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Atalanta in Greek mythology

Updated on August 18, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Heroine Atalanta in Greek Mythology

Generally speaking Greek mythology, especially during the Hellenic period, was male dominated. Whilst there was an even split between male and female deities, the supreme god, Zeus, was male. Likewise the heroes, whose adventures made up a large part of the stories of Ancient Greece, were predominantly male.

One of the few heroic characters from Greek mythology who wasn’t male was Atalanta, a heroine who was more than a match for most males.

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The Young Atalanta

The story of Atalanta either has its origins in Arcadia or in Boeotia. If Arcadian in origin, then Atalanta was the daughter of Iasus, an Arcadnian prince, and Clymene; if the story is Boeotian, then the father of Atalanta is Schoeneus.

The father, whichever one of the two it was, wanted a son, and so when a daughter was born, the father had his daughter taken into nearby woodland and abandoned her. Death was the most likely outcome of the abandonment, but the goddess Artemis was watching on, and the goddess sent a female bear to Atalanta to suckle her.

Eventually a group of hunters stumble upon the young Atalanta, and the girl is raised by the hunters as if she was one of their own.

Growing up amongst the hunters, Atalanta soon comes to love the hunt, and beings to compete against the male hunters in the group. By the time Atalanta reaches womanhood, the huntress is now the better than her competitors at many of the male preserves, including hunting, running and wrestling.

Having grown up around men, and finding no competition amongst them, Atalanta had no desire to find a partner nor marry, and so Atalanta takes an oath of virginity, dedicated to Artemis, the goddess who rescued her. Additionally, an oracle had delivered a prophecy that stated Atalanta’s marriage would end in disaster.

The oath of virginity was tested when two centaurs, Rhoecus and Hylaeus, attempted to rape her, but Atalanta had the ability defend herself and with her bow and arrow, she shot and killed the two centaurs.

Atalanta in Calydon

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100 | Source

Meleager and Atalanta

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678)  PD-art-100
Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678) PD-art-100 | Source

The Heroic Atalanta

As a notable athlete, it is perhaps not surprising to see Atalanta’s name on a list of those heroes who travelled with Jason on the Argo to Colchis.

In the most famous complete version of the story, Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, Atalanta is not present amongst the crew. This fits in with some tales which see Jason refusing to allow Atalanta on board the Argo, for fear of the issues this might cause amongst the rest of the male crew.

Whilst Atalanta may not have travelled in the Argo, she was present in Iolcus after the ships return. During the funeral games held in honour of Pelias, Atalanta wrestled and bested the Argonaut Peleus.

Many of those present at the funeral games travelled to Calydon when King Oeneus sent out a call for hunters to help tack and kill the monstrous Calydonian Boar. Amongst those who travelled from Iolcus to Calydon were Meleager (King Oeneus’s son), Peleus, Telamon, Castor and Pollux, and Atalanta.

It was Meleager who organised the hunt, but the presence of Atalanta amongst the hunters caused some friction. The most vocal opponents to Atalanta joining the hunt were Meleager’s maternal uncles, Prothous and Cometes. Meleager though, had fallen in love with Atalanta, and so was adamant about her participation.

The hunt went well, and whilst Meleager was said to have inflicted the killing blow on the beast, it was also said that the first to injure it, and therefore slow it down, was Atalanta. In recognition for her action, Meleager presented the tusks and coat of the Calydonian Boar to Atalanta.

This chivalrous act only caused further strife between Meleager and his uncles, and ultimately Meleager killed them both. This though would result in Meleager’s own death, as his own mother threw an enchanted log into the fire, a log that represented Meleager’s life.

Atalanta and Hippomenes

Nicolas Colombel (1644–1717) PD-art-100
Nicolas Colombel (1644–1717) PD-art-100 | Source

Father and Daughter Reunited

Upset at the death of Meleager, Atalanta left Calydon, and placed the tusks and coat of the boar in a grove sacred to Artemis.

Atalanta was then reunited with her father, be it Iasus or Schoeneus; her father certainly had a child he could be proud of, and indeed no son could have brought more prestige to the family line. Atlanta’s father, believing it was the right thing to do now that Atalanta was of age, sought to find her a suitable husband.

Atalanta still had no desire to be married though, and came up with a scheme by which marriage could be avoided. Atalanta decided that she would only marry a suitor who could out run her in a foot race, and suitor who tried and failed to beat her would be executed.

Many potential suitors were dissuaded from trying, but many others believing that the opportunity to marry Atalanta was worth the risk. All of course failed and were executed.

Melanion, also known as Hippomenes, was the next suitor to try and outrun Atalanta. Melanion though knew his shortcomings, and so prayed to Aphrodite for assistance in his courting. Aphrodite, as was her way with lovers, helped the suitor out, by providing him with three golden apples; and the goddess told Melanion of her plan.

During the race, when Atalanta started to pull ahead, Melanion would take a golden apple and role it in front of Atalanta; Atalanta would naturally pick up the beautiful apple, and so Melanion would have the chance to overtake the heroine. During the actual race, Aphrodite’s plan worked perfectly, Melanion won, and Atalanta became his bride.

The Wedding of Melanion and Atalanta

Louis de Boullogne PD-art-100
Louis de Boullogne PD-art-100 | Source

The Downfall of Atalanta

Very few heroes lived out their lives happily in Greek mythology; Bellerophon was left a cripple, Jason was killed by a falling piece of the Argo, and Theseus died through treachery. The downfall of Atalanta is in keeping with such a theme.

After the help of Aphrodite, Melanion made the cardinal sin of forgetting to thank his benefactor through sacrifice; causing Aphrodite to go from benefactor to enemy, and so the goddess sought her revenge.

Aphrodite put a spell on Melanion and Atalanta so that they started to make love in a shrine dedicated to Zeus; an act that greatly outrage the supreme deity. Zeus immediately turned the pair of lovers into lions; a poetic punishment of the Ancient Greeks, who believed that lions did not mate with each other, but mated with leopards.

Prior to their transformation, Atalanta gave birth to a son, Parthenopaios, with the father given as Meleager, Melanion or the god Ares. Embarrassed by the obvious evidence that she was no longer a virgin, Atalanta abandoned her son in the woods, just as her own father had done. Partheopaios though would survive the ordeal, and would become a hero, when he grew up to become one of the “Seven against Thebes”.

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