| Gods and Heroes|
|by Robert Edward Francillon|
|One of the best introductions to Greek mythology for children. Includes the stories of all the prominent gods and heroes, woven together into a continuous narrative, ending with a full treatment of the twelve labors of Hercules. Ages 8-12 |
THE CHAMPION OF ATHENS
THRA, a daughter of the King of Trœzēnē, was
the wife of a foreign prince, and the mother
of an only child, a boy, whom they named Thēseus.
While Theseus was still an infant, his father said one
day to Æthra—
"I am obliged to set off on a long and distant
journey, through countries infested by wild beasts and
robbers. If I should never return, take care of our
child, bring him up like a king's son, and send him to
the city of Athens as soon as he grows strong enough
to lift that stone."
Æthra promised, and her husband left Trœzene never
Having given up all hope of seeing her husband
again, Æthra devoted herself to obeying his last commands.
She gave Theseus the education of a prince;
and every day, from the time he left her arms, she
made him try to lift the stone. The child grew up
to be the handsomest, strongest, and bravest youth in
 all the land, so that he had not a rival of his own age
in all manly sports and feats of arms. But he could
no more move the stone than he could fly.
At last, however, the moment came when the stone
gave way a little. The next day he raised it a trifle
further, and so on until he lifted it bodily from the
ground, and rolled it away. Underneath it he found a
splendid sword, with a curiously carved hilt, unlike any
he had ever seen.
The time had therefore come for him to set out for
Athens, according to his father's commands. His
mother implored him to go by sea, and not by those
perilous paths by which her husband had never returned.
But Theseus was only tempted by the dangers; and so,
taking the sword with him, he set out for Athens overland.
After a long journey through a wild and difficult
country, he reached a village, where he sought for
supper and a night's lodging. But the place seemed
deserted, and it was only after a long search that he
discovered an old shepherd, of whom he asked where a
traveler might find food and shelter.
"Alas!" answered the shepherd, "there is not a
scrap of food left in the place, not a house left unplundered.
For Sciron has been here."
"And who is Sciron?" asked Theseus.
"Ah, you must be a stranger indeed! Sciron is the
 chief of all the robbers. Do you see yonder castle
among the mountains? That is where he lives, and
thence he issues forth, when he wants food for his
gluttony, to plunder and lay waste all the country
round. And he is as cruel and savage as he is greedy.
Not content with carrying off our cattle and our stores
of corn and wine, he seizes men and women, and makes
them wait upon him while he feasts; and when the
feast is over, he amuses himself by throwing them from
a high rock into the sea."
"Thank you," said Theseus. "Then I will sup with
Sciron." And off he started for the robber's castle,
leaving the amazed shepherd to think him a madman.
It was a long climb to the castle, which stood on the
peak of a high cliff looking down into the sea. Theseus
knocked upon the gate with the hilt of his sword, and,
when it was opened by a ferocious-looking brigand,
announced himself as a stranger who requested hospitality.
"You've come to the right place for that!" said the
brigand, grimly. "Come with me."
Theseus followed him into the hall, where broth was
being brewed in caldrons, and a fat ox was being
roasted whole. The robbers were all about—some
preparing the feast, some already carousing, some
quarreling over their plunder, some sprawling about
the floor. In the midst of all the steam and din sat the
 chief, a huge and cruel-looking brute, whom Theseus
did not need to be told was Sciron.
"So you want hospitality, do you?" asked Sciron.
"Very well, as you're a traveler, and don't know the
ways of the castle, you shall be let off easily. Of
course you'll have to be thrown from the cliff after
supper—that's the rule. But instead of being tortured,
you shall only wash my feet for me and wait on me at
table. You look as if you understood washing and how
things ought to be served. Now, then, get some hot
water and begin," he said, thrusting out a pair of feet
which looked as if they had not been touched by water
A grinning robber brought a bowl of hot water.
Theseus took it and threw it in the face of Sciron.
"That wants washing, too," said he.
Sciron rushed at him; but Theseus received him at
the point of his sword, and the two fought furiously,
while the robbers looked on, enjoying the game. Sciron
was twice the size and weight of Theseus; but Theseus
was the best swordsman in all Greece, and presently
had him down.
"There," said he, pricking Sciron's throat with his
sword, "you have had a lesson in manners. You shall
wash my feet and wait on me before you go over the
cliff after your victims. For I am not going away to
leave a brigand like you alive behind me."
