustrating: the art and architecture is all over the chronological map and the outfits are fantastical; but the flick has its pros, as well: Ancient Greek is spoken by 4 of the characters, which is pretty cool; there are pretty bodies throughout (at one point a very nude very pretty body); colorful costumes and shiny gods permeate the screen; and let’s never forget the many fun action scenes. ANNNND Mickey Rourke plays the bad guy, so it must be legit.

One thing they did get very right: Theseus was young, he wore a short tunic, and he was beardless. At least, that’s how he is typically portrayed on Athenian vase-painting (where is weapon of choice is a sword, though, not this mythical “bow of Hyperion”).

ARF amphora (early 5th) -- Theseus slaying the minotaur

Who was the Greek Theseus, the man I study? He was the Athenian hero par excellence. He begins his story by venturing to Crete to slay the minotaur and in doing so save his city from having to send any more girls and boys as tribute (er, food). Plutarch gathered all of his stories and with them narrated a biography of Theseus, and in doing so made him appear a real historical figure. He was a king of Athens, he had connections to the Trojan War, he was associated with Poseidon (and Athena), and he completed ‘deeds’ similar to those of Herakles.

Around 500BC, Theseus sees a surge in iconographic popularity. Herakles used to be the popular hero in Athens, but it seems that Theseus for a brief moment almost replaces him, and he is imagined as the ideal Athenian citizen, what every young man should aspire to be. His mythology comes with a set of deeds similar to Herakles’ labors, and around this time period large red-figure Athenian plates are produced which portray these deeds in sequence. He battles evil men (such as Sinis and Prokrustes) and Ā beasts (the minotaur, of course, and also animals such as a sow and a bull).

ARF parade cup (c510) -- deeds of Theseus

Theseus does not really have set attributes the way most deities and some other heroes do; for example: Zeus has a thunderbolt, Poseidon a trident, Herakles his club… Theseus normally is depicted as a beardless youth, often (partially) nude and wielding a sword (or an axe for Prokrustes), but really he is better identified in context. It seems as if the Athenians themselves are still unsure how to best portray their new main hero. They’re still playing around with whether he has brown or blonde hair, whether he should wear clothes or be athletically/heroically nude, or whether he should fight with a sword or assimilate him to that other awesome hero, Herakles, by giving him a club to hold… and a bull to fight.

This leads to what I like to call “conscious ambiguity”. Herakles’s seventh labor was to capture (not kill!) the Cretan bull and take it with him back to Athens. The bull was released from there and wandered to Marathon (nearby) and Theseus captured the “Marathonian bull” (the very same one) for sacrifice. Herakles is often depicted bearded and nude but for his lionskin helmet and cape while subduing the bull. Theseus is also shown (partially) nude while subduing the bull, sometimes tying its legs together. Sometimes the hero wields a club. In such cases, the identity of the hero capturing the bull is a tad uncertain.

ARF, c490, Herakles/Theseus and the bull

Herakles or Theseus? Your choice! (<– that may have been just the point, indeed.)

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About Elizabeth

PhD student in Classical Art & Archaeology at UVA with a focus on Greek heroes and iconography (yet forever awed by Roman 2nd and 4th style painting). Salsa and Argentine tango dancer extraordinaire. Weightlifter and Crossfitter the world over.

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