Gateway to the Classics: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by Padraic Colum
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by  Padraic Colum

Part III

The Heroes of the Quest

Atalanta the Huntress


dropcap image HEY came once more together, the heroes of the quest, to hunt a boar in Calydon—Jason and Peleus came, Telamon, Theseus, and rough Arcas, Nestor and Helen's brothers Polydeuces and Castor. And, most noted of all, there came the Arcadian huntress maid, Atalanta.

Beautiful they all thought her when they knew her aboard the Argo.  But even more beautiful Atalanta seemed to the heroes when she came amongst them in her hunting gear. Her lovely hair hung in two bands across her shoulders, and over her breast 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. Swiftly she moved with her head held high, and there was not one amongst the heroes who did not say, "Oh, happy would that man be whom Atalanta the unwedded would take for her husband!"

All the heroes said it, but the one who said it most feelingly 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 it was laying waste the fields and orchards and destroying the people's cattle and horses. That boar had been sent into Calydon by an angry divinity. For when Œneus, the king of the country, was making sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving for a bounteous 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 lay waste Œneus's realm.

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 the growth on the ground. The boar tore up the corn in the fields and trampled down the vines with their clusters and heavy bunches of grapes; also it rushed against the cattle and destroyed them in the fields. And no hounds the huntsmen were able to bring could stand before it. And so it came to pass that men had to leave their farms and take refuge behind the walls of the city because of the ravages 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 had sight to see mysterious things, but who had also a wayward 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, "An equal span of life we give to the newborn child, and to the billet of wood that now rests above the blaze of the fire." Hearing what the Fates sang and understanding it Althæa had sprung up from her bed, had seized the billet of wood, and had taken it out of the fire before the flames had burnt into it.

That billet of wood lay in her chest, hidden away. And Meleagrus nor any one else save Althæa knew of it, nor knew that the prince's life would last only for the space it would be kept from the burning. On the day of the hunting he appeared as the strongest and bravest of the youths of Calydon. And he knew not, poor Meleagrus, that the love for Atalanta that had sprung into his heart was to bring to the fire the billet of wood on which his life depended.


As Atalanta went, the bow in her hands, Prince Meleagrus pressed behind her. Then came Jason and Peleus, Telamon, Theseus and Nestor. Behind them came Meleagrus's dark-browed uncles, Plexippus and Toxeus. They came to a forest that covered the side of a mountain. Huntsmen had assembled here with hounds held in leashes and with nets to hold the rushing quarry. And when they had all gathered together they went through the forest on the track 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 pressed on. They came to a marshy covert where the boar had its lair. There was a thickness of osiers and willows and tall bullrushes, making a place that it was 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 had in them the blaze of fire. On the boar came, breaking down the thicket in its rush. But the heroes stood steadily with the points of their spears toward the monster.

The hounds were loosed from their leashes and they dashed toward the boar. The boar slashed them with its tusks and trampled them into the ground. Jason flung his spear. The spear went wide of the mark. Another, Arcas, cast his, but the wood, not the point of the spear, struck the boar, rousing it further. Then its eyes flamed, and like a great stone shot from a catapult the boar rushed on the huntsmen who were stationed to the right. In that rush it flung two youths prone upon the ground.

Then might Nestor have missed his going to Troy and his part in that story, for the boar swerved around and was upon him in an instant. Using his spear as a leaping pole he vaulted upward and caught the branches of a tree as the monster dashed the spear down in its rush. In rage the beast tore at the trunk of the tree. The heroes might have been scattered at this moment, for Telamon had fallen, tripped by the roots of a tree, and Peleus had had to throw himself upon him to pull him out of the way of danger, if Polydeuces and Castor had not dashed up to their aid. They came riding upon high white horses, spears in their hands. The brothers cast their spears, but neither spear struck the monster boar.

Then the boar turned and was for drawing back into the thicket. They might have lost it then, for its retreat 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 upon its bristles. Prince Meleagrus shouted out, "O first to strike the monster! Honor indeed shall you receive for this, Arcadian maid."

