Theseus is one of the most famous of the Greek heroes. He’s famous for the slaying of Procrustes, defeating Medea, slaying the Minotaur and “winning” Hippolyte. That’s all well and good for a story, but we like to learn modern lessons from our stories, so it’s only natural that we should look at Theseus as a master of social engineering.
Oh, and as a word of warning, by the end of this post, you might not be liking Theseus very much.
The story commonly starts with a discussion of how Theseus is a son of both Aegeus (a king) and Poseidon (a god). This is mythologically necessary for reasons of heroism, but it’s also important to know that since this can’t be true, Theseus starts his adventures by lying about his origins. Then, of course, he goes around killing people. Granted, they were bandits, but what’s interesting is how he dealt with them.
- Periphetes killed people directly and Theseus killed him directly with a sword
- Sinnis forced people to bend pine trees and watched them die when the trees sprung back up. Theseus killed him in the same way. Then, of course, he raped Sinnis’s daughter and continued on his way.
- Sciron forced people to wash their feet before they passed him, and when they bent over to do it, he’d kick them over a cliff. Theseus, of course, kicked him over the same cliff.
- Then Theseus met Cercyon who he wrestled to death and then raped his daughter as well.
- Best known, of course was Procrustes, who forced people to lay in his bed and either stretched or cut them to make them fit. Theseus, as one would expect, tricked Procrustes to lay in his own bed and cut him to fit. (It is unclear why Procrustes didn’t fit in his own bed.)
In each of these early stories, Theseus was careful to learn about his target before dealing with them. This made it easy to trick them and then end their lives in an appropriately mythologically-just manner.
Lesson One: Know your target.
Then, later in the story, our “hero” (a.k.a. murderer and rapist) visits his father Aegeus for the first time and his father’s wife, Medea. Medea knows that if Aegeus realizes who Theseus is, her own son will no longer be in line to be king, so she tries to have Theseus killed. Though he could have handled the situation by simply telling Aegeus who he is, he prefers to bide his time and wait until his father recognizes his own sword (which he gave to Theseus’s mother to give to her son (daughters, apparently, don’t deserve swords)). He chose an appropriately dramatic time to reveal himself, as Medea had just conspired to poison him. So, when Aegeus recognized his son, Medea had to flee.
Lesson Two: Only reveal what you absolutely have to.
Lesson Three: Pick your timing carefully.
Now we get to the really famous part of the story. Theseus travels to Crete where he aims to stop the minotaur from devouring fourteen kids each year. He promises his father that he’ll change the sails from black to white if he succeeds. Then he arrives in Crete where, in short order, Theseus befriends the king’s daughter Ariadne, gets her help to kill the minotaur, kills the minotaur, flees Crete with Ariadne, abandons Ariadne, forgets to change the sails and arrives home in time for his father to despair of having lost his only son (Medea’s son doesn’t count, I guess). With the death of his father, Theseus becomes king.
So, in other words, Theseus befriends those he needs and then discards them as long as their usefulness is at an end.
Lesson Four: Say what you mean, mean what you say… only while you’re saying it, of course.
Of course the “oops I accidentally caused my father’s death, guess now I’m king” excuse wasn’t accepted by everyone, and soon the Pallantides attacked. Theseus, of course, had a spy and was able to ambush their ambush, killing all fifty nobles (after which, the nobles learned the valuable lesson “let the non-nobles do the fighting”).
Lesson Five: Keep your eyes and ears open.
After this point, the story gets somewhat less linear and tends to focus on Theseus and women. Hippolyta, Helen and Phaedra are all abducted, raped or married (in various combinations thereof). Then, Theseus drives the centaurs out of the area for “getting drunk and molesting the women”.
Lesson Six: Double standards are OK.
Interestingly, Plutarch’s tale of Theseus focuses on the idea of democracy and how he turned the monarchy around and gave power to the people. This, of course, involved abolishing all the local courts and making Athens the only and centralized government. He then invited foreigners to live as citizens and divided the citizenry into three classes. Lastly, he instituted the Isthmian Games (like the Olympics).
Lesson Seven: Take power for yourself, but make it look like you’re giving it to others.
Lesson Eight: Calm suspicions by leveraging efficiency.
Lesson Nine: Always have a distraction handy to point to.
So there we have it. Nothing special involved here at all, just straightforward psychology, the same techniques that have been used for thousands of years. These days, of course, it’s easier to know your target (1), what with everyone revealing (2) so much on the Internet. One can leverage real-time technologies like RSS and IM to create the ideal timings (3). This timing can be used to push people into believing what is said (4). Then all one has to do is sit back and observe the reactive behavior (5).
Of course, most attackers wouldn’t worry much about ethics (6), but would be careful to cover their tracks (7). Then, if they get in too deep and run the risk of being discovered, the careful social engineer can simply pick out another problem and give you advice on how to solve it (8,9).
You may think this is far fetched, but it happens all the time. It’s not about the technology. If they can get there with social engineering, they will. It’s often easier and leaves fewer traces. Remember, attackers are about the end goal.
Lesson Ten: It’s good to be king.