This painting, by the French artist Jean Lemaire (c. 1598-1659), was inspired by one of the early stories from the life of the legendary ancient Greek hero, Theseus. According to myth and legend, Theseus’ mother was a princess named Aethra—the daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen. Theseus’ father was a disputed figure, with some writers claiming Poseidon was the father, while others insisted Theseus was sired by King Aegeus of Athens. Whatever the case, King Aegeus was a guest at the court of Aethra’s father when the princess became pregnant, and whether or not Poseidon had become involved, King Aegeus left Troezen thinking that Aethra’s future child would possibly be his son or heir at Athens. Nevertheless, King Aegeus did not want just any whelp from Troezen to come to Athens and succeed him; instead, the king decided to set up a trial for Princess Aethra’s child to one day pass. If the boy succeeded in overcoming the ordeal and brought proof to King Aegeus, then the king would accept the child as his own. The trial King Aegeus set up was similar to the Arthurian legends that later emerged about a sword in a stone, yet, in this ancient Greek case it was a sword under a stone. Summarizing this myth, the ancient scholar Plutarch (c. 50-120) wrote:
“[King Aegeus,] suspecting that she was with child by him, he left a sword and a pair of sandals hidden under a great rock, which had a hollow in it just large enough to receive these objects. He told the princess alone about this, and bade her, if a son should be born to her from him, and if, when he came to [a designated] man’s estate, he should be able to lift up the rock and take away what had been left under it, to send that son to him with the tokens, in all secrecy, and concealing his journey as much as possible from everybody” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Theseus, chapter 3).
After King Aegeus left Troezen, Princess Aethra gave birth to the hero, Theseus. Aethra eventually told her son about the gifts that King Aegeus had left under the nearby stone. Theseus, proving himself to be the legendary hero, was able to lift the great rock and retrieve the sword and sandals from underneath it. It is this episode of Theseus pulling the blade out from underneath the rocky obstacle that Jean Lemaire re-created in his painting. Curiously, Lemaire decided to feature his rock of legend as a block of stone flooring, whereas most other artists and storytellers described the stone as a boulder. This, however, is a small matter. Wielding the sword and other tokens left behind by King Aegeus, Theseus was able to travel to Athens and eventually become the heir of the city-state.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.