Heroes and Anti-Heroes

24 Atalanta

Two heroes in tunics with long hair, lunge at the boar with spears. The boar, bleeding from many wounds, flees. Three birds and three fish flock around the heroes.

Calydonian Boar Hunt, black-figure kylix, ca. 555 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)


There are two slightly versions of the Atalanta myth. In one, the heroine is from Arcadia (a region in the Peloponnese), and in the other, she is from Boeotia. Atalanta’s parentage varies between sources. Her father is variously given as Iasius, Iasion, Schoeneus, and Maenalus. In both versions, her father was disappointed she was not a boy. As a result, he left her exposed her in the wilderness at birth. She was found and suckled by a mother bear and then picked up by some human hunters. She was raised by them to be a powerful hunter.


Youth in Arcadia

[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]

Atalanta was a devotee of the goddess Artemis and, like Artemis, she swore to maintain her virginity. When she was a young woman, two centaurs found her in the woods and attempted to rape her. She shot and killed them with arrows.


Aelian, Historical Miscellany (trans. N. G. Wilson)

Greek rhetoric, 2nd-3rd century CE

Aelian, in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, wrote about the birth and life of Atalanta, through the intrusion of the two centaurs. He focuses particularly on the topography of where she lived and her personal appearance.

[13. 1] Here is the story from Arcadia about Atalanta the daughter of Iasion.[1] At birth her father exposed her; he said he wanted sons, not daughters.[2] But the man who took her to be exposed did not kill her, and instead went to Mount Parthenium and put her down near a spring. At that point there was a cave in the rocks, and close by it a dense wood. The child was under sentence of death, but she was not betrayed by fortune, for shortly afterwards arrived a bear, deprived of her cubs by hunters, her breasts bulging and weighed down with milk. Moved by some divine inspiration she took a fancy to the child and suckled it. In this way the animal simultaneously achieved relief from pain and gave nourishment to the infant. And so, still full of milk and supplying nourishment though she was no longer mother to her cubs, she nursed the child who was not her own. The hunters who had originally attacked her young kept an eye on her. They watched all her movements, and when the bear made her usual journey to hunt and feed, they stole Atalanta, who was not yet so named, for it was they who gave her the name. She was brought up by them in the mountains, and slowly her body grew with age. She was committed to virginity, avoided contact with men, and longed for solitude. She established herself in the highest mountains of Arcadia, where there was a well-watered glen with big oak trees, also pines with their deep shadow.

What harm does it do us to hear of Atalanta’s cave, like Calypso‘s in the Odyssey?[3] At the bottom of the defile (a narrow passage between hills) was a large and very deep cave, at the entrance protected by a sheer drop. Ivy encircled it, and gently twined itself around trees and climbed up them. In the soft deep grass there crocuses grew, accompanied by hyacinths and flowers of many other colours, which can not only create a feast for the eye; in fact their perfume filled the air around. In general the atmosphere was of festival, and one could feast on the scent. There were many laurels, their evergreen leaves so agreeable to look at, and vines with very luxuriant clusters of grapes flourished in front of the cave as proof of Atalanta’s industry. A continuous stream of water ran by : pure in appearance and cold, judging by the touch and the effect of drinking it; it flowed in generous and lavish quantity. This very stream served to water the trees already mentioned, with an unfailing current contributing to their vigour. The spot was full of charm, and suggested the dwelling of a dignified and chaste maiden.

Atalanta slept on the skins of animals caught in the hunt, she lived on their meat and drank water. She wore simple clothes, in a style that did not fall short of Artemis‘ example; she claimed the goddess as her model both in his and in her wish to remain a virgin. She was very fleet of foot, and no wild animal or man with designs on her could have escaped her; and when she wanted to escape, no one could have caught her. It was not just those who saw her that fell in love with her; by now her reputation won her lovers.
Now let us describe her appearance, if that is not unwelcome–and it is not, since form it one might gain experience and skill in writing. While still a girl she was bigger than a full-grown woman, and more beautiful than any young woman from the Peloponnesus in those days. She had a fiery, masculine gaze, partly the result of having been nurtured by an animal, but also because of her exercise in the mountains. But since she was full of spirit, there was nothing girlish or delicate about her; she was not the product of the women’s apartments, not one of those brought up by mothers and nurses. Nor was her body overweight, not surprisingly, since she exercised every limb in hunting and physical exercise. Her hair was golden, not due to feminine sophistication, dyes, or applications, but the colour was natural. Exposure to the sun had reddened her face and it looked just as if she was blushing. What flower could be so beautiful as the face of a young woman taught to be modest? She had two astonishing qualities : unrivalled beauty, and with it a capacity to inspire fear. No lazy man would have fallen in love on looking at her, nor would he have had the courage to meet her gaze in the first place; such radiance with beauty shone over those who saw her. To meet her was remarkable, especially since it happened rarely; no one would have easily spotted her. But unexpectedly and unforeseen she would appear, chasing a wild beast or fighting against one; darting like a star she flashed like lightning. Then she raced away, hidden by a wood or thicket or other mountain vegetation.

