Atalanta: A Female Hero of Greek Legend
Women in Greek mythology often play a few very specific roles. They are mothers, wives, lovers, and dutiful daughters.
They are often in need of help, but rarely have the ability to get themselves out of dangerous situations.
Very few characters break this mold. One of them is Atalanta.
Raised in the forest and nursed by a bear, Atalanta was one of the best human hunters in Greece. She ran faster than any man, was an expert archer, and could even beat a powerful king in a wrestling contest.
Unsurprisingly, Atalanta was a devotee of the virgin huntress Artemis. While her patron goddess served as a source of inspiration to the heroic young woman, she also presented Atalanta with serious challenges.
Atalanta was one of the few women, particularly human women, in Greek mythology to have great adventures on her own terms, not as a companion to a more heroic man.
From her unusual childhood to her tragic end, here is everything you need to know about Atalanta, the female hunter of Greek myth.
There are two versions of the story of Atalanta, which are strikingly similar except for details in her place of birth and parentage.
One story says that she was born in Arcadia as the daughter of Iasus and Clymene. The other claims that she was Boeotian and her father was Schoenus.
Both stories agree, however, that Atalanta’s father was disappointed when his child was born a daughter instead of a son.
The baby girl was left on a hillside to die of exposure. The brutal practice was not uncommon in ancient Greece, although in legends it often ends with the child being rescued by shepherds or nymphs.Atalanta, however, was not saved by a kindly older couple or a group of dryads. She was found and nursed by a bear. Click To Tweet
The bear, an animal sacred to the huntress goddess Artemis, kept the child alive until a group of hunters found her. They raised her in the forest where she grew exceptionally swift and strong.
Under the tutelage of her foster family, Atalanta became a skilled hunter. She never travelled through the forest without her weapons, including a bow and arrows.
Having been nursed by a bear and grown up hunting in the forest, Atalanta also became a devoted follower of Artemis. She swore a vow of chastity in honor of the goddess she worshipped.
Her vow was tested once when two centaurs came upon her in the forest and tried to force themselves on her. Atalanta killed them both, proving her strength and mastery of her weapons.
Atalanta would put her skills on display when the opportunity arose to slay a monster.
King Oineus of Calydonia had angered Artemis by forgetting her in his sacrifices. The goddess had sent a vicious animal to his lands in revenge.
The Calydonian boar was the most ferocious and destructive wild boar anyone had ever seen. It destroyed crops and forced the people into hiding behind the city walls, bringing starvation to Calydonia.
The king put together a hunting party to go after the vicious animal and kill it. The boar’s tusks and hide would go to the one who killed it.
Atalanta volunteered to join the party, but most of the men were not eager to have a woman among them. They did not care that the talented huntress had been bidden to join the party as a proxy for Artemis herself.
Only one man, the king’s son Meleager, stood up for her and he only did so because he found her attractive.
Still, Meleager’s support was enough to get Atalanta included in the hunting party.
The fight with the boar was brutal. Several of the men were killed before the animal had taken a single hit.
Atalanta shot an arrow and hit the beast, making her the first to wound it. Meleager finished it off, but gave credit for the kill to Atalanta.
He personally gave her the tusks and skin, infuriating some of the men. The two brothers-in-law of the king in particular refused to accept a woman’s victory.
They stole the hide out of Atalanta’s hands, saying it was theirs by right of birth. Meleager was furious and killed his uncles.
Meleager’s mother was overcome with grief at the deaths of her brothers. She remembered a prophecy that had said her son would only live until a certain piece of wood was burned in the family’s hearth.
At his birth she had hidden the wood to keep him safe, but in her grief and rage she pulled it out of its hiding place and threw it on the fire. Meleager died as the family’s fire burned away his life force.
King Oineus lost his son because of the hunt for the Calydonian boar. It was Artemis’s final revenge, brought about by the inclusion of her female champion in the hunting party.
According to some sources, the Calydonian hunt may not have been the only adventure Atalanta and Meleager shared.
Both were sometimes named as members of the famous Argonauts, the heroic crew of Jason’s ship.In versions of the story that include her, Atalanta was the only woman among the crew. Click To Tweet
Such a thing would have been exceptionally rare in ancient Greece. Some writers claimed that she was only allowed aboard because her pledge of virginity as a devotee of Artemis was a sacred oath that the crew would not dare to dishonor.
Some versions go on to feature Atalanta at the funeral games held in honor of Pelias, the king who had sent Jason on his quest. She wrestled Peleus, the heroic king of Phthyia, and won.
One of the most widely-known versions of the story, however, does not name Atalanta as one of the Argonauts. In fact, in one text of Argonautica she is forbidden from coming aboard.
And in his right hand Jason held a fardarting spear, which Atalanta gave him once as a gift of hospitality in Mainalos (Maenalus) as she met him gladly; for she eagerly desired to follow on that quest; but he himself of his own accord prevented the maid, for he feared bitter strife on account of her love.
-Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 1. 768 ff (trans. Rieu)
The implication made in this story is that Jason did not let Atalanta aboard not because of her gender, but because he knew she was in love with him and did not want conflict.
Atalanta is notable in Greek mythology as an accomplished heroine, but she was not entirely outside a known type.
In her stories she is a devoted follower of Artemis. The goddess of the hunt set the standard for independent women in mythology.
She and her followers vowed to maintain virginity and largely avoided the company of men. Artemis was always happiest in the forest and was rarely without her bow and hunting dogs.
In one of her legends, Artemis even specified that she wanted to wear a short tunic in a men’s style because a woman’s long robes made running through the forest too difficult.
