In myth, the beautiful Atalanta could run faster than the fastest man, and Apollo warned her that her husband would be her downfall. She set a competition for many suitors: she would marry the man who out-ran her, and those who failed would die.

Undeterred by the cruel fate that had befallen others and anxious to win the prize, Hippomenes, great-grandson of the King of the Ocean, took up the challenge. He asked for Venus' (Aphrodite's) help, and she offered him three golden apples to distract Atalanta as she ran. While they were running, Hippomenes threw the apples, and Atalanta could not resist running to fetch them.

Having won the race, Hippomenes failed to thank Venus and her sympathy then turned to anger. She induced the couple to defile a sacred spot and had them turned into lions.

There are conflicting accounts of Atalanta's parentage, a fact which together with other disagreements between sources as to her history contributes to the impression that she is a composite figure, at least two different women rolled into one.

Whoever her father was, it is agreed by all sources that, having craved a son, he had her exposed on a mountainside soon after her birth, as was the custom in the case of unwanted or deformed children. The goddess Artemis sent a she-bear to succle her, and later on a group of hunters found her and brought her up. Like the goddess to whom she thus owed her life, Atalanta loved to hunt and swore to shun men forever.

It is mentioned in some sources, but by no means agreed upon, that Atalanta was the only woman allowed to accompany Jason on the trip of the Argo as one of the Argonauts. There are accounts of her being wounded in the battle with the Colchians and being healed by Medea, however. A beautiful account by Robert Graves describes her racing through the forest, chasing after the departing Argo, fearful of having been left behind. Upon reaching the shoreline an seeing the ship pass in the waters below the cliff she is running along, she simply races onwards, soaring into the air and landing gracefully on the deck. Whereupon Jason had no choice but to let her continue the journey with him and the rest of his hero-only crew.

It is much more widely reported that she was one of the members of the Calydonian Boar hunt, at which she was the first to wound the beast as well as the first to shed blood of any kind - the blood of two centaurs who tried to ravish her. Having been presented with the boar's pelt and tusks in recognition of her valour her father chose to become reconciled with her, the downside of which for Atalanta was that, being now a princess, she was expected to marry.

Atalanta was the fastest runner in all of Greece. She therefore came up with the following plan: she will race any comers for her hand. Should they win, they can have her for their bride, but should they lose she can claim their lives. Despite the dangers there were many takers, and many young men perished. Until that is one Hippomenes, with the connivance of Aphrodite, always willing to aid the course of love, managed to outwit her by throwing beautiful golden apples in her path as they ran. Not being able to resist picking them up, Atalanta was slowed enough to let him have the advantage, and had no choice but to marry him.

Hippomenes neglected to thank Aphrodite properly - or, in other versions, it was just a trick of fate - and so she induced him and his young bride to make love to each oher in Zeus' sanctuary. The angry god immediately turned them both into lions - noble, powerful, but unable to mate with each other.

Out of idle curiosity, I went searching for images of Atalanta on the web. Apart from one image from a Greek vase and a paiting by Rubens depicting the Boar hunt, all representations of her capture her in her moment of downfall - stooping to pick up a golden apple... She was an uncomfortable herione for the Greeks (and probably a hang-over from earlier, Asia Minor days and tales of a more ancient and feral Artemis), as evidenced by the many contradictions found in the stories about her, and doesn't seem to have been much emancipated today.

Αταλαντη

A heroine who featured in some accounts in the Arcadian cycle and also in connection with Boeotian legends. She is occasionally regarded as the daughter of Iasus (or Iasius), who was himself the son of Lycurgus and a descendant of Arcas (in which case his mother was Clymene, the daughter of Minyas, king of Orchomenus). In some versions (in Euripides for example) Atalanta's father was Menalus, who gave his name to Mount Menalus, and in others again (and this is the account most commonly followed since Hesiod) she is said to have been the daughter of Schoeneus, one of the sons of Athamas and Themisto after whom the Boetian town of Schoenontes was named (Table 33). Since her father wanted to have only sons, Atalanta was put out to die at birth on Mount Parthenon. A she-bear fed her until one day she was found by some huntsmen who brought her up among themselves. When she reached girlhood, Atalanta had no wish to marry but remained a virgin and devoted herself, like her protectress Artemis, to hunting in the woods. She took a leading part in the hunt for the Calydonian boar (see Meleager). At the funeral games held in honour of Pelias she won the prize either for the race or for wrestling against Peleus.

Atalanta was unwilling to marry, either because of her devotion to Artemis or because an oracle had told her that if she did marry she would be changed into an animal. Accordingly, to keep her suitors at a distance she had made it known that she would only marry a man who could beat her in a race. If she won, she would put the claimant to death. Now she was nimble and could run very fast. There is a story that she would begin by giving her opponent a slight start and would then set off in pursuit, carrying a spear with which she would pierce him when she caught up with him. Many young men had met their death in this way when a new challenger arrived, in some accounts called Hippomenes, the son of Megareus, in others Melanion or Milanion, the son of Amphidamas, and her first cousin (Table 26). This new arrival brought some golden apples with him; these had been given to him by Aphrodite. They came either from a shrine of the goddess in Cyprus of from the garden of the Hesperides. During the race, just as the young man was on the point of being caught, he threw the golden apples, one by one, in front of Atalanta. She, out of curiosity, though, (perhaps also through love of her opponent, and because she was happy to cheat herself) stopped to pick them up, and Melanion (or Hippomenes) won and received the agreed prize. Some time later during a hunt, the couple entered a shrine of Zeus (or, in another version, Cybele) and gave themselves over to the ecstasies of love. Furious at such sacrilege, Zeus changed them both into lions (which explains the belief that lions do not mate with each other, but with leopards). A spring, known as the Spring of Atalanta, could also be seen in the region of Epidaurus where Atalanta, in search of water to quench her thirst, had struck the rock with her pike and a spring had gushed forth. Atalanta had, by her husband, or perhaps by Ares or Meleager, a son called Parthenopaeus, who took part in the first expedition against Thebes.

{E2 DICTIONARY OF CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY}

Table of Sources:
- Apollod. Bibl. 1, 8, 2; 3, 9, 2
- Callim. Hymn 3, 215ff.
- Diod. Sic. 4, 34; 65
- schol. on Euripides, Phoen. 151
- Euripides, Meleager (lost tragedy, Nauck TGF, edn 2, p. 525)
- Xen. Cyneg. 1, 7
- Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 1, 769ff.
- Prop. 1, 1, 9ff.
- Ovid, Met. 8, 316ff.; 10, 560ff.; Ars Am. 2, 185ff.; Am. 3, 2, 29ff.
- Serv. on Virgil, Aen. 3, 113
- Paus. 3, 24, 2; 5, 19, 2; 8, 35, 10; 8, 45, 2; 8, 45, 6
- Hyg. Fab. 70; 99; 173f; 185; 244; 270
- Aelian, VH 13, 1
- Palaeph. Incred. 13
- See also Meleager.

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