One day her neighbours, audacious lovers and very tiresome partiers, burst in upon her noisily at midnight; they were two of the Centaurs, Hylaeus and Rhoecus. Their noisy interruption was not done with flute players or in the style of young men from the city; there were pine torches, which they lit and made to burn fiercely; the first sight of fire would have terrified even the population of a city, let alone a solitary young woman. Breaking fresh branches off the pines they wove them together and made garlands for themselves. The incessant, continuous sound of hooves was heard in the mountains; they burned trees and made towards the young woman, evil suitors who in a violent and over-excited state brought gifts for the wedding in advance. But she saw through their plan. From the cave she caught sight of fire and realised who the partiers were; not flinching or cowed by what she saw she bent her bow, shot her weapon, and hit the first of them directly. He lay there, and the other advanced, no longer in the mood of a partier but with hostile intent, wishing to defend his companion and vent his anger. But he too was punished, by the young woman’s other arrow. So much on the subject of Atalanta, daughter of Iasion.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Atalanta.html


The Calydonian Boar Hunt

According to some accounts, Atalanta was one of the Argonauts that sailed with Jason to steal the Golden Fleece (the only woman to go on the voyage). Pseudo-Apollodorus lists her among the 50 men that sailed with Jason, but Apollonius of Rhodes explains that Jason prevented her from coming because he feared that she was too in love with him.

Atalanta was famously equal to men in all regards. At the funeral games for King Pelias (killed by Medea after she and Jason returned from Colchis), she beat the hero Peleus (father of Achilles) in a wrestling match.

One time, King Oeneus of Calydon in the region of Anatolia, failed to honour the goddess Artemis when he was performing the sacrificial rites for the gods. As punishment, she sent a wild boar to ravage the countryside. Since it was killing people and livestock, King Oeneus called on all the great heroes of Greece to come hunt the boar. Atalanta answered the call, along with Meleager, one of her fellow Argonauts. During the hunt, Atalanta was the first hero to draw blood from the boar, wounding it. Meleager finished it off. The heroes awarded the prized of the boar’s hide to Meleager for the kill, but he in turn gave it to Atalanta to honour the fact that she had been first to wound it. This decision angered Meleager’s maternal uncles, who did not a think that a woman should get the trophy. They seized the hide from Atalanta, claiming it for themselves. Meleager killed them.

Out of grief at the loss of her brothers, Meleager’s mother, Althaea took a rash action. When Meleager was born there was a prophecy that he would only live as long as a piece of wood that happened to be burning in the hearth fire at the time. Althaea quickly snatched the burning log from the fire and extinguished the flame. She hid the partially charred log in a locked box for safe keeping. But when Meleager killed her two brothers, she took the fateful log and threw it on the fire. As the log burned, Meleager died.


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 1 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

Pseudo-Apollodorus tells the story of Atalanta and the Calydonian boar hunt. Notice how many of the heroes listed are recognizable from the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts.


[1.8.2-3] When he was sacrificing the first fruits of the annual crops of the country to all the gods, Oeneus forgot only Artemis. But she, in her anger, sent a boar of extraordinary size and strength, which prevented the land from being sown and destroyed the cattle and the people that fell in with it. To attack this boar, Oeneus called together all the noblest men of Greece, and promised that to him who should kill the beast he would give the skin as a prize. Now the men who assembled to hunt the boar were these : Meleager, son of Oeneus; Dryas, son of Ares; these came from Calydon; Idas and Lynceus, sons of Aphareus, from Messene; Castor and Polydeuces, sons of Zeus and Leda, from Lacedaemon; Theseus, son of Aegeus, from Athens; Admetus, son of Pheres, from Pherai; Ancaeus and Cepheus, sons of Lycurgus, from Arcadia; Jason, son of Aeson, from Iolcus; Iphicles, son of Amphitryon, from Thebes; Pirithous, son of Ixion, from Larissa; Peleus, son of Aeacus, from Phthia; Telamon, son of Aeacus, from Salamis; Eurytion, son of Actor, from Phthia; Atalanta, daughter of Schoeneus, from Arcadia; Amphiaraus, son of Oicles, from Argos. With them came also the sons of Thestius.

And when they were assembled, Oeneus entertained them for nine days; but on the tenth, when Cepheus and Ancaeus and some others disdained to go hunting with a woman, Meleager compelled them to follow the chase with her, for he desired to have a child also by Atalanta, though he had to wife Cleopatra, daughter of Idas and Marpessa.

When they surrounded the boar, Hyleus and Ancaeus were killed by the brute, and Peleus struck down Eurytion with a javelin by accident. But Atalanta was the first to shoot the boar in the back with an arrow, and Amphiaraus was the next to shoot it in the eye; but Meleager killed it by a stab in the flank, and on receiving the skin gave it to Atalanta. Nevertheless, the sons of Thestios, thinking scorn that a woman should get the prize in the face of men, took the skin from her, alleging that it belonged to them by right of birth if Meleager did not choose to take it. But Meleager in a rage slew the sons of Thestios and gave the skin to Atalanta. However, out of grief at the slaughter of her brothers, Althaea kindled the brand, and Meleager immediately died.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Atalanta.html


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 8 (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

Ovid also dramatized the story of the Calydonian boar hunt in his epic poem, the Metamorphoses.


[260-328] Now Sicily, the land of Mount Etna, held the weary Daedalus, and King Cocalus, seen as a usually peaceful person, had taken up arms, against Minos, in defence of the suppliant [ Daedalus ]:[4] and thanks to Theseus, Athens now had ceased to pay Crete the sorrowful levy.[5] The temple was wreathed with flowers, and the Athenians called out to warlike Minerva, to Jupiter and to the other gods, honouring them with gifts, and the blood of sacrificial offerings, and the contents of their incense-boxes. Far-wandering Fame had spread the name of Theseus through all the cities of the Argolis, and the peoples inhabiting wealthy Achaia begged for his help in their great trouble, and Calydon, as a suppliant, despite having Meleager, asked his help, with anxious prayers.

