Old Greek Stories
By James Baldwin
Public Domain Books
The Story of Atalanta
I. The Bear On the Mountain
In a sunny land in Greece called Arcadia there lived a king and a queen who had no children. They wanted very much to have a son who might live to rule over Arcadia when the king was dead, and so, as the years went by, they prayed to great Jupiter on the mountain top that he would send them a son. After a while a child was born to them, but it was a little girl. The father was in a great rage with Jupiter and everybody else.
“What is a girl good for?” he said. “She can never do anything but sing, and spin, and spend money. If the child had been a boy, he might have learned to do many things,–to ride, and to hunt, and to fight in the wars,–and by and by he would have been king of Arcadia. But this girl can never be a king.”
Then he called to one of his men and bade him take the babe out to a mountain where there was nothing but rocks and thick woods, and leave it there to be eaten up by the wild bears that lived in the caves and thickets. It would be the easiest way, he said, to get rid of the useless little creature.
The man carried the child far up on the mountain side and laid it down on a bed of moss in the shadow of a great rock. The child stretched out its baby hands towards him and smiled, but he turned away and left it there, for he did not dare to disobey the king.
For a whole night and a whole day the babe lay on its bed of moss, wailing for its mother; but only the birds among the trees heard its pitiful cries. At last it grew so weak for want of food that it could only moan and move its head a little from side to side. It would have died before another day if nobody had cared for it.
Just before dark on the second evening, a she-bear came strolling down the mountain side from her den. She was out looking for her cubs, for some hunters had stolen them that very day while she was away from home. She heard the moans of the little babe, and wondered if it was not one of her lost cubs; and when she saw it lying so helpless on the moss she went to it and looked at it kindly. Was it possible that a little bear could be changed into a pretty babe with fat white hands and with a beautiful gold chain around its neck? The old bear did not know; and as the child looked at her with its bright black eyes, she growled softly and licked its face with her warm tongue and then lay down beside it, just as she would have done with her own little cubs. The babe was too young to feel afraid, and it cuddled close to the old bear and felt that it had found a friend. After a while it fell asleep; but the bear guarded it until morning and then went down the mountain side to look for food.
In the evening, before dark, the bear came again and carried the child to her own den under the shelter of a rock where vines and wild flowers grew; and every day after that she came and gave the child food and played with it. And all the bears on the mountain learned about the wonderful cub that had been found, and came to see it; but not one of them offered to harm it. And the little girl grew fast and became strong, and after a while could walk and run among the trees and rocks and brambles on the round top of the mountain; but her bear mother would not allow her to wander far from the den beneath the rock where the vines and the wild flowers grew.
One day some hunters came up the mountain to look for game, and one of them pulled aside the vines which grew in front of the old bear’s home. He was surprised to see the beautiful child lying on the grass and playing with the flowers which she had gathered. But at sight of him she leaped to her feet and bounded away like a frightened deer. She led the hunters a fine chase among the trees and rocks; but there were a dozen of them, and it was not long till they caught her.
The hunters had never taken such game as that before, and they were so well satisfied that they did not care to hunt any more that day. The child struggled and fought as hard as she knew how, but it was of no use. The hunters carried her down the mountain, and took her to the house where they lived on the other side of the forest. At first she cried all the time, for she sadly missed the bear that had been a mother to her so long. But the hunters made a great pet of her, and gave her many pretty things to play with, and were very kind; and it was not long till she began to like her new home.
The hunters named her Atalanta, and when she grew older, they made her a bow and arrows, and taught her how to shoot; and they gave her a light spear, and showed her how to carry it and how to hurl it at the game or at an enemy. Then they took her with them when they went hunting, and there was nothing in the world that pleased her so much as roaming through the woods and running after the deer and other wild animals. Her feet became very swift, so that she could run faster than any of the men; and her arms were so strong and her eyes so sharp and true that with her arrow or her spear she never missed the mark. And she grew up to be very tall and graceful, and was known throughout all Arcadia as the fleet-footed huntress.
