Atalanta and Hippomenes, Guido Reni c. 1622–25
A recent visit to a cross-country carnival brought back a memory of a wonderful but lesser known myth from ancient Greece: the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes.
Atalanta was the daughter of Clymene and either Iasus of Arcadia or Schoeneus of Boeotia. As an infant, Atalanta was exposed on a mountainside because her father was hoping for a son. Atalanta survived because she was suckled by a she-bear and later raised by hunters. She learned to hunt wild animals, use a bow and run like the wind.
Like Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, Atalanta spurned marriage. She told her father that if a man wanted to marry her, he would have to defeat her in a running race, but if the man lost, he would have to be killed. Atalanta was extremely beautiful so many men competed for her hand in marriage and many lost.
Until Hippomenes appeared on the scene: the man with the golden balls. He stepped forward as a contender in the race. Atalanta’s heart burned at the sight of him: so young and so handsome. She doubted whether she wanted to win or lose the race. Unknown to her, Aphrodite had given Hippomenes three golden apples to distract Atalanta during the course of the race. The rest of the story is told by Aphrodite herself:
“The trumpets sound the start: both crouching low
Flash from their marks and skim the sandy course
With flying feet; it seemed that they could race
Dry-shod across the surface of the sea
And over the standing heads of harvest corn.
The shouting crowd cheered on the newcomer:
‘Run, run, Hippomenes! Now is your chance!
Now! Faster! Faster! Run with all your speed!
You’re going to win!’ And hard it was to know
Who liked their words the more, Hippomenes
Or Atalanta. Many a time she slowed
When she might pass and gazed into his eyes,
And with a heavy heart left him behind.
And now he flagged, his breath came fast and dry
And there was far to go; so then he threw
One of the three gold apples from the tree.
She was amazed and, eager to secure
The gleaming fruit, swerved sideways from the track
And seized the golden apple as it rolled.
He passed her and the benches roared applause.
She with a burst of speed repaired her waste
Of time and soon again left him behind.
He threw the second apple and again
She stopped, and followed, and again ran past.
And so the last lap came. ‘Be with me now,
Goddess’, he prayed, ‘who gavest me the gift.’
And then with all the strength of youth he threw
The shining gold far out across the field,
The longer to delay the girl; and she
Seemed undecided, but I made her chase
The rolling apple and increased its weight,
And by its weight alike and loss of speed
I hindered her. And, not to make my tale
More lengthy than the race, she lost the day
And he, victorious, led his prize away.” (1)
Ovid gives us such a charming description of a favourite ancient and modern athletic pastime: the race. The excitement and adrenalin is palpable and there is the added complexity of Atalanta’s indecision about whether to win or to lose the race to her handsome competitor. I imagine Athenian mothers retelling the myth to their daughters to warn them against crafty men seeking to lure them with gold trinkets. I can imagine Athenian fathers retelling the myth to their sons to show how a little cunning and a little divine aid can go a long way in securing a bride. And I can imagine grandmothers telling the myth to their grandchildren to tell them to run a straight course in life and not, under any circumstances, to be diverted from their aim. And then, of course, there is the lesson from the wondrous Aphrodite herself – that no one, yesterday, today or tomorrow, is beyond her power.
(1) Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A. D. Melville), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 246.
(2) Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippomenes