The Calydonian Hunt
Source: A Book Of Myths
Œneus and Althæa were king and queen of Calydon, and to them was born a son who was his mother’s joy and yet her bitterest sorrow. Meleager was his name, and ere his birth his mother dreamed a dream that the child that she bore was a burning firebrand. But when the baby came he was a royal child indeed, a little fearless king from the first moment that his eyes, like unseeing violets, gazed steadily up at his mother. To the chamber where he lay by his mother’s side came the three Fates, spinning, ceaselessly spinning.
“He shall be strong,” said one, as she span her thread. “He shall be fortunate and brave,” said the second. But the third laid a billet of wood on the flames, and while her withered fingers held the fatal threads, she looked with old, old, sad eyes at the new-born child.
“To thee, O New-Born,” she said, “and to this wood that burns, do we give the same span of days to live.”
From her bed sprang Althæa, and, heedless of the flames, she seized the burning wood, trod on it with her fair white feet, and poured on it water that swiftly quenched its red glow. “Thou shalt live forever, O Beloved,” she said, “for never again shall fire char the brand that I have plucked from the burning.”
And the baby laughed.
“Those grey women with bound hair
Who fright the gods frighted not him; he laughed
Seeing them, and pushed out hands to feel and haul
Distaff and thread.”
The years sped on, and from fearless and beautiful babyhood, Meleager grew into gallant boyhood, and then into magnificent youth. When Jason and his heroes sailed away into a distant land to win the Golden Fleece, Meleager was one of the noble band. From all men living he won great praise for his brave deeds, and when the tribes of the north and west made war upon Ætolia, he fought against their army and scattered it as a wind in autumn drives the fallen leaves before it.
But his victory brought evil upon him. When his father Œneus, at the end of a fruitful year, offered sacrifices to the gods, he omitted to honour the goddess Diana by sacrificing to her, and to punish his neglect, she had sent this destroying army. When Meleager was victor, her wrath against his father grew yet more hot, and she sent a wild boar, large as the bulls of Epirus, and fierce and savage to kill and to devour, that it might ravage and lay waste the land of Calydon. The fields of corn were trampled under foot, the vineyards laid waste, and the olive groves wrecked as by a winter hurricane. Flocks and herds were slaughtered by it, or driven hither and thither in wild panic, working havoc as they fled. Many went out to slay it, but went only to find a hideous death. Then did Meleager resolve that he would rid the land of this monster, and called on all his friends, the heroes of Greece, to come to his aid. Theseus and his friend Pirithous came; Jason; Peleus, afterwards father of Achilles; Telamon, the father of Ajax; Nestor, then but a youth; Castor and Pollux, and Toxeus and Plexippus, the brothers of Althæa, the fair queen-mother. But there came none more fearless nor more ready to fight the monster boar of Calydon than Atalanta, the daughter of the king of Arcadia. When Atalanta was born, her father heard of her birth with anger. He desired no daughter, but only sturdy sons who might fight for him, and in the furious rage of bitter disappointment he had the baby princess left on the Parthenian Hill that she might perish there. A she-bear heard the baby’s piteous cries, and carried it off to its lair, where she suckled it along with her young, and there the little Atalanta tumbled about and played with her furry companions and grew strong and vigorous as any other wild young creature of the forest.
Some hunters came one day to raid the den and kill the foster-mother, and found, amazed, a fearless, white-skinned thing with rosy cheeks and brave eyes, who fought for her life and bit them as did her fierce foster-brothers, and then cried human tears of rage and sorrow when she saw the bear who had been her mother lying bloody and dead. Under the care of the hunters Atalanta grew into a maiden, with all the beauty of a maid and all the strength and the courage of a man. She ran as swiftly as Zephyrus runs when he rushes up from the west and drives the white clouds before him like a flock of timid fawns that a hound is pursuing. The shafts that her strong arm sped from her bow smote straight to the heart of the beast that she chased, and almost as swift as her arrow was she there to drive her spear into her quarry. When at length her father the king learned that the beautiful huntress, of whom all men spoke as of one only a little lower than Diana, was none other than his daughter, he was not slow to own her as his child. So proud was he of her beauty and grace, and of her marvellous swiftness of foot and skill in the chase, that he would fain have married her to one of the great ones of Greece, but Atalanta had consulted an oracle. “Marry not,” said the oracle. “To thee marriage must bring woe.”
So, with untouched heart, and with the daring and the courage of a young lad, Atalanta came along with the heroes to the Calydonian Hunt. She was so radiantly lovely, so young, so strong, so courageous, that straightway Meleager loved her, and all the heroes gazed at her with eyes that adored her beauty. And Diana, looking down at her, also loved the maiden whom from childhood she had held in her protection—a gallant, fearless virgin dear to her heart.
The grey mist rose from the marshes as the hunt began, and the hunters of the boar had gone but a little way when they came upon traces of the hated boar. Disembowelled beasts marked its track. Here, in a flowery meadow, had it wallowed. There, in rich wheat land, had it routed, and the marks of its bestial tusks were on the gashed grey trunks of the trees that had once lived in the peace of a fruitful olive grove.