Many of the huntresses and forest-dwelling women of Greek mythology were also devoted followers of Artemis. Some notable women who defied the female stereotypes in the myths were:
- Callisto was the daughter of a king, but pledged herself as one of Artemis’s hunting party. When Zeus took advantage of her she was changed into a bear.
- Polyphonte ran away from home to join Artemis in the forest. This angered Aphrodite, who caused her to have two wild, cannibalistic sons by a bear.
- The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women who shunned the company of men except for procreation. Artemis was their patroness.
- Athena was an equal to Artemis but was similarly a virgin goddess who often appeared in traditionally masculine roles. As the goddess of war she often bested male opponents in battle.
Of all the women associated with Artemis and typically masculine pursuits, Atalanta is the one that is most broadly heroic. She did not succumb to a god, but married on her own terms.
In a mythology and culture that was often extremely patriarchal, Atalanta stands out as one of the few women who held her own even when directly competing against a man.
Arguably the most famous story of Atalanta involved her unusual engagement.
After winning fame in the boar hunt, Atalanta’s birth father found her at last. Contrary to her own desires, he wanted to see her get married.
She resisted the idea, but could not refuse her father’s wishes outright. Instead, she devised a plan to avoid marriage through the unique skills she had learned in the forest.
Atalanta announced that she could never bring herself to marry a man who was weaker than her. Therefore, she would only marry the man who could beat her in a footrace.
Furthermore, she made a provision that any man who lost to her would be killed immediately. This would serve to further dissuade would-be suitors.
She was known as one of the fastest runners in history so she was confident that no man would best her. She could avoid directly disobeying her father while still remaining happily unmarried.
A few stories of Atalanta claimed that she had good reason to avoid marriage. She had heard a prophecy that threatened a terrible doom if she ever shared her bed with a man.
Still, many brave young men came in an attempt to win Atalanta’s hand in marriage. None could beat her in a race, and they each lost their lives for the attempt.
Finally Hippomenes, sometimes also called Melanion, arrived to challenge her to a race. Poseidon’s grandson had a secret trick, however.
Aphrodite, who was never pleased when the followers of Artemis rejected love, had offered to help the young man win the race. She had given him three golden apples that were irresistible to anyone who saw them.
As the race began, Hippomenes threw the apples down on the track in front of Atalanta. She could not stop herself from bending to pick them up, no matter how determined she was to beat her competitor.
She fell behind and Hippomenes won the race. Atalanta had no choice but to keep her word and marry the man who had finally bested her.
Some later tellings of the tale made the prospect of marriage a much happier one for Atalanta. When they spoke before the race she had learned that Hippomenes was an intelligent and kind young man and she intentionally lost the race so that he would not be killed.
Unfortunately for Atalanta, her marriage to Hippomenes was not a particularly happy one.
Some accounts say that Hippomenes was to blame for the calamity that followed. He quickly forgot that he owed his success to Aphrodite and neglected to give the proper sacrifices in thanks.
As Atalanta had seen first-hand with the Calydonian boar, neglecting one’s duty to the gods could have terrible consequences. Aphrodite swore revenge on the couple for forgetting her.
Not long after they were married, Atalanta and her new husband went hunting in the forests near his home. Aphrodite used her powers to make Hippomenes fell overcome by sudden desire and he made love to his wife in the first place he found.
Unfortunately for them, the building they had found in the forest was an ancient temple to Zeus or Rhea. Although it had fallen out of use long before it was still sacred ground and their actions were seen as a grave insult.
Of course, Aphrodite had known this all along.
Atalanta and Hippomenes were transformed into lions. The Greeks believed that lions did not mate with one another, but instead could only mate with leopards, so the transformation ensured that Atalanta and her husband could never be together again.
In their short marriage, Atalanta and Hippomenes did have one son together. Parthenopeus would grow up to be one of the famous Seven against Thebes.
Some stories of Parthenopeus said that Atalanta had left him exposed just as she had been so she could disguise the fact that she was no longer a virgin. He may, in fact, have been the son of Meleager instead of Hippomenes.
By the time of the war at Thebes, however, he was known as Atalanta’s son and had inherited all her ferocity.
Legends of the Seven against Thebes also hint that Artemis may have saved Atalanta from her fate as a lion. In one version of the story Antigone mentions that “Artemis rushes over the hills with his mother,” implying that Atalanta was a companion of the goddess when her son was a grown man.
Atalanta was born a human princess but was abandoned at birth by a father who preferred to have a male heir. She was rescued by a sacred bear of Artemis and a group of hunters.Her childhood in the forest allowed Atalanta to grow into a strong woman. She was a skilled hunter, a fast runner, and a strong fighter. Click To Tweet
As a devotee of Artemis, Atlanta took a vow to maintain her virginity. She even defended this vow by killing two centaurs who threatened her in the forest.
Atalanta joined the hunt for the vicious Calydonian boar over the objections of the men in the hunting party. She was the first to wound the beast, but her victory ultimately led to tragedy.
She may have been a member of the famous Argonauts who sailed with Jason on his quest for the golden fleece. If so, she was the only woman aboard.
She was not the only woman who followed Artemis, but she more closely resembled the goddess than most of her other followers.
Atalanta was finally forced to marry when her father found her again. She tested her suitors with a high-stakes footrace, but finally lost to Hippomenes when he enlisted the aid of Aphrodite.
Their marriage ended tragically when, after being slighted by Hippomenes, Atalanta and her husband were turned into lions. Their son, however, followed in his mother’s footsteps as one of the great warriors of Greek legend.