This is the familiar, Boiotian tale of the deadly footrace, as related by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, as well as in other places. Just as a reminder, this is not the same Atalanta I was talking about last week. That was a different woman entirely. (Probably. I’m treating them as different women. There’s still the chance they could be the same woman, but…)
In the land of Boiotia, there once lived a man named Schoineus who doted fondly on his daughter Atalanta, and would not refuse her anything she asked.
His fondness for his daughter was harmless enough when she was a child: she would ask him for an apple or some grapes, and he would gladly give them to her, or she would ask him for a puppy of her very own, and he would give her one. But as she grew towards marriage age, his fondness became dangerous. Atalanta had grown to be a beautiful young woman, and many of the men in the area wanted her for a wife, yet Atalanta loathed the idea of becoming some man’s wife, sequestered away and bearing child after child, the way her mother did, having no life but weaving and childbirth.
So Atalanta pleaded with her father, begging him to let her choose her own husband by her own method, and Schoineus was helpless to refuse her.
Soon he was making an announcement to the local village square, which was filled with hopeful suitors:
“My daughter Atalanta will only marry the man who can defeat her in a foot race,” he told them, “and any young man who races her and loses will forfeit his life.” Such were Atalanta’s conditions, and Schoineus did not gainsay them.
Atalanta had demanded that the slowpoke men die because she was sure that would make the men too fearful to race her in the first place. But she had failed to understand men and her own beauty, which was so great that her suitors lost their fear for their lives, and still lined up for the chance to race her.
For many weeks, Atalanta raced against her suitors, and she always won. She watched disinterestedly as her father or his servants executed the loser. After a while, fear finally began to keep the suitors from challenging her, but more of them still lingered in the village, hoping that Schoineus would change his mind, and drop the requirement, letting them marry her without defeating her.
But one of them couldn’t stand waiting passively for Schoineus to turn away from his daughter’s whims! His name was Hippomenes, and he went to the temple of Aphrodite and prayed for the goddess’ help in uniting him with the beautiful Atalanta, who he swore he loved passionately.
Aphrodite took pity on Hippomenes because he was such a handsome youth, and sent a sleep over him there in her temple, and while he was sleeping, she deposited three golden apples beside him. When Hippomenes woke and saw the golden apples, he realized his prayers had been answered, snatched up the apples, and ran out of the temple, hurrying to challenge Atalanta to a race, having hidden the apples in a fold of his clothes.
As they were racing, as soon as Atalanta began to draw ahead of him, Hippomenes rolled one of the golden apples out ahead of her, and when Atalanta saw the beautiful, sparkling apple, she had to chase after it, even after it veered off the race course. Hippomenes moved well into the lead as Atalanta chased the apple and stooped to pick it up.
When Atalanta once again began to gain a lead on him, Hippomenes threw the second golden apple, and this one led Atalanta even further out of her way, giving Hippomenes even more time to race without worrying about losing his life to his prospective father-in-law. And yet Atalanta still began to catch up to him yet again, and so close to the finish line that Hippomenes was sure that if she passed him, it would be all over. So he threw the third golden apple, even as he began to run as fast as he possibly could.
While Atalanta was running after that final golden apple, Hippomenes crossed the finish line, winning her hand in marriage.
Schoineus was not entirely happy to be giving away his beloved daughter in marriage, but he was certainly happy that he wouldn’t be executing any more suitors! And while Atalanta was displeased to be getting married, she was very happy with her beautiful golden apples, and she wasn’t displeased with Hippomenes’ handsome looks, so even she admitted that her lot could be much worse.
On their voyage back to Hippomenes’ home, they passed by Aphrodite’s temple without stopping to thank the goddess for her role in bringing them together. This ingratitude enraged her, and as they drew near Cybele’s sanctuary, Aphrodite sent an overpowering lust to visit the young couple, so that they consummated their new love on the sacred ground of Cybele.
Cybele, outraged by their act of desecration, turned the young lovers into lions, and set them to drawing her chariot. In this way, the pair were forever together and yet eternally unable to further their love, as they were always parted by the yoke that bound them to Cybele’s chariot.
I don’t count Schoineus in the “creepy fathers” list, because it was Atalanta’s idea to avoid marriage, not his. He dotes on her, but not quite that far. (See the notes at the end of “Admetos and Alcestis” for the only reference to the “creepy father” list so far. There are others coming, though…eventually.)