In a marsh they found their enemy, and all the reeds quivered as it heaved its vast bulk and hove aside the weed in which it had wallowed, and rooted with its tusks amongst the wounded water-lilies before it leapt with a snort to meet and to slay the men who had come against it. A filthy thing it was, as its pink snout rose above the green ooze of the marshes, and it looked up lustingly, defying the purity of the blue skies of heaven, to bring to those who came against it a cruel, shameful death.
Upon it, first of all, Jason cast his spear. But the sharp point only touched it, and unwounded, the boar rushed on, its gross, bristly head down, to disembowel, if it could, the gallant Nestor. In the branches of a tree Nestor found safety, and Telamon rushed on to destroy the filthy thing that would have made carrion of the sons of the gods. A straggling cypress root caught his fleeting foot and laid him prone, a helpless prey for the rooting brute. His hounds fell before it, but ere it could reach him, Atalanta, full of vengeful rage—the pure angered against the filthy and cruel—let draw her bow, with a prayer to Diana to guide her shaft aright. Into the boar’s smoking flank sped the arrow.
“The sudden string
Rang, and sprang inward, and the waterish air
Hissed, and the moist plumes of the songless reeds
Moved as a wave which the wind moves no more.
But the boar heaved half out of ooze and slime,
His tense flank trembling round the barbed wound,
Hateful; and fiery with invasive eyes
And bristling with intolerable hair
Plunged, and the hounds clung, and green flowers and white
Reddened and broke all round them where they came.
And charging with sheer tusk he drove, and smote
Hyleus; and sharp death caught his sudden soul,
And violent sleep shed night upon his eyes.”
More than ever terrible was the monster now that it was wounded. One after the other the hunters fell before its mad rage, and were sent to the shades by a bloody and merciless death.
Before its furious charge even the heart of a hero might have been stricken. Yet Meleager, like a mighty oak of the forest that will not sway even a little before the rush of a storm, stood full in its way and met its onslaught.
“Aimed on the left side his well-handled spear
Grasped where the ash was knottiest hewn, and smote,
And with no missile wound, the monstrous boar
Right in the hairiest hollow of his hide
Under the last rib, sheer through bulk and bone,
Deep in; and deeply smitten, and to death,
The heavy horror with his hanging shafts,
Leapt, and fell furiously, and from raging lips
Foamed out the latest wrath of all his life.”
Great was the shout that rose from those who still lived when that grim hunt thus came to an end. And when, with his keen blade, Meleager struck off the head, even as the quivering throat drew its last agonised breath, louder still shouted the men of Greece. But not for himself did Meleager despoil the body of his foe. He laid the ugly thing at the feet of Atalanta.
“This is thy spoil, not mine,” he said. “The wounding shaft was sped by thee. To thee belongs the praise.”
And Atalanta blushed rosily, and laughed low and gladly, not only because Diana had heard her prayer and helped her slay the beast, but for happiness that Meleager was so noble in his giving.
At that the brows of the heroes grew dark, and angrily one cried:
Shall not the Arcadian shoot out lips at us,
Saying all we were despoiled by this one girl.”
Like a spark that kindles the dry grass, their kindling anger spread, and they rushed against Atalanta, seized the trophy she had been given, and smote her as though she were but a shameless wanton and not the noble daughter of a king.
And because the heart of Meleager was given very wholly to the fair huntress, and because those whom he deemed his friends had not only dishonoured her, but had done him a very grievous wrong, a great rage seized him. Right and left he smote, and they who had been most bitter in their jealousy of Atalanta, the two brothers of his own mother, were laid low in death.
Tidings of the slaying of the boar had been brought to Althæa by swift messengers, and she was on her way to the temples bearing gifts to the gods for the victory of her son, when she beheld the slow-footed procession of those who bore the bodies of the dead. And when she saw the still faces of her two dear brothers, quickly was her joy turned into mourning. Terrible was her grief and anger when she learned by whose hand they were slain, and her mother’s love and pride dried up in her heart like the clear water of a fountain before the scorching of a devouring fire. No sacrifices to the gods would she offer, but her dead brothers should have the greatest sacrifice that mother could make to atone for the guilt of her son. Back to the palace she went, and from its safe hiding-place drew out the brand that she had rescued from the flames when Meleager the hero was but a babe that made his mother’s heart sing for joy. She commanded a fire to be prepared, and four times, as its flames blazed aloft, she tried to lay the brand upon the pile. Yet four times she drew back, and then at last she threw into the reddest of the ashes the charred brand that for a little she held so close to her breast that it seemed as though she fondled her child.
A wreath of leaves as sign of victory was being placed on Atalanta’s beautiful head by the adoring hands of Meleager when his mother gave him his doom. Through his body there rushed a pang of mortal agony. His blood turned to fire, and the hand of Death that smote him was as a hand of molten lead. In torture his gallant spirit passed away, uncomplaining, loving through his pain the maid for whose dear sake he had brought woe upon himself. As the last white ashes in the fire crumbled and fell away into nothingness, the soul of Meleager departed. Swiftly through the dark valley his mother’s shade followed him, for she fell upon a sword and so perished. And Diana, looking down on the grief-stricken sisters of Meleager and on the bitter sorrow of his father, had compassion on them and turned them into birds.
So ended the Calydonian Hunt, and Atalanta returned to Arcadia, heavy at heart for the evil she had wrought unwittingly. And still the Three Fates span on, and the winds caught up the cold wood ashes and blew them across the ravaged land that Meleager had saved and that quickly grew fertile again.