Today’s Thursday myth is that of Pirithoos and Theseus and their search for new wives. Some of this refers to myths that I’ll be narrating later (the crime of Ixion, the wedding of Pirithoos and Hippodameia, the death of Hippolytos, the life and death of Meleager, perhaps Leda and the swan) so I apologize if anything seems a little confusing right now.
Also, I apologize for the continued “child’s story book” narrative style as I begin to skirt issues that are even more insanely inappropriate for the style. Although, actually, I kind of like that dissonance, truth be told…
Pirithoos was the king of the Lapiths, who lived in Thessaly. He was good friends with Theseus, the king of Athens, but the two had not seen each other for many years. When Pirithoos lost his beautiful wife Hippodameia, he did not want to face life alone. He would need a new wife. But rather than seeking one alone, he decided to visit his dear friend Theseus and see if he would help.
When he arrived in Athens, Pirithoos was surprised to find that the city was in mourning. Theseus explained that he had recently lost both his eldest son, Hippolytos, and his beautiful second wife, Phaidra. When Theseus learned of the reason for Pirithoos’ visit, he nodded solemnly. “We both need new wives, then,” he announced. “Let’s help each other obtain them.”
“All right,” Pirithoos agreed, “but where shall we start?”
“I’ve heard that Helen, the daughter of Tyndareos of Sparta, is the most beautiful woman in the world,” Theseus sighed. “I was thinking of asking him for her hand in marriage.”
“What about me, then? Unless she has a twin sister…”
Theseus nodded. “I think she does, actually. Let’s go to Sparta and ask for them.”
Pirithoos agreed gladly, and after Theseus had bade farewell to his mother and his two small sons, the friends set off to Sparta in the Peloponnese. When they arrived, Tyndareos first brought out his sons, Castor and Polydeuces, and then his daughters, Helen and Clytemnestra. Though all four were only twelve, Castor and Polydeuces were already as large and as strong as Theseus had been in his youth. And as to Helen, she was as beautiful as any woman that either man had ever seen. Only Clytemnestra looked like a child her age, and was entirely ignored by the visiting kings.
Theseus and Pirithoos were immediately entranced by the beautiful Helen, and both clamored for her hand in marriage. Tyndareos was horrified at the idea of men his own age asking to marry his twelve year old daughter, and refused to grant her in marriage to either of them. In fact, he swore that if they mentioned another word about it, he would demand that they leave his home, and would then follow them home with his army and lay waste to their kingdoms.
Retiring to a place of privacy, Theseus and Pirithoos discussed the beautiful girl, and agreed that they couldn’t possibly accept her father’s threats against them; they had to have her. But which one would get the girl?
Eventually, they agreed to draw lots for her, and the winner had to promise to help the loser gain any other maiden he might want to be his wife. They drew their lots, and Theseus won. Knowing that the Spartan maids would soon have a religious festival outside the temple of Artemis, the two friends left Tyndareos’ home and laid in wait near the temple. Once the girls left the temple, they rode up in their chariot, and Theseus grabbed Helen as Pirithoos took control of the chariot and drove them back towards Athens as quickly as the horses could run.
Helen shrieked and cried and begged them to return her to her home, and promised them that her father and brothers would avenge her. “Your father is all the way back in Sparta, and your brothers are only boys,” Theseus told her. “Don’t worry. You’ll like Athens. You’ll make the most beautiful queen in all the world.”
“No, my father isn’t in Sparta! My father is in Olympos!” Helen assured him. “My father is Zeus himself! My mother told me so!”
“Well, that’s fine, then,” Theseus laughed. “My mother tells me that my father was actually Poseidon! So we’re well-matched, you and I. Neither of my previous wives was fathered by a god like I was.”
Theseus was thrilled as his good fortune, but it festered inside Pirithoos. Why should Theseus, who was only fathered by Poseidon, get such a perfect bride, when Pirithoos was fathered by Zeus himself? He stewed and stewed on the injustice of it, for the entire trip back to Athens with the crying Spartan princess.
When they arrived in Athens, Theseus handed Helen over to his mother, Aithra, and told her to prepare the girl for marriage. Even as Aithra began to complain that the child was much too young, Pirithoos stepped up and reminded Theseus that he had promised to help Pirithoos gain the bride of his choice first.
“Of course, my friend!” Theseus replied. “Name the maiden, and I’ll help you obtain her!”
Pirithoos nodded, and smiled widely as he told his old friend about his plans for his new bride. Theseus was stunned and horrified, but he had no choice: he had given his word, and he would keep it. He told his mother that his marriage plans would have to be delayed, and to keep a good watch over Helen until he returned. Then he bade his sons another fond farewell, and accompanied Pirithoos out of the city.
“There’s a cave in Eleusis that should serve your purposes,” Theseus told him. “Demeter and Persephone are worshipped there, so I’d expect it has an entrance. But…if it doesn’t, then the only one I know of would be near Sparta. Hardly a place we’ll be welcomed at the moment. If Eleusis doesn’t work, then I think we should wait until I’ve married Helen. Then Tyndareos would have to let us be, since I’d be his son-in-law.”
Pirithoos frowned. His friend’s words made sense, and yet he also felt cheated by them. If Theseus’ wedding went ahead before he had gained his bride, then he might never obtain her!
At the back of the cave in Eleusis, the two friends found an ominous opening leading down into the surface of the earth. They proceeded downwards into the gloomy darkness until they reached the banks of a grim, cold river. A boat stood in the river’s flowing waters, seemingly unaffected by the rushing current. The man within the boat smiled grimly at them. “How unusual to have living passengers,” he laughed.
