This painting, by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577-1640), was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Meleager, Atalanta (or Atalante), and the Calydonian Boar hunt. For backstory, Meleager was the son of King Oineus (or Oeneus) of Calydon and Queen Althaia. Unfortunately, Meleager’s father, King Oineus, was lazy one year in overseeing the sacrificial offerings that he was meant to give to the gods and goddesses after a harvest. Due to the king’s negligence, an error occurred and no offering was given to the goddess, Artemis. Suffice it to say, she was outraged by the incident and she ultimately sent a monstrous boar—the Calydonian Boar—to prey upon the Kingdom of Calydon. King Oineus, to defend the realm, rallied together a band of excellent hunters and warriors who were tasked with taking down the beast. Among the ranks of the hunting party were many demigods and men with divine favor. Yet, not all of the hunters were men—a single woman, Atalanta, also was in the mix. Meleager, Atalanta and the rest of the posse all coveted the prestige that would be gained by being the person to slay the boar. As further incentive, the killer of the Calydonian Boar would be the one to keep the animal’s hide. An ancient scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) summarized the result of the hunt:
”When they had surrounded the boar, Hyleus and Ancaious were killed by the beast and, by accident, Peleus struck down Eurytion with his javelin. The first to hit the boar was Atalante, who shot it in the back with an arrow, and the second, Amphiaraos, who shot it in the eye, but Meleager struck the death blow by stabbing it in the side. And when he received the skin, he gave it to Atalante” (Apollodorus, Library, 1.8.2).
Meleager’s rewarding of Atalante with the coveted hide was not just good sportsmanship because she had drawn first blood against the beast. His real reason, so the story goes, was that he had fallen deeply in love with the huntress during their expedition. Whatever the case, he did indeed give away the prize of the hunt to Atalanta, and he became quite defensive when other hunters (especially those from his own family) began to protest against the move. The argument, unfortunately, turned into a deadly physical altercation, and the result of the brawl was that Meleager became a kinslayer. It was the beginning of the end for Meleager. Accounts of his death differ, but in the stories of Meleager’s demise, his own mother, Althaia, usually plays a key role, either killing or cursing her son with magic.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.