|Greek and Roman Mythology > The Calydonian Hunt
The Calydonian Hunt
by heroes from all Greece, or Hellas as it was then called. It
was the first of their common undertakings which made the Greeks
feel that they were in truth one nation, though split up into
many small kingdoms. Another of their great gatherings was for
the Calydonian Hunt, and another, the greatest and most famous of
all, for the Trojan War.
The hero of the quest for the golden Fleece was Jason. With the
other heroes of the Greeks, he was present at the Calydonian
Hunt. But the chief hero was Meleager, the son of OEneus, king
of Calydon, and Althea, his queen.
Althea, when her son was born, beheld the three Destinies, who,
as they spun their fatal thread, foretold that the life of the
child should last no longer than a brand then burning upon the
hearth. Althea seized and quenched the brand, and carefully
preserved it for years, while Meleager grew to boyhood, youth,
and manhood. It chanced, then, that OEneus, as he offered
sacrifices to the gods, omitted to pay due honors to Diana, and
she, indignant at the neglect, sent a wild boar of enormous size
to lay waste the files of Calydon. Its eyes shone with blood and
fire, its bristles stood like threatening spears, its tusks were
like those of Indian elephants. The growing corn was trampled,
the vines and olive trees laid waste, the flocks and herds were
driven in wild confusion by the slaughtering foe. All common aid
seemed vain; but Meleager called on the heroes of Greece to join
in a bold hunt for the ravenous monster. Theseus and his friend
Pirithous, Jason, Peleus afterwards the father of Achilles,
Telamon the father of Ajax, Nestor, then a youth, but who in his
age bore arms with Achilles and Ajax in the Trojan war, these
and many more joined in the enterprise. With them came Atalanta,
the daughter of Iasius, king of Arcadia. A buckle of polished
gold confined her vest, an ivory quiver hung on her left
shoulder, and her left hand bore the bow. Her face blent
feminine beauty with the best graces of martial youth. Meleager
saw and loved.
But now already they were near the monster's lair. They
stretched strong nets from tree to tree; they uncoupled their
dogs, they tried to find the footprints of their quarry in the
grass. From the wood was a descent to marshy ground. Here the
boar, as he lay among the reeds, heard the shouts of his
pursuers, and rushed forth against them. One and another is
thrown down and slain. Jason throws his spear with a prayer to
Diana for success; and the favoring goddess allows the weapon to
touch, but not to wound, removing the steel point of the spear
even in its flight. Nestor, assailed, seeks and finds safety in
the branches of a tree. Telamon rushes on, but stumbling at a
projecting root, falls prone. But an arrow from Atalanta at
length for the first time tastes the monster's blood. It is a
slight wound, but Meleager sees and joyfully proclaims it.
Anceus, excited to envy by the praise given to a female, loudly
proclaims his own valor, and defies alike the boar and the
goddess who had sent it; but as he rushes on, the infuriated
beast lays him low with a mortal wound. Theseus throws his
lance, but it is turned aside by a projecting bough. The dart of
Jason misses its object, and kills instead one of their own dogs.
But Meleager, after one unsuccessful stroke, drives his spear
into the monsters side, then rushes on and despatches him with
Then rose a shout from those around; they congratulated the
conqueror, crowding to touch his hand. He, placing his foot upon
the slain boar, turned to Atalanta and bestowed on her the head
and the rough hide which were the trophies of his success. But
at this, envy excited the rest to strife. Phlexippus and Toxeus,
the uncles of Meleager and Althea's brothers, beyond the rest
opposed the gift, and snatched from the maiden the trophy she had
received. Meleager, kindling with rage at the wrong done to
himself, and still more at the insult offered to her whom he
loved, forgot the claims of kindred, and plunged his sword into
the offenders' hearts.
As Althea bore gifts of thankfulness to the temples for the
victory of her son, the bodies of her murdered brothers met her
sight. She shrieks, and beats her breast, and hastens to change
the garments of rejoicing for those of mourning. But when the
author of the deed is known, grief gives way to the stern desire
of vengeance on her son. The fatal brand, which once she rescued
from the flames, the brand which the Destinies had linked with
Meleager's life, she brings forth, and commands a fire to be
prepared. Then four times she essays to place the brand upon the
pile; four times draws back, shuddering at the thought of
bringing destruction on her son. The feelings of the mother and
the sister contend within her. Now she is pale at the thought of
the purposed deed, now flushed again with anger at the act of her
son. As a vessel, driven in one direction by the wind, and in
the opposite by the tide, the mind of Althea hangs suspended in
uncertainty. But now the sister prevails above the mother, and
she begins as she holds the fatal wood: "Turn, ye Furies,
goddesses of punishment! Turn to behold the sacrifice I bring!
Crime must atone for crime. Shall OEneus rejoice in his victor
son, while the house of Thestius (Thestius was father of Toxeus,
Phlexippus and Althea) is desolate? But, alas! To what deed am I
borne along? Brothers, forgive a mother's weakness! My hand
fails me. He deserves death, but not that I should destroy him.
But shall he then live, and triumph, and reign over Calydon,
while you, my brothers, wander unavenged among the shades? No!
Thou has lived by my gift; die, now, for thine own crime. Return
the life which twice I gave thee, first at thy birth, again when
I snatched this brand from the flames. O that thou hadst then
died! Alas! Evil is the conquest; but, brothers, ye have
conquered." And, turning away her face, she threw the fatal wood
upon the burning pile.
