Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 6.

H. J. Walker, Theseus and Athens. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. x + 224. ISBN 0-19-508908-1. UKú30.00.

David Pike,
School of Language, Culture and Communication, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

The author of this book (only recently received for review) makes his intentions totally clear in the preface (pp. viif.), both negatively and positively: his book is 'nothing like an analysis of the myth of Theseus as a whole. It concentrates instead on his image as an ideal ruler of Athens, and as a model for Athenian citizens to follow' (p. vii). In fact, Walker is being unnecessarily modest: the book discusses virtually every important element in the Theseus myths, dividing them into earlier, probably original parts and later distortions and adaptations, and tracking down the various elements to their probable regional and chronological origins (see e.g., 'The Origins of the Myth of Theseus', pp. 9-15, and 'The Myth of Theseus', pp. 15-20); but it is true that he is mainly interested in Theseus as a paradigm (of varying significance) for Athenians in particular.

That this type of hero (aggressively self-assertive, and prone to lawlessness and violence) should be admired and publicly flaunted as a representative figurehead by the most democratic of the Greek city- states is indeed remarkable. Walker describes the Theseus of Archaic art and literature as 'something of a wild bandit' and 'a menace to those around him' (p. 15). He also notes, 'I have always been surprised at the powerful grip that the idea of monarchy had on the citizens of Athens and has continued to hold on those of many other democracies since' (p. vii); and he observes further the seeming paradox that 'the very popularity of the Homeric epics among the Greeks of [the eighth century BCE] reveals how fascinating they found those heroes whom they could not have tolerated for one moment as their peers' (p. 48). If that is true of the eighth century, how much more so of the fifth!

This phenomenon of veneration for individualistic, sometimes socially-dangerous heroes, even in avowedly democratic or indeed socialist societies, is a widespread one with psychological dimensions, rooted in the individual psyche', as Walker himself admits (p. vii), and probably involves what may be termed the craving for an 'Ultimate Rescuer'[[1]] but as Walker makes plain, he is 'more interested in the phenomenon as it affected the Athenians as a whole' and so he tends to 'adopt more political explanations for it.' (p. vii). This political, historical and sociological approach characterizes most of the book: Walker's analyses and evaluations of various parts of the Theseus myths are mostly undertaken in the context of specific, documented institutions in Athenian society, such as (most obviously) democracy (see especially Chapters 5 and 6: 'The Democratic Ruler' pp. 143-69, and 'Theseus at Colonus' pp. 171- 93) and the Ephebi. No Jungian interpretations here!

A slightly indirect but very useful result of Walker's approach is that the book contains a great deal of interesting material about Greek and especially Athenian society and history per se, presented in concentrated, clear form: matters such as the origin, development and importance of Hero-cults in Greece (pp. 4-9), the institution of the Ephebi (pp. 94-104 and elsewhere) and the emotive issue of paternity (pp. 84f.) are all dealt with in limited but concentrated compass.

Chapters 1 and 2 of the book ('Myth and Ritual: Hero Worship in Greece and the Origins of the Theseus Myths' pp. 3-33, and 'Benevolent Dictators and the Paradox of a Democratic King' pp. 35-81) examine the image of Theseus up until the fifth century. There is a helpful section on hero-cults in general (heroes were 'Ironically, illogically, and yet quite definitely . . . . patrons of aristocracy' and not '"prototypes of monarchy"', p. 48); and there is a cool-headed refutation of theories which see Theseus as part of the propaganda-programme of (firstly) the Peisistratid tyranny ('Under the Peisistratids, the most popular hero on Attic vase-paintings is Heracles', p. 46) and (secondly) the Cleisthenic reforms (Walker concludes: 'all Athenian politicians used Theseus as a model; he stood for the whole of the Athenian state', p. 47).

The most substantial section of the book is Chapters 3 to 7, which involves detailed discussion of crucial literary works. In Chapter 3 ('The Trozenian Outsider' pp. 83-111), Walker examines Bacchylides 17 and 18: he shows (as regards the former poem) how Bacchylides depicts Theseus primarily as 'The Man from the Sea' (son of Poseidon, but nurtured in the depths of the sea by female divinities, and so neither an autochthonous Athenian nor what might be called a 'normal land-creature' nor a patriarchally- accredited hero, but rather one whose 'identity as a hero is established by feminine powers', p. 92); and (as regards the latter poem) he examines the poet's treatment of Theseus as son of Aegeus, representative of the 'marginal' status of the Ephebi in Athenian (and other) society, and a foreigner to Athens. (This is a striking demonstration of the well-known fact that radically different 'slants' can be given to a single mythical hero by (even) a single author.) In Chapters 4 and 5 ('The Democratic Ruler' pp. 113-41, and 'Theseus at Colonus' pp. 143-69), Walker provides a thorough analysis of Euripides' Hippolytus (and the lost Hippolytus Veiled, the Madness of Heracles and the Suppliant Women, and of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, in all of which Theseus plays an important part, as well as various works of fifth-century art and architecture. At times, Walker is inclined to devote too much detail to sections and issues in the plays which have almost nothing to do with Theseus (though readers are treated to a thorough and worthwhile discussion of the plays themselves); but these chapters also, and mainly, show with great clarity how the two tragedians use the figure of Theseus to probe difficult social, political and ethical issues (such as those presented by the presence of a dominating public figure -- Theseus in the plays, Pericles in history -- in the midst of an avowed democracy.)

Finally, Chapter 7 ('Theseus Enters History' pp. 195-205) discusses his portrayal by Thucydides and Hellanicus, both of whom treat Theseus as a (somewhat ambivalent) historical figure; and the book concludes with a brief (one-page) glance at writers after 400BCE, from the Atthidographers to Plutarch. Walker remarks that 'With the advent of the Atthidographers Theseus leaves the poets and becomes the property of historians and politicians' (p. 201).

The book has an eight-page bibliography of secondary works and each chapter is liberally sprinkled with always-interesting if perhaps over-frequent footnotes. Walker's book is a very solid, thoroughly- researched, coherent and well-laid-out examination not only of an important corpus of myths but of the intimate interplay between those myths and the developing society of ancient Athens.


[[1]] See, for example, J. Hollis, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other (Toronto 1998).