II. The Brand On the Hearth
Now, not very far from the land of Arcadia there was a little city named Calydon. It lay in the midst of rich wheat fields and fruitful vineyards; but beyond the vineyards there was a deep dense forest where many wild beasts lived. The king of Calydon was named OEneus, and he dwelt in a white palace with his wife Althea and his boys and girls. His kingdom was so small that it was not much trouble to govern it, and so he spent the most of his time in hunting or in plowing or in looking after his grape vines. He was said to be a very brave man, and he was the friend of all the great heroes of that heroic time.
The two daughters of OEneus and Althea were famed all over the world for their beauty; and one of them was the wife of the hero Hercules, who had freed Prometheus from his chains, and done many other mighty deeds. The six sons of OEneus and Althea were noble, handsome fellows; but the noblest and handsomest of them all was Meleager, the youngest.
When Meleager was a tiny babe only seven days old, a strange thing happened in the white palace of the king. Queen Althea awoke in the middle of the night, and saw a fire blazing on the hearth. She wondered what it could mean; and she lay quite still by the side of the babe, and looked and listened. Three strange women were standing by the hearth. They were tall, and two of them were beautiful, and the faces of all were stern. Althea knew at once that they were the Fates who give gifts of some kind to every child that is born, and who say whether his life shall be a happy one or full of sadness and sorrow.
“What shall we give to this child?” said the eldest and sternest of the three strangers. Her name was Atropos, and she held a pair of sharp shears in her hand.
“I give him a brave heart,” said the youngest and fairest. Her name was Clotho, and she held a distaff full of flax, from which she was spinning a golden thread.
“And I give him a gentle, noble mind,” said the dark-haired one, whose name was Lachesis. She gently drew out the thread which Clotho spun, and turning to stern Atropos, said: “Lay aside those shears, sister, and give the child your gift.”
“I give him life until this brand shall be burned to ashes,” was the answer; and Atropos took a small stick of wood and laid it on the burning coals.
The three sisters waited till the stick was ablaze, and then they were gone. Althea sprang up quickly. She saw nothing but the fire on the hearth and the stick burning slowly away. She made haste to pour water upon the blaze, and when every spark was put out, she took the charred stick and put it into a strong chest where she kept her treasures, and locked it up.
“I know that the child’s life is safe,” she said, “so long as that stick is kept unburned.”
And so, as the years went by, Meleager grew up to be a brave young man, so gentle and noble that his name became known in every land of Greece. He did many daring deeds and, with other heroes, went on a famous voyage across the seas in search of a marvelous fleece of gold; and when he returned to Calydon the people declared that he was the worthiest of the sons of OEneus to become their king.
III. The Gifts On the Altars
Now it happened one summer that the vineyards of Calydon were fuller of grapes than they had ever been before, and there was so much wheat in the fields that the people did not know what to do with it.
“I will tell you what to do,” said King OEneus. “We will have a thanksgiving day, and we will give some of the grain and some of the fruit to the Mighty Beings who sit among the clouds on the mountain top. For it is from them that the sunshine and the fair weather and the moist winds and the warm rains have come; and without their aid we could never have had so fine a harvest.”
The very next day the king and the people of Calydon went out into the fields and vineyards to offer up their thank offerings. Here and there they built little altars of turf and stones and laid dry grass and twigs upon them; and then on top of the twigs they put some of the largest bunches of grapes and some of the finest heads of wheat, which they thought would please the Mighty Beings who had sent them so great plenty.
There was one altar for Ceres, who had shown men how to sow grain, and one for Bacchus, who had told them about the grape, and one for wing-footed Mercury, who comes in the clouds, and one for Athena, the queen of the air, and one for the keeper of the winds, and one for the giver of light, and one for the driver of the golden sun car, and one for the king of the sea, and one–which was the largest of all–for Jupiter, the mighty thunderer who sits upon the mountain top and rules the world. And when everything was ready, King OEneus gave the word, and fire was touched to the grass and the twigs upon the altars; and the grapes and the wheat that had been laid there were burned up. Then the people shouted and danced, for they fancied that in that way the thank offerings were sent right up to Ceres and Bacchus and Mercury and Athena and all the rest. And in the evening they went home with glad hearts, feeling that they had done right.
