The life of Heracles is too freakin’ complicated. I have to leave it until I have time to prepare a full analysis of all the material to decide how the chronology works out. (The major heroes, like Heracles and the Dioscuri, keep jumping from one generation to another. For example, in some tales, Heracles is the youngest of Zeus’ mortal children. But if he’s the youngest, then how old does that make Helen? Because Heracles is the one who set a young Priam on the throne of Troy…)
Aaaanyway, due to the A-to-Z challenge for next month, I’ve had to plan out my whole schedule (’tis a whole month of mythology, probably with more than one retold myth a week, depending on if I have anything to say about the person/place/concept selected for the letter of the day) in advance, and looking at my plans, it seemed like this was a good time to tell this story.
After returning from Colchis, Meleager felt depressed just to spend his days in Calydon. His father, Oineus, arranged a marriage for him with the beautiful Cleopatra, daughter of Idas of Messenia. But she was no match for the beauty of Atalanta, and no matter how much he feigned to love his wife, Meleager still pined for the virgin huntress.
Several years passed in the normal manner, and Meleager’s discontent grew and grew, until it was distracting all those around him. His mother, Althaia, fretted constantly that her son had not fathered any children on his wife, and his father couldn’t stop worrying that his fine son was acting so listless, like a sick child. And Cleopatra was beside herself with grief, because she knew that she was the cause of her husband’s unhappiness.
So Cleopatra decided that it was her job to cheer him up. She tried everything she could to make him happy, but nothing worked, because he wanted only to see the woman he truly loved, fair Atalanta. Resigning herself to misery, Cleopatra gently suggested to Oineus that the best way to improve Meleager’s mood was to invite many great heroes like himself to come to Calydon for a great feast. “If he sees his friends again, perhaps he will feel better,” she explained to her father-in-law, knowing that it was only his female friend who could make Meleager smile once more.
Oineus agreed gladly, and sent out heralds in all directions, asking all the greatest heroes to come to Calydon, particularly any of the ones who had sailed on the Argo with his son Meleager.
The heroes began to arrive in Calydon at harvest time, but Meleager’s mood seemed to grow worse instead of better. Every day, when the heralds arrived to announce their approaching lords, Meleager’s excitement grew, only to crash down in bitter disappointment when Atalanta was not among those arriving.
Seeing that his son was not reacting as expected, Oineus began to despair. As the time approached for the harvest festivals, Oineus was so distracted that he accidentally omitted to sacrifice to Artemis as he was sacrificing to all the other Olympian gods. This enraged the goddess, and she sent a gigantic boar to attack Calydon in retribution for the slight.
Only as rumors began to spread of the enormous boar did Atalanta finally arrive. Meleager was overjoyed to see her, and quickly took her aside to ask her why she had arrived so late. “I came to hunt the boar, not to take part in your symposium,” Atalanta informed him coldly. “Such gatherings of men make me uncomfortable.”
But Meleager would not brook refusals now, and he spent every minute he could with Atalanta, even to the exclusion not only of his other guests, but even of his wife, who did not see him for days after Atalanta’s arrival. By the time all the heroes had arrived, the Calydonian Boar had become a true menace, crashing through small villages and slaughtering any who had the misfortune to come near it.
Oineus begged his guests to help slay the beast. Peleus and Telamon, the sons of Aiakos, were the first to volunteer to aid in the task, and once those grandsons of Zeus had volunteered, all the other guests were eager to join in the hunt. As an incentive to get the job done quickly, Oineus offered to give the beast’s huge pelt to whatever hero could bring it down.
“That is a fine prize,” Atalanta told the king, “but the honor of killing such a terrible beast is the greater prize.”
Meleager was delighted with his beloved’s wise words, but most of the other men mocked her for daring to take part in something that was so clearly the domain of men. They suggested that she should go join Meleager’s wife in spinning wool and waiting at home like a proper woman. Atalanta was enraged by their presumption, and swore that she would be the one to bring down the boar: they could all wait in the safety of the palace, where they wouldn’t get in her way.
The would-be boar hunters began a fearsome argument over whether or not Atalanta should be involved in the hunt. Meleager was the first to speak in defense of the woman he loved, but his mother’s brothers, Toxeus and Plexippus, quickly insisted that the woman must not be allowed to join in the hunt, trying to use their power as his uncles to make him relent. Peleus spoke up in Atalanta’s defense, having wrestled against her at the funeral games of Pelias, and his brother Telamon and his friend Nestor also joined Atalanta’s side, out of their loyalty to Peleus. One by one, each hero joined one side or the other, but most sided with Toxeus and Plexippus, demanding that Atalanta be left behind, as she had been left behind by Jason.
It took some time for Oineus to calm tempers on both sides of the argument, but eventually the hunting party was able to set out in search of the terrifying boar.
The boar that the goddess of the hunt had sent to Calydon was larger than any of its hunters had expected. It was fully twice the size of even the largest ox. When they sighted it, it was pushing over a small house with its gigantic tusks. Some of the heroes threw their spears at it, but others turned and ran at the sight of the boar.
Enraged by the spears thumping harmlessly against its flanks, the Calydonian Boar turned and charged at the heroes, wounding several, and fatally goring Ancaeus of Arcadia.
