As a story teller, I tell many stories about overcoming monsters. Monsters are the number one device throughout mythology that teach many lessons.
Of the many characters in myths, mothers are a stock persona that stand for many things.
What do mothers and monsters have in common?
I’ll tell you about my favorite mythological mother, because she is the role model I used, and still use, with my sons and grandsons.
This is Aethra’s story. You will find her in the myth of Theseus, who became a hero, to the ancient Athenians, and throughout the Mediterranean world. Theseus and the Minotaur are staples of our Western traditions. Whilst Theseus is the hero, the Minotaur is the monster.
Here’s the story of Theseus’ birth and upbringing.
Aegius, king of Athens, had no male heir. The king of Troezen, a small kingdom across the Aegean sea from Athens, wanted Aegius to marry his daughter, Aethra. So he arranged a meeting by entertaining Aegius during a state visit. The king told his daughter to lure Aegius to her bed. Aethra obeyed.
After he slept with her, Aegius didn’t wait around to say goodby. He left in the middle of the night. Then the god, Poseidon, visited Aethra. In my telling of the story, Poseidon plays the part of the angle Gabriel to Mary: tells her she will have a son. And this son will be a savior.
Aethra delivers her son, names him Theseus, and following the god’s instructions, raises him well. He is educated in mind and body. Since there is no father present, the king, Theseus’ grandfather, fills the male role in the young prince’ life. The grandfather teaches the boys state and war craft. He takes him hunting, and when, still in his young teens, he takes Theseus to war.
Not many mothers would want their sons to go to war at a tender age. Unless you were ambitious for your son’s future. To be a hovering, or “helicopter” mother, would not do, because if Theseus is to be worthy of his father’s throne, he will have to both earn it and keep it. Which means the fear monster cannot rule her son’s life. That is why he goes to war with his grandpa.
In a war, one learns to think strategically. Ditto when dealing with monsters. Theseus, then, must learn to think things out, to analyze the situation and the enemy. He must decide a course of action, with contingencies in place in case plan A goes awry.
When Theseus turns of age, he asks the question he probably had wanted to ask for a long time. It is the classic question a child of an unwed mother asks if he hasn’t been told: “Mom, who’s my daddy?”
Aethra’s answer is quite different from the usual answer.
“Son, your father left items for you in the gardens. Find those items, and you will know who your father is.”
Theseus began searching. He found the items buried under a large rock. The items were a pair of sandals, a cloak, and a royal sward. He showed them to his mother.
“Try on the sandals,” she said to Theseus. He did. They fit. “Now look at the workmanship of the cloak.” The cloak was obviously the garment of a man of wealth. “And what do you see on the sword?”
There was a small carving of Athena on the hilt.
“My father is the king of Athens?”
“I want to meet him.”
“Go to him,” Aethra answered. She then pointed to the Aegean sea. “You may take a boat across the sea to Athens. That will be an expedient and safe crossing. However, if you would test yourself, and gain an impressive reputation before you get to Athens, go by way of the isthmus road.”
“There are monsters there, Mother.”
“Overcome them, and before you enter Athens, people will know you are worthy of your father’s throne.”
How many mother’s do you know who would send their children on such a journey?
The monsters we face in life are fears. The so-called monster under the bed is nothing more than a suppressed fear. Theseus’ education and experiences taught him to face fears, to work on them as one would any other problem in life. Cowering in the corner was not an option. Training, testing, which leads to experience, which leads to expertise, is the only journey to take if one is ambitious for a life lived well. It means the child, and adult, will be confident in their abilities to handle life.
The mother who tells us to conquer our monsters, and shows us how, is the best mother anyone can have. Because minotaurs are everywhere. Destroying them is complex. That’s why a good mother makes certain we are educated. And, even if she is afraid, she pushes us to gain experience in life.
Like Aethra, the good mother is willing to say goodbye, to send her children off into the world to make it on their own. She knows only too well about the monsters out there. Yet she is confident that her children can take on these monsters, and conquer them. She sees to it.
Theseus became the savior, as predicted, of thousands of children held captive on Crete. These children were bull dancers. Anyone injured during the bull dancing was placed in the labyrinth where the Minotaur was confined. This savage half-human, half-beast monster, finished off the inured children, and then ate them. Theseus killed the Minotaur, and then released the captive children. And it all began with a mother named Aethra.