Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 3 Chapter 4 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 3, Chapter 4 : Atalanta | Summary

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Summary

Atalanta's parentage is not clear, but it is apparent her father is disappointed at having a daughter. He leaves the infant heroine on a mountainside to die, but she is rescued by a she-bear. Hunters find her and raise her to be a huntress. As a young woman, Atalanta fights and kills two Centaurs who attempt to abduct her. She is later the only woman to participate in the hunt for the Calydonian boar, sent by Artemis to punish King Oeneus of Calydon because he forgot to offer her a sacrifice at harvest time.

Oeneus's son Meleager falls in love with Atalanta during the hunt, but she has no interest in marriage. They become friends, and when her arrow wounds the boar and enables Meleager to stab its heart, Meleager gives her credit for the kill and insists she take its skin. Meleager's brothers are insulted that he gives this honor to a woman, and he kills them both. Their mother, Althea, destroys Meleager's thread of destiny, which the Fates give to her when he is an infant, thus killing Meleager. Althea then hangs herself.

Atalanta is mentioned as a participant in the Quest of the Golden Fleece, but the stories mention no specific exploits on her part. She does defeat the hero Peleus, Achilles's father, in the funeral games Jason hosts in honor of his dead uncle Pelias.

Atalanta attracts many suitors, but she avoids marriage by insisting the man she marries defeat her in a foot race first. She always outruns her suitors. A man named Melanion uses golden apples to distract Atalanta when they race. Unable to resist the apples, Atalanta pauses to pick them up when Melanion throws them onto the racecourse. He wins the race and marries Atalanta. They have a son named Parthenopaeus but are later turned into lions for offending either Zeus or Aphrodite.

Analysis

Atalanta is exceptional because she is the only one of the great Greek heroes who is a woman, and she faces little punishment for her disinterest in marriage and family. Certainly, the fate of her friend Meleager after the Calydonian boar hunt represents a censure of her superior prowess in the hunt, but the suffering in this case is primarily confined to Meleager's family, who brings the suffering upon themselves with their prejudice against Atalanta and rash action against Meleager.

As a heroine, Atalanta embodies many ideals for women. She is highly accomplished in her chosen field, which is important for a woman of stature and respect. Like the goddess Artemis, she is a maiden who prefers hunting to socializing. The she-bear who nurses and saves Atalanta as an infant explains Atalanta's ferocity and skills as a hunter as well as her independence and love of nature. Through the process of nursing, the bear transfers some of her own attributes to the infant, then the hunters who find and raise Atalanta give the girl proper outlets for these traits. It is acceptable for a woman to be a hunter, as Artemis herself demonstrates, but as the incident with Meleager's family also demonstrates, it is not acceptable for a woman to best a man.

Atalanta also possesses the attribute most important for men and women: beauty. She draws many suitors, as her desirability is an important factor for her femininity and for her status as a heroine. She is fearless and persistent as well. Edith Hamilton argues Atalanta probably did not participate in the Quest of the Golden Fleece because there are no specific stories about said participation, yet she is included on the list of Argonauts in some stories. Her bravery and sense of adventure are strong enough to warrant her inclusion in such a quest.

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