Wandering Autumn

Exploring change and the life that comes with it

Atalanta in Calydon

September 22, 2015 

Let me sketch out the plot to a story. You may be familiar with it. See if you can guess what it is.

There are a group of heroes, one of them a woman. Each of them has had their own stories where they’ve defeated enemies, and they’re usually independent entities. But now, a much larger enemy has appeared that none of them can defeat alone. So someone calls together all the heroes, and together, they’re able to defeat the bigger enemy, and they develop a sense of camaraderie together. Of course, it’s all a setup for the next installment, when all the heroes are going to have to gather together for an even bigger threat.

What story is this?

No, it’s not Marvel’s The Avengers. I’m talking about an old, old story known as The Hunt for the Calydonian Boar.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt on a Greek vase1

I’d like to tell my interpretation of the Hunt, as I imagine that most people these days have not heard of it (I hadn’t, until very recently).

King Oeneus’ kingdom, Calydon, had produced a great harvest one year, so he offered tribute to the gods as thanks. Somehow amongst all of the ceremony, they forgot to also pay tribute to Artemis.2 Given that pretty much all of the other gods got honor, Artemis3 was a little upset and swore vengeance upon Oeneus.

So, how do you exact vengeance against a kingdom that has a good harvest and is known for its wine-making?4 Send a giant boar to ravage the land! It was a supernatural beast, larger than any other boar by far. It allegedly could breathe fire as it trampled through Calydon, ruining the great harvest. It was kind of a bad thing, and Oeneus knew that he needed help—so he sent letters all sorts of places, asking for the world’s greatest heroes to come to his aid.

Lo and behold, a bunch of them did. The various sources differ a little on the specifics, but pretty much every well-known hero of the time showed up. Castor and Pollux,5 Iolaus,6 Peleus,7 and Theseus8 were in the band, along with a bunch of others. They were led by Meleager, Oeneus’ son, who I’ll get into in a little bit. And just before setting off, they were joined by Atalanta, a woman from Arcadia, who was a devotee of Artemis, and an excellent huntress in her own right. About the only hero who doesn’t show up is Hercules, who’s busy off being even more awesome than the entire hunting party.

The Hunt9

The group set off together and quickly encountered the boar. There was a skirmish, and everyone had trouble actually wounding the boar; instead, the boar killed or wounded several members of the hunting party,10 and it was a big fight. Eventually, Atalanta was able to score a direct hit and drew first blood. There was more fighting with the boar, and finally, Meleager was able to kill it.11

Meleager presenting the head of the Calydonian Boar to Atalanta12

Since Meleager had slain the boar, he was given the right to the trophy: the corpse. However, since Meleager might have had a bit of a thing for Atalanta, and she had drawn first blood, he elected to present her with the head of the boar as a trophy. Some of the others of the hunting party disagreed with this choice, and a fight broke out. In the end, Meleager killed the dissenters, who happened to be his mother’s brothers: Toxeus and Plexippus.

Which brings us back to Meleager. Turns out, he may or may not actually have been Oeneus’ son—there were rumors around the palace that his mother Althaea had been spending some “personal time” with Ares. Either way, shortly after he was born, the Fates suddenly showed up with a piece of wood, and they said that his life was tied to the wood—he was invincible otherwise, but would die when that piece of wood was completely burned.13 Althaea kept that piece of wood safe with her to protect Meleager’s life.

But now that she had word that Meleager had slain two of her brothers,14 Althaea was distraught. After a great amount of internal debate, she eventually decides to avenge them, and throws Meleager’s piece of wood into a fire. This kills Meleager, and ashamed of what she’s done, Althaea commits suicide. Meleager’s sisters lamented his death, and Artemis turned them all into birds except two: Gorge and Deïanara.15 Artemis’ wrath was finally satisfied, and Oeneus had finally paid for not giving her a sacrifice.

And all this ends up being setup for the next big adventure for all the surviving heroes: the Trojan War.

So, that’s the story of the Calydonian Boar. I’m sure classicists could chide me on some of the details, but that’s more or less what I understand.

The reason I share it is partly because I think it’s an interesting story, but more because the more I read mythology, the more I see parallels with today’s world—or more accurately, with humanity as a whole. We still have the same emotions, the same petty fights. We still enjoy stories about the same sorts of things.

When I first read Ovid’s list of heroes who joined in the Hunt, my eyes glazed over a little—but as I went back and reminded myself of who they were elsewhere in mythology, I came to the conclusion that the Hunt was basically the ancient Greek version of The Avengers.

We humans enjoy our heroes who do superhuman things and tangle with the supernatural. And then we like it when those heroes come together to do even more superhuman things and tangle with the supernatural. Whether it’s in ancient Greece or Rome, or in modern day society, we enjoy seeing these things come together.

Another thing that has struck me while reading mythology is how much it reminds me of “comic book superheroes” in other ways. As alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of backstory in mythology, and the characters end up interacting with each other over and over again, building up a rich tapestry of stories. Just like comics, this can at times end up fairly complex, and probably only getting more complex as more stories were told about these heroes.16 And mythology also has contradictory continuity—such as whether or not Meleager’s father is in fact Oeneus or is Ares, among the simpler examples—and retcons.