 Sciron, like all such bullies, was a coward at heart,
and his own men had no longer any respect for him
now that he had been worsted by a stripling. Amid
the laughter of the robbers, he had to wash the feet of
Theseus, and to serve him humbly with meat and drink,
and was finally punished for his many cruel murders by
bring thrown into the sea.
Having received the thanks of the country for
ridding it of such a scourge, Theseus traveled on till
he came to another village, where he thought he would
rest a little.
No sooner had he entered the place, however, than
he was surrounded by a number of armed men, who
gave him to understand that he was their prisoner.
"Is this the way you treat travelers in your country?"
"Assuredly," answered the captain of the troop.
"You are in the country of King Cercyon, and the law
is that no traveler may leave it until he has wrestled
with the king."
"I ask for nothing better," said Theseus. "What
happens to the traveler if he conquers Cercyon?"
"Then he may pass on."
"But if Cercyon conquers him?"
"Then he is tortured till he dies."
"It is strange," said Theseus, "that I never heard
of such a law, or even a King Cercyon."
 "Not at all strange," said the captain. "I don't see
how you could have heard it, seeing that no traveler
has ever lived to tell the tale. Cercyon has conquered
and killed them all, as he will conquer and kill you."
And when he saw Cercyon Theseus could well
believe it. The king was of immense height, with
broad shoulders, and muscles that stood out like globes
of iron. He smiled savagely when he saw Theseus,
and stripped without a word. Theseus stripped also,
and the two were soon clasping each other like a pair
of fierce bears, or rather like a bear and a man.
It was a tremendous struggle, with all the brute
strength on the side of Cercyon. But Theseus knew
a hundred turns and twists of which the savage chieftain
knew nothing; and at last, to the amazement of
all who witnessed the struggle, Cercyon fell dead upon
the ground with a broken spine. Thenceforth every
traveler might pass through that country safely and
Theseus traveled on until he found himself benighted
in a wild country, through which he wandered
about until he reached a castle, where he craved a
night's shelter. Here he was kindly received, and told
that the lord of the castle and of the country round
was one Procrustes, who never turned a traveler from
his door; nay, even now there were two guests with him.
And so it proved. Procrustes entertained Theseus and
 the other two travelers at supper pleasantly and generously,
and when it was time to retire for the night,
himself conducted them into a chamber, where a bed,
with nothing remarkable about it, stood ready in a
"That is the guest-bed," said Procrustes; "and I
hope it will fit you."
"Fit us?" asked Theseus, puzzled.
"Yes; it is the law of the country that if the bed
does not fit the traveler, the traveler must be made to
fit the bed. Do you try the bed first," he said to one
of the guests, the tallest of the three.
The traveler lay down, but found the bed rather
short, and had to draw up his knees a little. "Be
good enough to lie straight," said Procrustes. He did
so, his feet appearing beyond the bottom. Instantly
Procrustes, with a sharp hatchet, chopped them off,
one after another. "You'll fit nicely now," said
he. "It's your turn next," he said to the second
This one thought himself safe; for, being short, his
toes did not reach the bed's end by a full two inches.
Procrustes gave a signal and immediately two strong
attendants seized the unfortunate man, one by the
shoulders and the other by the legs, and proceeded to
pull him out to the proper length, despite his yells of
 "Stretch him on the rack," said Procrustes. "Now,"
he said to Theseus, "it is your turn in the game, and I
hope, for your sake, you will give less trouble than the
rest of them."
Theseus had been taken aback at first by these extraordinary
proceedings; but he now perceived that he
had fallen upon another of those brigand chiefs who
infested the country, and who resembled ogres rather
than mere cruel and blood-thirsty savages.
So he drew his sword and closed with Procrustes;
nor did he cease fighting till he had fitted the robber to
his own bed by making him a whole head shorter. The
robbers in the place, cowed by the death of their chief,
submitted to Theseus, who went round the castle, and
set at liberty hundreds of maimed victims of the slain
Having received such thanks as they could give him,
he journeyed on and on until at last he reached Athens.
What he was to do there he did not know; but there
was no need for him to ask. Somehow the fame of his
deeds had flown before him,—how he had rid the
country of Sciron and Cercyon and Procrustes, and
other wild beasts and brigands, and he was received as
befitted his valor.
Now the King of Athens at that time was Ægeus;
and the queen was no other than the great and dreadful
sorceress Medea, who had come to Athens after the
 murder of her children, and had married the king.
