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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes

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Atalanta is a female character from Greek mythology with certain peculiarities that make her particularly interesting. Actually the entire Greek mythology is encrusted in the Western culture.

There are two myths related to Atalanta that ancient narrators (mythology is largely the work of poets) merge into one because in essence they are not contradictory.

Atalanta is daughter of kings, of the Arcadian King Iasus in one version or of the Boeotian King Esteneus in another version. In one she is a vigorous and skillful huntress who, loved by Meleager, participates in the Calydonian wild boar hunting and accompanies or wants to join the Argonauts as the only woman on their trip in the search of the Golden Fleece; in the other, she is an invincible runner married with Hippomenes or Hippomedonte, also known as Melanion.

According to the myth her father wanted a male heir, so Atalanta was abandoned in the forest, where a bear suckled her until she was found and bred by a group of hunters. Raised then in the wild nature, she is a faithful follower of the huntress goddess Diana after deciding to remain virgin after receiving the response of the oracle, always difficult to be interpreted, to the question of whether she should get married o not.

Apollo told her with his oracle that she shouldn´t get married, but that she would marry anyway and "still alive she would lack of herself"; what seems a reference to the fact that she would be transformed. Back home, her father asks her to marry someone, and she, who knows she´s fast, decides she will only get married with the man who beats her in a race, but she´ll kill the suitors who are defeated.

Hippomenes, helped by the goddess Venus and using the ruse of throwing successively three golden apples in order to delay Atalanta´s progress, manages to beat her. Thus they, Atalanta and Hippomenes, get married but they rebuff to the goddess Ceres or Cybele by having sex desecrating her temple and, due to this, they are transformed into the two lions pulling her cart; by the way, lion and lioness condemned not to mate with each other, according to the also former belief that lions mate with leopards, but not with each other.

So far I´ve told you an approximate summary of the myth, ignoring many details of interest. At the end of this article I´ll present this part of the myth based on the story of Ovid in Metamorphosis. The myth lends itself to numerous comments, some of which I´ll quickly sketch.

Somehow, her coexistence in the forest with the bear backs us to the days of men hunters. The bear, present in many other myths, is sometimes an animal totem of certain groups.

In front of her are the urbanites Meleager and Hippomenes, in one case the warrior hero who has to do a great assignment or achieve a great achievement and in the other the in love prince who only reaches the beloved princess after doing a remarkable action. In the middle are the issue of the male succession to the throne which curiously is transmitted by female line and the vow of chastity or virginity, incomprehensibly justified in an incomprehensible oracle. Virginity is favorable for hunting.

Already in the Antiquity itself and then in the Middle Ages and later in the Renaissance and Humanism rational explanations have been sought to myths. The most frequently used model is the allegory that usually ends with a moralizing conclusion.

So it is said that the end corresponds to the punishment of the gods for the lack of respect for the sacred place and the lack of appreciation to the benefits of the gods.

Sometimes Hippomenes´s victory and Atalanta´s failure or defeat has also been interpreted as the triumph of the carnal passion and of the female temperament venality, always ambitious and willing to accept the valuable gold in exchange.

This gives rise modernly to the famous painting by Guido Reni (Bologna 1575-1642) in which the two protagonists appear naked with their morbid and proportionate appearance.

Atalanta´s superiority was often interpreted as a result of the male surrender to women. We read, for example, in an engraving of the seventeenth century "Robora femineis s(a)epe virilia cedunt ", "masculine forces often yield to the feminine".

More recently, Atalanta´s uniqueness has been highly appreciated by some feminist people or groups, as a woman of separate or independent own life and apart from the male claims of her father. But otherwise it has also been highlighted her final defeat and the imposition of the established order, of course male.

The myth has inspired many artists, including Romulus Cincinnatus (ca. 1540-1597), Florentine painter who lived in Spain serving King Philip II, who also decorated several rooms in the Palace of the Infantry of Guadalajara, including one with the race of Atalanta and Hippomenes.

