The Later Life of Theseus, King of Athens.

(From the Memoirs of Menestheus, the Erecthid.)


Source: Mary Butts, The Calendar of Modern Letters June 1925.


We were all without illusions that any good was to be expected from these affairs. From the first day, they appeared deplorable; now that the worst has happened, I can only repeat that it was expected, foreseen, foretold, and that, as so often occurs, now it is over, the situation is left very much as it was before.

Now that the late government has changed, as it was bound to change, it can  be seen that the late activities of the king were no more than the wind ruffling the unstirred halls of Ocean, where sit, if I may say so, those dumb and flexible powers that reigned before him, and have been shown to survive him. I mean that I, after these years of exile and observation, have come back into my place. Or it would be more cautious to say that a place has come back and been filled by me.

Theseus has gone. He was not legitimate—not one of those earth-sprung princes created to rule because in some sense they are this piece of land. He had no business in Athens here at all, though he might have done well enough in Troezên. When he chose to come and lord it here, he should not have been surprised if, though the people applauded him, the air and the stones did not accept him; and in time the people of this ancient situation were persuaded, not by him, but by the stones and the air.

Theseus went. During his reign I watched his efforts, I and others, and knew that all we had to do was wait and watch the spending of his energy, and even admire its furious turns. It passed. When it was over, I took my place, and my turn. The land had sighed, turned over, and now sleeps again.

But what a time we had! New laws, new drains, new wives. I remember as if it were yesterday the day Phaedra arrived in her Cretan ship. The daughter of Minos and of Persiphaë. She seemed a staring, silly maid. A little subnormal, I thought, a freak of over-breeding. She was very quiet in the palace, though I was rather pleased with the shrine she built to a featureless but peculiar Aphrodite.

There is nothing I deplore more than the effort made by men like Theseus to abstract and beautify the gods. At the same time to make them into men. I and my friends know that they are neither abstract, human, nor necessarily beautiful. So I welcomed the gesture of Theseus’ wife, but, again, I may have idealised it. She was probably homesick for some Cretan daimon, a furtive, indoor, woman’s goddess.

Well, the Cretan neurosis soon found its expression. As is usual in these affairs, it was the talk of the place before the actors or sufferers knew what was happening to them.

What no one foresaw was the appeal to Poseidon. Nor the immediate response in circumstances when a god such as Theseus conceived might well have counted to seven. In half-an-hour the matter would have been explained. Artemis should have seen to that. Personally, I wish Poseidon had let Hippolytus be, promise or no promise. Only I know that the divine element must always work like that. It is an automatic quality, and the gods when they act are so much stored power released. In the same manner, Artemis did not come until Hippolytos’ extremity compelled her. A racing goddess, but a woman?

But it is little use to speculate on what ought to have happened. Theseus, our late showman, gave us an exhibition that will not soon be forgotten. It was not the first. It proved not to be the last.

His energy in passing new laws in the first months of his widowhood is impossible to describe. It became difficult, before the feast of Anthestria, to catch sprats, to draw water between sunset and midnight from the public fountains, and forbidden to invoke Poseidon on any account at all.

It became possible to marry one’s aunt, and there were regulations as to the destruction of fish-heads in hot weather for which I think there is something to be said. At the same time, the war he made almost immediately on the Lapiths was evidence that his character was weakening.

We did not oppose it. There are worse things than a small war, fought in one’s own place so as not to interfere with the harvest. I was not curious about the Lapiths, but when a community is ruled by a man like Theseus, kept in a constant state of excitement, but with nothing to do but neglect its business to talk not about his ideas but about him, I considered their arrival was reasonably well-timed. Personally, I believe he invited them; but I will describe, as I saw it, the result of the first and only battle in the campaign.

Indeed, it is well known how they met. Theseus and that old scoundrel Perithoös. How they craned over their chariots to observe each other, and Theseus countermanded the charge, and how they walked out between the lines and examined one another till Theseus kissed him. The city knows how they came back, arm in arm, both sides straggling behind them; and the noise they made opening up the palace for a foreign army to get at the wine. It had always been more of an inn than a gentleman’s residence. The little queen Phaedra had tried to introduce the Cretan formality. Theseus had played at that, but not for long. But there was no ceremony that night when they roared their songs and rang their cups, and lit cressets whose light danced on the marble in the wind and lit the palace right out to sea.

At dawn they went roaring down to the Piraeus. I thought of the wonderful luck of the man, to whom the next event was always kind. There is a kind of compensation for a man who uses life, who gets into trouble and into pleasure as a boat runs from tack to tack. He had better remember, though, that he is used, and not so honourably, as the man who submits to life’s using of him. I might have been a Theseus.

            But there they were that night, Theseus and Perithoös the heroes. He sent his Lapiths home, but he stayed; and they went riding together, went drinking, went talking, until the town began to say, “The end of this will be a new queen.”