The reason for their asking was a wild boar, a servant and avenging power of Diana’s aggression. King Oeneus of Calydon, they say, made offerings, from the successful harvests of a full year, of the first fruits of the crops to Ceres, of wine to Bacchus, ‘the deliverer from care’, of libations of flowing oil, from the olives, to golden Minerva. The honour they desire was paid to all the gods, beginning with the rural deities: only the daughter of Leto’s altar was passed by: neglected, it is said, and left without its incense. Anger even touches the gods. “I will not suffer this without exacting punishment,” she cried “and, though not honoured, it will not be said that I was un-avenged.’ And the goddess, insulted, sent an avenging wild boar over the Aetolian fields: grassy Epirus had none greater than it, and those of the island of Sicily were smaller. Its eyes glowed with bloodshot fire: its neck was stiff with bristles, and the hairs, on its hide, bristled stiffly like spear-shafts: just as a palisade stands, so the hairs stood like tall spears. Hot foam flecked the broad shoulders, from its hoarse grunting. Its tusks were the size of an Indian elephant’s: lightning came from its mouth: and the leaves were scorched, by its breath. Now it trampled the young shoots of the growing crops, now cut short the ripeness, longed-for by the mournful farmer, and scythed down the corn in ear. The granaries and threshing floors waited for the promised harvest in vain. Heavy clusters of grapes were brought down along with the trailing vines, and fruit and branch of the evergreen olives. It rages among the cattle too. Neither the herdsmen and dogs, nor their own fierce bulls can defend the herds. The people scatter, and only count themselves safe behind city walls.

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship; Jason who built the first ship; Theseus and Pirithous, fortunate in friendship; Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager; Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman:[6] warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cteatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis.

Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles; with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaus from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running; and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life; and those that Hippocoon sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae; LaertesPenelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady; Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx; and Amphiaraus, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle.

And Atalanta, the warrior girl of Tegea, the glory of Arcadia’s woods, with a polished brooch clasping the neck of her garment, and her hair simply done, caught in a single knot. An ivory quiver, holding her arrows, that rattled as she moved, hung from her left shoulder, and her left hand held the bow. So she was dressed: as for her face, you might truly say, the virgin was there, in a boy, and a boy, in the girl. The moment he saw her, that moment, Meleager, the hero of Calydon, desired her, though the gods might refuse it, devoured by secret fires. “O, happy the man, whom she might think worthy!” he said. Neither time nor honour allowed him further words: the greater task of the greater conflict urged him on.

[329-375] A forest thick with trees, that had never been cut, at any time, began above the plain, and overlooked the sloping fields. When the heroes reached it, some spread out hunting nets, others loosed the dogs from their leashes, while others again followed the deeply-marked trail, keen to discover their quarry. There was a deep valley that collected streams of rainwater, falling near it: and it held, in its depths, pliant willows, smooth sedges, and marsh grasses, and osiers and tall bulrushes, above the lowly reeds. The boar was roused from there, and made a violent charge into the midst of its enemies, like lightning forced from colliding clouds. Trees were flattened by its impact, and the woods crashed as it drove into them. The warriors shouted, and held their spears spread outward, with firm hands, waving their broad blades. The boar rushed them, scattering the dogs, as they obstructed it in its fury, putting the baying pack to flight with sidelong swipes of its tusks. The first spear, delivered by Echion’s arm, was ineffectual, and gave the trunk of a maple a glancing blow. The next, if it had not been thrown with too great a force, aimed at the creature’s back, seemed certain to stick there, but the throw was too long. Jason of Pagasae hurled the spear.

Then Mopsus, son of Ampyx, cried out “Phoebus, if I have worshipped you, and do so now, grant what I ask, that my spear strikes surely!” The god did what he could, to fulfil the prayer: the boar was hit, but without being wounded. Diana had stolen the iron point of the javelin, in flight: what arrived was the wooden shaft without its tip. The wild beast’s anger was aroused, and blazed out no more gently than lightning. Flame burned in its eyes, and was breathed from its chest. With dangerous and unerring momentum, the boar hurtled towards the young men, as a stone flies from a taut catapult, aimed at walls or battlements full of soldiers. Hippalmus and Pelagon, holding the right flank, were knocked to the ground: their friends caught them up as they lay there. But Enaesimus, son of Hippocoon, did not escape the fatal blow: about to turn his back, in alarm, he sank down, as the sinews of his knee gave way. And King Nestor of Pylos, might perhaps have perished before his time at Troy, but, using the leverage of his firmly planted spear, he vaulted into a tree, that stood close by, and looked down, from a place of safety, on the quarry he had escaped.

The fierce creature, sharpening its tusks on the trunk of an oak, threatened them with destruction, and confident in its freshly renewed weapons, ripped open mighty Hippasus’ thigh, with one curving edge. But now the Gemini [ Dioscuri ], Castor and Polydeuces, not yet changed into stars in the sky, twin brothers, conspicuous among the rest, both rode up, on horses whiter than snow, and brandishing their javelins in the air as one, hurled them, the points quivering with the motion.

