Theseus. 5627: Mosaïques de pavement. Thésée, IVe-Ve siècle après J.-C. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Genève.
"May I therefore
succeed in purifying Fable, making her
submit to reason and take on the semblance
of History. But where she obstinately
disdains to make herself credible, and
refuses to admit any element of
probability, I shall pray for kindly
readers, and such as receive with
indulgence the tales of antiquity."
Lives Theseus 1.2).
Aeetes and Pasiphae,
children of Helius, had their respective daughters kidnapped by foreigners. Medea (daughter of Aeetes) escaped with Jason, and
But who was abducted first? Some think that
Medea was, asserting that she came to Hellas with Jason, lived with him in
Corinth for ten years, and later, having left him, married Aegeus 1 (Apd.1.9.28). Now Aegeus 1 ignored
that years before he had fathered a son in
Troezen, and in
Euripides' Medea, he tells the Colchian witch:
childless: it is the act of some god." (671)
It is told that later
Aegeus 1's son
Theseus came from
Medea attempted to poison him (Apollodorus, Epitome 1.5ff.; Plutarch,
Theseus 12.2; Diodorus Siculus 4.55.4-6;
Pausanias 2.3.8; Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.406-424, and others). But Aegeus 1, having recognized his son, expelled Medea from the city. After that incident, Theseus sailed to
Crete, a voyage which resulted in the abduction of Ariadne.
Several authors agree in that order of events. Yet, Apollonius Rhodius thought that the first to be abducted was Ariadne since he represented Jason telling
"In days past
the maiden Ariadne, daughter of
Minos, with kindly intent rescued
Theseus from grim conteststhe maiden
whom Pasiphae, daughter of Helius, bare." (Argonautica 3.997).
In Apollonius' view then, Theseus belonged to
"days past", which
means that he could not have been the victim of a
plot conceived by Medea
(since when she attempted on
Theseus' life no one knew who Theseus was, whereas Apollonius' Jason obviously knows him very welland so does the girl he is seducing).
Also Apollodorus and Hyginus preclude the
meeting between Theseus
and Medea in
Athens. But whereas they do it by counting Theseus among the
ARGONAUTS, Apollonius Rhodius achieves the same result by placing Theseus in "days past" (i.e., previous to the expedition of the "Argo"). Yet Apollodorus also suggests (2.6.3) that the voyage of the ARGONAUTS and
the hunt of the Calydonian boar took place while
Theseus was traveling from Troezen to Athens, clearing the Isthmus of malefactors. Quite a few manuals tell the story of that fateful meeting between Theseus
and Medea as happening
before the participation of
Theseus in the
expedition of the
ARGONAUTS! Yet one has to wonder: Was it not this same expedition that brought Medea to Hellas?
And if Theseus, as member of the expedition, indeed brought Medea to Hellas, how could he, as an unknown newcomer, meet her in Athens some time afterwards?
Other difficulties arise when
Theseus is thus placed in "days past":
The death of
Meleager, soon after the Calydonian boar-hunt, clearly suggests that the expedition to Colchis took place before the boar-hunt since Meleager was among the ARGONAUTS (the same could be said of Ancaeus 1, an Argonaut who was later killed by the Calydonian boar; or of Eurytion 2, another Argonaut who was accidentally killed by Peleus during the hunt; or of Iphiclus 2, an Argonaut whom the same Meleager slew while
disputing about the skin of the Calydonian boar).
Similarly, if Jason had
participated in the Calydonian boar-hunt before
becoming an Argonaut, he would have been known, not
only to Pelias 1 but to the whole of Hellas. Ovid (in Metamorphoses 8.302), when counting Jason among the
HUNTERS, calls him "the
first ship's builder" (a title which Apollodorus, 2.1.4, gives to the father of the DANAIDS), thus acknowledging that the Argonaut became a hunter rather than the other way round.
Besides Ovid, also Pausanias, Hyginus, and
Theseus among the
HUNTERS. The same authors (with the exception of Pausanias) assert that even Jason was among them.
