Theseus as an Indo-European Sword Hero, with an Excursus on Some Parallels between the Athenian Monster-Slayer and Beowulf
C. Scott Littleton
Heroica Age 11 (2008)
This paper compares Theseus and Beowulf. Both heroes come from afar, enter dangerous, underground realms, and slay ravenous monsters with magical swords. It is suggested that the two figures have a common origin and are part of the Indo-European sword-hero complex.
Ever since the late Taryō Ōbayashi and Atushiko Yoshida published their seminal—and, unfortunately, still untranslated—book Tsurugi no Kami, Tsurugi no Eiyu, or Sword Gods and Sword Heroes, in 1981, it has become abundantly clear that sword-related gods and heroes are a fundamental feature of Eurasian mythology and folklore, from Western Europe to Japan.1 A year later (Littleton 1982), I attempted to demonstrate that sword heroes, as well as sword gods, are deeply rooted in the North Iranian epic tradition, and that the “Sword in the Stone” episode, which plays such an important role in the Arthurian legends, was carried to Western Europe by Sarmatians and Alans in the early centuries of the Common Era. More recently, Linda A. Malcor and I elaborated this thesis in a chapter of our bookFrom Scythia to Camelot (2000), and in 2006 at the Western States Folklore Society meeting at the University of California, Berkeley, we suggested that sword gods and sword heroes play an important role in ancient Germanic mythology (Littleton and Malcor 2006).