            It must be remembered that he was not a man to act upon design, and one who would as lightly offend the Dioscuri as he would have taken Heracles into his house when that hero had just murdered his own children. The fool never knew that blood will more than out, that blood will have blood. He had been praised for what he did then, for his friendship with a man so close to him in temperament that he could despise his madness and the pollution of blood; keeping him with him till his wits came back, and telling him that the sole evil of his act was his fear of it. I heard that said, and saw Heracles comforted at last. I smiled. I do not know what blood is, but it is not so easily got rid of as that. The earth wins at last. We shall go down to the house of Hades, and there will be no more of these swaggering Olympians and the heroes they have so jovially begot. And I mean to be on the side that must win, if it means a lifetime of quiet.

            Besides, I saw Perithoös chewing a twig of buckthorn last March, for a purge, I suppose, not uneasiness, before they began the scandalous entertainment we witnessed when they stole the immortal sister of the Dioscuri, Helen-of-the-Egg, the daughter of Zeus and the Swan.

            I do not doubt that people were right when they said that it was Perithoös’ suggestion. He would have done anything for Theseus. Theseus must have put it to him in this way: I can hear him say: ‘Those Cretan sisters were both a mistake. One to hang herself, the other to go off with a god. Hippolyta was too much the other way. We were too like each other. I was unfair to her, and I’m sorry for it now. I did not treat her as I would have been treated, and it is a shame to me. There are only Phaedra’s children left; I don’t like the breed. I must have another choice of heirs. But a pure Greek this time, Perithoös’.

            Then Perithoös suggested, without an idea but to get his friend what he wanted: “Why not a goddess this time, Theseus?”

            Every far-seeing and observant man has had his eye on the nursery of Tyndareus. The girls were born to be queens in Hellas. Queens have come to no good lately in this city; but there was no harm in Theseus asking. Only, when he asked for her, he was refused on the count that she was a child.

            The reason was not only sufficient, it was true. But Theseus and Perithoös left the city at once. A month later they came back, arm-in-arm, roaring and told the town they had stolen her. To marry her? No. For ransom? Not at all. But to leave with his mother for three years till she should be old enough. Anyone could see that this would not do. What did he suppose her brothers would have to say about it? The Dioscuri were a notable pair of young men. Far better to have married her at once, child or no child; but that the sort of thing Theseus did not do.

            Immediately I retired to my country estate, where they would know when to find me.

            Theseus made no excuses. I cannot suppose that he had any. He is reported to have said that the marriage would make for peace in Hellas, and one of the Fates would cut her throat when she heard about it; but that he could not touch a child. His position seemed contradictory. I suppose he was vain enough to want her conspicuous beauty, at his age, who had had Ariadne, Hippolyta and Phaedra. I waited with impatience for her brothers, hoping to hear a piece of the divine mind, and watch a contest between an old hero and the young. I am not a hero. I and my house were before this fashion for law-givers and unfortunate husbands; and I shall be here when some funeral games, getting cheaper every year, are all that is left of them. I should not be surprised if it is I who will insist on some small decencies being preserved, and an offering of at least a minimum of honey and hair. All the same, since ceremonies round holy graves are a part of public life, why not have the body in the grave practically anonymous, and the sacred snake? It is known what the sacred snake is there for. At the same time it is not known. Certainly I would have Theseus forgotten as Theseus.

            I will now describe what happened. There was an attempt made to hide the girl. Theseus had brought her to his mother, but this was not generally known. I was looking for her myself in a strange place, when I came upon the brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, doing the same thing. I offered them my reflections, nothing more. They were too innocent to use and too proud to influence. One was a king’s son and the other a son of Zeus, but my position was less equivocal than theirs. Not that they recognized it, blown as they were with these new splendours; but they were boys enough to be glad of any company, and to explain why they were found among the cliffs of Scyros in a cave.

            Their objections to the marriage were obscure and mostly untrue. They said that Helen was too young; but Theseus had agreed with them. They said that Theseus was too old: which did not matter. They said his former marriages had been unfortunate: which is immaterial. Then they implied that Theseus had foreknowledge and was deliberately going against what was bound to happen: which is impossible. They showed no love for their sister, but an acceptance as if she were a part of nature. Not as men speak from pride of race. They took her away, I was told, in silence. Afterwards, Theseus and Perithoös were seen on the terrace, looking out to sea, together and also silent.

            I did not pretend to understand. The life of the girl Helen has been worthy of attention. I felt that she was of the same stuff as myself, put to the uses of those new heroes. The uses to which she has put them we are beginning to learn. They have forgotten that there were potencies here before Zeus. But this affair began with the theft of a pretty child and some inconsistent behaviour. It ended with the return of the child, and it was plain to see Theseus did not think that he had lost any of his dignity. Knowing that he was soon likely to attempt an even more conspicuous adventure, I had a time of indecision when I questioned myself, not for the first time, as to what I had gained by the part in life that I had played.