[376-424] They would have wounded the beast, had not the bristling creature retreated into the dense woods where no horse or spear could penetrate. Telamon did follow, and careless where he was placing his feet, in his enthusiasm, fell flat on the ground, tripping over the root of a tree. While Peleus was lifting him, the girl from Tegea strung a swift arrow, and sent it speeding from the curved bow. The shaft just grazed the top of the boar’s back, and fixing itself below one ear, reddened the bristles with a thin stream of blood. Nor did she praise her own successful shot more than Meleager did. He was supposed to have been the first to see the blood, and first, having seen it, to point it out to his friends, saying, “You will be honoured for the value of this service.” The warriors flushed with their shame, urged each other on, gaining courage from their clamour, hurling their spears without sense of order. The jostling spoilt their throw, and prevented the strike they intended. Then Ancaeus of Arcady, with his twin-headed axe, rushing to meet his fate, cried, “O warriors, learn how much better a man’s weapons are than a girl’s, and leave the work to me! Though Leto’s daughter herself protects this creature, in her own way, in spite of Diana, my right arm will destroy it.” Swollen with pride, like this, with boastful words, he spoke, and, lifting the double axe in both hands, he stood on tiptoe, poised for the downward blow. The boar anticipated this daring enemy, and struck at the upper groin, the quickest way to kill, with his twin tusks. Ancaeus collapsed, and the slippery mass of his inner organs fell away in a pool of blood: the ground was soaked with the red fluid.

Then Pirithous, son of Ixion, went against the quarry, brandishing his hunting-spear in his strong right-hand. TheseusAegeus’ son, called out “Stay, farther away, my soul’s other half, O dearer to me than myself! It is fine to be brave at a distance, also: Ancaeus’ rash courage only did him harm.” He spoke, and threw his heavy spear, of cornelian cherry-wood, with its bronze blade. Though well aimed and capable of reaching its mark, it was deflected by the leafy branch of an oak. JasonAeson’s son, hurled his javelin, which swerved by accident, and the fatal throw transfixing the flanks of an innocent hound, pinned it to the ground.

But Meleager’s hand made the difference, and of the two spears he threw, though one stuck in the earth, the other fixed itself in the boar’s back. Now, while it raged, and twisted its body round, and spouted out hissing foam and fresh blood, the author of its wound came at it, pricked his quarry to fury, and buried his shining hunting-spear in his enemy’s shoulder. Then the companions give proof of their joy, shouting, and crowding around him to grasp his hand in theirs. They gaze, wonderingly, at the huge creature covering so much of the earth it lies on, and still think it unsafe to touch the beast, but nevertheless each wets his spear in its blood.

[425-450] Meleager, himself, pressed his foot down on the head of the deadly creature, and said to Atalanta “Girl from Nonacria, take the prize that is mine by right, and let my glory be shared with you.” Then he gave her the spoils, the hide bristling with hair, and the head remarkable for its magnificent tusks. She delighted in the giver no less than the gift, but the others were envious, and a murmur ran through the whole company. Of these, Plexippus, and Toxeus, the sons of Thestius, Meleager’s uncles, stretching their arms out, shouted loudly, “Come on, girl, leave them alone: do not steal our titles to honour, and do not let too much faith in your beauty deceive you, lest your love-sick friend turns out to be no help to you.” And they took the gifts away from her, and denied him the right to give them. The descendant of Mars [ Meleager ] could not bear this, and bursting with anger, gnashing his teeth, he said, “Learn, you thieves of other men’s rights, the difference between threats and actions”, and plunged his iron point into Plexippus’ chest, who expecting nothing of that kind. Meleager gave Toxeus, who stood in doubt, wanting to avenge his brother, but fearing his brother’s fate, scant time for doubt, and while his spear was still warm from the first brother’s murder, he warmed it again with the second brother’s blood.

Althaea was carrying thanksgiving offerings, for her son Meleager’s victory, to the temple of the gods, when she saw them bringing back her dead brothers. She filled the city with the clamour of wailing, beat her breasts, and replaced her golden robes with black. But when she heard who the murderer was, she forgot her mourning, and her longing changed from tears to revenge.

[451-514] There was a piece of wood that the Three Sisters placed in the fire, when Althaea, the daughter of Thestius, was in the throes of childbirth. As they spun the threads of fate firmly under their thumbs, they said, “We assign an equal span of time to you, O new born child, and to this brand.” When the goddesses vanished, after speaking the prophecy, the mother snatched the burning branch from the fire, and doused it with water. It had long been hidden away in the depths of the inner rooms, and preserved, had preserved your years, youth. Your mother now brought it out, and called for pinewood and kindling: and, once that was in position, she lit the hostile flames. Then she tried, four times, to throw the brand in the fire, and four times, held back. The mother fought the sister in her, and the two tugged at the one heart. Often her cheeks grew pale at imminent wickedness. Often fierce anger filled her eyes with blood. One moment she seemed like someone threatening some cruelty: the next you would think her full of compassion. When her heart’s fierce passion dried up her tears, the tears welled up again. As a ship, that the wind, and the tide opposing the wind, both seize, feels the twin forces and obeys the two, uncertainly, so the daughter of Thestius, was swayed by her emotions, and her anger alternately calmed, and then flared again.