Ægeus took a fancy to Theseus from the young stranger's
first appearance in Athens, gave him a high place
at Court, and treated him as if he had been his own
son. But with Medea it was different. She had a son
of her own, and she was filled with jealousy lest Ægeus
should make Theseus the heir to his throne. Moreover,
she envied and hated him for his courage and
his fame, in which he so far surpassed her own son
Medus; and she feared him too, for she failed to
bring him under her spells. So she plotted to destroy
him in such a way that his death should never be
brought home to her, just as she had made the
daughters of Pelias the seeming murderesses of their
She therefore pretended a great admiration for
Theseus, and got the king to hold a great festival in
his honor. It was arranged that Ægeus, during the
feast, should send him a golden cup filled with wine,
in which Medea secretly steeped one of her deadliest
All went as she had planned. Ægeus sent the
poisoned goblet by one of the cup-bearers to Theseus,
who stood up to drink the health of the king and
"Hold!" suddenly cried Ægeus, starting; "what
sword is that at your side?"
 Theseus put down the cup to answer:—
"It is the sword with which I fought my way to
Athens. I wear it to-day as my sword of honor."
"But how comes it at your side?"
Then Theseus told the story of how it had been left
by his unknown father under a stone at Trœzene, and
how his mother's name was Æthra. Scarcely had he
finished when Ægeus, leaving his throne, fell upon his
"I was that father! You are my first-born son, and
the heir to my crown!"
The Athenians, who already looked upon Theseus as
their national hero, greeted their prince and future
king with shouts of joy; and when the first excitement
was over, Medea was seen no more. Enraged at the
failure of her plot, and fearing discovery and vengeance,
she vanished from Athens: some said they had seen
her borne by dragons through the air. And this is the
last of her.
Freed from her evil influence, the old love of Ægeus
for Æthra revived, and he could not make enough of
his and Æthra's son. But Theseus did not become
idle, and became in all ways the champion and protector
of his father's people. It was he who caught alive the
famous wild bull of Marathon, which had ravaged the
country for years, and sacrificed it to Minerva. He
never spared himself, and he never failed.
 At last, however, drew nigh that evil hour of Athens—that
day in every year when the seven youths and
seven maidens had to be sent to King Minos of Crete
to be devoured by the Minotaur. The rule was to
choose the victims by lot: so that none felt safe who
had sons and daughters young enough to suit the taste
of the monster. The seven girls were first chosen.
But when it came to drawing lots for the youths,
"You need draw only six this year. I will myself
be the seventh. It may be that I shall find a way to
deliver Athens from this tribute; if not, it is for a
prince who cannot save his people to perish with
Ægeus was in despair. But no entreaties could turn
Theseus from his desperate resolve: neither the prayers
of his own father, nor those of all the fathers and
mothers in Athens, who would have drawn the seventh
lot rather than he who was the pride and hope of the
city should go to certain destruction. The ship which
bore the yearly victims to Crete always carried black
sails in token of public mourning. Theseus, in order
to leave a little hope behind him, promised that, if he
came back alive, he would hoist a white sail while
returning, so that his safety might be seen from afar.
Then, in solemn procession, amid the weeping of the
crowd, the youths and maidens embarked in the
black-  sailed ship, Theseus leading them with the calmness of
the only true courage—that which can, in cold blood,
face danger for the sake of duty. None would have
thought the worse of him had he stayed behind: and
if he perished it would be as a mere victim, and without
glory. Nor was it as if he were encouraged by any
oracles, or helped by gifts from the gods. He is the
first hero who was both a mere man and who never had
any help but his own manfulness. And for all these
reasons I think that his voyage to Crete is the finest
story I have yet told.
When the ship reached Crete, the fourteen victims
were conducted to the Labyrinth, there to be imprisoned
until they should be given to the Minotaur. As they
passed before Minos and his Court, the king's youngest
daughter, Ariadne, was filled with pity and love for
Theseus, and set her thoughts to work how she might
save him from his doom. But how in the world was
such a thing to be done? None without the clue could
either enter or escape from the maze: and even were
that possible, it was not likely that the Minotaur would
let himself be balked of his prey.
But she watched and waited: she hovered round the
Labyrinth night after night, examining every door:
until at last she was rewarded by finding, just within
one of them, a little silken skein hidden away in a dark
 corner. The next night, having procured a torch and
a sword, she bravely entered the door where the skein
was, and, by winding up the silk, followed the clue.