            Before the Argo’s voyage and the hunt of the Calydonian Boar, life moved quietly in this land, arranged on certain antique forms. These I have upheld against the innovating heroes. There are dark spots in nature. Let them stay dark. Man need not try to illuminate them. His business with them is to keep harmony by due propitiatory sacrifice to the infernal powers. I would offend no sacred snake. Omit no libation of honey, milk or blood. Especially not blood. It is, when you think of it, the cheapest of the three.

            That there are powers propitious to man I do not deny. That the unpropitious can be disregarded I hold to be the belief of an idiot child. Hard, pliant and astute man must be, observant of birds and the prohibitions of his folk.

            That is what these men are not doing. In the place of nature they have put their own wills. The minotaur died; but the Cretan curse returned. I was sorry for Hippolytos, the son of a virago our hero king made a martyr of.

            What has the Golden Fleece done for us? Gold will go back the way it came. I have seen this in the sky.

            With three queens under the earth and one refused him, with theirs of a kind to succeed him, the ruler of a people who cheered him and twittered at him, in the late middle years of his life Theseus decided that he had not dared enough, and that the time had come for a yet more outrageous enterprise. He had lost the young Helen. Well and good. This time he would have a goddess.

            It was said that Pallas Athene was his first choice. I wondered mildly what she would have thought of Phaedra’s small white palace after her Olympian house. Of course, I remembered that in earlier days her life had been simple, and she had exacted no more tendance than was customary when our lives simple too. That was before these goddesses had gone up in the world, and become daft on heroes. Jealous, also, of each other. Artemis attended Hippolytus’ death, and swore to Aphrodite, that she would kill Adonis in revenge. That, I suppose, is going on somewhere. But would they allow themselves to be stolen? Anyhow, Theseus changed his mind. He and Perithoös went away, side by side, in two small chariots; and no one knew where they were going. They did not return, and slowly the tale came round that two handsome men of middle age had been seen going to the House of Death and Persephone. They went through the mountain. They came to the place. They crossed Acheron, Cocytos, Styx. I do not know how they managed Cerberus. To end it, they got inside.

            They had come to steal Persephone.

            They stole Persephone. I am telling you what happened. I do not know how they did it. Nor what they said to her. It is a long time since she lost her habit of reappearing among us with the spring. Also, there is something about the house of Hades that is agreeable to women. Most of the conspicuous ones there are men, but a woman sits on the throne of the house and distributes poppies. It is all Persephone, and Eurydice that a man put back. Only it seems certain that she was willing to go. It is a terror for me to admit it, but certainly, since these events, the House of Hades has lost much of its prestige. I can no longer see it half-lit, smelling of dark flowers and blood. It has become one of other places. I wish I knew how they persuaded her. Unless he was lying, and Theseus did not lie, she said she would come and live with him in his Athenian house, and be a queen to this city. What did they offer her? What did she ask? It happened quickly, I imagine, but she came away between them.

            Then Cerebus caught them at the door, and all I know is that Persephone herself was turned back, and Theseus stuck to a rock, and of Perithoös nothing was said.

            It was then that opportunity found me, and I became kind again in Athens, and did something to restore the old ways and discourage conversation. I was in the full interest of my negative experiment when they came back, first Perithoös, then Theseus.

            They seemed to take more pleasure in my society than they had done, and were good enough to say that they found me unchanged. I could not say that of them. They were older. They were fatigued. There is one thing certain about these heroes, that they wear themselves into their graves. And they do not wear well. However, I thought it becoming to give up kingship at once.

            We were back where we had started, nearly a lifetime ago; and time was now our common enemy. If I had realised it then, I should have grieved to have given up that for which I had waited for so long. But it has always seemed to me that he was mortal, and I the immortal, for I come of the life that rises and flowers and passes down to the earth again. From uncountable ages my fathers were the earth-kings of this place, and for them the earth’s luck held, and they were re-born in their sons for ever. Only I have no son. In me, for the last time in direct line, Athens has returned to her kings, seeds of the Erecthidae, sprung-of-the-soil. So I conquered Theseus the hero, who did not understand these things.

            I have striven to alter nothing.

            It was not I who threw Theseus over the cliff. We were walking one day and talking, and I noticing how he was ageing, though proud and angry like a king-bull. The thought of bulls recalled my mind to Crete, and Crete to Minos—a square throne, tight-waisted women, pinched Phaedra, a grinning, black Aphrodite-at-home, the north wind that came ruffling our sea, loud voices, men with gold hair.

            Then, as I was thinking, his foot slipped, and he was over the cliff’s edge; and if I trod on his hand as it clung, well, I was king again.

            Only to quiet all tumult in the city, I established his young children by Phaedra at Scyros, and gave him the mound, the games, the libations and cut tresses for a hero, even to the sacred snake.

            But it was I who put them there. Things may be equal between us. I leave that as I have left other things.


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