Wednesday, 12 February 2014


Strength, wisdom, charisma and valour - all virtues of a heroic persona. But contrary to popular belief, heroism was not a male monopoly in the ancient world, even in Greece. Sometimes a heroine could beat a hero at his own game. No finer an example of this was there than Atalanta.

Orchomenos of fair Arcadia
Photograph taken by Heinz Schmitz
In the idyllic pastures of Arcadia, there was once born a princess to King Iasus. But the King, who desired above all other things a son to continue his Royal House, was greatly dismayed. So the King ordered the baby to be left to die in the mountains, as was custom in Greece at the time for the unwanted (a practice frequently used by the Spartans to deal with deformed children who were believed to be incapable of growing into active citizens - for more on this, read here). But, like the shepherd who was ordered to do the same with young Oedipus, the man tasked with the grisly labour found himself, at the last moment, unable to condemn a child to such a fate. Taking pity on the wailing child, he carried her deep into the Arcadian mountains. Upon the slopes of Mount Partheneon, he struggled up the escarpment, coming to rest near a mountain spring. Reasoning here a better place than many others, the man lay the baby down in the grass, and took his leave. But what the herder had failed to spot was the mouth of the cave beyond the clearing, in the dense scrub.  From deep within the darkness, a furry muzzle emerged. Swift behind it the form of a great bear, a mother who had recently lost her cubs to hunters. Staying her savage instinct, the bear took pity on the feeble child before her, and suckled the child. Taking the child as her own, bear and girl lived together in the mountains.

Over time, Atalanta grew, and learned to hunt and fight as the bear, and became hardened to the world. Slowly, she began to grow into a woman, and a striking one at that. The match of any Arcadian girl in beauty, and surpassing them all in strength, endurance and sheer will. Years of exposure to the Sun had reddened her cheeks, so that she seemed to be perpetually blushing. This was one of her most formidable qualities - the other, was that any man who looked upon her would be at once charmed and stricken with fear, for a reason they would never know. She grew into a truly exceptional hunter, such that the goddess of the hunt herself, Artemis, favoured her greatly. Atalanta valued her solitude in the mountains, and committed herself, like her great patron, to a lifetime of chastity.

Meleager presents the head of 
the Calydonian Boar to Atalanta
Painting by Peter Paul Rubens
There came a time, however, in the kingdom of Calydonia, when a great blasphemy was committed. King Oineus one day gave thanks to the Olympian gods, but became distracted, and forgot to honour the lady Artemis. The fierce huntress was consumed with rage, and to the Calydonian lands she sent a monstrous boar, berserk fury in its mind, to curse the realm of men. Livestock was devastated, crops were destroyed and men sent to slay the beast were gored to death. Soon the whole kingdom was thrown into disarray. King Oineus grieved, and the king's son, Prince Meleager, issued a summons across the Greek world, for the greatest hunter of each kingdom to join him in the hunt. Meleager did not fear the creature, for he had heard a prophecy that his end would only come when a brand that burned in the family hearth would be consumed by fire. What risk lay there in the hunt? Legends had spread to Calydonia of the fierce maiden of the peaks, raised by beasts, and Meleager sent heralds to Atalanta to aid them. Her bear indued hunter's instinct fired, Atalanta agreed to help, and for the first time she descended from the mountains. Meleager, from the moment he saw her, was smitten, and invited her to his hunting party.

With a blast of Meleager's horn, the hunt began. The Calydonian Boar was outlandishly fast, however, and the hunters from far and wide tried in vain to gain on the creature. With all the world's great hunters left in the dust, it was young Atalanta who bore down upon the forbidden quarry now. On the sprint, she wrenched back her bowstring, and loosed a lethal barb ahead. The dart struck the boar and drew blood, the first time any weapon had pierced its hide. Slowed by its wounds, the boar stumbled, and Meleager pounced, slaying it with his spear. Awed by Atalanta, Meleager skinned the beast and offered its hide to the huntress, for it had been she who had first drawn blood. Plexippus and Toxeus, the uncles of Meleager, infuriated that the prize had been granted to a woman, tried to seize it from her. Blinded by passion and shame for the conduct of his family, Meleager struck them down where they stood. It was then that Althaea, Meleager's mother, distraught with grief and anger for her son's deeds, cast a log upon the fire. The ancient prophecy fulfilled, the brand was wreathed in flames, and when the wood burned out, the lifeforce of Meleager waned...

