PART III. THE HEROES OF THE QUEST
I. ATALANTA THE HUNTRESS
The heroes of the quest came together once more, to hunt a boar in Calydon. Most noted of all, was the Arcadian huntress maid, Atalanta.
They all thought her beautiful when they knew her aboard the Argo but she seemed even more beautiful when she was in her hunting gear. Her lovely hair hung in two bands across her shoulders, and over her chest hung an ivory quiver filled with arrows. They said that her face with its wide and steady eyes was maidenly for a boy’s, and boyish for a maiden’s face. She moved swiftly with her head held high, and there was not one amongst the heroes who did not say, “Oh, how happy any man would be to be married to Atalanta!”
All the heroes said it, but the one who said it with the most feeling was the prince of Calydon, young Meleagrus. He, more than the other heroes, felt the wonder of Atalanta’s beauty.
Now the boar they had come to hunt was a monster boar. It had come into Calydon and was destroying the fields and orchards and killing the people’s cattle and horses. That boar had been sent into Calydon by an angry god. When Oeneus, the king of the country, was making sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, he had neglected to make sacrifice to the goddess of the wild things, Artemis. In her anger Artemis had sent the monster boar to destroy Oeneus’s kingdom.
It was a monster boar indeed—one as huge as a bull, with tusks as great as an elephant’s.The bristles on its back stood up like spear points, and the hot breath of the creature withered anything growing. The boar tore up the corn in the fields and trampled down the vines with their heavy bunches of grapes. Also it charged against the cattle and destroyed them in the fields. No dogs the huntsmen were able to bring could face it and so men had to leave their farms and take refuge behind the walls of the city because of the destruction of the boar. It was then that the rulers of Calydon sent for the heroes of the quest to join with them in hunting the monster.
Calydon itself sent Prince Meleagrus and his two uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus. They were brothers to Meleagrus’s mother, Althæa. Now Althæa was a woman who could see mysterious things, but who had also a rebellious and passionate heart. Once, after her son Meleagrus was born, she saw the three Fates sitting by her hearth. They were spinning the threads of her son’s life, and as they spun they sang to each other, “we give to the newborn child a length of life equal, to the piece of wood that now rests above the blaze of the fire.” Hearing what the Fates sang and understanding it Althæa sprung up from her bed, had seized the piece of wood, and had taken it out of the fire before the flames had burnt it.
That piece of wood lay in her chest, hidden away. Neither Meleagrus nor anyone else except Althæa knew of it, nor that the prince’s life would last only as long as it was kept from burning. On the day of the hunt he appeared as the strongest and bravest of the youths of Calydon. Poor Meleagrus, did not know that the love for Atalanta that was in his heart was to bring to the fire the piece of wood on which his life depended.
As Atalanta went, the bow in her hands, Prince Meleagrus followed behind her. Then came Jason ,Peleus, Telamon, Theseus and Nestor. Behind them came Meleagrus’s, uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus. They came to a forest that covered the side of a mountain. Huntsmen had assembled here with hounds held on leashes and with nets to hold the boar. When they had all gathered together they went through the forest following the tracks of the monster boar.
It was easy to track the boar, for it had left a broad trail through the forest. The heroes and the huntsmen continued on. They came to a marshy wood where the boar had its lair. There was dense growth, making it hard for the hunters to go through.
They roused the boar with the blare of horns and it came rushing out. Foam was on its tusks, and its eyes were blazing. On the boar came, breaking down the thicket in its charge but the heroes stood steadily with the points of their spears pointed toward the monster.
The hounds were released from their leashes and they ran toward the boar. The boar slashed them with its tusks and trampled them into the ground. Jason flung his spear but missed. Another, Arcas, threw his, but the wood, not the point of the spear, struck the boar, angering it further. Then its eyes flaming, and like a great stone shot from a catapult the boar rushed at the huntsmen who were standing to the right. In that rush it flung two youths dead to the ground.
The boar swerved around and was upon Nestor in an instant. Using his spear as a leaping pole he vaulted upward and caught the branches of a tree just as the monster smashed the spear down in its rush. In a rage the beast tore at the trunk of the tree. The heroes were scattered at this moment, because Telamon had fallen, tripped by the roots of a tree, and Peleus had had to throw himself on him to pull him out of the way of danger. Polydeuces and Castor dashed up to help. They came riding on high white horses, spears in their hands. The brothers hurled their spears, but neither spear struck the monster boar.
Then the boar turned and was for going back into the thicket. They might have lost it then, for its lair was impenetrable. But before it got clear away Atalanta put an arrow to the string, drew the bow to her shoulder, and let the arrow fly. It struck the boar, and a patch of blood was seen on its bristles. Prince Meleagrus shouted out, “Oh first to strike the monster! Indeed you shall receive honor for this.”
