Ladies of Legend: Atalanta

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton

Miss February is Atalanta, a Greek huntress with very terrible luck but a very interesting life. The identities of her parents vary from one iteration of the legend to another – one version has her as the child of Iasus and Clymene, while another names King Schoenus of Boeotia – but regardless of who he really was, her father was a man who wanted a son so badly that when he got a daughter instead, he ordered that she be abandoned on a hillside to die. But Atalanta did not die. She was instead mothered by a bear, who fed and protected her, and was later taken in by a clan of hunters, who taught her all their skill. She molded herself after the tradition of Artemis, goddess of the hunt: beautiful, virginal and tough as nails.

Artemis was also, like nearly everyone in the Pantheon, very easy to offend. When King Oenus of Calydon forgot to make a sacrifice to her in his annual acknowledgement of the gods (an oversight dobbed in by her fellow god Helius) the indignant goddess sent a gigantic boar to ravage the countryside in his kingdom. Oenus sent out a call for the greatest hunters in Greece to kill the monster. Among those who answered was Atalanta. Though some of the other hunters objected to the presence of a woman in their line-up, Oenus’ son Meleager declared that either she competed alongside them or they could all go home. So Atalanta stayed.

Before you go getting the wrong impression, this was not the act of an egalitarian prince who believed in gender equality. Meleager had a crush on Atalanta that was so obvious his uncles immediately started doomsaying over it. This was fair enough – not only was Meleager already married, he was sort of cursed as well. Oenus was the father he had grown up with, but by birth Meleager was the son of the war god Ares. When he was born, the three Fates came to his mother Althaia to prophesise what his life would be. Clotho, spinner of mortal life, predicted he would grow to be a brave man; Lachesis, weaver of life, declared he would become a hero; but Atropos, cutter of life, pointed out a log on the fire, warning that Meleager would live only as long as it took the wood to burn to ash. Althaia immediately snatched the log from the fireplace and hid it away. So Meleager grew up, unaware that his life was literally in his mother’s hands.

During the boar-hunt, Atalanta separated herself from the other hunters. Two centaurs, Hylaeus and Rhaeccus, saw her and decided she would be easy prey. Their mistake. Atalanta calmly shot both her would-be rapists dead and went off to join Meleager. When the boar charged into the trap set for it, all went to chaos as the hunters’ over-confidence and just plain misfortune added up to a scene of carnage. Atalanta managed to land an arrow behind the beast’s ear; Meleager followed her up with a spear to its heart, and presented the dead boar’s pelt to Atalanta in honour of her drawing first blood. It was a well-chosen gift for a girl like that, but riled up his mother’s brothers some more, who thought he ought to have gifted it to them instead, based on social precedence. Meleager expressed his frustration with their attitudes by killing them both.

This, understandably, did not please Althaia, or for that matter her two remaining brothers, who attacked Meleager’s city. His wife Cleopatra managed to talk her husband into taking up arms, even though Althaia had cursed him to be defenceless in this war. When he killed the last two of his uncles, Althaia burned the log and Meleager was struck by a sudden savage pain. He died, just as the Fates said he would. Althaia and Cleopatra both committed suicide and Artemis concluded her revenge by turning nearly all of Meleager’s sisters into guinea-hens.

The outcome of the hunt on Atalanta’s side was an entirely unwanted reunion with her father, whose first words to the daughter he discarded were “My child, prepare to take a husband!” Atalanta had more reasoning behind her choice of a chaste lifestyle than a disinterest in domestic life. She was warned against marriage by the Delphic Oracle. She chose a very pointed way of refusing her father’s plans for her life: any suitor contending for her hand would have to compete against her in a foot race. If the suitor won, Atalanta would marry him. If the suitor lost, she would shoot him.

Here’s the thing. Atalanta was really good at running.

She kept to her word – any suitor who could not match her, and none could, lost his life – but that didn’t stop the queue of candidates. Eventually her cousin Melanion (or in some versions, a man called Hippomanes) tried his luck. Before the race, he prayed for help from the goddess of love and Aphrodite favoured him (mostly out of pure annoyance at Atalanta’s stubborn refusal to fall in love) with a gift of three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, instructing Melanion to let them fall during the race.

Atalanta mocked the apples when she saw them, but when he dropped them she could not help being distracted by their beauty and stopped to pick them up. It took all three apples, one dropped right up against the finishing line, for Melanion to outrace her. He definitely cheated. Atalanta married him anyway and for a time it seems that they were happy together. Later, though, while out hunting, they passed a temple – sacred to Zeus in some versions, in others to Cybele – and Melanion persuaded Atalanta to have sex with him inside it. Of course, this brought on divine fury and the lovers were transformed into lions. In Cybele’s version, she compounds the curse with the indignity of using the couple to pull her chariot. Aphrodite’s hand may have been involved in the fulfillment of the prophecy – she’s a goddess who likes her thank-yous to be fulsome, and Melanion was a little too absorbed in a success that wasn’t actually his own.

There are other legends in which Atalanta bore a son, Parthenopaeus, to either Meleager or Ares, and left the boy on the same hillside where she herself was abandoned. Like his mother, Pathenopaeus survived and went on to make a name for himself as a warrior.

Atalanta’s story is a tragedy, in the sense there is not a happy ending. But I’m not sure that, for a woman as fierce and independent as Atalanta, becoming a lioness would be such a dreadful fate. Whether her body was flesh or fur, she’d always be a hunter.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

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