But they had forgotten one of the Mighty Beings. They had not raised any altar to Diana, the fair huntress and queen of the woods, and they had not offered her a single grape or a single grain of wheat. They had not intended to slight her; but, to tell the truth, there were so many others that they had never once thought about her.
I do not suppose that Diana cared anything at all for the fruit or the grain; but it made her very angry to think that she should be forgotten. “I’ll show them that I am not to be slighted in this way,” she said.
All went well, however, until the next summer; and the people of Calydon were very happy, for it looked as though there would be a bigger harvest than ever.
“I tell you,” said old King OEneus, looking over his fields and his vineyards, “it pays to give thanks. We’ll have another thanksgiving as soon as the grapes begin to ripen.”
But even then he did not think of Diana.
The very next day the largest and fiercest wild boar that anybody had ever seen came rushing out of the forest. He had two long tusks which stuck far out of his mouth on either side and were as sharp as knives, and the stiff bristles on his back were as large and as long as knitting needles. As he went tearing along towards Calydon, champing his teeth and foaming at the mouth, he was a frightful thing to look at, I tell you. Everybody fled before him. He rushed into the wheat fields and tore up all the grain; he went into the vineyards and broke down all the vines; he rooted up all the trees in the orchards; and, when there was nothing else to do, he went into the pasture lands among the hills and killed the sheep that were feeding there. He was so fierce and so fleet of foot that the bravest warrior hardly dared to attack him. His thick skin was proof against arrows and against such spears as the people of Calydon had; and I do not know how many men he killed with those terrible razor tusks of his. For weeks he had pretty much his own way, and the only safe place for anybody was inside of the walls.
When he had laid waste the whole country he went back into the edge of the forest; but the people were so much afraid of him that they lived in dread every day lest he should come again and tear down the gates of the city.
“We must have forgotten somebody when we gave thanks last year,” said King OEneus. “Who could it have been?”
And then he thought of Diana.
“Diana, the queen of the chase,” said he, “has sent this monster to punish us for forgetting her. I am sure that we shall remember her now as long as we live.”
Then he sent messengers into all the countries near Calydon, asking the bravest men and skillfullest hunters to come at a certain time and help him hunt and kill the great wild boar. Very many of these men had been with Meleager in that wonderful voyage in search of the Golden Fleece, and he felt sure they would come.
IV. The Hunt in the Forest
When the day came which King OEneus had set, there was a wonderful gathering of men at Calydon. The greatest heroes in the world were there; and every one was fully armed, and expected to have fine sport hunting the terrible wild boar. With the warriors from the south there came a tall maiden armed with bow and arrows and a long hunting spear. It was our friend Atalanta, the huntress.
“My daughters are having a game of ball in the garden,” said old King OEneus. “Wouldn’t you like to put away your arrows and your spear, and go and play with them?”
Atalanta shook her head and lifted her chin as if in disdain.
“Perhaps you would rather stay with the queen, and look at the women spin and weave,” said OEneus.
“No,” answered Atalanta, “I am going with the warriors to hunt the wild boar in the forest!”
How all the men opened their eyes! They had never heard of such a thing as a girl going out with heroes to hunt wild boars.
“If she goes, then I will not,” said one.
“Nor I, either,” said another.
“Nor I,” said a third. “Why, the whole world would laugh at us, and we should never hear the end of it.”
Several threatened to go home at once; and two brothers of Queen Althea, rude, unmannerly fellows, loudly declared that the hunt was for heroes and not for puny girls.
But Atalanta only grasped her spear more firmly and stood up, tall and straight, in the gateway of the palace. Just then a handsome young man came forward. It was Meleager.
“What’s this?” he cried. “Who says that Atalanta shall not go to the hunt? You are afraid that she’ll be braver than you–that is all. Pretty heroes you are! Let all such cowards go home at once.”
But nobody went, and it was settled then and there that the maiden should have her own way. And yet the brothers of Queen Althea kept on muttering and complaining.