It gave, or seemed to give, a deadly groan. Meleager, absent and
unknowing of the cause, felt a sudden pang. He burns and only by
courageous pride conquers the pain which destroys him. He mourns
only that he perishes by a bloodless and unhonored death. With
his last breath he calls upon his aged father, his brother, and
his fond sisters, upon his beloved Atalanta, and upon his mother,
the unknown cause of his fate. The flames increase, and with
them the pain of the hero. Now both subside; now both are
quenched. The brand is ashes and the life of Meleager is
breathed forth to the wandering winds.
Althea, when the deed was done, laid violent hands upon herself.
The sisters of Meleager mourned their brother with uncontrollable
grief; till Diana, pitying the sorrows of the house that once had
aroused her anger, turned them into birds.
The innocent cause of so much sorrow was a maiden whose face you
might truly say was boyish for a girl, yet too girlish for a boy.
Her fortune had been told, and it was to this effect: "Atalanta,
do not marry; marriage will be your ruin." Terrified by this
oracle, she fled the society of men, and devoted herself to the
sports of the chase. To all suitors (for she had many) she
imposed a condition which was generally effectual in relieving
her of their persecutions: "I will be the prize of him who
shall conquer me in the race; but death must be the penalty of
all who try and fail." In spite of this hard condition some
would try. Hippomenes was to be judge of the race. "Can it be
possible that any will be so rash as to risk so much for a wife?"
said he. But when he saw her lay aside her robe for the race, he
changed his mind, and said, "Pardon me, youths, I knew not the
prize you were competing for." As he surveyed them he wished them
all to be beaten, and swelled with envy of any one that seemed at
all likely to win. While such were his thoughts, the virgin
darted forward. As she ran, she looked more beautiful than ever.
The breezes seemed to give wings to her feet; her hair flew over
her shoulders, and the gay fringe of her garment fluttered behind
her. A ruddy hue tinged the whiteness of her skin, such as a
crimson curtain casts on a marble wall. All her competitors were
distanced, and were put to death without mercy. Hippomenes, not
daunted by this result, fixing his eyes on the virgin, said, "Why
boast of beating those laggards? I offer myself for the
contest." Atalanta looked at him with a pitying countenance, and
hardly knew whether she would rather conquer him or not. "What
god can tempt one so young and handsome to throw himself away? I
pity him, not for his beauty (yet he is beautiful), but for his
youth. I wish he would give up the race, or if he will be so
mad, I hope he may outrun me." While she hesitates, revolving
these thoughts, the spectators grow impatient for the race, and
her father prompts her to prepare. Then Hippomenes addressed a
prayer to Venus; "Help me, Venus, for you have led me on" Venus
heard, and was propitious.
In the garden of her temple, in her own island of Cyprus, is a
tree with yellow leaves and yellow branches, and golden fruit.
Hence Venus gathered three golden apples, and, unseen by all
else, gave them to Hippomenes, and told him how to use them. The
signal is given; each starts from the goal, and skims over the
sand. So light their tread, you would almost have thought they
might run over the river surface or over the waving grain without
sinking. The cries of the spectators cheered on Hippomenes:
"Now, now do your best! Haste, haste! You gain on her! Relax
not! One more effort!" It was doubtful whether the youth or the
maiden heard these cries with the greater pleasure. But his
breath began to fail him, his throat was dry, the goal yet far
off. At that moment he threw down one of the golden apples. The
virgin was all amazement. She stopped to pick it up. Hippomenes
shot ahead. Shouts burst forth from all sides. She redoubled
her efforts, and soon overtook him. Again he threw an apple.
She stopped again, but again came up with him. The goal was
near; one chance only remained. "Now, goddess," said he,
"prosper your gift!" and threw the last apple off at one side.
She looked at it, and hesitated; Venus impelled her to turn aside
for it. She did so, and was vanquished. The youth carried off
But the lovers were so full of their own happiness that they
forgot to pay due honor to Venus; and the goddess was provoked at
their ingratitude. She caused them to give offence to Cybele.
That powerful goddess was not to be insulted with impunity. She
took from them their human form and turned them into animals of
characters resembling their own: of the huntress-heroine,
triumphing in the blood of her lovers, she made a lioness, and of
her lord and master a lion, and yoked them to her ear, there they
are still to be seen in all representations, in statuary or
painting, of the goddess Cybele.
Cybele is the Latin name of the goddess called by the Greeks Rhea
and Ops. She was the wife of Cronos and mother of Zeus. In
works of art, she exhibits the matronly air which distinguishes
Juno and Ceres. Sometimes she is veiled, and seated on a throne
with lions at her side, at other times riding in a chariot drawn
by lions. She sometimes wears a mural crown, that is, a crown
whose rim is carved in the form of towers and battlements. Her
priests were called Corybantes.
Byron in describing the city of Venice, which is built on a low
island in the Adriatic Sea, borrows an illustration from Cybele:
"She looks a sea-Cybele fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers."
Childe Harold, IV
In Moore's Rhymes on the Road, the poet, speaking of Alpine
scenery, alludes to the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, thus:
"Even here, in this region of wonders, I find
That light-footed Fancy leaves Truth far behind,
Or at least, like Hippomenes, turns her astray
By the golden illusions he flings in her way."