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Alternate Names


Appears In

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hyginus's Fabulae


Daughter of Iasius and Clymene

Character Overview

In Greek mythology , Atalanta (pronounced at-uh-LAN-tuh) was a skilled huntress and swift runner. As an infant, she was abandoned by her father, King Iasius of Arcadia, who was disappointed that she was not a boy. The goddess Artemis sent a female bear to nurse the child until some hunters took her in. A prophecy (or prediction learned from the gods) foretold that Atalanta would be unhappy if she married, so she decided to remain a virgin and dedicate herself to hunting. While still a girl, she used her bow and arrows to kill two centaurs (half-man, half-horse creatures) who tried to rape her.

Atalanta became famous in the Calydonian boar hunt. Meleager (pronounced mel-ee-EY-jer), the son of the king of Calydon (pronounced KAL-i-don), organized a great hunt to kill a huge boar. Atalanta joined the hunt, and Meleager fell in love with her. Atalanta was the first to wound the boar; Meleager was the one to kill it. Meleager gave Atalanta the beast's hide, the prize of the hunt, despite the protests of the other hunters who did not want it to be given to a woman.

Later Atalanta tried to join Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. Some sources say she sailed as one of the Argonauts , Jason's loyal band of heroes. Other sources state that Jason refused to accept her, fearing that a woman in the crew would create problems among the men.

When Atalanta's fame spread, her father invited her to return home. He wanted to see her properly married. She agreed to forfeit her life as a virgin and take a husband under one condition: the suitor would have to beat her in a foot race, or die if he lost. Many young men tried and died. Finally, a young man named Hippomenes (pronounced hi-POM-uh-neez) prayed to Aphrodite for help. The goddess gave him three golden apples and instructed him to throw them across Atalanta's path at different times during the race. The apples distracted her, so Hippomenes was able to pull ahead and win. He and Atalanta were married and had a son. They later angered Aphrodite, who responded by turning them into lions.

Atalanta in Context

In ancient Greece, women were generally not allowed to participate in hunting or warfare. Despite this, the goddesses Artemis and Athena are both often associated with hunts and battles. Other ancient cultures that existed near Greece, such as the Scythians (pronounced SI-thee-ehns), did allow women to participate in warfare and hunting. This suggests that the ancient Greeks could respect women's abilities, but they regarded female dominance or aggression as something outside their own social norms.

Aphrodite's transformation of Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions was significant to ancient Greeks. They believed that male and female lions could not mate with each other, but instead had to mate with leopards of the opposite sex. By turning Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions, Aphrodite ensured that the two would never be together again.

Key Themes and Symbols

Atalanta stands with Artemis and Athena as a symbol of the strength and skill a woman can achieve in male-dominated areas. This theme is even more compelling with Atalanta, who—unlike Artemis and Athena—is human. The Calydonian boar is a symbol of strength and masculinity, which Atalanta conquers. The golden apples used by Hippomenes represent temptation, and lure Atalanta away from the race, helping Hippomenes to win. As is the case in many ancient Greek myths and legends, trickery and cunning help the hero achieve his goals, even in the face of a superior opponent.

Atalanta in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

In art, Atalanta is usually shown running in her famous race against Hippomenes. The composer George Frideric Handel wrote the opera Atalanta in 1736 in her honor. In 1903, sociologist and civil rights pioneer W. E. B. DuBois put the legend of Atalanta to use in his essay “Of the Wings of Atalanta,” which was published in The Souls of Black Folks. He compared the black citizens of Atlanta, Georgia, to Atalanta and worried they would be tempted by material success into abandoning more important goals. In 1974, an animated television special (which has gone on to be a cult classic) titled Free to Be You and Me featured a retelling of the Atalanta legend in which Atalanta and Hippomenes finish their race side by side. In the animated television series Class of the Titans (2005), the character of Atlanta is a descendant of Atalanta. Atalanta was also a character on the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995), starring Kevin Sorbo as Hercules.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Atalanta and the Arcadian Beast by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris (2003) tells the tale of young Atalanta's search for the monster that killed the hunter who raised her. Quiver by Stephanie Spinner (2002) is a retelling of the story of Atalanta that covers her later years, including the famous race against Hippomenes.

SEE ALSO Argonauts; Artemis

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Atalanta (ätəlăn´tə), in Greek mythology, huntress famous for her speed and skill. She took part in the Calydonian hunt and was rewarded by Meleager with the pelt of the boar. Later, warned by an oracle not to marry, she demanded that each suitor run a race with her, on the condition that the winner would marry her and the losers would die. Hippomenes won the race by dropping three golden apples which Atalanta stopped to retrieve. Later, because Hippomenes and Atalanta made love in a temple sacred to Cybele, they were turned into lions and yoked to Cybele's chariot. Another version of the legend makes Milanion Atalanta's successful suitor.

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Atalanta in Greek mythology, a huntress who would marry only someone who could beat her in a foot race. She was beaten when a suitor threw down three golden apples which she stopped to pick up.