Pausanias' list of hunters (which includes
Theseus but not
Jason) is based on a
Calydonian boar-hunt sculptured by Scopas of Paros
(4C BC). When did
Theseus go a-hunting? For here again, the hunters were famous, and so Theseus should hunt the boar after meeting Medea and not before (for before meeting her, he was an unknown newcomer). Although for Diodorus (The
Library of History 4.50ff.) King Pelias 1 met his death
on the very return of the
ARGONAUTS to Iolcus, Apollodorus suggests (3.9.2), or more emphatically implies (3.13.1) that the Calydonian boar-hunt took place before the death of Pelias 1 (who was
murdered at the instigation of
Medea). Hyginus (Fabulae 25) asserts that Jason was burned to death, along with his new bride Glauce 4 and her father Creon 3, as a result of Medea's machinations.
Since it is after that deed that
Medea is believed to have
met the unknown newcomer
Theseus in Athens, it becomes
difficult to see how
Jason could have hunted
the Calydonian boar together (as Ovid, the same
Hyginus, and Apollodorus report).
Plutarch (in his Theseus) does not insist on Theseus being among the ARGONAUTS and the CALYDONIAN HUNTERS:
"Of the many exploits performed in those days by the bravest men, Herodorus thinks that Theseus took part in none, except that he aided the Lapiths in their war with the Centaurs; but others say that he was not only with Jason at Colchis, but helped Meleager to slay the Calydonian boar ..." (Plutarch, Parallel Lives Theseus 29.3).
How did Herodorus (6C BC) think? ... When did the fight between the LAPITHS and the CENTAURS take place? Was it before the voyage of the ARGONAUTS or after it? If the answer is "before" and Theseus participated in it (as several assert), then Theseus was famous, and not the unknown newcomer whom Medea met in Athens. Thinking of the Lapith seer Mopsus 1, the answer would have to be "before" since he fought against the CENTAURS but perished during the expedition of the "Argo" (Arg. 4.1502ff.). Yet the circumstances of his death are reported only by Apollonius Rhodius, though Mopsus 1 appears in several lists of ARGONAUTS (Argonautica Orphica, Valerius Flaccus, and Hyginus).
Then again: Did the war between the LAPITHS and the CENTAURS take place before or after the Calydonian boar-hunt? Thinking of Caeneus 1, the answer would have to be "after"; for Caeneus 1 is the Calydonian hunter (following Ovid and Hyginus) that was later buried alive by the CENTAURS in the course of their famous fight with the LAPITHS (Apd.Ep.1.22).
Summing up, we notice that the story of Meleager and others establishes the sequence: 1) ARGONAUTS, 2) Calydonian boar-hunt. That the story of Mopsus 1 suggests another sequence: 1) LAPITHS/CENTAURS, 2) ARGONAUTS. And that the story of Caeneus 1 orders the events thus: 1) Calydonian boar-hunt, 2) LAPITHS/CENTAURS.
In the view of Apollonius Rhodius, Theseus' most celebrated adventure (the one resulting in the abduction of Ariadne) belonged to "days past" (i.e., previous to the voyage of ARGONAUTS), and being already famous, Theseus could not have met Medea in Athens in the shape of an unknown newcomer as other poets and mythographers assert. Had Apollonius included Theseus among the CALYDONIAN HUNTERS? It is not likely, since in Apollonius' view Theseus did not follow the ARGONAUTS because he was retained in the Underworld:
"But Theseus ... an unseen bond kept beneath the land of Taenarus, for he had followed that path with Pirithous; assuredly both would have lightened for all the fulfilment of their toil." (Argonautica 1.101).
Theseus' abduction of Helen and his subsequent detention in the Underworld is generally believed to have occurred near the end of his career (v.g. Apd.Ep.1.33; Pau.1.17.4). According to Plutarch (Theseus 31.1, quoting Hellanicus), Theseus was fifty years old when he abducted Helen, and having later returned from Hades (or some other place, as others say), he went into exile and died.
Did Apollonius believe that also the war of the SEVEN AGAINST THEBES occurred before the voyage of the ARGONAUTS? How is then the role attributed to Theseus by Euripides (Suppliants) or Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus) in that war to be combined with such an order of events? Did Atalanta's son Parthenopaeus die at Thebes (Apd.3.6.8; Eur.Phoe.1157; Pau.9.18.6; Stat.Theb.9.885) before his mother killed the Calydonian boar? It appears that if someone wished to accommodate Apollonius Rhodius' view of Theseus' position in time, he would also have to drastically rearrange or eliminate several tales. But then he would meet a similar difficulty with the authors who count Theseus among the ARGONAUTS ... Indeed,
"The legends of Greece generally have different forms ... " (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.53.5).