It was then that the legend of Atalanta spread across the land, admiration of her prowess that had shamed the greatest men of Greece. King Iasus heard the tale, and came to her. At once, he saw in her his own line, and rejoiced to see her, grateful now of the daughter he had in place of a son. Yet hopes of continuing his line had not died, and he asked Atalanta to be wed. Atalanta, oblivious to her father's former sentence of certain death against her, and feeling little loyalty to the man, having known only a bear as a parent, said bluntly "I will not be won, till I am conquered first in speed". Having bested the might of Greece in the hunt, Atalanta saw little in the men of the world now. The king proposed a contest among the bachelors of Greece, that they might come from far and wide and win the hand of the greatest huntress of them all. Atalanta half heartedly agreed, but only under lethal terms. The bear's wrath and a hunter's endurance waxed strong that day, for she decreed that any would be suitor would be subject to a grueling ordeal. The course was laid, and the suitor would begin the foot race, unarmed. After a set time, Atalanta would enter the field, and if she caught the suitor before the course bound was met, he would be immediately slain. Should she fail to catch him, that man would be her groom.

Hippomenes casts the Golden Apples
Painting by Nicolas Colombel
Suitors came from kingdoms far and kingdoms wide, drawn by the grisly allure of the prize. From the furthest reaches of the known world, they came in droves, all eager for the huntress' hand, the favoured of forest. Many set forth from the starting line, none ever passed the finish. Many a hope was dashed on the point of Atalanta's spear, as her frustration grew at the lack of true competition. Then one day came the charming and wise Hippomenes, a humble fellow Arcadian. Hippomenes, seeing the dead litter the path to the glade, and pure of heart, prayed to on high for guidance. The goddess Aphrodite, lady of passion, took pity on him, and could not bear to see a pure soul transfixed like so many before him on Atalanta's spear. Just before the race, the goddess gave to Hippomenes three apples of the brightest gold, as alluring to the female eye as the face of Atalanta was to the male. Atalanta saw her new challenger approaching, and fought the instinct within when she looked fondly upon him. Her wild nature took flight once more, and the red descended over her eyes. So the lines were drawn, and the race was begun, and quite literally did bold Hippomenes run for his life. A good start it was, as under the watchful eyes of Aphrodite did the eager boy compete. Then, the blast of the horn, and Hippomenes heard the sound of death begin her march. The heart rending sound of approaching, running, footfalls would have struck cold the hearts of any other man, but not Hippomenes. Fighting fear, and keeping his head clear, he took the first of the blessed apples, and cast it upon the ground behind him.

Atalanta, death in her eyes, caught sight of a glint of gold on the earth ahead, and was intrigued. She came to the source of the light, and bent down to pick it up. She saw that it was an apple, but the most luxurious she had ever seen, and was consumed with desire. Shaking her head, she recalled her task. Stowing the blessed fruit in her tunic, she set off at a sprint once more. But precious time had the huntress squandered in her distraction, for now bold Hippomenes had taken the lead.

Soon, the huntress was hot on the Arcadian's heels once more. Trusting in Aphrodite, with a prayer, he cast the second apple. For a second time, Infatuation conquered Atalanta, and for a second time, Hippomenes widened the lead. Then, the end of the course in sight, Hippomenes rejoiced. His euphoria nearly deafening him, Atalanta was now barely a spear thrust behind him. Trusting the gift for a third time, he released the last of his gilded fruit. Aphrodite blessed the last with the most potent incantation of all, and in the moment of her victory, Atalanta was irresistably drawn to the flash of gold. The split second cost her the last thrill of the hunt, and the foot of Hippomenes fell upon the finishing line. A shout went up from the crowd. A bewilderment came over Atalanta, joy over Hippomenes and admiration over the king. Impressed by the boy's ingenuity, he declared the Arcadian the winner. At last, a king, a huntress, and a farm boy had found peace...

United Kingdom

The Library of Mythology:
Library of Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

Historical Miscellany (Loeb Classical Library)
(A 3rd century AD collection of all manner of weird and wonderful stories, including the most detailed account of Atalanta that survives from Antiquity)

United States

The Library of Mythology:
Library of Mythology
(A vast collection of the myths of old Greece, written in ancient times, and a great intro)

Aelian: Historical Miscellany (Loeb Classical Library No. 486)
(A 3rd century AD collection of all manner of weird and wonderful stories, including the most detailed account of Atalanta that survives from Antiquity)

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