Through one twisting passage after another she wandered
on and on, up and down long flights of steps,
sometimes through great halls confused with columns,
and sometimes through tunnels in which it was
scarcely possible to stand. There seemed no end to
the way. At last, however, the end of the silken
thread told her that she had reached the inmost hall:
and there her torch showed a sight that froze her
The victims had been delivered over to the Minotaur.
Crowded together in a corner of the hall were six
youths and seven girls: stamping and tossing his
horned head was the horrible monster, furious with
hunger and the sight of human food. Between the
Minotaur and his despairing prey stood Theseus, facing
the monster, so that he, by being the first victim, might
prolong the lives of the others. He had no hope: he
could not even struggle, for his hands were bound
behind him with cords.
The sight of his courage gave back Ariadne hers.
She darted forward, and cut his bonds with her sword.
"Fly!" she cried: "follow me—I have the clue!"
But as soon as Theseus felt the touch of the steel, he
seized the sword from her hand, and, instead of flying,
 set upon the Minotaur with such fury that the monster
bellowed with rage, amazement, and pain.
It was the hardest fight Theseus had ever fought:
the wild bull of Marathon had been nothing to the
Minotaur, who fought with a bull's strength and a man's
skill and cunning. But the champion of Athens prevailed
at last: and the monster fell down dead with a groan
which echoed through the Labyrinth like the bellowing
"It will wake the whole city!" cried Ariadne:
"follow me!" Theseus and his companions, scarce
knowing that they were saved, followed Ariadne, who
would up the clue as she ran. When they reached
the entrance-gate, the alarm of their escape had been
given. Making straight for the shore, they found their
black-sailed ship, sped on board, and, thanks to a kindly
wind, were out at sea before they could be pursued.
The wind carried them to the island of Naxos: and
here they remained—Theseus, Ariadne,
and the rest—till the breeze should blow
towards Athens. Such a
breeze came in time; and then Theseus set sail for
home with his thirteen companions, leaving Ariadne
behind, to her great sorrow. Nor can anything make
me believe that he meant this for a real parting, or that
she thought so. One can think of many reasons why
she should remain in Naxos for a while: it is quite
 certain that her powerful father Minos, who had already
conquered the Athenians, and shown, by a cruel
vengeance, how he hated them, would have attacked
them again with all his fleets and armies if he had
heard that they were giving shelter to a daughter who
had betrayed him. So, leaving Ariadne safe in Naxos,
Theseus returned to Athens as the savior of his city
and the slayer of the Minotaur.
Meanwhile his father, Ægeus, had been every day
and all day long looking out to sea from the farthest
point of the shore for the return from Crete of the ship
of mourning. He had but little hope, but nobody can
help having a little: nor did he quite despair until one
morning he saw on the horizon a vessel which he felt
sure was the one he was watching for in such agony of
mind. Nearer and nearer it came—alas! its sails were
still as black as when it was outward bound. Theseus
had forgotten to hoist the white sail which was to be
the sign of safety.
So Ægeus, giving up his son for lost, threw himself
into the sea and perished, just when Theseus was within
sight of home. And that sea is called the Ægean, or
the Sea of Ægeus, to this day. And thus Theseus, to
the joy of the people, but with sorrow in his own heart,
found himself king.
And the best of kings he made. The strength of his
rule was only equaled by its gentleness. He made wise
 laws; he took care that all men received justice; he
honored the gods; he obtained the respect and friendship
of foreign nations; he taught the Athenians to be
free, and to govern themselves, so that when he died
they remained as great a people as while he was alive.
He sent for his mother, Æthra, and kept her in all
love and honor. I wish I could tell you that he sent
for Ariadne also. But he never had any other wife:
and she was lost to him. There is a strange, mysterious
story of how, when she was left sorrowing in Naxos,
the god Bacchus (of whom you read in the First Story
of Midas)—the god of the bounty of Nature and of the
joy that men and women find in her—comforted
Ariadne, and made her his bride, and raised her above
the earth, giving her a crown of seven stars, which is
still to be seen in the sky, and is called "Ariadne's
And there is a yet stranger story of how Theseus,
after he was king, had the very wildest of all adventures—nothing
less than an attempt to rescue from Hades
the goddess Proserpine, and other imprisoned souls.
But what happened to him there, and how he escaped
the punishment of his daring, belongs to another story.
It is as the hero and champion of Athens that he is
remembered: and as such we will leave him.
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