His uncles were made wroth by this speech, as was another, the Arcadian, rough Arcas. Arcas dashed forward, holding in his hands a two-headed axe. "Heroes and huntsmen," he cried, "you shall see how a man's strokes surpass 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 him before Arcas's axe fell, and the Arcadian was trampled upon 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 before the heroes and the huntsmen.

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 out blood and foam. 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. "It is well, the deed you have done, boy," said one; "it is well that none of the strangers to our country slew the boar. Now will the head and tusks of the monster adorn our hall, and men will know that the arms of our house can well protect this land."

But one word only did Meleagrus say, and that word was the name, "Atalanta." The maiden came and Meleagrus, his spear upon the head, said, "Take, O fair Arcadian, the spoil of the chase. All know that it was you who inflicted the first wound upon the boar."

Plexippus and Toxeus tried to push him away, as if Meleagrus was still a boy under their tutoring. He shouted to them to stand off, and then he hacked out the terrible tusks and held them toward Atalanta.

She would have taken them, for she, who had never looked lovingly upon a youth, was moved by the beauty and the generosity of Prince Meleagrus. She would have taken from him the spoil of the chase. 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. Madness then possessed Meleagrus, and he took up his spear and thrust it, first into the body of Plexippus and then into the body of Toxeus. His thrusts were terrible, for he was filled with the fierceness of the hunt, and his uncles fell down in death.

Then a great horror came over all the heroes. They raised up the bodies of Plexippus and Toxeus and carried them on their spears away from the place of the hunting and toward 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 sacrifice to the gods. She saw men come in carrying across their spears the bodies of two men. She looked and she saw that the dead men were her two brothers, Plexippus and Toxeus.

Then she beat her breast and she filled the temple with the cries of her lamentation. "Who has slain my brothers? Who has slain my brothers?" she kept crying out.

Then she was told that her son Meleagrus had slain her brothers. She had no tears to shed then, and in a hard voice she asked, "Why did my son slay Plexippus and Toxeus, his uncles?"

The one who was wroth with Atalanta, Arcas the Arcadian, came to her and told her that her brothers had been slain because of a quarrel about the girl Atalanta.

"My brothers have been slain because a girl bewitched my son; then accursed be that son of mine," Althæa cried. She took off the gold-fringed robe of a priestess, and she put on a black robe of mourning.

Her brothers, the only sons of her father, had been slain, and for the sake of a girl. The image of Atalanta came before her, and she felt she could punish dreadfully her son. But 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.

The rage she had went back into her heart and made her truly mad. "I gave Meleagrus life when I might have let it go from him with the burning billet of wood," she cried, "and now he has taken the lives of my brothers." And then her thought went to the billet of wood that was hidden in the chest.

Back to her house she went, and when she went within she saw a fire of pine knots burning upon the hearth. As she looked upon their burning a scorching pain went through her. But she went from the hearth, nevertheless, and into the inner room. There stood the chest that she had not opened for years. She opened it now, and out of it she took the billet of wood that had on it the mark of the burning.

She brought it to the hearth fire. Four times she went to throw it into the fire, and four times she stayed her hand. The fire was before her, but it was in her too. She saw the images of her brothers lying dead, and, saying that he who had slain them should lose his life, she threw the billet of wood into the fire of pine knots.

Straightway it caught fire and began to burn. And Althæa cried, "Let him die, my son, and let naught remain; let all perish with my brothers, even the kingdom that Œneus, my husband, founded."

Then she turned away and remained stiffly standing by the hearth, the life withered up within her. Her daughters came and tried to draw her away, but they could not—her two daughters, Gorge and Deianira.

Meleagrus was crouching upon 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 strive to make atonement for the deed I have done to-day."

She went with him. But even as they came to the street of the city a sharp and a burning pain seized upon Meleagrus. More and more burning it grew, and weaker and weaker he became. He could not have moved further if it had not been for the aid of Atalanta. Jason and Peleus lifted him across the threshold 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 billet of wood sank down into the ashes. The heroes of the quest stood around, all overcome with woe. In the street they heard the lamentations for Plexippus and Toxeus, for Prince Meleagrus, and for the passing of the kingdom founded by Œneus. Atalanta left the temple, and attended by the two brothers on the white horses, Polydeuces and Castor, she went back to Arcady.

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