For nine days the heroes and huntsmen feasted in the halls of King OEneus, and early on the tenth they set out for the forest. Soon the great beast was found, and he came charging out upon his foes. The heroes hid behind the trees or climbed up among the branches, for they had not expected to see so terrible a creature. He stood in the middle of a little open space, tearing up the ground with his tusks. The white foam rolled from his mouth, his eyes glistened red like fire, and he grunted so fiercely that the woods and hills echoed with fearful sounds.
Then one of the bravest of the men threw his spear. But that only made the beast fiercer than ever; he charged upon the warrior, caught him before he could save himself, and tore him in pieces with his tusks. Another man ventured too far from his hiding-place and was also overtaken and killed. One of the oldest and noblest of the heroes leveled his spear and threw it with all his force; but it only grazed the boar’s tough skin and glanced upward and pierced the heart of a warrior on the other side. The boar was getting the best of the fight.
Atalanta now ran forward and threw her spear. It struck the boar in the back, and a great stream of blood gushed out. A warrior let fly an arrow which put out one of the beast’s eyes. Then Meleager rushed up and pierced his heart with his spear. The boar could no longer stand up; but he fought fiercely for some moments, and then rolled over, dead.
The heroes then cut off the beast’s head. It was as much as six of them could carry. Then they took the skin from his great body and offered it to Meleager as a prize, because he had given the death wound to the wild boar. But Meleager said:
“It belongs to Atalanta, because it was she who gave him the very first wound.” And he gave it to her as the prize of honor.
You ought to have seen the tall huntress maiden then, as she stood among the trees with the boar’s skin thrown over her left shoulder and reaching down to her feet. She had never looked so much like the queen of the woods. But the rude brothers of Queen Althea were vexed to think that a maiden should win the prize, and they began to make trouble. One of them snatched Atalanta’s spear from her hand, and dragged the prize from her shoulders, and the other pushed her rudely and bade her go back to Arcadia and live again with the she-bears on the mountain side. All this vexed Meleager, and he tried to make his uncles give back the spear and the prize, and stop their unmannerly talk. But they grew worse and worse, and at last set upon Meleager, and would have killed him if he had not drawn his sword to defend himself. A fight followed, and the rude fellows struck right and left as though they were blind. Soon both were stretched dead upon the ground. Some who did not see the fight said that Meleager killed them, but I would rather believe that they killed each other in their drunken fury.
And now all the company started back to the city. Some carried the boar’s huge head, and some the different parts of his body, while others had made biers of the green branches, and bore upon them the dead bodies of those who had been slain. It was indeed a strange procession.
A young man who did not like Meleager, had run on in front and had reached the city before the rest of the company had fairly started. Queen Althea was standing at the door of the palace, and when she saw him she asked what had happened in the forest He told her at once that Meleager had killed her brothers, for he knew that, with all their faults, she loved them very dearly. It was terrible to see her grief. She shrieked, and tore her hair, and rushed wildly about from room to room. Her senses left her, and she did not know what she was doing.
It was the custom at that time for people to avenge the death of their kindred, and her only thought was how to punish the murderer of her brothers. In her madness she forgot that Meleager was her son. Then she thought of the three Fates and of the unburned firebrand which she had locked up in her chest so many years before. She ran and got the stick and threw it into the fire that was burning on the hearth.
It kindled at once, and she watched it as it blazed up brightly. Then it began to turn into ashes, and as the last spark died out, the noble Meleager, who was walking by the side of Atalanta, dropped to the ground dead.
When they carried the news to Althea she said not a word, for then she knew what she had done, and her heart was broken. She turned silently away and went to her own room. When the king came home a few minutes later, he found her dead.
So ended the hunt in the wood of Calydon.
V. The Race For a Wife
After the death of Meleager, Atalanta went back to her old home among the mountains of Arcadia. She was still the swift-footed huntress, and she was never so happy as when in the green woods wandering among the trees or chasing the wild deer. All the world had heard about her, however; and the young heroes in the lands nearest to Arcadia did nothing else but talk about her beauty and her grace and her swiftness of foot and her courage. Of course every one of these young fellows wanted her to become his wife; and she might have been a queen any day if she had only said the word, for the richest king in Greece would have been glad to marry her. But she cared nothing for any of the young men, and she liked the freedom of the green woods better than all the fine things she might have had in a palace.
