A popular figure in Greek mythology and art, she’s often included among the cast of characters of other Greek tales. According to some, she joined Jason of Iolcus on his expedition to retrieve the Golden Fleece as one of the Argonauts. Later, at the funeral games organized for Pelias, Jason’s evil uncle, Atalanta took part in a wrestling match against Peleus (the father of Achilles), and won.
Perhaps the most famous adventure that Atalanta took part in was the hunt for the Caledonian Boar. This fearsome creature had been sent by the goddess Artemis as punishment for King Oeneus not honouring the goddess properly. The hunter Meleager organized a large hunting party, inviting heroes from all over Greece to take part in their attempt to kill the monstrous animal; Atalanta joined the chase. Meleager was so taken by her that he offered her the Calydonian Boar’s skin after they had successfully killed it, spawning a dispute with his uncles that ultimately led to the deaths of these men, Meleager’s mother, and Meleager himself.
As a huntress, Atalanta had devoted herself to the goddess Artemis. Artemis was a virgin goddess: as a result, Atalanta similarly refused all male advances. Whenever a male suitor refused to take “No” for an answer, she would challenge him to a footrace. According to some writers, the race was organized after her father pressured her to pick a man to marry.
In any event, the rules for the footrace were simple. If the suitor won, he would be allowed to marry Atalanta. But if she won the race, she would be in her right to kill him immediately. Naturally, none of the men who attempted to best her in the race succeeded, resulting in the deaths of a whole slew of prospective husbands.
Despite the dangers, Atalanta continued to attract attention from men throughout Greece. One of these hopefuls was a man called Hippomenes. He realized that he would never be able to beat her in a fair contest and so prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, for assistance. Aphrodite answered his plea by giving him three golden apples and a bit of advice. According to some sources, Atalanta was conﬁdent enough to give her suitor a head start.
Hippomenes ran as fast as he could, but it wasn’t long before he heard Atalanta close in on him. As she drew closer, he dropped one of the golden apples. Surprised, and taken with its golden lustre, Atalanta stopped to collect the apple. Hippomenes did this two more times and so was able to win the footrace and marry Atalanta. (Some sources add that Atalanta had actually fallen in love with Hippomenes, but couldn’t back out of the challenge she had subjected the other suitors to.)
Needless to say, the idea that women are easily distracted by something shiny is rather sexist to say the least, but we are talking about a story produced more than two thousand years ago in a very male-centred society. A story like this would today, quite rightly, be rejected outright.
Hippomenes and Atalanta got married. But if you thought they would live happily ever after, you’re mistaken. In Greek mythology, most stories don’t have a happy end.
The Roman poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, provides one of the fullest accounts of what happened to them. Hippomenes had forgotten to thank Aphrodite properly for helping him win the footrace. In anger, Aphrodite made the couple succumb to passion inside the temple of Cybele (an Anatolian goddess worshipped in Rome as the “Great Mother”). Other sources claim that the deity whose temple had been deﬁled was none other than the king of the Olympians himself, Zeus.
In any event, making love on holy ground was strictly prohibited in ancient times, as it caused religious pollution (called miasma). Angered by this outrage, Cybele turned Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions and yoked them to her chariot: in ancient times, people believed that lions were incapable of mating with each other, only with leopards.
The story of Atalanta, including major sources, is summarized by Timothy Gantz in his two-volume work Early Greek Myths (1993), pp. 335–339. More accessible is Robin Hard’s Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology (2004), pp. 545–547. Hard’s book is a reworking of the classic handbook by H.J. Rose. For Atalanta in art, T.H. Carpenter’s Art and Myth in Ancient Greece (1991) is a useful starting point.
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