This drawing, attributed to the English artists Henry Price Bone (1779-1855) or Charles Leslie (c. 1835-1863), drew inspiration from the vengeful myth of Althaea (or Althaia). According to the ancient Greek tales, Althaea was a daughter of King Thestius of Aetolia, and she later married King Oeneus of Calydon. Together, Althaea and Oeneus had many children, but the artwork above is connected to one child in particular—Meleager.
Meleager, unfortunately, was a lad who became tied to a dangerous prophecy during his infancy. His childhood myth was summarized by the scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), who wrote, “When he was seven days old, it was said that the Fates appeared and announced that Meleager would die when the log burning on the hearth was fully consumed. In response, Althaia snatched it from the fire and placed it in a chest” (Apollodorus, Library, 1.8.2). Due to Althaea’s quick thinking, Meleager grew to adulthood, becoming a stereotypical strong and brave hero of ancient Greek myth.
Regrettably, Meleager’s father was not as cunning and spiritually savvy as Althaia. Whereas the queen had been able to outwit the Fates and protect her son from an early death, King Oeneus—in contrast—was careless enough to forget to appease the goddess Artemis with adequate offerings and sacrifices. As punishment for King Oeneus’ religious negligence, Artemis unleashed a monstrous boar against Calydon. Faced with this existential threat, King Oeneus brought together the greatest hunters available in Greece and sent them on a quest to battle the so-called Calydonian Boar.
Unfortunately, the plot of what happened next begins to branch into different variations of the same myth. In all variants, the Calydonian Boar was killed, and the hunters that landed the significant blows were usually described as Meleager, Atalanta, Amphiaraos, and Iphiclos. The different versions also agree that the hunters quarreled over who would be credited with landing the killing blow, as well as who should receive the beast’s prized hide. Additionally, Meleager fell in love with the huntress, Atalanta, during the expedition, so he insisted that the glory and spoils should go to her. Other hunters did not agree, and therefore the debate erupted into bloodshed. The scale of the fight that ensued varied from version to version. In some iterations of the myth, Meleager had a deadly brawl with his naysayers. In other tellings of the tale, the conflict escalated into war. Whatever the case, either in a brawl or in a battle, Meleager was said to have killed several of his uncles who were competing with him in the Calydonian Boar hunt.
Tragically, the uncles that Meleager had killed were the brothers of his mother. Althaea, when she learned of the killings, became engulfed in a fit of rage. Pushed on by a drive to avenge her brothers, Althaea located the dusty old chest that contained the charred piece of firewood linked to Meleager’s lifespan. Casting her maternal instincts aside, Althaea emptied the magical contents of the box onto a fire and let it burn. As told by the aforementioned Apollodorus, “Althaia was so distressed by the loss of her brothers that she rekindled the log, bringing Meleager’s life to a sudden end” (Library, 1.8.3). It is this scene that the drawing re-creates. Althaea can be seen casting the log back into the fire, thereby relinquishing her son Meleager into the hands of the Fates that wished him dead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.