Author: Mary Renault
First published: 1958
Locale: Greece and Crete
Plot: Historical realism
Time: The Mycenaean Age in ancient Greece
Theseus (THEE-see-uhs), the protagonist and narrator. The grandson of King Pittheus of Troizen and son of Princess Aithra, Theseus does not discover until later that he is the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens. After becoming the “king for a year” of Eleusis, Theseus journeys to Athens to reveal himself to King Aegeus. He later subdues Eleusis, vanquishing its queen; makes the isthmus safe for travelers; and allows himself to be sent to Crete as a bull-dancer. An earthquake and revolution make him king there.
Pittheus, the king of Troizen and grandfather of Theseus. Pittheus is the formative influence on Theseus when he is young, instructing him in kingship and the Greek concept of fate, called moira. He also reveals to Theseus the strange circumstances of his being fathered by King Aegeus of Athens.
Aithra, the princess of Troizen. She is the daughter of Pittheus, Theseus' youthful mother, and the Priestess of Mother Dia (Demeter) in Troizen. In this last capacity, she represents the remnants of the mother-worshiping religion of the earlier inhabitants of Greece.
Persephone (pur-SEH-fuh-nee), the queen of Eleusis. As the queen of a city that worships the female principle, the queen of Eleusis takes a husband yearly; he is killed in a wrestling match at the end of his year. When Theseus fights and kills one of the yearly kings, called Kerkyon, he marries the queen. Theseus undermines her rule and succeeds in exiling her from Eleusis and establishing a patriarchal power structure.
Aegeus (EE-jews), the king of Athens and father of Theseus. Worn from his many years of trying to make peace among the warring factions around Athens, Aegeus is delighted to recognize Theseus as his son. His joy is short-lived because Theseus insists on going to Crete as a bull-dancer. Aegeus later commits suicide because of a misunderstanding that Theseus died on Crete, caused by the color of Theseus' sail when he returns to Athens.
Ariadne (ar-ee-AD-nee), the princess of Crete and the “Goddess-on-Earth.” Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, falls in love with Theseus when she watches him in the bull ring and agrees to accompany him back to Athens. Theseus later abandons her on the island of Naxos during their return, and she dies during childbirth.
Asterion the Minotauros, the Prince of Crete. The half brother of Ariadne and next in line for the throne of Crete, he is the patron of Theseus' bull-dancing team but nevertheless plots against them. In addition, he is in the process of organizing a takeover of Crete when an earthquake and an uprising of the bull-dancers result in his death and the fall of the House of Minos.
Minos (MI-nuhs), the king of Crete and father of Ariadne. He is dying of leprosy and fearful of Asterion's lust for power. He asks that Theseus put him out of his misery by ritualistically killing him, first exacting a promise that Theseus will protect Ariadne.
Poseidon (poh-SI-duhn), the god of bulls, horses, earthquakes, and the sea. Poseidon is Theseus' patron god and has given him the power to sense earthquakes before they occur. Early in the novel, Theseus hopes that Poseidon actually is his father.