The young men would not take “No!” for an answer, however. They could not believe that she really meant it, and so they kept coming and staying until the woods of Arcadia were full of them, and there was no getting along with them at all. So, when she could think of no other way to get rid of them, Atalanta called them together and said:
“You want to marry me, do you? Well, if any one of you would like to run a race with me from this mountain to the bank of the river over there, he may do so; and I will be the wife of the one who outruns me.”
“Agreed! agreed!” cried all the young fellows.
“But, listen!” she said. “Whoever tries this race must also agree that if I outrun him, he must lose his life.”
Ah, what long faces they all had then! About half of them drew away and went home.
“But won’t you give us the start of you a little?” asked the others.
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “I will give you the start by a hundred paces. But remember, if I overtake any one before he reaches the river, he shall lose his head that very day.”
Several others now found that they were in ill health or that business called them home; and when they were next looked for, they were not to be found. But a good many who had had some practice in sprinting across the country stayed and made up their minds to try their luck. Could a mere girl outrun such fine fellows as they? Nonsense!
And so it happened that a race was run almost every day. And almost every day some poor fellow lost his head; for the fleetest-footed sprinter in all Greece was overtaken by Atalanta long before he could reach the river bank. But other young men kept coming and coming, and no sooner had one been put out of the way than another took his place.
One day there came from a distant town a handsome, tall young man named Meilanion.
“You’d better not run with me,” said Atalanta, “for I shall be sure to overtake you, and that will be the end of you.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Meilanion.
Now Meilanion, before coming to try his chance, had talked with Venus, the queen of love, who lived with Jupiter among the clouds on the mountain top. And he was so handsome and gentle and wise that Venus took pity on him, and gave him three golden apples and told him what to do.
Well, when all was ready for the race, Atalanta tried again to persuade Meilanion not to run, for she also took pity on him.
“I’ll be sure to overtake you,” she said.
“All right!” said Meilanion, and away he sped; but he had the three golden applies in his pocket.
Atalanta gave him a good start, and then she followed after, as swift as an arrow shot from the bow. Meilanion was not a very fast runner, and it would not be hard for her to overtake him. She thought that she would let him get almost to the goal, for she really pitied him. He heard her coming close behind him; he heard her quick breath as she gained on him very fast. Then he threw one of the golden apples over his shoulder.
Now, if there was anything in the world that Atalanta admired, it was a bright stone or a pretty piece of yellow gold. As the apple fell to the ground she saw how beautiful it was, and she stopped to pick it up; and while she was doing this, Meilanion gained a good many paces. But what of that? In a minute she was as close behind him as ever. And yet, she really did pity him.
Just then Meilanion threw the second apple over his shoulder. It was handsomer and larger than the first, and Atalanta could not bear the thought of allowing some one else to get it. So she stopped to pick it up from among the long grass, where it had fallen. It took somewhat longer to find it than she had expected, and when she looked up again Meilanion was a hundred feet ahead of her. But that was no matter. She could easily overtake him. And yet, how she did pity the foolish young man!
Meilanion heard her speeding like the wind behind him. He took the third apple and threw it over to one side of the path where the ground sloped towards the river. Atalanta’s quick eye saw that it was far more beautiful than either of the others. If it were not picked up at once it would roll down into the deep water and be lost, and that would never do. She turned aside from her course and ran after it. It was easy enough to overtake the apple, but while she was doing so Meilanion gained upon her again. He was almost to the goal. How she strained every muscle now to overtake him! But, after all, she felt that she did not care very much. He was the handsomest young man that she had ever seen, and he had given her three golden apples. It would be a great pity if he should have to die. And so she let him reach the goal first.
After that, of course, Atalanta became Meilanion’s wife. And he took her with him to his distant home, and there they lived happily together for many, many years.