Theseus and Heracles are both famous heroes from Greek mythology. Theseus was the revered king of Athens. He was known for his strength from his various adventures, as well as for his intellect and wisdom that allowed him to unify Attica and establish democracy in Athens. Heracles, on the other hand, is known for his superhuman strength as exhibited in his adventures. However, unlike Theseus, he is considered brutish and violent. Still, Heracles exhibited his cunning and wit in his adventures, which is why the Spartans look up to him as a warrior. The succeeding essay demonstrates that Theseus and Heracles are both great heroes with their own strengths as well as weaknesses.
Theseus: Great King of Athens
Theseus is the son of Aithra, princess of Troezen, and Aegus, King of Athens. However, according to the myth, it is also possible that Poseidon may have been Theseus’s father. Theseus grew up not knowing that he was the son of King Aegus. Aegus told Aithra that Theseus may only learn of his birthright and travel to Athens he grows into a man and is strong enough to lift the rock under which Aegus hid his sandals and sword. Theseus is to bring the tokens as proof of his royal parentage to Athens.
For his journey to Athens, Theseus had two options—to travel by sea, the safer option, or by land, which is teeming with dangerous obstacles. Being a brave hero, Theseus chose to travel by land. Theseus overcame the six labors by outwitting the individuals who attempted to kill him. Upon his arrival at Athens, Theseus had another obstacle—Medea who also wanted to kill him. Medea (read the essay on Medea here) sent Theseus to accomplish a series of dangerous tasks, and when he emerged victorious thanks to his strength and wisdom, she attempted to poison him. Luckily, before Theseus could sip the poison, Aegus recognized the tokens he had left for Theseus. Thus, Theseus was named as the successor to the throne while Medea was banished from Athens.
Shortly after this, Theseus went to Crete to face the Minotaur, which he handled well, too. Before he left, he promised Aegus that he would change his ship’s sails to white if he survived the Minotaur. However, Theseus forgot this promise. Aeugus thought Theseus did not survive and, with extreme sadness, killed himself. This left Theseus king of Athens, during which he succeeded in unifying Attica and establishing democracy.
Heracles: The Demigod
Heracles, more commonly known as Hercules in Roman mythology, was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the granddaughter of Perseus. Like many of Zeus’s offspring, Hera attempted to kill Heracles as an infant. Hera did this by sending two serpents to his and his brother’s cradle. However, demonstrating his prowess, Heracles managed to strangle the serpents to death. This event came to be known as the first time Heracles demonstrated his godly powers.
As an adult, Heracles married Megara and had children. However, he accidentally killed his whole family in a fit of madness influenced by Hera. As a result, Heracles was obliged to become the servant of Eurystheus, who imposed the famous Labors. Heracles accomplished all 12 labors and afterwards succeeded in various warlike campaigns.
Heracles then married Deineira, the daughter of the river god Achelous. On the way home, the Centaur Nessus tried to violate Deineira. Heracles shot him with a poison arrow. As the Centaur died, he told Deineira to preserve his blood, which if rubbed in Heracles’s garment, would make the latter love only her. Deineira uses the Centaur’s blood years later when she realizes that Heracles had fallen for Iole, the daughter of the king of Oechalia. The blood turns out to be a poison that, naturally, killed Heracles. Heracles’s divine part ascended to heaven becoming a god. He reconciled with Hera and married Hebe.
Difference of Theseus and Heracles
Theseus and Heracles are perceived as polar opposites. The succeeding character analysis shall demonstrate that while Theseus is intelligent and strategic, Heracles is reckless and more reactive. Their differences are most apparent in their how they faced and accomplished their Labors. Theseus was strategic from the beginning. He chose paths that would bring him glory and worthy of the title of hero. In contrast, Heracles was thrust upon heroism. His hero’s journey consists of him besting his opponents and the challenges thrust upon him with his superhuman strength and quick wits.
From the beginning, Theseus had been strategic. Instead of taking the safe path to Athens by sea, he chose to travel by land where he could earn glory. While traveling, he successfully overcame several villains who routinely terrorize and murder passing travelers. His successes were not mere displays of his strength and intelligence, they also benefited the people. Thus, even before he reached Athens, he already started building his hero status.
Even after he was named as the successor of King Aegus, he continued to take a proactive role in being a hero. He volunteers to be the representative for the ritual meant to appease King Minos for the death of his son. He was not comfortable allowing innocent citizens to sacrifice themselves, so he volunteers to face the Minotaur himself. But what truly cemented Theseus’s reputation as a wise hero is his forethought in facing his adventures. Before entering the labyrinth, he disguised two men as women so as to have extra manpower, as well as hid his sword under his clothing, for when they face the minotaur. He was also wise enough to heed the suggestion of Ariadne, King Mino’s daughter, of marking his path in the maze using a ball of string. As a result of his strategic planning, Theseus emerged victorious against the minotaur.