His uncles were angered to hear this, as well as another, the Arcadian, rough Arcas. Arcas ran forward, holding in his hands a two-headed axe. “Heroes and huntsmen,” he cried, “you shall see how a man’s strength surpasses a girl’s.” He faced the boar, standing on tiptoe with his axe raised for the stroke. Meleagrus’s uncles shouted to encourage him. But the boar’s tusks tore into him before Arcas’s axe fell, and the Arcadian was trampled into the ground.
The boar, roused again by Atalanta’s arrow, turned on the hunters. Jason hurled a spear again. It swerved and struck a hound and pinned it to the ground. Then, speaking the name of Atalanta, Meleagrus sprang. He had two spears in his hands. The first missed and stuck quivering in the ground. But the second went right through the back of the monster boar. It whirled round and round, spouting blood. Meleagrus pressed on, and drove his hunting knife through the shoulders of the monster.
His uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus, were the first to come to where the monster boar was lying outstretched. “You have done well, boy,” said one, “it is good that none of the strangers to our country killed the boar. Now the head and tusks of the monster will adorn our hall, and men will know that the strength of our house can protect this land.”
But Meleagrus only said one word, and that word was the name, “Atalanta.” The maiden came and Meleagrus, his spear on the boar’s head, said, “Take, fair Arcadian, the spoils of the hunt. Everyone knows that it was you who inflicted the first wound on the boar.”
Plexippus and Toxeus tried to push him away, as if Meleagrus was still a boy. He shouted to them to stand off, and then he cut out the terrible tusks and held them toward Atalanta.
She would have taken them, but she, who had never before loved a man, was moved by the beauty and the generosity of Prince Meleagrus. She would have taken from him the spoils of the hunt but as she held out her arms Meleagrus’s uncles struck them with the poles of their spears. Heavy marks were made on the maiden’s white arms. Meleagrus, went wild with fury and he took up his spear and thrust it, first into the body of Plexippus and then into the body of Toxeus. His uncles fell down dead.
Then a great horror came over all the heroes. They raised the bodies of Plexippus and Toxeus and carried them on their spears away from there to the temple of the gods. Meleagrus crouched down upon the ground in horror of what he had done. Atalanta stood beside him, her hand upon his head.
Althæa was in the temple making a sacrifice to the gods. She saw men come in carrying across their spears the bodies of two men. She looked and saw that the dead men were her two brothers, Plexippus and Toxeus.
Then filled the temple with her cries, “Who has killed my brothers? Who has killed my brothers?” she kept crying out.
Then she was told that her son Meleagrus had killed her brothers. She had no tears to shed then, and in a hard voice she asked, “Why did my son kill Plexippus and Toxeus, his uncles?”
Arcas the Arcadian who was angry with Atalanta, told her that her brothers had been killed because of a quarrel over the girl Atalanta.
“My brothers have been killed because a girl bewitched my son. Then a curse on that son of mine,” Althæa cried. She took off the gold robe of a priestess, and put on a black robe of mourning.
Her brothers, the only sons of her father, had been killed, and for the sake of a girl. The image of Atalanta appeared before her, and she wanted to punish her son dreadfully. However her son was not there to punish. He was far away, and the girl for whose sake he had killed Plexippus and Toxeus was with him.
She was mad with rage. “I gave Meleagrus life when I might have let it go from him with the burning piece of wood,” she cried, “and now he has taken the lives of my brothers.” The she thought about the piece of wood that was hidden in the chest.
She went back to her house, and when she entered she saw a fire burning in the hearth. As she looked at the fire a scorching pain went through her. Nevertheless she went from the hearth and into another room. There was the chest that she had not opened for years. She opened it now, and took out of the piece of wood.
She brought it to the hearth fire. Four times she went to throw it into the fire, and four times she stopped. The fire was in front of her, but it was in her too. She saw the images of her brothers lying dead, and, saying that he who had killed them should lose his life, she threw the piece of wood into the fire.
Straightway it caught fire and began to burn. Althæa cried, “Let my son die and let nothing remain. Let everything be destroyed with my brothers, even the kingdom that Oeneus, my husband, founded.”
Then she turned away and remained stiffly standing by the hearth. Her two daughters, Gorge and Deianira daughters came and tried to pull her away, but they could not.
Meleagrus was crouching on the ground with Atalanta watching beside him. Now he stood up, and taking her hand he said, “Let me go with you to the temple of the gods where I shall try to make amends for what I have done today.”
She went with him but as they came to the city a sharp and a burning pain seized Meleagrus. The greater the burning pain became the weaker he became. He could not have moved further if it had not been for the help of Atalanta. Jason and Peleus lifted him and carried him into the temple of the gods.
They laid him down with his head upon Atalanta’s lap. The pain within him grew fiercer and fiercer, but at last it died down as the burning piece of wood sank down into the ashes. The heroes of the quest stood around, all overcome with grief. In the street they heard the cries for Plexippus and Toxeus, for Prince Meleagrus, and for the passing of the kingdom founded by Oeneus. Atalanta left the temple, and accompanied by the two brothers on the white horses, Polydeuces and Castor, she went back to Arcady.