Atalanta, a heroine from ancient Greek mythology, was known never to back down from a challenge. She was an incredibly skilled huntress and had immense strength and speed which could match that of the strongest and fastest of the Greek heroes.
It comes as no surprise, then, that her name actually means “equal in weight” in ancient Greek.
Much like many figures in Greek mythology, Atalanta has two different origin stories. In the first, the mortal heroine is the child of Iasus and Clymene from Arcadia, and is most well known for the hunt of the Calydonian boar and her association with Jason and the Argonauts.
In the second story, Atalanta is the daughter of King Schoeneus of Boeotia and is known for incredible speed in footraces.
Although they seem incredibly different, both stories refer to the same mortal huntress who was closely linked to Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt.
These disparate tales are likely the result of long oral storytelling traditions in antiquity, in which different regions had different stories for the same figures.
Atalanta — a formidable heroine in Greek mythology
Atalanta was not the pride of her father when she was born, as he wanted a boy. Her father rejected her as an infant, leaving her to be exposed on Mount Pathenion when she was just hours old.
Fortunately for the heroine, a female bear, one of Artemis’s symbols, discovered the infant. The bear’s cubs had recently been killed by a pack of hunters, so the grieving mother took the infant and nursed her.
That is, until the same pack of hunters who had killed the bear’s cubs found the infant and took her to be raised in their community in the mountains.
As she grew up, Atalanta modeled herself after the goddess of the hunt, as she became a skilled huntress with swift feet. She was also known for her incredible beauty.
Much like the goddess herself, Atalanta wore a simple tunic with no sleeves and lived in the wilderness of the forest.
While Atalanta was hunting in the forest, two centaurs, Rhoecus and Hylaios, saw the young beauty and tried to rape her. The heroine killed them with her bow, defending herself from their attack.
Atalanta is also mentioned in the mythology of the Greek hero Jason and his crew, known as the Argonauts. According to mythology, she was asked to join the crew as the only woman on the ship.
In one telling of the myth, Jason rejects Atalanta, stating that she cannot join the group, not because she lacks strength, but because the crew members may fight over her.
Atalanta helped Jason and his crew gain the protection and favor of her beloved goddess Artemis throughout their adventures.
In some versions of the myth, Atlanta fights with the group as well, and after she is injured, is healed by Medea.
In one of the many adventures of the Argonauts, Atalanta defeats the hero Peleus in a wrestling match at the funeral games of King Pelias in Iolcus. This scene became an extremely popular theme in ancient Greek art.
The Calydonian Boar
Despite her many impressive feats, the most famous by far is her success at the hunt of the Calydonian boar.
Each year, King Oeneus of Calydon held a celebration, along with a sacrifice to the gods. One year, however, the king forgot to include one goddess — Artemis.
In her rage, Artemis sent a hideous, terrifying boar, called the Calydonian boar, that destroyed the king’s land and tormented his people. Perhaps worst of all, the boar prevented any crops from being sown.
Atalanta was invited to join some of the most famous Greek heroes, including Meleager, Theseus, Pollux, Telamon, and Peleus, along with all the Argonauts, to join the hunt for the Calydonian boar.
All of her fellow hunters underestimated Atalanta as a woman, and some even complained, stating she shouldn’t have been able to join the hunt. Meleager, who was enamored with Atalanta and wanted to have a child with her, convinced the men to let her hunt alongside them.
The boar put up a difficult fight during the hunt, killing two men and injuring many. Atalanta was the first hunter to injure the boar, which led to a group effort to finally end the hunt. Although many hunters injured the Calydonian boar, Meleager was the one to kill it.
He gave the hide of the beast to Atalanta for her bravery and skill as a huntress. His uncles, however, took the hide away from her, thinking a woman didn’t deserve such a prize.
Enraged, Meleager killed his uncles, leading to his own downfall. His mother, distraught at hearing of the death of her brothers, threw a log that was tied to Meleager’s life into a fire, killing him.
The footrace of the heroine Atalanta
Another famous story of the heroine Atalanta involves her footrace. After her bravery in the boar hunt became known around the world, her father, who had once rejected her as an infant, and tried to kill her by exposure, welcomed her back into the family.
He tried to arrange a marriage for the beautiful heroine, but Atalanta had once consulted an oracle that told her that her marriage would be her downfall.
Hoping to avoid this fate, but unable to reject her father completely, the huntress stated that she would only marry a man who could beat her in a footrace, fully aware that this was impossible.
To add an extra element of drama, any man who attempted the race and lost would be killed. Her father agreed to the arrangement, and countless men came from all over Greece hoping to win the hand of the beautiful huntress, assuming that a woman couldn’t outrun them.
Many suitors were killed, and no one could outrun the huntress, until Hippomenes, who fell in love with Atalanta as soon as he caught a glimpse of her, entered the race.
Enamored with the heroine, Hippomenes called on Aphrodite, goddess of love, for assistance, as he knew he could never win on his own.
Aphrodite gladly helped the man, as she resented that Atalanta had become a devotee of Artemis and rejected men.
She offered him three golden apples that no one could resist. During the race, Hippomenes threw an apple each time Atalanta ran past him, causing her to fall behind.
Eventually, Hippomenes won the race, and the love of his life. The two married and Atalanta fathered one son, Pathenopaios.
Tragically, however, Hippomenes forgot to thank the goddess Aphrodite after the race. Full of anger, Aphrodite filled the couple with passion while they were on a hunt, and caused them to have sex in a sanctuary of Zeus, which was extremely sacrilegious.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus, or Artemis, angered that Atalanta lost her virginity, turned the couple into lions for their sin.
According to ancient belief, lions could not mate with their own species, only with leopards. So, this punishment effectively prevented the pair from ever having sex again.