Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

Two Famous Boar Hunts

H ARDLY had the morning tinged the eastern sky with her yellow light, when Odysseus arose from his couch, and quickly clothed himself; for he had been awakened by the sound of hurrying feet, and many voices, and the barking of dogs, beneath his chamber window. When he went down into the great hall, he was greeted by his six stalwart uncles, all of whom were dressed for the chase, and armed with spears and knives.

"To-day we hunt the wild boar on the wooded slopes of Parnassus," said Echion, the eldest. "How glad we should be if you were old enough and strong enough to join us in the sport!"

The heart of Odysseus was stirred at once, like that of a warrior when he hears the battle-call. "I am certainly strong enough!" he cried. "I will ask my grandfather if I may go."

Autolycus smiled when the boy made known his wish. Indeed, he was expecting such a request, and would have been disappointed and displeased if it had not been made.

"Yes, go, my child," he said; "and while I sit here, bound with the fetters of old age, my blessing shall go with you."

Odysseus thanked his grandfather, and lost no time in making himself ready for the hunt. A hasty meal was eaten; and then the huntsmen, with a great number of dogs and serving-men, sallied forth, and began to climb the mountain slopes. The master of the hunt was an old, gray-bearded man, one of the last of the ancient race of heroes, whose whole life had been spent in the household of Autolycus. Old as he was, he outstrode all the other huntsmen; but Odysseus, young and supple, kept close behind him,—a dwarf following in the wake of a giant. Upward and still upward they toiled, while their comrades, with the hounds, followed slowly far below them. They passed through the belt of pine trees, and left the wooded slopes behind. There was now nothing but bare rocks before and above them. The cold winds whistled about their heads; the mountain eagles soared and screamed in the sharp morning air.

"Surely, my father," said Odysseus, "the lair of the wild boar cannot be on these bleak heights. Would it not be better to seek him among the woods of the lower slopes?"

"You are right," said the old man, stopping at last upon one of the highest crags. "I have brought you to this spot, not in search of game, but to show you what is a truly great and beautiful sight. Your tutor has told me that you once had a glimpse of the world from Mount Neritus; now look around you, and see the world itself!"

Then the lad looked; and far away on the blue horizon he saw the silvery heights of Olympus, the throne of mighty Zeus glittering in the sunlight, and canopied with clouds. On his right he beheld Mount Helicon and the fruitful plains of Bœotia, and the blue sea of Ægæa stretching away and away towards the sunrise halls of Helios. Southward lay the Bay of Crissa, and beyond it the land of mighty Pelops, and busy Corinth, and the rich pasture-lands of Arcadia, Then turning to the west, he saw, like a mere speck on the horizon, his own loved Ithaca; while nearer were the woods of Calydon and the green headlands of Achaia. At that moment the clouds which had been hanging about the mountain-top suddenly melted away, and the sun shone out bright and clear, bathing the woods and crags in purple and gold; while at the same time the music of ten thousand voices of birds and beasts and nymphs and waterfalls was borne up from below to their delighted ears.

"Is not this a beautiful world?" asked the aged hero, baring his gray head to the cold winds. "What would you not give to have it all for your own?"

The lad answered not a word; but his eyes filled with tears as he thought of his home and of those whom he loved, far away by the green slopes of little Neritus.

"My son," then said the hero, "remember the choice of Heracles. Happiness is to be gotten from within us. It is not to be bought with silver and gold, nor yet is it to be seized upon with violence. Better have a clean conscience than to own all Hellas; better—But hark! I hear the dogs in the dells far below us! Let us hasten down, for they have started the game."

Within a thorny thicket where grew the vines and leaves so closely that the sun's rays never struggled through them, the huge wild boar had made his lair. Hither the hounds had tracked him; and their deep baying, and the trampling of many feet among the dead leaves upon the ground, had roused the beast, and stirred him into fury. Suddenly he sprang from his lair, and gnashing his huge tusks, and foaming with fury, he charged upon his foes. The dogs fell back, afraid to come too close to an enemy so fierce and strong; and with their many-toned bays they made the echoes of Parnassus ring.