The hunt might have been in vain if the men had had their way and left Atalanta behind. For she was the only one with the calm sense to wait until it had finished charging. Then she fired an arrow at the boar, striking its eye. The boar let out a bellow of pain, but it could not see its foe to strike her down, for she had already fired a second arrow and taken out its other eye.
Hurrying to put the monster down before it could recover from the shock of losing its eyes, everyone began to hack at it with sword and spear, but it was Meleager who dealt the final blow and killed the monster that had been ravaging his father’s kingdom.
That meant that the pelt was Meleager’s prize, but he gave it to Atalanta, since she had drawn first blood from the beast.
Atalanta was touched by his self-sacrifice, but his uncles were outraged. They tried to take the pelt away from her, and Meleager struck them dead without a second thought.
No one knew how to react to this shedding of kindred blood. Most of the other heroes reluctantly agreed that Toxeus and Plexippus had brought it upon themselves, since it had looked as though they intended to harm Atalanta, and Meleager’s blood had still been up from the battle against the beast.
But Althaia did not take the deaths of her brothers so well. When she heard that her own son had killed her brothers, she began to curse his name, and prayed to the gods to strike her son down in vengeance for his unspeakable crime.
Perhaps the gods listened to her.
For as soon as the news of the slaying of Toxeus and Plexippus reached their kin, the Curetians, they marched on Calydon and laid siege to the town.
By that time, all of the heroes had all gone their separate ways, and there was no one of might to defend Calydon but Oineus and his son. At first, Meleager fought more bravely than any other of the defenders. But then one day he came back from the battlefield, glowing with pride at his accomplishments, and his mother once again cursed him for bringing this slaughter upon them all.
Infuriated by the mistreatment, Meleager retreated to his chamber at the outer edge of the palace, and would not come out. He refused to return to the defense of Calydon, swearing that he would never fight again, no matter what happened, even if the Curetians should destroy the entire town.
Oineus begged his son to return to the fight, and promised him an even greater share of the kingdom than he was already due to inherit. But his son turned a deaf ear to his pleas. Meleager’s sisters pleaded with him, begging him to save them from the foe outside the gates. But their brother didn’t care for their words. His mother recanted her curses, and apologized to her son, asking him to defend her from her own kin. Still Meleager was unmoved.
Finally, the Curetians threw down the outer walls of the city, and swarmed through the town, laying siege to the palace itself, the last bastion of the defenders. Then Cleopatra fell to her knees before her husband, weeping and clutching at his knees.
“Please, my husband, don’t let this city fall! Our people are being slaughtered in the streets–the men die in agony, and the women are dragged off to be slaves of our enemies! Children are left on the ground, half dead, bleeding out as they beg for help. Don’t let all these innocents die for your pride! Don’t let your own wife become a slave because you were insulted!”
Meleager looked at her sadly. His heart was moved by her tears, and yet he was still unsure if he should allow himself to back down. If he gave up on his pride now, when it was all he had left, then what would he have? What would men say of him after he died?
“If I were a man, I would go out and fight in your place, but I have not the strength of arm, nor the training in the wielding of a blade,” Cleopatra lamented. “But if you will not fight, then perhaps I must. It would be better to be slain by mistake than to end up as a slave.”
Meleager lifted his wife back to her feet, and rose from his chair, embracing her. “I will let no man say of me that I asked a woman to fight in my place,” he assured her. “I can’t allow my wife to suffer so. I’ll fight.”
Quickly, he armed himself, and Cleopatra began to make offerings to the gods, sprinkling libations of wine over the altar flames, begging that Meleager return from the battle safely.
But as the battle wore on, and Cleopatra continued to make her offerings, the flame sputtered and went out.
Meleager fought with all the strength and might of the very boar he had vanquished, but every enemy who saw him targeted him and him alone, as though no other man fought on the side of the Calydonians. At the end of the day, the battle was won, and the Curetians were driven out of Calydon. But Meleager succumbed to the many wounds he had received in that terrible battle.
When she found out that her last son had died, Althaia killed herself in grief.
Cleopatra considered doing likewise, knowing that it had been her words that had sent her husband out to die on the battlefield. But she remembered how worried he had been about his honor. How he had fretted about the insults that had been piled upon his name. And she thought it would be better for her to preserve and magnify his great honor for the future. She remained in the house of Oineus, and when he remarried, she told all his children by his second wife–including the great hero Tydeus–what a fine man their half-brother Meleager had been, and how the Fates had cheated him of his life.
She told them that Althaia had been visited by the Fates on the day Meleager had been born, and that they had told her the log currently burning in the fire was Meleager’s life, and that he would die when it finished burning. Althaia had pulled the log off the flames immediately, Cleopatra assured them, and had safeguarded it for years and years. But when Meleager killed her brothers, Althaia suffered a fit of rage, and threw the log back into the fire, where it burned up before she could come to her senses. Then she had taken her own life in guilt over having taken the life of her son. By telling this story, Cleopatra tried to hide her husband’s terrible pride, and her own role in his death.
Hmm, I think the ending still needs work. But…well, I wanted to go with the Homeric version of Meleager’s death. (I’ll have more to say about it in April, ya see…) However, since everyone knows Ovid’s version better, I thought I’d tack it onto the end there. It worked better in my head than it does now that I’ve written it down. That happens a lot with me…