The author and chronicler of Guadalajara Antonio Herrera Casado interprets Atalanta´s race as the fast and inexorable race of time, consistent with the general interpretation that he makes of the Gothic-Renaissance palace and its various decorative and ornamental elements, all of them leading to propagate and ensure the reputation of the Hurtado of Mendoza, Infantry Dukes among many other nobility titles.

But although this interpretation turns out original and novel and it is consistent with the general scheme of the palace, it is not supported by any other data, at least that I know.

No doubt the whole palace and its decoration is a hymn to the greatness of the Mendoza family, to their virtue, virtus, and as a result, great must be their fame as well, so that the future generations have to remember them permanently and therefore their names, story and fame have to overcome or transcend time.

But all this doesn´t require interpreting Atalanta's race as the "race of time." Actually, the Mendoza, like any other person or group that seeks fame, what actually do is exalting their virtues, according to the ancient and also humanist belief that fame is not sought, but it accompanies the virtue by itself, which is what you need to practice; those who look for fame do not get it and, however, those who despise it, finally reach it.

Ancient passages with regard to this idea are numerous; so, for instance, this one by Sallust referred to Cato in De coniuratione Catilinae 54, 6:

"... so the less he sought the glory, the more it chased him"

"... ita quo minus petebat gloriam, eo magis illum sequebatur ".

Baltasar Gracián seems to find his inspiration straightly in the passage of Sallust, when he says in the Criticón (Faultfinder), II, 11:

"And the worst thing is that the more they think about reaching it, then the less they success, losing perhaps their lives and all that there is".

So the main theme of the decoration of the palace is not spreading the fame of the Mendoza but extol their virtues, manifested especially in their many victories in many battles.

The race can simply be interpreted as the symbol and summary of the Mendoza family´s story, a race full of many obstacles that they manage to get over or win with their energy, their cunning and the help of the gods. But of course, such an assignment is not possible to be done without committing some sins. So the Mendoza will not be elevated to the status of gods but they´ll accompany them forever at their service.

It is interesting to know that in the plane that of the paintings of the Palace of the Infantry foreman Acacio Orejón does, referring to the central painting of the room of Atalanta, he writes the following note "Painting of Atalanta running with Hippomenes. Book 10. Ovid, Metamorphosis/ Book 8 of Atalanta and Meleager”. That is, he quotes the two passages in which Ovid recreates the episode of the race with Hippomenes (Book X) and the Calydonian wild pig hunting episode (Book VIII). Then it´s obvious the Duke wished a painting of Atalanta but he didn´t know at first which episode he wanted to reflect. Finally he chose the first one.

The question is, then, to know in a first place why he wants Atalanta to be represented for him and in a second place why he prefers precisely the episode of the race and not the episode of the hunting.

Well, our assumptions have of course some interest, but all these speculations may are somewhat free underneath, because maybe the Duke asks Cincinnatus to represent Atalanta´s myth just because he likes it or maybe just because his kinsman Diego Hurtado of Mendoza (1503 - 1575), son of the Earl of Tendilla, has got among his poems one that stands out from all other, precisely the one which tells the "Fable of Hippomenes and Atalanta".

I then offer a recreation of the story or fable by Ovid. Anyone who wants a complete reading of the Latin text must attend Metamorphosis, VIII, 281 ff. for the episode of Meleager and the Calydonian boar hunting and Metamorphosis X, 560 - 704 for the race between Atalanta and Hippomenes.


When Atalanta was born, her father, the king of Arcadia, enraged because he only wanted a son, abandoned her all godliness lacking at the top of a mountain so that she could die of hunger or devoured by the ferocious beasts. The goddess Artemis, who casually hunted in those places, took pity on the helpless child and sent her a huge bear that, docilely, suckled her with her milk.

Sometime later, and adopted as a daughter by the goddess, she became an accurate huntress and the fastest woman in the world and emulating her patroness she promised that she would never marry either.

When being a famous huntress she received as a trophy the skin of the wild boar ravaging the kingdom of Calydon, whose hunting she had participated in, she reconciled with her father, who again and again insisted her on the need to get married and provide him a future heir for his throne.
The elusive Atalanta consulted the oracle of the gods on her husband and heard these confusing words:

- For anything you need a husband, Atalanta; avoid having a husband. And yet you will not escape from marriage and still alive you will see yourself private of yourself.