Just at this moment, the boy Odysseus rushed down into the glen, his long spear poised and ready to strike. But the great beast waited not for the stroke: he dashed furiously at the boy, who quickly leaped aside, although too late. The boar's sharp tusk struck Odysseus just above the knee, cutting a fearful gash, tearing the flesh, and even grazing the bone. But the lad, undaunted, struck manfully with his weapon. The bright spear was driven straight to the heart of the beast; with one great cry he fell, and gnashing his huge jaws helplessly he died among the withered leaves. The boy, faint with pain and the joy of victory, staggered into the arms of his stalwart uncles, who had hastened to succor him. Gently they bound up the ghastly wound, and with charms and witchery stanched the flowing blood. Then, upon a litter woven of vines and pliant twigs, they bore him down the deep glen to the broad halls of old Autolycus; and the men and boys, having flayed the grisly beast, brought afterward its head and bristly hide, and set them up as trophies in the gateway.

For many weary days, Odysseus lay helpless on a couch of pain. But his kind kinsmen, and Phemius his tutor, waited on him tenderly, and his fair grandmother Amphithea nursed him. And when the pain left him, and he began to grow strong again, he loved to lie on the bearskins at his grandfather's feet, and listen to tales of the earlier days, when the older race of heroes walked the earth.

"When I was younger than I am to-day," said the old chief, as they sat one evening in the light of the blazing brands,—"when I was much younger than now, it was my fortune to take part in the most famous boar hunt the world has ever known.

"There lived at that time, in Calydon, a mighty chief named Oineus,—and, indeed, I know not but that he still lives. Oineus was rich in vineyards and in orchards, and no other man in all Ætolia was happier or more blessed than he. He had married, early in life, the princess Althea, fairest of the Acarnanian maidens; and to them a son had been born, golden-haired and beautiful, whom they called Meleager.

"When Meleager was yet but one day old, his father held him in his arms, and prayed to Zeus and the ever-living powers above: 'Grant, Father Zeus, and all ye deathless ones, that this my son may be the foremost among the men of Hellas. And let it come to pass, that when they see his valiant deeds, his countrymen shall say, "Behold, this youth is greater than his father," and all of one accord shall hail him as their guardian king.'

"Then his mother Althea, weeping tears of joy, prayed to Pallas Athené, that the boy might grow up to be pure-minded and gentle, the hope and pride of his parents, and the delight and staff of their declining years. Scarcely had the words of prayer died from her lips, when there came into her chamber the three unerring Fates who spin the destinies of men. White-robed and garlanded, they stood beside the babe, and with unwearied fingers drew out the lines of his untried life. Sad Clotho held the golden distaff in her hand, and twirled and twisted the delicate thread. Lachesis, now sad, now hopeful, with her long white fingers held the hourglass, and framed her lips to say, 'It is enough.' And Atropos, blind and unpitying as the future always is, stood ready, with cruel shears, to clip the twist in twain. Busily and silently sad Clotho spun; and the golden thread, thin as a spider's web, yet beautiful as a sunbeam, grew longer and more golden between her skilful fingers. Then Lachesis cried out, 'It is finished!' But Atropos hid her shears beneath her mantle, and said, 'Not so. Behold, there is a brand burning upon the hearth. Wait until it is all burned into ashes and smoke, and then I will cut the thread of the child's life. Spin on, sweet Clotho!'

"Quick as thought, Althea sprang forward, snatched the blazing brand from the hearth, and quenched its flame in a jar of water; and when she knew that not a single spark was left glowing upon it, she locked it safely in a chest where none but she could find it. As she did this, the pitiless sisters vanished from her sight, saying as they flitted through the air, 'We bide our time.'

"Meleager grew up to be a tall and fair and gentle youth; and when at last he became a man, he sailed on the ship Argo, with Jason, and Laertes your father, and the great heroes of that day, to far-off Colchis, in search of the Golden Fleece. Many brave deeds were his in foreign lands; and when he came home again to Calydon, he brought with him a fair young wife, gentle Cleopatra, daughter of Idas the boaster.

