OENEUS, king of Calydon, brought the first fruits of a lavish harvest season as an offering to the gods: grain to Demeter, wine to Dionysus, oil to Athene, and so to each deity the proper gift. Only Artemis was forgotten, and no fumes of incense rose at her altar. This angered the goddess, and she resolved to take revenge on him who had neglected her. She set a great boar on the king’s domains. His red eyes darted fire, his neck bristled. Lightning seemed to dart from his foaming jaws, and his tusks were like those of an elephant. This huge beast trampled the meadows and fields, so that barns and lofts gaped empty of the promised crops. He devoured the grapevines, clusters, and leaves, and ate the branches along with the olives. Neither shepherds nor their dogs were able to defend the flocks against the monster, nor the most savage bulls their herds.
At last the king’s son, fair Meleager, assembled hunters and hounds to slay the wild boar. The most famous heroes of all Greece were invited to join in the chase, and with them Atalanta of Arcadia, the warlike daughter of Iasus. She had been abandoned in a forest and suckled by a bear. Later, huntsmen had found her and reared her. She had grown into a beautiful maiden, but she despised men and spent her days hunting in the forest. Not only had she rejected all men who approached her, but she even shot two centaurs who persisted in their suit. Now it was love of the chase that lured her into the company of these heroes. Her hair was caught in a simple knot, her ivory quiver slung across her shoulder, and in her left hand she carried her bow. Her face looked girlish for a boy, and boyish for a girl. When Meleager saw how fair she was, he said to himself: “Happy the man she will consider worthy to be her husband!” But he had not time to pursue this train of thought, for the dangerous hunt allowed no delay.
The group of hunters walked toward a wood of ancient trees, which covered the level countryside and the slope of the mountain. When they arrived, some went about setting snares, while others unleashed the hounds and still others followed the tracks of the quarry. Presently they came to a steep and narrow valley, carved out by swollen streams. This gorge, thick with reeds, swamp grass, and osiers, was the boar’s hiding place. Now that the hounds had roused him, he broke through the wood like lightning speeding from a cloud and charged into the very midst of his foes. The youths cried aloud and pointed their spears, but the boar evaded them and crashed through the pack. Missile after missile flew at him, only to graze his hide and increase his fury. With flashing eyes and heaving breast he turned, made for the right flank of the hunters like a stone shot from the sling, and bore three of them to the ground, killing them instantly. A fourth—Nestor, destined to become a great hero in times to come—saved himself by climbing into the branches of an oak tree, on whose trunk the boar sharpened his terrible tusks. And here the twin brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, charging on snow-white horses, would have pierced him with their spears, had he not fled into impenetrable thickets. Then Atalanta fitted an arrow to her string and shot at the monster through the bushes. It struck him under the ear, and now at last his bristles were stained with blood. Meleager was the first to see the wound, and jubilantly he pointed it out to his comrades. “Atalanta,” he cried, “it is you who deserve the prize of valor!” At this the men felt ashamed to think that a woman was cheating them of victory, and all threw their spears at once. But the very shower of their missiles prevented a single one from reaching the animal.
Now Ancaeus, the Arcadian, proudly raised his two-edged battle-axe in both hands and made ready to deal the blow. But before it fell, the boar drove his tusks into the hero’s side and laid bare his entrails, so that he died in a pool of blood. Then Jason cast his spear, but it missed the mark and glanced sidewise and into the body of Celadon. Finally Meleager hurled two spears, one after the other. The first fell to the ground, but the second pierced the boar in the middle of the back. The beast began to rage and run in circles. Blood and foam spurted from his mouth. Meleager dealt him a fresh blow on the neck, and now lances struck him from all sides. The dying boar lay stretched on the earth and writhed in the blood pouring from his wounds. Meleager pressed his foot against his head, and with his sword ripped the rough hide from the beast and presented it to brave Atalanta along with the head and the gleaming tusks. “Take these trophies,” he said. “They are mine by right, but you shall share in my glory.”
But the hunters were angry that such honor should be accorded a woman, and a murmur ran through their ranks. The brothers of Meleager’s mother, the sons of Thestius, clenched their fists, shook them at Atalanta, and threatened her with loud words. “Put down those trophies at once, woman,” they cried. “Do not think you can trick us of what is ours. Your beauty will aid you just as little as Meleager, that love-sick waster of these gifts!” With that they took the head and hide from her, disputing Meleager’s right to dispose of them. At this he was overcome with rage, ground his teeth, and roared: “You who would rob the deserts of another, let me teach you how threat differs from deed!” And before his uncles knew what he was about, he had plunged his sword first into one and then the other.
Althaea, Meleager’s mother, was on her way to the temple of the gods to offer thanks for her son’s victory when the bodies of her brothers were carried by. She beat her breast in anguish, hastened back to the palace, changed her golden robes of rejoicing for the black of mourning, and filled the city with lament. But when she heard that the murderer was her own son Meleager, she dried her tears. Her sorrow changed to the lust to kill, and she suddenly remembered something she had long since forgotten.
When Meleager had been but a few days old, the Fates had appeared at his mother’s bedside. “Your son will become a brave hero,” the first foretold. “Your son will be a great man,” prophesied the second. “Your son,” concluded the third, “will live until that brand on the hearth is consumed by fire.” Hardly had the Fates vanished when Althaea took the brand from the hearth, quenched it in water, and, full of solicitude for the life of her son, hid it in a secret chamber.
Now, in her vengeful anger, she thought of the brand and hurried to the place where she had locked it away. She had kindling and wood brought, and when the flames leapt high, seized the brand she had taken from its hiding-place. But in her heart, the mother struggled with the sister. Her face grew pale and then flushed. Four times she reached forward to place the brand in the fire, and four times she drew back her hand. In the end her sisterly love overcame her.
“Turn your eyes upon me,” she said. “Look at me, goddesses of vengeance, look at this offering to the Furies! And you, spirits of my brothers, so recently fled from the body, know what I am doing for your sake! Accept the hapless fruit of my own body as your burial gift—ah! so dearly bought! My heart is breaking with motherlove, and soon I shall follow him whose life I am taking for your sake!” So she spoke and, turning away her gaze, threw the brand into the fire with shaking fingers.
Meleager, in the meantime, had returned to the city, brooding with mingled emotions on his triumph, his love, and his crime. Suddenly he felt his innermost being burn with fever, and he threw himself on his couch in an agony of pain. He bore it like a hero but grieved to die an inglorious death far from the battlefield, and envied his comrades who had perished from the thrusts of the boar. Moaning he called for his brother, his sisters, his aged father, and his mother, who was still standing at the hearth, watching with stony gaze while the fire consumed the brand. Her son’s pains waxed with the flames, but when they waned and nothing was left but pale ash, his suffering grew less, and at the last spark he breathed his last, and the spirit left his body. His father, his sisters, and all Calydon mourned at his bier. But his mother was absent. They found her strangled in a noose, stretched at the very hearth which held the brittle cinders.