It’s to be expected. Mythologies were added to over centuries of oral tradition, and I have no doubt that pleads of “Tell us another story about…” led to embellishments on old stories and developing new ones, which may have stuck and passed down generation to generation. And what we have is only a small fraction of the stories that were told millenia ago.

Comic books have a bit better record-keeping, but still have a large number of authors who have been embellishing and creating for decades. Similarities were bound to occur.

Atalanta17

The last thing I wish to talk about in regards to this right now is, as the title suggests, Atalanta. There are some people in our society who decry the “woman warriors” that populate our media, and I have been told on several occasions from these people that this is a new phenomenon, and back in “their day”, there was no such silliness and women knew their place. And other things of that ilk.

The presence of Atalanta in such a pivotal role in the Calydonian Boar Hunt blows that out of the water.18

Though to be fair, there is a bit more to Atalanta than just her participation in the Hunt as a huntress. With the Hunt itself, I glossed over Meleager maybe having a crush on Atalanta, and some ancient authors apparently considered it possibly reciprocated.

But after the Hunt, Atalanta desired to remain single. To fend off suitors, she convinced her father to lay a challenge: the man who can beat her in a race will have her hand in marriage; but any who try and fail are put to death.19 While it didn’t stop a string of suitors, it kept her happy. At least, until along came a man whom she did fall in love with: Melanion20. In order to beat her in a race, he cheated, having acquired three golden apples21 which he threw down during the race. Atalanta slowed down to pick up the apples22, and he won, gaining her hand in marriage.

The race between Atalanta and Melanion23

Though, they had a pretty happy marriage and went hunting together, so she didn’t become less of an awesome huntress24 from it. However, when out hunting one day they decided to spend some “intimate time” together, and happened to do so in some of Zeus’ sacred territory,25 and he turned them into lions.26 So, not the greatest end to a noble hero.

Many people historically, have chosen to focus on the Atalanta–Melanion love story, and the subsequent race. There are probably more paintings of the race, or statues of Atalanta with a golden apple, than there are of her as hero of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

But I prefer to think of her as the warrior Atalanta, the pride of Arcadia. And Atalanta was the one who drew first blood on the Calydonian Boar.

  1. Source 

  2. I wonder sometimes, if Artemis was actually forgotten, or if it’s meant to be implied that they neglected her for some unstated reason. 

  3. As a reminder, Artemis was the virgin goddess of hunting, childbirth, and the moon. She was known to the Romans as Diana. Though I was originally introduced to this story through Ovid, who was Roman, it is originally a Greek myth so I’ll keep the Greek names. The difference is in this case trivial. 

  4. Oeneus had introduced wine-making to people, thanks to Dionysus. His name has at its root the Greek word for “wine”—hence, “oenology”, the study of wine-making. 

  5. They were known for mounting a rescue mission for their sister Helen—you may have heard of her—when she was kidnapped once. Also, they had joined the quest for the Golden Fleece and did some awesome stuff there. 

  6. He was the one who had helped Hercules—you may have heard of him—defeat the hydra, and was also pretty awesome in the first Olympic Games. 

  7. He had killed his half-brother in an hunting accident when young, and went on an adventure to atone. He would end up also being famous for being the father of Achilles—you may have heard of him—and therefore being the groom at the wedding that started the Trojan War. But that comes after the Hunt. 

  8. He had escaped from the labyrinth in Crete thanks to Ariadne, killing the Minotaur in the process. 

  9. By Peter Paul Rubens. Source 

  10. In one of my favorite lines in Ovid’s rendition, he says that Nestor very nearly missed the Trojan War but was able to avoid an attack just in time. 

  11. What a kill-stealer. 

  12. By Peter Paul Rubens. Source 

  13. The Fates then threw that wood into the fire, making Althaea dive in to get it. Because they were jerks or something. 

  14. Or maybe one of her brothers and one of her other sons. She had a brother named Toxeus and a son named Toxeus, and it’s not entirely clear which of them Meleager killed. 

  15. I only mention Deïanara because she ends up marrying Hercules and then killing him by accident. As if this name soup wasn’t confusing enough. 

  16. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that the backstories of some comic books are referred as that series’ “mythology” 

  17. Source 

  18. Not to mention a great deal more woman warriors in mythologies the world round. Anyone who claims women can never be warriors is deeply ignorant of history, mythology, and human nature. 

  19. According to some authors, Atalanta herself would kill them. 

  20. Or maybe Hippomenes. See earlier about “contradictory continuity”. The story is the same, just the man changes. 

  21. No, not the ones that Hercules had to acquire. Aphrodite provided these three. 

  22. Because reasons. Probably because they were golden and even though she was an awesome hunter, Greek misogyny overcomes, and implied that women couldn’t pass up shiny things. Or, perhaps, if she did actually fall in love with Melanion, then she used that as a cover to let him win. 

  23. By Noël Hallé. Source 

  24. Just perhaps no longer a literary symbol of Artemis. 

  25. Word on the street was that Melanion forgot to properly thank Aphrodite for providing the golden apples that allowed him to marry Atalanta. She was a little unhappy about being slighted (sound familiar?), and had them be overcome with passion in a place where they’d get in trouble. 

  26. The irony lost on us today is that the Greeks believed that lions couldn’t mate with each other. So basically, Aphrodite got them together, then split them up. 

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