However, the sister in her begins to outweigh the mother, and to appease the shades of her own blood, with blood, she escapes guilt by incurring it. Now, as the baleful fire strengthens, she cries “Let this be the funeral pyre that cremates my child.” As she held the fatal brand in her deadly hand, and stood, wretched woman, in front of the funeral altars, she said “Eumenides, Triple Goddesses of Retribution, turn your faces towards these fearful rites! I take revenge, and I do a wicked thing: death must be atoned for by death: crime must be heaped on crime, ruin on ruin. Let this impious house end in a flood of mourning! Will Oeneus, fortunate, rejoice in his victorious child, while Thestius is grieving for his sons? Better for both to grieve. Only, my brother’s spirits, new-made ghosts, recognise my sense of duty to you, and accept the sacrifice I prepare, so great its cost to me, the evil child of my womb! Ah me! What conclusion do I rush towards? My brothers, forgive a mother! The hand is unequal to what it began: I acknowledge he deserves to die, but I do not desire to be the cause of his death. Will he go unpunished? Will he live, victorious, proud of his success, and be king in Calydon, while you lie there, the scant ashes of chill shadows? For my part I cannot suffer that to be: let the wicked die, and pull down his father’s hopes, his kingship, and the ruins of his country! Where are my maternal feelings? Where are the sacred allegiances of a parent? Where are the anxieties I suffered over those ten months? O, I wish, when you were an infant burning in those first flames, I had allowed it to be! By my gift, you lived: now for your own fault, you die! Suffer the consequences of what you have done, and give me back the life I twice gave you, once at your birth, once when I snatched at the brand, or let me join my brothers in the tomb!

I yearn to do it, and I cannot do it. What will I do? Now my brothers’ wounds are before my eyes and the image of all that blood: and now heart’s love, and the word ‘mother’ move me. Woe to me! Evil is in your victory, my brothers: but victory you shall have: only let me follow you, and the comfort I bring you!” She spoke, and turning her face away, with trembling hands, threw the fatal brand, into the midst of the fire. The piece of wood itself gave, or seemed to give, a sigh, as it was attacked, and burnt, by the reluctant flames.

[515-546] Far off, and unaware, Meleager is alight with that fire, and feels his inner organs invisibly seared. He controls the fierce agonies, with courage. Nevertheless he is sad that he must die a bloodless, cowardly death, and calls Ancaeus fortunate in his wounds. At the last, groaning with pain, he names his aged father, his brothers, his loving sisters, the companion of his bed, and, it may be, his mother. The fire and the suffering flare up, and die away, again, and both are extinguished together. Gradually his breath vanishes into the light breeze: gradually white ashes veil the glowing embers.

Noble Calydon lies dead. Young men and old lament, people and princes moan, and the women of Calydon, by the River Euenus, tear at their hair, and beat their breasts. His father, prone on the ground, mars his aged features and white hair with dust, and rebukes himself for his long years. As for his mother, conscious of her dreadful action, she has exacted punishment on herself, with her own hand driving the weapon into her body. Not though the god had given me a hundred mouths speaking with tongues, the necessary genius, and all Helicon as my domain, could I describe the sad fate of his poor sisters. Forgetting what is seemly, they strike their bruised chests, and while there is something left of the body, the body is caressed again and again, as they kiss it and kiss the bier on which it lies.

Once he is ashes the ashes are gathered, and they press them to their breasts, throw themselves down on his tomb, and clasping the stone carved with his name, they drown the name with tears. At last, Diana, satiated with her destruction of the house of Parthaon, lifted them up, all except Gorge, and Deianira, the daughter-in-law of noble Alcmene, and, making feathers spring from their bodies, and stretching long wings over their arms, she gave them beaks, and, changed to guinea-hens, the Meleagrides, launched them into the air.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph8.php#anchor_Toc64106499

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

The Foot Race

After the Calydonian boar hunt, Atalanta’s father insisted that she marry, despite the vow of lifelong virginity that she had made to the goddess Artemis. Atalanta agreed, provided her future husband meet one condition: he had to beat her in a foot race. All losers would be put to death. Although many men tried and failed to beat Atalanta, one hero, named Melanion (or Hippomenes depending on the source), sought the help of Aphrodite. The goddess gifted him with three golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. As Melanion and Atalanta raced, he threw the apples onto the track in front of her. Supernaturally drawn to them, Atalanta had to go far off course in order to retrieve the apples, thus allowing Melanion the time to win. They married and grew deeply in love with one another. However, Melanion failed to adequately thank Aphrodite for her help and she cursed the lovers to have sex in the sacred precinct of Zeus (sometimes given as that of Rhea or Artemis), which was against divine law. The offended god(dess) changed them into Lions.


Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, Fragment 14c (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek epic, 7th century BCE

Hesiod wrote about the race between Atalanta and Melanion in his epic poem, The Catalogue of Women, from the 7th century BCE. The text is fragmentary and breaks off towards the end.


Then immediately the trim-ankled maiden [Atalanta], peerless in beauty, rose up against him: a great crowd stood round about her as she gazed fiercely, and wonder held all men as they looked upon her. As she moved, the breath of the west wind stirred the shining garment about her tender bosom; but Hippomenes stood where he was: and many people were gathered together. All these kept silence; but Schoeneus cried and said , “Hear me all, both young and old, while I speak as my spirit within my breast bids me. Hippomenes seeks my coy-eyed daughter to wife; but let him now hear my wholesome speech. He will not win her without contest; yet, if he is victorious and escapes death, and if the deathless gods who live on Olympus grant him to win renown, then truly he will return to his dear native land, and I will give him my dear child and strong, swift-footed horses besides which he shall lead home to be cherished possessions; and may he rejoice in heart possessing these, and ever remember with gladness the painful contest. May the father of men and of gods (grant that splendid children may be born to him) ((lacuna))[7] . . .’