"Oineus had gathered in his harvest; and he was glad and thankful in his heart, because his fields had yielded plenteously; his vines had been loaded with purple grapes, and his orchards filled with abundance of pleasant fruit. Grateful, as men should always be, to the givers of peace and plenty, he held within his halls a harvest festival to which the brave and beautiful of all Ætolia came. Happy was this feast, and the hours were bright with smiles and sunshine; and men forgot sorrow and labor, and thought only of the gladness of life.

"Then Oineus took of the first-fruits of his fields and vineyards and his orchards, and offered them in thankful offerings to the givers of good. But he forgot to deck the shrine of Artemis with gifts, little thinking the arrow-darting queen cared for any thing which mortal men might offer her. Ah, woful mistake was that! For, in her anger at the slight, Artemis sent a savage boar, with ivory tusks and foaming mouth, to overrun the lands of Calydon. Many a field did the monster ravage, many a tree uproot; and all the growing vines, which late had borne so rich a vintage, were trampled to the ground. Sadly troubled was Oineus, and the chieftains of Ætolia knew not what to do. For the fierce beast could not be slain, but with his terrible tusks he had sent many a rash hunter to an untimely death. Then the young man Meleager said, 'I will call together the heroes of Hellas, and we will hunt the boar in the woods of Calydon.'

"And so at the call of Meleager, the warriors flocked from every land, to join in the hunt of the fierce wild boar. Among them came Castor and Polydeuces, the twin brothers from Lacedæmon; and Idas the boaster, father-in-law of Meleager, from Messene; and mighty Jason, captain of the Argo; and Atalanta, the swift-footed daughter of Iasus of Arcadia; and many Acarnanian huntsmen lent by the sons of Thestios, Althea's brothers. Thither also did I, Autolycus, hasten, although men spitefully said that I was far more skilful in taking tame beasts than in slaying wild ones.

"Nine days we feasted in the halls of Oineus; and every day we tried our skill with bows and arrows, and tested the strength of our well-seasoned spears. On the tenth, the bugles sounded, and hounds and huntsmen gathered in the courtyard of the chief, chafing for the hunt. But a proud fellow named Cepheus, of Arcadia, when he saw fair Atalanta equipped for the chase, drew back disdainfully, and said,—

" 'In my country, it is not the custom for heroes to go to battle or to hunt side by side with women. Woman's place is at home: her weapons are the distaff and the needle; her duty is to practise well the household virtues. If you allow this young girl to join in this hunt, then I will turn my face homeward, and seek in the Arcadian land adventures worthy of men.'

"Then Meleager angrily answered, 'In the Arcadian land, if report speaks truly, the deeds deemed worthiest of men are the watching of flocks, and the tuning of the shepherd's pipe. It is fear, not bravery, that makes you seek an excuse to leave the chase of the wild boar before it is begun. You are afraid of the beast; and you are still more afraid of the maiden Atalanta, lest she should prove to be more skilled than you. Have you heard how, when an infant, she was left to perish on the Parthenian hill, and would have died, had not a she-bear cared for her until some hunters rescued her? Have you heard how, as she grew up, her beauty was greater than that of any other maiden, and how no one but Artemis, the archer-queen, could shoot the swift arrow so fair and straight? Have you heard what she did on the ship Argo, when, with Jason as our captain, we sailed to the utmost bounds of the earth, and brought home with us the fleece of gold? Have you heard how, with her own arrows, she slew the beastly centaurs, Rhœcus and Hylæus, because they dared to make love to one so pure and beautiful? Doubtless you have heard all these things, and you are afraid to go to the field of danger with one so much nobler than yourself. Go back, then, to your sheep-tending Arcadia! No one will miss you in the chase.'

"Then Cepheus blushed, but more from shame than anger. 'I will ride with you into the wood,' said he, 'and never again shall any man accuse me of having a timid heart.'

