ATALANTA’S RACE

There are two Atalantas, she said, herself, the Huntress, and another who is famed for her speed on foot—the daughter of Schoeneus, King of Boeotia, Atalanta of the Swift Foot.

So proud was she of her speed that she made a vow to the gods that she would only marry a man who could beat her in a race. Youth after youth came and raced against her, but Atalanta, who grew fleeter and fleeter of foot, left each one of them far behind her. The youths who came to the race were so many and the noise they made after defeat was so great, that her father made a law to reduce the number of competitors. The law that he made was that the youth who came to race against Atalanta and lost the race should lose his life as well. After that very few youths tried to race against Atalanta.

Once there came a youth from a far part of Greece into the country that Atalanta’s father ruled over. His name was Hippomenes. He did not know of the race, but having come into the city and seeing the crowd of people, he went with them to the stadium. He looked at the youths who were prepared for the race, and he heard the people say amongst themselves, “Poor youths, as mighty and as high-spirited as they look, by sunset their lives will be gone, for Atalanta will defeat them as she defeated the others.” Then Hippomenes spoke to the people in wonder, and they told him of Atalanta’s race and of what would happen to the youths who were defeated in it. “Unlucky youths,” cried Hippomenes, “how foolish they are to try to win a bride at the price of their lives.”

Then, with pity in his heart, he watched the youths prepare for the race. Atalanta had not yet taken her place, and he was fearful of looking upon her. “She is a witch,” he said to himself, “she must be a witch to draw so many youths to their deaths, and she, no doubt, will show in her face and figure the witch’s spirit.”

But even as he said this, Hippomenes saw Atalanta. She stood with the youths before they crouched for the race. He saw that she was a girl with a light and lovely form. Then they crouched for the race. The trumpets rang out, and the youths and the maiden flew like swallows over the sand of the course.

On came Atalanta, far, far ahead of the youths who had started with her. Over her bare shoulders her hair streamed, blown backward by the wind that met her flight. Her fair neck shone, and her little feet were like flying doves. It seemed to Hippomenes as he watched her that there was fire in her lovely body. On and on she went as swift as an arrow shot from a bow. And as he watched the race he was not sorry that the youths were being left behind. Rather would he have been enraged if one came near to overtaking her, for now his heart was set upon winning her for his bride, and he cursed himself for not having entered the race.

She passed the finish line and she was given the victor’s wreath of flowers. Hippomenes stood and watched her and did not notice the youths who had started with her—they had thrown themselves on the ground in despair.

Then, Hippomenes made his way through the throng and came before the black-bearded King of Boeotia. The king’s brows frowned for even then he was pronouncing doom upon the youths who had been left behind in the race. He looked at Hippomenes as another youth who would make the trial, and the frown became heavier upon his face.

But Hippomenes saw only Atalanta. She stood beside her father  with the wreath of gold on her head, and her eyes were wide and tender. She turned her face to him, and then she knew by the wildness that was in his look that he had come to enter the race with her. Then she became pale, and shook her head as if she were begging him to go from that place.

The dark-bearded king said, “Speak, young man, speak and tell us what brings you here.”

Then cried Hippomenes as if his whole life were bursting out with his words, “Why does this maiden, your daughter, seek an easy fame by defeating weakly youths in the race? She has not been properly challenged yet. Here stand I, a descendant of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Should I be defeated by her in the race, then, indeed, might Atalanta have something to boast of.”

Atalanta stepped forward and said, “Do not say such things. Indeed I think that it is some god, envious of your beauty and your strength, who sent you here to race with me and to meet your doom. Ah, think of the youths who have raced with me just now! Think of the hard doom that is about to fall upon them! You risk your life in the race, but indeed I am not worthy of the price. Go stranger, go away and live happily, for indeed I think that there is some maiden who loves you well.”

“No, maiden,” said Hippomenes, “I will enter the race and I will risk my life on the chance of winning you for my bride. What good will my life and my spirit be to me if they cannot win this race for me?”

She walked away from him then and would not look at him, but bent down to fasten the sandals on her feet. The black-bearded king looked at  Hippomenes and said, “Face, then, this race tomorrow. You will be the only one who will enter it. But think first of the doom that awaits you at the end of it.” The king said no more, and Hippomenes left them, and went to the place where the race had been run.

He looked across the sandy course and in his mind he saw again Atalanta’s swift race. Even as he looked across the sandy course now deserted by the crowd, he saw someone move across it, coming toward him with feet that did not seem to touch the ground. She was a woman with a wonderful presence. As Hippomenes looked at her he knew that she was Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and of love.

