My Theseus

Between trips around the world and series of TV shows, I am actually an MA student at Newcastle University. I know, I forget sometimes too.

I’m doing a taught master’s program, so the first two semesters were mostly classes. The third semester, however, involves writing a dissertation on a topic that we choose. The final product is a 15,000 word essay on an original research question.

You may have gathered that I have a deep rooted love for Greek mythology. Archaeology doesn’t really lend itself to discussions on mythology. Or so I thought. But in December I started to ask around about the possibilities of studying something to do with mythology for my dissertation. And I figured it out.

My Greek Archaeology lecturer did her PhD on portrayals of women in Greek pottery. So what I decided to do, under her supervision, was portrayals of one certain myth in Greek pottery.

The difficulty lay in choosing. At first, my supervisor suggested that I write on Heracles, since we have a Heracles pot in our collection that I could work closely with. But it didn’t really grab me. I went to the British Museum on my way home for Christmas and took a bunch of pictures of their beautiful Greek pots. They have some stunning portrayals of the Judgement of Paris, which is my favourite myth.

As the deadline for a topic drew closer, we were told we had to start thinking of a question that involved original research. And I just couldn’t come up with a question for the Judgement of Paris. I was worried.

Then we had a class on the Athenian Agora. In particular, the artwork on the Hephaisteion. You see, this temple had a lot of sculptures of Theseus on it. Theseus, an Athenian king, represented as a hero to democratic Athens. The magic word? Propaganda.

I love the use of myth as propaganda. Last year, I wrote my favourite essay on heroic bone transfer as Spartan propaganda. Have I lost you yet…? Heroic bone transfer is a usually seen as part of a Greek hero cult. It involves finding the “bones” of a mythological hero (in the case of Sparta, most famously Orestes) and repatriating them to your city state in order to lay a claim on the power of that hero. In the case of the Spartans, it was their way to claim a connection to the heroes of the Trojan War, since the Spartans themselves weren’t autochthonous to the Peloponnese.

Right. So Theseus is used as democratic propaganda, even though he was a king. That’s too great to pass up.

In the end, this was my proposal:

Title: How does the change and increase in Theseus as the subject of paintings on Athenian pottery after the late 6th century BCE relate to the development of Athenian democracy?

Abstract: In the late 6th century there is a change in the portrayal of the Theseus myth on Athenian pottery. Most Theseus paintings prior to this period had focused on his slaying of the Minotaur. By the end of the 5th century, not only have representations of Theseus expanded to include a series of other events from his life, but he has also been firmly established as the national hero of Athens in a way that demonstrates close ties with democracy.

Even though in England they call this a dissertation, in North America is would be called a thesis. And so, I have started calling it my Theseus. Yes, I’m that cheesy.

The deeds of Theseus on an Attic red-figure vase, photo from the Beazley Archive


  • By Christine Sweeton *The Chris*, May 11, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    Wow - I can’t even handle that cheese-factor. Love the topic though!!

  • By Wangari M., May 11, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    Wow I wish you luck and I know how wonderful it is to finally have a topic that you are passionate about.

  • By Kit, May 12, 2010 @ 2:10 am

    This. This is wonderful. I want to read it already, and shall be watching any progress you share with hawkish glee.

    You make me wish I was doing classics again.

  • By Eleni, May 12, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    Hahaha, your Theseus. I read the title simply as “My Thesis” when I first saw it, didn’t even notice.

    Sounds really cool. And probably more accessible than whatever my dissertation will turn out to be. We’ll see. I’ll hopefully have some form of a plan by the fall.

  • By Kaitlyn, May 13, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    *Kaitlyn & Heather skyping*

    Heather: *says thesis title*
    Kaitlyn: whaa…?
    Heather: *says again*
    Kaitlyn: thesis…theseus…wait, what?
    *repeat x 10*

    Kaitlyn: Ok maybe you should just paste it in the chat window…

  • By Sebastian, May 27, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    I was wondering, for the first paragraph or two, if you’d actually mispelt ‘thesis’… phew! (Actually, I knew who Theseus is, but still…)

    I think theses and dissertations are different, but I’m not sure how. Thesis = groundbreaking/new material perhaps, while a dissertation is more like a formal discourse of a known subject — perhaps pushing boundaries a little.

  • By RS, March 14, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    I’m currently writing an undergrad essay on how Theseus and Heracles were used to serve political agendas. Fancy letting me read your essay ? Sounds relevant + interesting

Other Links to this Post

  1. Hezabelle » The PhD… — October 9, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

  2. Hezabelle » Lesson learned — December 17, 2010 @ 10:45 am

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