Since I’ve had Amazons on the brain lately, but all the major Amazon myths are embedded within larger narratives and I didn’t want to just tell them out of context, I thought I’d do the story of the “Greek Amazon” Atalanta this week, especially since I’ve already had her show up for the Calydonian Boar Hunt. (And had her son show up to die outside Thebes.) But I was confused as to how to reconcile the two endings to her story, and her different love interests. So I consulted my favorite general reference text, Early Greek Myth by Timothy Gantz, and found that the reason there are two endings is that there were two women named Atalanta, from different parts of Greece. (Though some late writers like Apollodoros and Statius did combine them, which is why the modern mind has presumed them to be one and the same.) So that makes things easier! Jut putting that out there now, so no one gets confused when this Atalanta doesn’t get into a deadly footrace with golden apples and such. That’s the other one. I’ll do her story next week.
In Arcadia lived a man named Iasos, who felt that it was a terrible thing to have daughters. Daughters couldn’t inherit property, but they ate your food and required a dowry to obtain greedy husbands, so Iasos swore that he would never have any daughters.
Of course, Iasos had no control over such things, and his wife soon enough gave birth to a daughter.
Enraged at his wife for disobeying him, and at the gods and the Fates for defying his will, Iasos refused to accept the daughter as his own. He took the poor infant into the mountains and abandoned her by a stream.
That might have been the end of the girl, if the goddesses had not been looking out for her. Eileithuia, goddess of childbirth, reported the outrage to her mother Hera, who set the mountain nymphs to watching over the baby and protecting her. One of the nymphs told Artemis, who was also a guardian of young girls, and she sent a mother bear to adopt the baby as her own.
The girl grew up on the mountain, nursed by the bears and taught to speak by nymphs, who named her Atalanta. Some of the nymphs were Hera’s attendants, and tried to teach Atalanta all about the proper ways of the society that had shunned her.
But most of them were nymphs who often went hunting with Artemis, and they taught Atalanta to hunt and shoot a bow, while telling her all about the hazards of consorting with men.
By the time Atalanta was an adult, she felt ready to leave the mountain and seek adventures in the world of men, and set out on her voyage. She hadn’t even left the mountain when she heard hoofbeats approaching her. Two sets of them, much too heavy to be a deer, even a male deer.
Turning to look at them, Atalanta found that it was two centaurs approaching her. She had heard from Hera’s nymphs that centaurs were dangerous, horrible creatures, but Artemis’ nymphs had told her that centaurs were usually only a problem if they got drunk. Since it was the middle of the morning, Atalanta assumed that these centaurs must be sober, and allowed them to draw near her.
The two centaurs smiled down at her in a way that Atalanta didn’t understand. She had never been around men–or centaurs–before, so she didn’t know what “leering” looked like yet. They exchanged glances with each other, then moved a bit closer to Atalanta.
“You’re a pretty little thing,” one of them said, leaning down towards her face.
“I’m not a thing,” Atalanta replied coldly. “My name is Atalanta.”
“Well, Atalanta, why don’t you come and entertain us for a while?” the other asked.
“I’m not an entertainer. I’m a hunter.”
“You’re a pretty girl; that’s entertaining enough!” the first one laughed, reaching towards her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Atalanta shouted, jumping away from his grasping hand.
“You’re coming with us, little girl!” the second centaur insisted, trying to grab her. “We haven’t had the chance to slake our lust in all too long!”
Atalanta pulled her bow from her shoulder, and withdrew several arrows from her quiver. “You’ll have nothing from me,” she assured them, “except pain and death, if you keep on this course!”
“What can a little girl do to us?” the first centaur laughed, again advancing towards her.
Atalanta let the first arrow fly, and it buried itself in his shoulder. She already had the next arrow notched before she spoke. “Are you going to run away and save yourselves, or do I have to kill you?”
“Little bitch! Who do you think you are?!” the centaur roared, as they both charged at her.
“I am Atalanta!” she shouted back at it, firing her arrow straight into the centaur’s throat. The centaur pitched forwards and slid through bloodying mud towards her feet. The second centaur reared up at the sight of his comrade’s fate. Terrified and confused by the sight of his arousal, Atalanta accidentally let an arrow fly into it.
Shrieking in agony, the second centaur ran off as quickly as he could.
Unsettled, Atalanta continued her journey down the mountain, but she was no longer sure that she was doing the right thing. Were all male creatures like that?
Not far from the base of the mountain, she heard a set of hoofbeats approaching her again. From the weight of them, it was another centaur. With grim determination, she prepared for combat. If this one, too, wanted to force himself upon her, she would slay him before he came anywhere near her!
The centaur was galloping through the woods, and she could only make out its silhouette, but it certainly was one, she was sure, so Atalanta lifted her bow and notched the arrow. “Stay back!” she shouted. “One more step, and I’ll slay you, centaur!”
The centaur reared up on his hind feet, and when he was back down on all fours again, he lifted his hands in the air, shaking them slightly. “I’m not a centaur!” he objected.
Rather than retort, he lowered his hands and then, to Atalanta’s surprise, proved himself to be telling the truth, as the man dismounted from his horse. She had never actually seen a human man before–or a horse, for that matter–so she wasn’t entirely sure how to react. “Have you been attacked by centaurs in this area?” the man asked. “I didn’t think they were a problem here.”
“Yes, just this morning,” Atalanta admitted, reluctantly lowering her bow. He seemed like a perfectly reasonable man…but she was keeping the arrow at the ready, just in case.
“That’s alarming,” the man replied, walking away from his horse a bit. He looked harmless enough. “Were you hurt?”
“No, I killed one, and scared the other away,” Atalanta assured him.
“That’s very impressive!” The man smiled at her widely. “You must be very skilled with that bow! I was on my way to go hunting on the next mountain over. Would you like to join me? I’d love to see that kind of skill in action.”
“I…” Was it safe to accept his invitation? Did he want to take advantage of her, or did he genuinely want to admire her skill?
“I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself,” the man said, misunderstanding her reluctance. “My name is Meleager. And you are?”
“I’m called Atalanta,” she told him. “I follow the ways of the goddess Artemis,” she added. Perhaps that would indicate that she was not available for seduction?
“Very noble,” he said, smiling at her. “I love a good hunt, myself. Please, do join me.”
Atalanta nodded, and they set off together for the hunt.
Hmm. I had to make up more of that than I would have liked, due to lack of details. I’m not pleased by that. And I apologize for the bit with the centaur’s, um…where she shot the second centaur. I just couldn’t help myself somehow.
Anyway, eventually we’ll hear more of this Atalanta when we get to the voyage of the Argo. (I know I established in the Lemnian Women that Jason didn’t let her become an Argonaut, but I may have her join up after they lose Heracles and Hylas. Somehow. Dunno. We’ll see when I get there. Whenever that will be.)
BTW, considering I’ve written seven books about a character named Atalanta, you’d think I wouldn’t have so much trouble typing the name out. Sigh…