What Are the Six Labors of Theseus?

On his way to claim his birthright in Athens, an ancient Greek hero encounters many dangers, known as “The Six Labors of Theseus.”

Mar 23, 2024By Marialena Perpiraki, MSc. Media & Convergence, BA Communication, Media & Culture
six labors theseus


Theseus is the ancient Greek mythical hero known for destroying the Minotaur, the monster that devoured young Athenians on the island of Crete. Before embarking on his Cretan quest, however, he had to face his fears by encountering the six gates of Hades and their terrifying guards. “The Six Labors of Theseus,” as these encounters are known, is a tale of a brave young man on his way to adulthood.


The story begins with Theseus as a boy, still being cared for by his mother. To face his father and be accepted as an equal and a capable heir of the throne of Athens, he has to go on a quest, a common trope in ancient Greek mythology. Through this story, we understand that leadership is founded upon bravery and hard work; a problem-solving mindset is more than necessary to navigate a world full of dangers. The journey to adulthood requires stepping out of your comfort zone and facing several challenges.


Theseus’ Labors

theseus sandals painting jean lemaire
Theseus recovering his father’s sword, Jean Lemaire, 1638. Source: Statens Museum for Kunst.


Theseus was born by Princess Aethra of Troezen, who raised him alone at her father’s palace in Troezen of the Peloponnese. Theseus’ father was King Aegeus of Athens, who impregnated Aethra after an alcohol-filled night in Troezen. The event was connected to a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, which had warned Aegeus to: “(…) not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief.”


Theseus had a mortal father; however, he also had divine blood running through his veins. According to some variations of the myth, on that same fateful night, Aethra was guided by goddess Athena into the seaside, where she laid with god Poseidon. As a result, the hero had two fathers: one mortal, one divine. In essence, he possessed numerous qualities that distinguished him from the rest, while he remained flawed and vulnerable in the face of death. Just like other semi-gods, including the hero Heracles, he has to do great deeds in order to gain immortality through posthumous fame.


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Despite having two fathers, Theseus grew up in a fatherless home. King Aegeus did not raise him, as he returned to Athens after his short stay in Troezen. However, he made sure his son would find him once he grew up. He buried his sandals and sword under a heavy rock and instructed Aethra to bring Theseus to that same spot once he was of age. If his son were strong and heroic enough, he would be able to lift the rock and retrieve the hidden items.


theseus and his mother laurent
Theseus finding the sword and shoes of his father with the help of his mother, Aethra, Laurent de La Hyre. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.


The years passed and it was time for Aethra to fulfill her promise. Theseus, a strong young man, was able to complete the task successfully. With his estranged father’s sandals and sword as his sole possessions, Theseus embarked on an adventure to claim his birthright. Instead of traveling to Athens by boat, which would be a safe choice for such a small distance, he chose the land route. He would have to walk across the shore of the Saronic Gulf, encountering six entrances to Hades (the Underworld), which were guarded by deadly criminals. His decision was two-fold. On the one hand, he would follow the steps of Heracles, who chose the difficult path of virtue over vice. On the other hand, he would clear up the path to Athens from those who terrorized travelers for years.


1. Periphetes of Epidaurus

kylix deeds of theseus
Kylix showing the deeds of Theseus. Source: British Museum


The first stop of Theseus’ quest was none other than Epidaurus, a sacred site of god Apollo and healer Asclepius. In Epidaurus, the ancient Greek hero came face to face with Periphetes, also known as Corynetes (meaning club-bearer). The latter was a dangerous bandit who terrorized travelers for years. He was a son of god Hephaestus and, just like his father, he walked with a limp. His disability, however, did not stop him from harming others. The bronze club he used as a crutch would turn into a powerful weapon as soon as a potential victim appeared in his vicinity. Theseus was able to steal Periphetes’ club, which he then used to destroy him. Once the bandit was out of his way, he continued walking towards Athens, dragging the heavy club along the way.


2. Sinis the “Pityokamptes”

theseus sinis staatliche museum
Theseus and Sinis. Source: Staatliche Antikensammlungen München.


Theseus’ next stop was the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the Peloponnese with Attica. It didn’t take long till he located a man standing next to two pine trees. He was Sinis, the “Pityokamptes” (meaning “pine bender”), a dangerous criminal who killed his victims in a torturous way. Sinis would tie them on pine trees, bent down to the ground using weighted objects. He would then release the pines, tearing his victims apart. Theseus was not scared of Sinis. He captured and tied him to the pine trees, killing him with the very torturous method he was using.


3. The Crommyonian Sow

crommyonian show kylix
The Crommyonian Sow on a kylix. Source: The British Museum


Near the Isthmus, at a place called Crommyon, Theseus encountered a monstrous wild pig known as the Crommyonian Sow. According to the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, the pig was the daughter of two monsters, Echidna and Typhon, but it was raised by an old mortal woman named Phaea. Theseus was able to slay the pig, which terrorized the locals for years. According to another variation of the myth, the Sow was not an animal, but rather Phaea herself. The deadly woman was supposedly compared to a pig due to her repulsive appearance and unruly manners.


4. Sciron of Megara

sciron theseus cup
Cup showing Theseus, Sciron, and the turtle. Source: The British Museum


Theseus’ next stop was the town of Megara and specifically the Sceironian Rocks over the Saronic gulf. There, a robber named Sciron would approach his victims by asking them to help him wash his feet. Those who assisted him would immediately regret their decision. Sciron would throw them off the cliff and into the sea. To make things worse, the victims would then be devoured by a monstrous sea turtle that lurked beneath the rocks, waiting for Sciron’s feeding. Theseus managed to eliminate the criminal by throwing him off the Screironian Rocks and into the sea, where he was devoured by that very same beast.


5. Cercyon of Eleusis

theseus cercyon
Theseus fights Cercyon. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The fifth labor of Theseus was a fight with Cercyon, king of Eleusis. Cercyon was a cruel royal who had his daughter buried alive for birthing a child out of wedlock. He was known for being aggressive towards strangers, as he would challenge travelers to a deadly wrestling match. Theseus was no exception. The hero was able to win the fight against Cercyon, which resulted in the killing of the Eleusinian king.


6. Procrustes the “Stretcher”

theseus prokroustes amphora
Theseus attacking Prokroustes, amphora. Source: Staatliche Antikensammlungen.


In close proximity to the city of Eleusis, Theseus encountered the father of Sinis, a serial killer known as Damastes or Procrustes (the Stretcher).


He was a smith who robbed and killed his victims in a torturous way. Procrustes had constructed two iron beds; one was too long, the other too short. He would tie his victims to one of the beds and change the anatomy of their bodies accordingly. If the victims were too short, he would choose the long bed and stretch their legs to forcefully tie them to the footboard. If the victims were too tall, he would make them lay on the smaller bed to cut their legs off. According to Plutarch, Theseus captured Procrustes and forced him to fit into one of his own iron beds. Since the killer was too tall, Theseus severed his legs and his head with an ax, ending his reign of terror.


Theseus in Athens

theseus medea painting
Medea offering the poisoned cup to Theseus, painting by William Russel Flint. Source: Swann Galleries


After defeating the six bandits, Theseus arrived safely in Athens to claim his birthright. He had come face to face with deadly individuals who roamed the vicinity of six entrances to the Underworld. It was now time to be rewarded for his great deeds and gain the respect of his father. As soon as he arrived in Athens, he visited the king’s palace, seeking refuge.


Wearing his inherited sandals, Theseus did not reveal his true identity but rather waited for his father, King Aegeus, to recognize him. The king was now married to Medea, the ex-wife of Jason. Medea was a cunning and devious woman. In the past, she had not hesitated to kill the children from her previous marriage to take revenge on Jason. Once she met Theseus, she quickly realized he was the king’s first-born son and rightful heir to the throne. This was a problem as all these years, she hoped that her son Medus, prince of Athens, was destined to be the next king.


To secure her son’s reign, she tried to convince her husband to poison Theseus. Aegeus, however, recognized his sandals on the young man’s feet and declared Theseus his heir to the throne. The two men reunited and Medea fled to Asia.


The adventures of Theseus, however, did not end there. It did not take long until he had to face Pallantides, the sons of his uncle Pallas, who envied the throne. The hero surprised the Pallantides as they tried to set a trap for him. According to Plutarch, he fell suddenly upon them and slew them all. Moreover, Theseus proceeded to commit a list of heroic deeds, including the capture of the Marathonian Bull, which was brought to Attica by Heracles. The hero also managed to destroy the Minotaur, the bull-like monster that devoured young Athenians in the labyrinth of King Minos of Crete.


theseus and the minotaur ceramic
The Minotaur, black-figure pottery, 515 BCE. Source: Alliance for Networking Visual Culture


Theseus’ bravery and strength helped him win the respect of his father, enabling him to gain great power as the heir to his throne. His sole possessions were his father’s shoes and sword. These were the only items he needed to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a great king himself. Although Aegeus was absent from Theseus’ childhood, their bond strengthened when the hero reached manhood. Aegeus’ love and admiration for his son was so strong that he ended his own life after mistakenly assuming Theseus was dead. In this way, the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi was fulfilled, with the king’s drunken night ending in tragedy years later: “Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief.”

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By Marialena PerpirakiMSc. Media & Convergence, BA Communication, Media & CultureMarialena is a journalist and content writer with an interest in comparative mythology and folklore. She holds a BA in Communications, Media & Culture from Panteion University of Athens and an MSc. in Media & Convergence Management from AAU, Austria. She is the creator of the cross-media platform Helinika.