On the right ((lacuna)) . . . and he, rushing upon her ((lacuna)) . . drawing back slightly towards the left. And on them was laid an unenviable struggle: for she, even fair, swift-footed Atalanta, ran scorning the gifts of golden Aphrodite; but with him the race was for his life, either to find his doom, or to escape it. Therefore with thoughts of guile he said to her , “O daughter of Schoeneus, pitiless in heart, receive these glorious gifts of the goddess, golden Aphrodite ((lacuna)) . .”

But he, following lightly on his feet, cast the first apple : and, swiftly as a Harpy, she turned back and snatched it. Then he cast the second to the ground with his hand. And now fair, swift-footed Atalanta had two apples and was near the goal; but Hippomenes cast the third apple to the ground, and therewith escaped death and black fate. And he stood panting and ((lacuna)) . .”


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Atalanta.html


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 10 (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Atalanta’s footrace is told as a story within a story within a story. The outermost story, the subject of Book 10 of the Metamorphoses is the tragic love affair of Orpheus and Eurydice. After Orpheus has lost Eurydice forever, he spends his life sitting among the trees and animals singing sad story after sad story in mourning. One of the stories he sings is the doomed love affair of Venus (Aphrodite) and the mortal man Adonis. As part of their affair, Venus delights Adonis with the story of Atalanta and Melanion (here called Hippomenes). As with every narrative in the Metamorphoses, the myth of Atalanta leads up to and ends with her and Hippomenes’ transformation in to Lions.


[560-707] “Perhaps you have heard of a girl who beat the fastest men at running: that was no mere rumour, she did win. Nor could you say whether her speed or her beauty was more deserving of high praise. Enquiring of the god [ Apollo ], about a husband, the god replied: ‘You don’t need a husband, Atalanta: run from the necessity for a husband. Nevertheless, you will not escape, and, still living, you will not be yourself.’ Afraid of the god’s oracle, she lived in the dark forests, unmarried, and fled from the crowd of insistent suitors, setting harsh conditions: ‘I will not be won, until I am beaten in running. Compete in the foot-race with me. Wife and bed will be given as prizes to the swift, death to the slow: let those be the rules.’

Truly she was pitiless, but (such was the power of her beauty) a rash crowd of suitors came, despite the rules. Hippomenes had taken his seat as a spectator at the unjust contest, and said ‘Who would try for a wife at such a risk?’ condemning the young men for their excess of passion. But when he saw her face and her unclothed body, one like mine, Adonis, or like yours if you were a woman, he was stunned. Stretching out his hands, he said: ‘Forgive me, you, that I just blamed! I had not yet realised what the prize was you were after.’ Praising her, he falls in love with her, and hopes none of the youths run faster, afraid, through jealousy. ‘But why, in this competition, is my luck left untested?’ he says. The god himself favours the bold!’

While Hippomenes was debating with himself like this, the virgin girl sped by on winged feet. To the Aonian youth she flew like a Scythian arrow, yet it made him admire her beauty all the more. The race gave her a beauty of its own. The breeze blew the streaming feathers on her speeding sandals behind her, and her hair was thrown back from her ivory shoulders. Ribbons with embroidered edges fluttered at her knees, and a blush spread over the girlish whiteness of her body, just as when a red awning over a white courtyard stains it with borrowed shadows. While the stranger was watching this, the last marker was passed, and the victorious Atalanta was crowned with a festive garland, while the losers, groaning, paid the penalty according to their bond.

Undeterred by the youths’ fate, Hippomenes stepped forward and, fixing his gaze on the girl, said ‘Why seek an easy win beating the lazy? Race me. If fortune makes me the master, it will be no shame for you to be outpaced by such a man as me, since Megareus of Onchestus is my father, and his grandfather was Neptune, so I am the great-grandson of the king of the ocean, and my courage is no less than my birth. Or if I am beaten, you will have a great and renowned name for defeating Hippomenes.’ As he spoke Schoeneus’ daughter looked at him with a softening expression, uncertain whether she wanted to win or lose, and said to herself: ‘What god, envious of handsome youths, wants to destroy this one and send him in search of marriage, at the risk of his own dear life? I am not worth that much, I think. Nor is it his beauty that moves me (yet I could be touched by that too) but that he is still only a boy. He does not move me himself: it is his youth. What if he does have courage, and a spirit unafraid of dying? What if he is fourth in line from the ruler of the seas? What if he does love, and thinks so much of marriage with me, that he would die, if a harsh fate denies me to him? While you can, stranger, leave this blood-soaked marrying. Wedding me is a cruel thing. No one will refuse to have you, and you may be chosen by a wiser girl. – Yet why this concern when so many have already died before you?

Let him look out for himself! Let him perish, since he has not been warned off by the death of so many suitors, and shows himself tired of life. – Should he die, then, because he wants to live with me, and suffer an unjust death as the penalty for loving? My victory would not avoid incurring hatred. But it is not my fault! I wish you would desist, or if you are set on it, I wish you might be the faster! How the virginal expression of a boy clings to his face! O! Poor Hippomenes, I wish you had never seen me! You were so fitted to live. But if I were luckier, if the harsh fates did not prevent my marriage, you would be the one I would want to share my bed with.’ She spoke: and inexperienced, feeling the touch of desire for the first time, not knowing what she does, she loves and does not realise she loves.