"Soon we sallied forth from the town, a hundred huntsmen, with dogs innumerable. Through the fields and orchards, laid waste by the savage beast, we passed; and Atalanta, keen of sight and swift of foot, her long hair floating in the wind behind her, led all the rest. It was not long until, in a narrow dell once green with vines and trees, but now strewn thick with withered branches, we roused the fierce creature from his lair. At first he fled, followed closely by the baying hounds. Then suddenly he faced his foes; with gnashing teeth and bloodshot eyes, he charged furiously upon them. A score of hounds were slain outright; and Cepheus, rushing blindly onward, was caught by the beast, and torn in pieces by his sharp tusks. Brave Peleus of Phthia with unsteady aim let fly an arrow from his bow, which, falling short of the mark, smote his friend Eurytion full in the breast, and stretched him lifeless upon the ground. Then swift-footed Atalanta, bounding forward, struck the beast a deadly blow with her spear. He stopped short his furious onslaught; and Amphiaraus, the hero and prophet of Argos, launching a swift arrow, put out one of his eyes. Terrible were the cries of the wounded creature, as, blinded and bleeding, he made a last charge upon the huntsmen. But Meleager with a skilful sword-thrust pierced his heart, and the beast fell weltering in his gore. Great joy filled the hearts of the Calydonians, when they saw the scourge of their land laid low and helpless. They quickly flayed the beast, and the heroes who had shared in the hunt divided the flesh among them; but the head and the bristly hide they gave to Meleager.

" 'Not to me does the prize belong,' he cried, 'but to Atalanta, the swift-footed huntress. For the first wound—the true death-stroke, indeed—was given by her; and to her, woman though she be, all honor and the prize must be awarded.'

"With these words, he bore the grinning head and the bristly hide to the fair young huntress, and laid them at her feet. Then his uncles, the sons of Acarnanian Thestios, rushed angrily forward, saying that no woman should ever bear a prize away from them; and they seized the hide, and would have taken it away, had not Meleager forbidden them. Yet they would not loose their hold upon the prize, but drew their swords, and wrathfully threatened Meleager's life. The hero's heart grew hot within him, and he shrunk not from the affray. Long and fearful was the struggle,—uncles against nephew; but in the end the sons of Thestios lay bleeding upon the ground, while the victor brought again the boar's hide, and laid it the second time at Atalanta's feet. The fair huntress took the prize, and carried it away with her to deck her father's hall in the pleasant Arcadian land. And the heroes, when they had feasted nine other days with King Oineus, betook themselves to their own homes.

"But the hearts of the Acarnanians were bitter towards Meleager, because of the death of the sons of Thestios, and because no part of the wild boar was awarded to them. They called their chiefs around them, and all their brave men, and made war upon King Oineus and Meleager. Many battles did they fight round Calydon, and among the Ætolian hills; yet while Meleager led his warriors to the fray, the Acarnanians fared but ill.

"Then Queen Althea, filled with grief for her brothers' untimely death, forgot her love for her son, and prayed that her Acarnanian kinsmen might prevail against him. Upon the hard earth she knelt: she beat the ground with her hands, and heaped the dust about her; and, weeping bitter tears, she called upon Hades and heartless Persephone to avenge her of Meleager. And even as she prayed, the pitiless Furies, wandering amid the darkness, heard her cries, and came, obedient to her wishes.

"When Meleager heard that his mother had turned against him, he withdrew in sorrow to his own house, and sought comfort and peace with his wife, fair Cleopatra; and he would not lead his warriors any more to battle against the Acarnanians. Then the enemy besieged the city: a fearful tumult rose about the gates; the high towers were assaulted, and everywhere the Calydonians were driven back dismayed and beaten. With uplifted hands and tearful eyes, King Oineus and the elders of the city came to Meleager, and besought him to take the field again. Rich gifts they offered him. They bade him choose for his own the most fertile farm in Calydon,—at the least fifty acres, half for tillage and half for vines; but he would not listen to them. The din of battle thickened outside the gates; the towers shook with the thundering blows of the besiegers. Old Oineus with trembling limbs climbed up the stairway to his son's secluded chamber, and, weeping, prayed him to come down and save the city from fire and pillage. Still he kept silent, and went not. His sisters came, and his most trusted friends. 'Come, Meleager,' they prayed, 'forget thy grief, and think only of our great need. Aid thy people, or we shall all perish!'


