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Definition: Atalanta (Greek atalantos, ‘equal in weight’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

In Greek myth the daughter of Iasus or of Schoenus. She took part in the hunt of the CALYDONIAN BOAR and, being very swift of foot, refused to marry unless the suitor should first defeat her in a race. Milanion (or HIPPOMENES) outran her by dropping at intervals during the race three golden apples, the gift of VENUS. Atalanta stopped to pick them up, lost the race and became his wife.


Summary Article: ATALANTA
from Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

In Greek mythology Atalanta was beautiful, strong, and the fastest runner of the mortals. She traveled with Jason and his Argonauts on the search for the Golden Fleece, but she is most famous for her adventures after the quest, including the Calydonian boar hunt, the race with Hippomenes, and for misbehaving in a temple of Zeus.

Atalanta's mythical origins are not certain: some tales say that she was the daughter of Schoeneus of Boeotia, others that Iasus of Arcadia was her father; and there are hints that her mother may have been an attendant of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. Whoever her parents were, legend tells of a dramatic childhood. When Atalanta was newly born, her father was so disappointed in not having a son that he abandoned the infant in the forest, where she was rescued and nurtured by a bear. Some time later hunters found the bear suckling the baby, and they took her to raise as their own. Atalanta grew up to be a fine archer and hunter.

Some scholars argue that for the ancient Greeks the myth of Atalanta highlights prejudice in favoring sons over daughters. At the same time Atalanta's fictional story fits into a pattern seen in the lives of many mythical heroes. For example, Paris, Oedipus, and Orestes were all abandoned or rejected when young, but legends tell how they survived, succeeded, and fulfilled the fears or desires that prompted their parents to abandon them. Atalanta not only became as strong and successful as any son her father could have wished for, she went on to deny her femininity by rejecting the idea of marriage. She was also the prototype for other female warriors, such as Camilla, who is featured in Book 11 of the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE).

In terms of the chronology of Greek mythology, Atalanta belonged to the generation before the Trojan War, and she participated in the two major heroic expeditions of her fictional time: the quest for the Golden Fleece with the Argonauts and the Calydonian boar hunt. In one account, however, Jason, the Greek hero who led the Argonauts, dissuaded Atalanta from joining the quest because he feared that a woman's presence would spark conflict among his men.

The boar hunt

After the Golden Fleece adventure, Atalanta played a more important role in the Calydonian boar hunt. When King Oeneus of Calydon offended Artemis by failing to offer her a sacrifice, the goddess sent a terrible boar to ravage Calydon. Oeneus's son Meleager, who had been one of the youngest Argonauts, summoned all his erstwhile companions, including Atalanta, to help him destroy the boar. During the hunt Atalanta took first blood from the boar by shooting an arrow into its head. Although the wound did not kill the beast, it made it easy for the others to finish off the boar, with Meleager delivering the final deathblow. Meleager awarded the prize of the boar's skin to Atalanta. This angered the rest of the hunters, especially Meleager's maternal uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus, because they did not believe such an honor should go to a woman. In the ensuing dispute Meleager killed both his uncles. This proved Meleager's undoing.

Meleager had been cursed at his birth by the Fates—three women who controlled destiny. The Fates had appeared to Meleager's mother, Althaea, and predicted that her son would live only as long as the log that was burning in the fireplace remained intact. Althaea had immediately pulled the log from the fireplace and guarded it to protect Meleager. When Althaea heard that her son had slain her own brothers, she angrily threw the fateful log into the fire, causing Meleager to die.

The race

According to legend, Atalanta's success in the Calydonian boar hunt prompted a reconciliation with her father, Schoeneus or Iasus. Like all fathers of ancient Greece, real or fictional, Schoeneus or Iasus had a social responsibility to find his daughter a husband. Yet Atalanta spurned wedlock, possibly because she had been warned against it by an oracle, or fortune-teller. The gods rarely tolerated women who refused to marry, so to appease the gods and her father, she agreed to marry on one condition. The man she married would first have to beat her in a footrace, but the losers would be killed.

Atalanta, who was the fastest mortal on earth, always won the races, even when she gave her opponents a head start. The death toll of failed suitors mounted. Finally Hippomenes (or Melanion in some versions), who was in love with the beautiful Atalanta, took up the challenge. Meanwhile, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had grown tired of Atalanta's deadly game, and she gave Hippomenes three golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, maidens who guarded a magical tree. During the race Hippomenes distracted Atalanta by rolling each apple just far enough ahead of her that she would stop to pick it up. By doing this three times, Atalanta slowed enough for Hippomenes to win the race.

Atalanta kept to her word and married Hippomenes. The couple grew to love each other and all seemed well. Then one day Aphrodite, who had grown enraged because Hippomenes had failed to thank her properly for the golden apples, cast a spell on the newlyweds, causing them to make love in the temple of Zeus. The king of the gods saw the couple in his temple and as a punishment turned Hippomenes into a lion and Atalanta into a lioness. Another version has it that the couple were caught in the temple of Cybele (Rhea), mother of the gods. She then turned the lovers into lions and hitched them to her chariot to serve her forever.

Atalanta in art

The stories about Atalanta have inspired several artistic masterpieces. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) painted Meleager and Atalanta around 1635: it depicts Meleager offering the trophy of the boar's head to Atalanta. Rubens completed The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta some years earlier. This artwork shows Atalanta at the moment just after she shot the arrow into the boar, while Meleager stabs the beast with a spear. Today the painting is housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Guido Reni (1575–1642) painted Atalanta and Hippomenes around 1612. In Reni's painting the two runners are almost nude. Hippomenes, who is ahead of Atalanta, has just thrown another golden apple and Atalanta stoops to pick it up. Since the late 19th century the painting has hung in Madrid's Prado Museum.

See also: ANIMALS; APHRODITE; ARTEMIS; FATES; JASON; VIRGINITY; ZEUS.

Further reading
  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006.
  • Howatson, M. C. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
KATHRYN CHEW
Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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