However, Theseus is not ineffable. His most significant error cost him his father’s life. He forgot to fulfill his promise of changing his ship’s sail to while should he survive the minotaur. So, King Aegus, upon seeing the black sails from afar, killed himself. Nevertheless, Theseus remained wise, and took upon his new role as King of Athens. As king, he was also known for his diplomacy. Not only is he credited for the unification of Attica under Athens, he is also credited for establishing democracy and numerous other festivals and rituals. Although there were events in Theseus’s life that he did not have control over, he did not allow this to overcome him. He rose above and lived up to his reputation as a wise hero.
In contrast to Theseus is Heracles who took a more relaxed approach in his hero’s journey. From youth, Heracles has been blessed with great strength and various talents that enabled him to exceed the capabilities of his teachers by the time he reached manhood. Unlike Theseus who consciously chose to take on his six labors, Heracles was merely obliged to take on the twelve labors to absolve himself for the crime of murdering his entire family.
Indeed, taking on the twelve labors is a respectable choice, especially since the fit of madness that caused him to kill his family was brought about by the goddess Hera. However, his lack of forethought, which differentiates him from Theseus, becomes obvious in how he tackled the twelve labors. Clearly, Heracles is intelligent, however he only thinks of clever plans in the moment. He reacts to the challenges thrown upon him at the moment instead of planning ahead as Theseus did.
Heracles is a spontaneous person who is quick on his feet. He is a brawns over brain kind of person who faces challenges head on as it happens. Heracles tackles the labors as it comes as opposed to Theseus making a strategy before immersing himself on the task at hand. This, along with the fact that he killed his family, became the reason why he became known for his incredible strength and courage. During the instances when his strength would not suffice in securing a victory, he calls on his exceptional skill of making spur-of-the-moment decisions.
Similarity of Theseus and Heracles
Apart from coming form the same bloodline, a similarity between the two heroes is their motivation and determination. Although Theseus did help a lot people on the way to Athens, and even found the time to save Athenians from the Minotaur, all these seemingly selfless acts were done with a selfish ulterior motive. As mentioned earlier, Theseus chose to travel by land and face the six labors in order to acquire glory for himself before he reached Athens. Killing the 6 villains was merely a task for him to further his hero status, and a way to reach Athens. He did not kill them because he wanted other travelers to be safe; the impact of his actions on other people were merely coincidental.
This is where Theseus is similar with Heracles. Heracles also did not save people and does not care much about devoting his time for heroic exploits. His heroic status is based only on the fact that he defeated many opponents. All of Heracles' victories were done to save himself or for some other selfish reason (such as not having his bride violated) and to appease the gods' will. Likewise, he performed the 12 labors only to absolve himself of his sins. Like Theseus, Heracles used his prowess for personal gain. Both have harbored selfish hidden agendas in their pursuit of redemption and glory.
Another similarity of the two heroes is that they have a penchant of falling pray to the manipulation of the gods and their own emotions. At one point, Theseus decided to kidnap the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, and make her his wife. Theseus actions started a war between his people and the Amazons. Later on, he got tired of Hippolyta and fell in love with the Cretan princess, Phaedra. Unfortunately, Phaedra fell in love with Theseus' and Hippolyta's son, Hippolytus. When Hippolytus rejected Phaedra, she accused him of rape which angered Theseus and caused him to use one of the three wishes the god Poseidon offered him to curse his own son.
Heracles, on the other hand, has been manipulated by the gods many times over his lifetime. The worst manipulation of the gods was done the goddess Hera when she drove Heracles into madness and caused him to kill his family. After that, Heracles approached the god Apollo and asked him for guidance who then told him to serve the King of Tiryns, Eurystheus, for 10 years in which he needs to complete a series of 12 labors. Time and time again, both heroes fell prey to the manipulation of the gods and their wrath.
In conclusion of this compare and contrast essay, it is clear that Theseus and Heracles both fit the hero stature considering their magnificent feats. As heroes, however, they have numerous differences and one fundamental similarity. They differ in their approach to their life and duties, with Theseus being strategic, which made his intelligence and wisdom most apparent; while Heracles relying most on his superhuman strength and quick wits to think of ways to defeat his opponents. These differences make for interesting mythology. Although these two heroes are considered worlds apart, they share one thing: their selfish motivations for performing heroic acts. Evidently, even heroes are not perfect. As was stated earlier in the thesis statement of this essay, Theseus and Heracles are heroes in their own right, but they are still human with their strengths and weaknesses.
Dryden, John (translator). “Theseus by Plutarch.” The Internet Classics Archive, classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/theseus.html.
Murray, Gilbert (translator). “Euripides, Heracles.” Perseus Digital Library Tufts University, 1913, www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0102.