Now her father and the people were calling out for the usual foot-race, when Hippomenes, Neptune’s descendant invoked my aid, as a suppliant: ‘Cytherea, I beg you to assist my daring, and encourage the fire of love that you lit.’ A kindly breeze brought me the flattering prayer, and I confess it stirred me, though there was scant time to give him my help. There is a field, the people there call it the field of Tamasus, the richest earth in the island of Cyprus, which the men of old made sacred to me, and ordered it to be added to my temples, as a gift. A tree gleams in the middle of the field, with rustling golden leaves, and golden branches. Come from there, by chance, I was carrying three golden apples, I had picked, in my hands, and I approached Hippomenes, showing myself only to him, and told him how to use them.

The trumpets gave the signal, and, leaning forward, they flashed from the starting line, and skimmed the surface of the sand, with flying feet. You would think them capable of running along the waves without wetting them, and passing over the ripened heads of the standing corn. The young man’s spirit was cheered by shouts and words of encouragement: ‘Run, Hippomenes! Now, now is the time to sprint! Use your full power, now! Don’t wait: you’ll win!’

Who knows whether Megareus’ heroic son, or Schoeneus’ daughter, was more pleased with these words? O how often, when she could have overtaken him, she lingered, and watching his face for a while, left him behind against her will! Panting breath came from his weary throat, and the winning post was far off. Only then did Neptune’s scion throw away one of the fruits from the tree. The girl was astonished, and, eager for the shining apple, she ran off the course, and picked up the spinning gold. Hippomenes passed her: the stands resounded with the applause. She made up for the delay and the lost time by a burst of speed, and left the youth behind once more. Again she delayed when a second apple was thrown, followed, and passed the man. The last section of track was left. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘be near me, goddess who made me this gift!’ He threw the shining gold vigorously, sideways, into the deep field, from where she would take longer to get back. The girl seemed to hesitate as to whether she should chase it: I made her pick it up, and added weight to the fruit she held, and obstructed her equally with the heaviness of the burden and the delay. And lest my story be longer than the race itself, the virgin was overtaken: the winner led away his prize.’

Adonis, did I deserve to be thanked, to have incense brought me? Unthinking, he neither gave thanks, nor offered incense to me. I was provoked to sudden anger, and pained by his contempt, so as not to be slighted in future, I decreed an example would be made of them, and I roused myself against them both.

They were passing a temple, hidden in the deep woods, of Cybele mother of the gods, that noble Echion had built in former times fulfilling a vow, and the length of their journey persuaded them to rest. There, stirred by my divine power, an untimely desire to make love seized Hippomenes. Near the temple was a poorly lit hollow, like a cave, roofed with the natural pumice-stone, sacred to the old religion, where the priests had gathered together wooden figures of the ancient gods. They entered it, and desecrated the sanctuary, with forbidden intercourse. The sacred images averted their gaze, and the Great Mother, with the turreted crown, hesitated as to whether to plunge the guilty pair beneath the waters of the Styx: but the punishment seemed too light. So tawny manes spread over their necks, that, a moment ago, were smooth; their fingers curved into claws; forelegs were formed from arms; all their weight was in their breast; and their tails swept the surface of the sand. They had a fierce expression, roared instead of speaking, and frequented the woods for a marriage-bed. As lions, fearful to others, they tamely bite on Cybele’s bit. You must avoid, them, my love, and with them all the species of wild creature, that do not turn and run, but offer their breasts to the fight, lest your courage be the ruin of us both!’”


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph10.php#anchor_Toc64105575

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 3 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]
The full story of Atalanta is summarized by Pseudo-Apollodorus in the Bibliotheca.


[3.9.2] Lycurgus [king of Arcadia] had sons, Ancaeus, Epochus, Amphidamas, and Iasus, by Cleophyle or Eurynome. And Amphidamas had a son Melanion and a daughter Antimachus, whom Eurystheus married.

And Iasus had a daughter Atalanta by Clymene, daughter of Minyas. This Atalanta was exposed by her father, because he desired male children; and a she-bear came often and gave her suck, until hunters found her and brought her up among themselves. Grown to womanhood, Atalanta kept herself a virgin, and hunting in the wilderness she remained always under arms. The Centaurs Rhoecus and Hylaeus tried to rape her, but were shot down and killed by her.

She went moreover with the chiefs to hunt the Calydonian Boar, and at the games held in honour of Pelias she wrestled with Peleus and won.

Afterwards she discovered her parents, but when her father would have persuaded her to wed, she went away to a place that might serve as a racecourse, and, having planted a stake three cubits[8] high in the middle of it, she caused her wooers to race before her from there, and ran herself in arms; and if the wooer was caught up, his due was death on the spot, and if he was not caught up, his due was marriage. When many had already perished, Melanion came to run for love of her, bringing golden apples from Aphrodite, and being pursued he threw them down, and she, picking up the dropped fruit, was beaten in the race. So Melanion married her. And once on a time it is said that out hunting they entered into the precinct of Zeus, and there taking their fill of love were changed into lions.

But Hesiod and some others have said that Atalanta was not a daughter of Iasus, but of Schoeneus; and Euripides says that she was a daughter of Maenalus, and that her husband was not Melanion but Hippomenes. And by Melanion, or Ares, Atalanta had a son Parthenopaeus, who went to the war against Thebes.”