Meleager Refuses to Help in the Defence of the City

"None of these prayers moved him. The gates were beaten down; the enemy was within the walls; the tide of battle shook the very tower where Meleager sat; the doom of Calydon seemed to be sealed. Then came the fair Cleopatra, and knelt before her husband, and besought him to withhold no longer the aid which he alone could give. 'O Meleager,' she sobbed, 'none but thou can save us. Wilt thou sit still, and see the city laid in ashes, thy dearest friends slaughtered, and thy wife and sweet babes dragged from their homes and sold into cruel slavery?'

"Then Meleager rose, and girded on his armor. To the streets he hastened, shouting his well-known battle-cry. Eagerly and hopefully did the Calydonian warriors rally around him. Fiercely did they meet the foe. Terrible was the bloodshed. Back from the battered gates and the crumbling wall, the Acarnanian hosts were driven. A panic seized upon them. They turned and fled, and not many of them escaped the swords of Meleager's men.

"Again there was peace in Calydon, and the orchards of King Oineus blossomed and bore fruit as of old; but the gifts and large rewards which the elders had promised to Meleager were forgotten. He had saved his country, but his countrymen were ungrateful.

"Then Meleager again laid aside his war-gear, and sought the quiet of his own home, and the cheering presence of fair Cleopatra. For the remembrance of his mother's curse and his country's ingratitude weighed heavily on his mind, and he cared no longer to mingle with his fellow-men.

"Then it was that Althea's hatred of her son waxed stronger, and she thought of the half-burnt brand which she had hidden, and of the words which the fatal sisters had spoken so many years before.

" 'He is no longer my son,' said she, 'and why should I withhold the burning of the brand? He can never again bring comfort to my heart; for the blood of my brothers, whom I loved, is upon his head.'

"And she took the charred billet from the place where she had hidden it, and cast it again into the flames. And as it slowly burned away, so did the life of Meleager wane. Lovingly he bade his wife farewell; softly he whispered a prayer to the unseen powers above; and as the flickering flames of the fatal brand died into darkness, he gently breathed his last.

"Then sharp-toothed remorse seized upon Althea, and the mother-love which had slept in her bosom was re-awakened. Too late, also, the folk of Calydon remembered who it was who had saved them from slavery and death. Down into the comfortless halls of Hades, Althea hastened to seek her son's forgiveness. The loving heart of Cleopatra, surcharged with grief, was broken; and her gentle spirit fled to the world of shades to meet that of her hero-husband. And Meleager's sisters would not be consoled, so great was the sorrow which had come upon them; and they wept and lamented day and night, until kind Artemis in pity for their youth changed them into the birds which we call Meleagrides."

Lying on the bearskins at his grandfather's feet, and listening to stories like this, Odysseus did not feel that time was burdensome. The wound upon his knee healed slowly; and when at last he could walk again, a white scar, as long and as broad as a finger, told the story of his combat with the fierce wild boar. By this time the summer was far spent, and the bard Phemius was impatient to return to Ithaca.

"The grapes in your fathers vineyard are growing purple, and his orchards are laden with ripening fruit," said he to Odysseus; "and the days are near at hand when your anxious mother will gaze with longing over the sea, expecting your return."

But there was no vessel at the port on the bay to carry them home by the nearest way; and days and months might pass ere any ship, sent thither by Laertes, would arrive. How, then, were they to return to Ithaca?

"Here is your uncle, bold Echion, who goes to-morrow to Iolcos by the sea, carrying gifts and a message from Autolycus to old King Peleus. We will go with him."

"But Iolcos is farther still from Ithaca," said Odysseus.

"True," answered Phemius. "But from Iolcos, at this season of the year, there are many vessels sailing to Corinth and the islands of the sea. Once at Corinth, and we shall find no lack of ships to carry us across the bay of Crissa to our own loved Ithaca."

And thus the journey home was planned. It was a long and devious route by way of Iolcos and the Eubœan Sea; and no one could say how many dangers they might meet, or how many delays they should encounter. Yet nothing better could be done, if they would return before the summer ended.

The great Autolycus blessed Odysseus on departing, and gave him rich gifts of gold and priceless gems, and many words of sage advice. "I shall see thee no more," he said; "but thy name shall be spoken countless ages hence, and men shall say, 'How shrewd and far-seeing, brave in war, and wise in counsel, was Odysseus!' "

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