There are two versions of the huntress Atalanta: one from Arcadia, whose parents were Iasus and Clymene and who is primarily known from the tales of the Calydonian boar hunt and the Argonauts; and the other from Boeotia, who is the daughter of King Schoeneus and is primarily noted for her skill in the footrace. In both versions, Atalanta was a local figure allied to the goddess Artemis; in such oral traditions, minor characters were often assigned different names, resulting in minor regional variations.
At birth, Atalanta was taken to Mount Parthenion to be exposed because her father had desired a son. A she-bear--one of the symbols of Artemis--whose cubs had been recently killed by hunters came upon Atalanta and nursed her until those same hunters discovered her and raised her themselves in the mountains. Atalanta then grew up to be a swift-footed virgin who eschewed men and devoted herself to the huntress Artemis.
Atalanta modelled herself after Artemis, wearing a simple sleeveless tunic that reached her knees and living in the wilderness. While living in the wild, Atalanta slew two centaurs, Rhoecus and Hylaios, with her bow after her beauty caught their attention and they attempted to rape her.
The voyage of the Argonauts
Black-figure pottery showing a wrestling match between Peleus and Atalanta during the funerary games of King Pelias. In the background, the prize of the duel: the skin and the head of the Calydonian boar.
Atalanta is only occasionally mentioned in the legend of the Argonauts; however, her participation is noted in Pseudo-Apollodorus's account, which says that during the search for the Golden Fleece, Atalanta, who was invited and invoked the protection of Artemis, sailed with the Argonauts as the only woman among them. In Diodorus Siculus's account, Atalanta is not only noted to have sailed with the Argonauts but to have fought alongside them at the battle in Colchis, where she, Jason, Laertes, and the sons of Thesipae were wounded and later healed by Medea. In the account of Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason prevents Atalanta from joining not because she lacks skill but because as a woman she has the potential to cause strife between men on the ship.
Oil painting of Atalanta and Meleager hunting the Calydonian boar (Jan Fyt, 1648). The Ringling, Bequest of John Ringling, 1936.
In an annual celebration, King Oeneus of Calydon had forgotten to honour Artemis with a sacrifice in his rites to the gods. In anger, she sent the Calydonian boar, a monstrous wild boar that ravaged the land, cattle, and people, and prevented the crops from being sown. Atalanta was called upon to join Meleager, Theseus, Pollux, Telamon, Peleus, and all those who were part of the Argonaut expedition on the hunt for the boar. Many of the men were angry that a woman was joining them, but Meleager, though having a family of his own, convinced them otherwise as he desired to father a child with Atalanta after hearing of her expertise in archery and beauty while hunting.
During the hunt Hyleus and Ancaeus were killed, Peleus accidentally injured a fellow hunter and others were wounded. Atalanta drew first blood on the boar with her bow. After this feat, killing the boar became a collective effort as, after the initial blow, Amphiaraus shot the boar's eye and Meleager ended its life. Meleager awarded the hide to Atalanta for her valour, but it was taken away by Meleager's uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus, who considered it dishonourable for a woman to hold such a prize. In response, Meleager killed his uncles.Althaea, Meleager's mother, became grief-stricken after hearing of her brothers' deaths and threw the log that was tied to her son's life into a fire, killing him.
According to Ovid, before her adventures, Atalanta had consulted an oracle who prophesied that marriage would be her undoing. As a result, she chose to live in the wilderness. After the Calydonian boar hunt, Atalanta was discovered by her father, who accepted her as his daughter and began to arrange a marriage for her. To prevent this, she agreed to marry only if a suitor could outrun her in a footrace, which swift-footed Atalanta knew was impossible.[note 1] If the suitor was unsuccessful, he would be killed. Her father agreed to the terms, and many suitors died in the attempt until Hippomenes,[note 2] who fell in love with Atalanta at first sight. Hippomenes knew he could not best Atalanta even with the advantage of a head start, so, he prayed to the goddess Aphrodite for assistance. Aphrodite, who felt spurned because Atalanta was a devotee of Artemis and rejected love, gave Hippomenes three irresistible golden apples. As the race began, Atalanta, wearing armour and carrying weapons, quickly passed Hippomenes, but she was diverted off the path as he tossed an apple for her to retrieve; each time Atalanta caught up with Hippomenes, he would toss another apple, ultimately winning the race and Atalanta herself.
A woodcut engraving of the transformation of Atalanta and Hippomenes. Rijksmuseum
After the footrace, Hippomenes had forgotten to thank Aphrodite for her aid, and while the couple were out hunting the goddess afflicted them with sexual passion so that they had sex in a sanctuary belonging to either Zeus or Rhea. They were turned into lions for their sacrilege by either Artemis (angered by Atalanta losing her virginity), the goddess Cybele, or Zeus himself. The belief at the time was that lions could not mate with their own species, only with leopards; therefore Atalanta and Hippomenes would never be able to have "intercourse of love".
However, this view has been criticized. In her book The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor argues there is no evidence to support the notion that the Ancient Greeks believed male and female lions could not engage in sexual intercourse. Rather, Mayor contends the transformation of Atalanta and her lover into lions occurred at a moment of emotional and sexual bliss, which can be interpreted as divine sympathy for a couple who defied traditional Greek gender roles, and thus turning them into lions enabled the lovers to hunt and mate together for all eternity outside of Greek society which would not have accepted their relationship.
Meleager presenting Atalante the head of the Calydonian Boar in 16th century alabaster, Bode Museum.
Landscape painting of the hunt. Jan Wildens, 17th century.
Meleager et Atalanta, from a drawing by Giulio Romano, engraved by François Louis Lonsing. Atalanta is at far left with bow; Meleager is right of her, spearing the Calydonian boar (1773).
Meleager Presenting the Head of the Caledonian Boar to Atalanta at the Temple of Artemis. M. Maurice Stora (1530-1535).
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes. Translation by Vellacott, P. The Penguin Classics. London. Penguin Books
Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology. Translation by Aldrich, Keith. Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1975.
Apollodorus, The Library. English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer's notes.
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica. Translation by Rieu, E. V. The Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books.
Barringer, Judith M. "Atalanta as Model: The Hunter and the Hunted." Classical Antiquity 15, no. 1 (1996): 48-76. Accessed March 8, 2021. doi:10.2307/25011031. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25011031