Saturday, February 8, 2014


Atalanta is my favorite mythological character, and I was always disappointed that there were so few stories about her, as opposed to the zillions of stories we have about, say, Hercules or Jason or Achilles or Odysseus.

Here is what I had known about her: when she was born, her father left her out in the woods to die. A bear finds her, and raises her as one of her own cubs. Atalanta grows to womanhood in the wilderness, and becomes a great hunter. She comes out of the woods at some point, to mix with other humans, and goes on adventures with the other heroes of her time --- she joins in the hunt for the Calydonian boar, which she is the first to wound, and she sails with Jason on the Argo, to help him find the Golden Fleece.

Men keep wanting to marry her, but she is a devotee of Artemis and sworn to chastity. (Or, alternately, she just isn't interested in married life.) So she issues a challenge to her prospective suitors: they must be able to win a footrace against her to marry her, and must stake their lives on the outcome of the contest. Win the race, and win her hand; or lose the race, and lose your life. This probably helped thin the herd of contestants somewhat!

One guy (who is called Hippomenes in the version of the story I know, but apparently he is sometimes called Melanion) planned ahead, and asked Aphrodite to help him win the race. She gave him three golden apples, and told him that Atalanta will be unable to resist them (either because they're magic or because ladies just can't resist the shiny), so if he throws them, she'll have to veer off course and stop to pick them up. These detours would give him time to overcome her lead, and even get ahead of her.

He does win the race, and he does get to marry Atalanta. But he forgets to thank Aphrodite for her help by making a burnt offering to her before the wedding, so she turns him and Atalanta both into lions. (Or, alternately, she makes them so consumed with lust that they consummate their marriage vows right there in Zeus's temple, which makes Zeus angry and then he turns them into lions.)*

It annoys me that the story about her that I know in the most detail isn't really about her --- it's about Hippomenes/Melanion, and his efforts to Get the Girl. Even apart from their main stories, we have all kinds of other stories of Hercules, Theseus and Jason wandering around performing random acts of heroism; why do we have so few about Atalanta? Such a badass character must surely have slain her share of brigands and marauding beasts, and the woman was raised from infancy by bears. Why aren't there any stories about her life in the forest, with the bears? (Also, who taught her to hunt like a human? Bears don't shoot arrows or throw spears, yet Atalanta is able to do both with great skill. Was there a kindly centaur who taught her in the warrior's arts, like Chiron taught Achilles?)

Because of this lingering disappointment with the meager trove of Atalanta-stories, I was elated to find this old Journal of Sport History article on "The Atalanta Legend in Art and Literature" (PDF). I was even more overjoyed to see it list a couple of incidents in Atalanta's mythic biography that I hadn't ever seen before: apparently she also wrestled against Peleus, the father of Achilles, who once beat a goddess at wrestling (that goddess being Thetis, Achilles's mother, the sea-goddess), and she was also once ambushed by two centaurs, whom she very quickly overpowered and killed.

(The article also explains who taught her to use weapons --- I guess some hunters found her while she was living in the woods, and took her in with them, and taught her to be a hunter, too.)

Going back to her contest with Peleus, here's a bit of trivia I thought was awesome:
That wrestling skills were possessed by Atalanta is obvious from the various artistic representations depicting the contest. Indeed [E. Norman**] Gardiner [in his 1910 book Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals] claimed that perhaps "the best illustration of a neck-hold occurred on a black-figured amphora in Munich, representing the wrestling match between Peleus and Atalanta."  For the match, Atalanta wore a tight fitting wrestling cap and short trunks, or shorts, while Peleus was naked as was the custom for male athletes in antiquity. There are several artistic representations of this match and the various scenes all show Peleus's hands in the same position, both on Atalanta's left arm. Atalanta, however, is shown in different positions, which varied from no hold at all, to her right arm over Peleus's shoulder, to her right hand seizing him by the back of the neck. 
Here are some pictures of those various depictions:
This might be the thing mentioned in the quoted bit? I don't know an amphora from a hole in the ground, but she's definitely got him in a neck-hold there!

Here's another one --- looks like this one's supposed to be the start of the match, from the way they're standing together in the middle of all those people.
Anyway, I just thought it was incredibly awesome that, not only is there another story I hadn't heard before about Atalanta being badass, but that a vase painting of that story should be singled out as possibly the best depiction of a certain wrestling technique in ancient Greek art!

*It is entirely possible that the first possible outcome I listed, with Aphrodite herself vengefully turning them into lions, is a bowdlerization of the ending I put in parentheses, where she makes them horny while they're on some other god's sacred ground, and then that god turns them into lions. I did first encounter this story as a child, in children's books.

**E. Norman! What an E. Normous opportunity for a pun!

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