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Atalanta.html


Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae (trans. M. Grant, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Latin mythography, 1st century CE

Pseudo-Hyginus also briefly recounts the myth of Atalanta in the Fabulae. 


§185 ATALANTA: Schoeneus is said to have had a most beautiful daughter, Atalanta, who by her swiftness used to overtake men in foot-races. She asked her father if she could remain a virgin. And so, since many wished to marry her, her father set up a contest: her suitors had to compete with her first in a foot-race. Then, if the man lost, he had to run away, unarmed, and she [Atalanta] would pursue him with a weapon. If she overtook him within the limits of the course, she would kill him and hang his head up in the stadium. When she had overtaken and killed many, she was finally defeated by Hippomenes, son of Megareus and Merope. He had received three apples of exceptional beauty from Venus, and had been instructed how to use them. By throwing them on the ground during the race, he had slowed down the speed of the girl, because she picked them up and admired the gold, and so she lost time, and gave victory to the youth. Schoeneus willingly gave him his daughter because of his ingenuity. But, as he was taking her home, he forgot that he had won by the favour of Venus, he did not give thanks to her. While he was performing sacrifices to Jove Victor[9] on Mount Parnassus, Venus filled him with passion, and he slept with Atalanta in the shrine. Jupiter, because of this, changed them into lion and lioness, animals whom the gods prevent from having intercourse of love.


Taken from: https://topostext.org/work/206

Art & Symbolism

Atalanta, in a patterned tunic and jewelry, sits and holds a spear. She looks over her shoulder at Meleager, a similarly dressed young man. Another similar figure stands on her other side.
Atalanta, red-figure amphora, ca. 400 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Atalanta seems to not have been a very common subject in ancient Greek art. Whenever she appears, she is commonly portrayed as a young woman wearing hunting gear (namely a short chiton) and a quiver, sometimes wielding a spear.


Atalanta, in a tunic with a scabbard slung over her shoulder, stands beside Meleager and another hero.
Atalanta at the Calydonian Boar Hunt, Sebasteion relief, 1st century CE (Aphrodisias Museum, Karacasu/Aydın)

The two mythical episodes involving Atalanta that are most commonly represented in art are the Calydonian boar hunt, and the wrestling contest between the heroine and Peleus at the end of the expedition.


Atalanta, with curly hair and wearing a short tunic, and Peleus, stand with arms locked. Four bearded men in robes, and one woman, stand by and watch. Atalanta is depicted in white, while the men are painted in black.
Atalanta and Peleus wrestling, black-figure hydria, ca. 530 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)
Atalanta and Meleager attack the boar from either side, a dog stands on the boar's back and bites it, and another hero has fallen on the ground. Atalanta has a quiver, tunic, and hat.
Atalanta and Meleager killing the Calydonian Boar, terracotta statuette, ca. 460 BCE (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam)
Heroes fighting the Calydonian boar, all labeled with names. Two stab at the boar with spears, and Atalanta stands behind a readies to throw a spear. Archers and a dog stand behind her. A dead dog and hero lie on the ground. Atalanta is depicted in white, while the male heroes are painted in black.
The Calydonian Boar Hunt, black-figure krater, ca. 575 BCE, François Vase (National Archaeological Museum, Florence)

An interesting outlier is an image painted on a white-ground flask (lekythos) representing Atalanta being chased by two winged personifications of Eros during a race.


Atalanta, muscular with long curly hair and wearing only a loin cloth, grabs Peleus' head. Peleus holds her arm. Three other male figures, nude and bearded, watch. Atalanta is depicted in white, while the men are painted in black.
Atalanta and Peleus wrestling, black-figure amphora, ca. 500 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)
Atalanta, a young woman with curly hair, running. She wears a crown and veil-like hat, and is draped in ornate robes. On either side, youths hold branches..
Atalanta, white-ground lekythos, ca. 500 BCE (Cleveland Museum of Art)














Media Attributions and Footnotes

  1. Atalanta's parentage varies between sources. Her father is variously given as Iasius, Iasion, Schoeneus, and Maenalus.
  2. The process of "exposure" in ancient Greece was a fairly common method of getting rid of an undesired child (often a female child when a male child was wanted) by abandoning them out in nature.
  3. See Homer, Odyssey Book 9
  4. A "suppliant" (αἰδώς) in ancient Greece had a more formal definition, such that if someone performed the gestures of supplication towards someone, they would be honour-bound to respect the suppliant's need.
  5. Refers to Minos' demand that Athens pay a tribute of young people to sacrifice to the Minotaur. See chapter 22.
  6. Book 12 of Ovid's Metamorphoses provides the most detailed account of the story of Caeneus. Caeneus, born Caenis (a feminine ending of the name), was raped by Poseidon, and then asked Poseidon to transform her into a man. Poseidon fulfilled this wish and gave Caeneus the additional gift of being invulnerable to weapons. For further discussion of the story of Caeneus and the concepts of gender and transgender in this myth, see:  Northrop, C. (2020). Caeneus and Heroic (Trans)Masculinity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Arethusa 53(1), 25-41 and Power M., (2020) “Non-Binary and Intersex Visibility and Erasure in Roman Archaeology”, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal 3(1). p.11.
  7. Indicates a gap or missing segment in the text
  8. A cubit is about 46cm, so the stake is around 138cm tall
  9. A Roman epithet for Jupiter referring to his power to grant success and victories (often in a military context).


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