Frightened by these words, hard to be understood, she tries to remain single living in the woods, away from her many suitors, who she wants to scare and avoid with a strange proposal:

- Only will possess me the one of you who beats me in a quick race, that one will be my husband. Instead the loser will have to die in punishment for his pretensions. This is my final proposal.

Such is the beauty of the fast Atalanta that many were the unsuspecting youth who dared to compete with the fastest woman in the world, so they lost the race moaning and crying and, with it, they lost the priceless life.

So the young Hippomenes, who had only heard to talk about the beautiful Atalanta, considered excessive the risk he would have to face in order to get her as his wife. But as soon as he saw the splendid body of the young girl who had removed the veil from her face, he fell in love and was immediately seduced.

- I’ll also try my luck; the prize is worth risking death. Gods always help those who are brave- he says inflamed. And madly in love, he continues:

- Beautiful Atalanta, you have beaten easily and effortlessly those poor boys, but now measure yourself with me, that I'm the son of Megareus. If I beat you, it won´t be a dishonorable defeat for you and if you win the race, you would have beaten Hippomenes, the great-grandson of Neptune, god of the waters.

Atalanta raising her beautiful bright eyes up looks at him tenderly.

- Why do you, foolish boy, want to risk your precious life, you who are still a child? You are beautiful and brave, because death does not scare you. So much you love and want me that you are willing to die...? Run away while you can, young handsome boy; many other pretty girls will be pleased and happy to marry you.

And perhaps touched by the sweet feeling of love for the very first time, the inexperienced and unfriendly Atalanta softens her relentless decision and thinks in the inner part of her heart:

- Why has this unhappy boy to die undeservedly as a reward for his love? I wish you, unhappy boy, had not ever seen me. If virginity was not my eternal destiny, you'd be the only one with whom I would share my wedding bed. I wish you, fool, were faster than me.

But Hippomenes already urges the race, but not before entrusting himself to the goddess of love and asking for her divine help:

- You, goddess, who has inspired my blind passion, help my fearlessness.

Venus answered the call wrapped in a white cloud, visible only to Hippomenes, and gave him three yellow apples, as bright as the sun, that he should use in the race in a certain way.

The trumpets gave the departure signal. There the two contenders go, so fast that they seem to fly. Atalanta, refusing to pass and leave the boy behind, places herself on par and, rapt, she stares at his virginal face. Hippomenes then throws one of the three bright apples, which immediately attracts the eye and interest of Atalanta. She restrains then her speed and while she´s collecting the golden fruit from the ground with curiosity, she is passed by Hippomenes. The fast Atalanta recovers the lost space and again she surpasses the young man easily. The young man throws a second fruit and once again entertains the girl, who soon also recovers the lost time. All that remains is the last stretch before the finish line. Now the young man throws strongly the third apple out of the way. Atalanta hesitates, but trusting in her swift feet, she goes to collect the golden fruit which is placed in the distance. But she miscalculated her speed or maybe the burgeoning love restrained her progress, because now she loses the race. Meanwhile Hipomenes has reached the finish line and, this way, he has reached his desired and deserved prize too, the marriage with the young virgin.

Incomprehensibly, the young Hippomenes forgot Venus and failed to thank her help. This way, the goddess felt neglected and offended by it.

One day as they were passing by the temple of Cybele, Mother of gods, they decided to rest because they were very tired due to the long trip. Hipomenes was taken by a sudden and overwhelming desire to lie with Atalanta, sparked no doubt by the vengeful Venus. Right there, in the sacred cave, in front of the divine images, they desecrate the sanctuary with their obscene love.

Mother Cybele punished their lustfulness with her divine severity: long and fierce manes cover their human necks, hands become claws, a long tail emerges from their backs, fierce they raise up their proud lion heads and their jaws make roaring noises which intimidate the rest part of the animals.

Later the goddess takes pity on them, so she ties the pair of lions with strong flex leather straps to her majestic carriage, which they´ll have to pull tireless for the whole eternity.


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