“Hippomenes,” said the immortal goddess, “the gods are aware that you are a descendant of one of the gods, and I am aware of you because of your own worth. I have come to help you in your race with Atalanta, for I do not want you killed, or have that maiden go unmarried. Put all your effort into the race, and see! Here is something that will prevent the fleet-footed Atalanta from putting all her spirit into the race.”

Then the immortal goddess held out to Hippomenes a branch that had on it three apples of shining gold.

“In Cyprus,” said the goddess, “where I have come from, there is a tree on which these golden apples grow. Only I may pluck them. I have brought them to you, Hippomenes. Keep them in your pocket, and in the race you will find out what to do with them, I think.”

Having said this she vanished, leaving a fragrance in the air and the three shining apples in the hands of Hippomenes. He looked at their brightness for a long time. They were beside him that night, and when he arose at dawn he put them in his pocket. Then, he went to the stadium for the race.

When he appeared beside Atalanta, everyone around the course was silent, for they all admired Hippomenes for his beauty and for the spirit that was in his face. They were silent out of compassion, for they knew the doom that waited the youths who raced with Atalanta.

Now Schoeneus, the black-bearded king, stood up, and he spoke to the crowd, saying, “Hear me all, both young and old.This youth, Hippomenes, seeks to win the race against my daughter, and win her for his bride. Now, if he is victorious and escapes death I will give him my dear child, Atalanta, and many fleet horses besides as gifts from me, and he shall go back to his native land in honor. But if he fails in the race, then he will have to share the doom of the other youths who raced with Atalanta hoping to win her for a bride.”

Then Hippomenes and Atalanta crouched for the start. The trumpets were sounded and they sprinted off.

Side by side with Atalanta, Hippomenes went. Her flying hair touched his chest, and it seemed to him that they were flying over the sandy course as if they were swallows. But then Atalanta began to draw away from him. He saw her ahead of him, and then he began to hear the words of cheer that came from the crowd “Go, Hippomenes! Go on, go on!” He put all his strength into the race, but Atalanta drew further and further away from him.

Then it seemed to him that she slowed a little to look back at him. He gained on her a little. Then his hand touched the apples that were in his pocket. As it touched them he knew what to do with the apples.

He was not far from her now, but already her swiftness was drawing her further and further away. He took one of the apples into his hand and tossed it into the air so that it fell on the track in front of her.

Atalanta saw the shining apple. She slowed down and bent over to pick it up. And as she did so Hippomenes darted past her, and went flying toward the finish line that now was within his sight.

But soon she was beside him again. He looked, and he saw that the finish line was far, far ahead of him. Atalanta with the flying hair passed him, and drew away from him. He did not have the speed to catch her now, he thought, so he put his strength into his hand and he flung the second of the shining apples. The apple rolled in front of her and rolled off the course. Atalanta turned off the course, stooped and picked up the apple.

Then Hippomenes used all his strength as he raced on. He was now nearer to the finish line than she was. But he knew that she was behind him, going quickly whereas he went slowly. Then she was beside him, and then she went past him. She paused for a moment looked back at him.

As he raced on, his chest seemed weighted down and his throat was crackling dry. The finish line was still far away, but Atalanta was nearing it. He took the last of the golden apples into his hand. Perhaps she was now so far that the strength of his throw would not be great enough to place the apple in front of her.

But with all the strength he could put into his hand he flung the apple. It struck the course before her feet and then went rolling wide. Atalanta swerved in her race and followed where the apple went. Hippomenes marvelled that he had been able to fling it so far. He saw Atalanta bend over to pick up the apple, and he ran on. Then, although his strength was failing, he saw the finish line near him. He crossed it and then fell down on the ground.

The attendants raised him up and put the victor’s wreath on his head. The people shouted with joy to see him victor. But he looked around for Atalanta and he saw her standing there with the golden apples in her hands. “He has won,” he heard her say, “and I do not have to hate myself for bringing a doom upon him. Gladly, gladly have I lost the race, and that it is this youth who has won the victory from me.”

She took his hand and brought him before the king. Then Schoeneus, in the sight of all the rejoicing people, gave Atalanta to Hippomenes for his bride, and he gave him also a great gift of horses. With his dear and hard won bride, Hippomenes returned to his own country, and the apples that she brought with her, the golden apples of Aphrodite, were revered by the people.