“Surely my brother Heracles must have been your passenger,” Pirithoos said.
“That son of Zeus entered the house of Hades by another route,” the ferryman replied, “and did not require my assistance. What brings you mortals here to my master’s realm?”
“We have come as guests,” Pirithoos told him. “Or do the gods not respect the sacred relationship between guest and host?”
“You know that they do,” the ferryman answered coldly. “It was your mother’s husband who abused that relationship, betraying your father’s trust.”
Theseus sighed. “Are you willing to take us across, or must we swim?” he asked.
The ferryman laughed. “I should like to see what would happen to you if you set your living flesh in the River Styx,” he cackled. “But I will take you across if that is your desire.”
The two men boarded the ferry, and as he poled them across, the ferryman Charon told them that they were very lucky to have met him on a day when he was feeling generous, and recommended that they watch themselves around his master and mistress, because the gods would never overlook another offense against guest-friendship such as that performed by Ixion.
After they disembarked from the boat, Theseus and Pirithoos found themselves walking amongst the shades of the countless dead. As they walked, they sometimes saw the forms of those they knew, but neither man saw his lost wife, nor did Theseus see his son. But soon he did see someone he recognized: among all the nameless, faceless dead, Theseus caught sight of Meleager. Though Pirithoos pressed onwards, Theseus called out to his old friend.
“What are you doing here while you still live?” Meleager’s lifeless shade asked, looking at Theseus uncertainly. “You’re trespassing where no man should go.”
“I had no choice,” Theseus told him. “I promised Pirithoos that I would help him gain the new wife of his choosing.”
“What wife could he find in a place like this? Everyone here is dead.”
Theseus glanced at Pirithoos, who was by now quite far away. “He says that his father Zeus commanded him to take Persephone as his bride. He said that as her brother, Pirithoos was a more suitable husband for her than her uncle, Hades.”
Meleager shuddered. “What sort of logic is that?” he exclaimed. “What man would think thus?!”
“He says Zeus appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to do this,” Theseus replied. “I had to help him, or I would have broken my vow.”
“No oath would have been strong enough to bring me down here while I still lived,” Meleager said, shaking his head, “not even if it had been to Atalanta herself!”
Theseus could not argue the point, and yet he could not abandon his friend. So he said farewell to Meleager, and followed after Pirithoos. By the time he caught up, they had nearly reached the throne room of Hades himself. They hesitated for a moment outside the throne room, and then Pirithoos forged ahead, followed by Theseus.
Hades and Persephone sat upon their thrones, and watched passively as the two living mortals approached them. “Unusual to see another living soul approach my throne,” Hades commented as they drew near. “I suppose you, too, want to borrow my dog?” From the shadows between the thrones, growling started, and the mortals could catch the reflections in three sets of wary eyes peering out at them.
Theseus laughed nervously, but Pirithoos shook his head. “That is not the reason we’ve come as your guests,” he assured the god.
“I see. Well, do make yourselves comfortable,” he suggested, gesturing towards a bench nearby.
The two mortals sat down on the bench. As soon as they did, they could no longer feel their legs, and found themselves unable to rise again. “I really thought Father was joking,” Persephone sighed, shaking her head. “Imagine the gall!”
Hades nodded, and rose to his feet, approaching the mortals. Cerberus stepped out from between the thrones and followed his master. His six eyes were locked upon Pirithoos’ form, and two of his mouths were drooling. “Perhaps you would like to explain your real goal here? Can you make any possible excuse for your conduct? Or should I just feed you to Cerberus now?”
The three-headed dog barked excitedly at the prospect.
“I don’t want to see that,” Persephone objected. “It sounds disgusting.”
“Very well, my dear,” Hades replied. “We’ll find another way to punish him.” The dog’s six ears wilted sadly.
“But…my father said that I should…” Pirithoos started weakly.
Hades snapped his fingers, and chains shot up from the floor, wrapping around Pirithoos’ legs and waist. His face went slack, and his voice stopped. “That’s enough of that,” Hades said, nodding firmly, then turned his attention towards the perplexed Theseus. “And now we must decide what to do with you,” the god said.
“What did you do to Pirithoos?” Theseus asked.
“So long as he is chained there, his mind will remain blank, sparing the rest of us his lechery,” the god replied, with a chuckle. “He is paying for his crime. Now the question is how you plan to pay for yours.”
“What crime? I’ve never done anything wrong!” Theseus objected.
“My brother was quite shocked to see you abduct his daughter,” Hades told him coldly. “But I will release you from that seat and allow you to leave my realm if you swear to return her to her mother in Sparta, unmolested.”
Theseus cleared his throat uncomfortably. He hadn’t really believed Helen’s story of divine parentage was true. “I’ll return her,” he promised, “as long as you let Pirithoos go.”
“He will never leave this place,” Hades replied. “Since it would seem that not all mortals have learned from Ixion’s example what happens when a mortal attempts to steal a god’s bride, he will remain here as a further lesson for the others. But you can return to your life above, if you swear to release the girl.”
“I can’t abandon my friend,” Theseus insisted.
“Then you cannot return to the surface.” Hades walked slowly back to his throne and sat down again. “I am patient. Let me know when you’ve made your decision.”
Theseus looked over at his friend’s blank face, and frowned uncomfortably.
The bit with Meleager’s shade is from a papyrus fragment of a poem on the subject, as reported in Early Greek Myth by Timothy Gantz. Also the bit with the Lethe chains and the glue-like seat.
I realize this is a bit of an abrupt ending, but…well, to put the ending of the story in here would have made it too long. It’ll be included in next week’s myth.