This painting, by F. F. Sedmigradsky (c. 1783- 1855), was said to have been inspired by an earlier artwork on the same topic by Jonas Åkerström (c. 1759-1795). Both artists, in painting this scene, drew upon the ancient Greek mythological tales of Meleager, son of King Oeneus and Queen Althaea of Calydon. As the ancient tales go, Meleager was an ill-fated child who, when he was only seven days old, was doomed by the Fates to die once a nearby burning log in his home’s hearth crumbled to ash. Meleager’s mother, Althaea, outwitted the Fates, however, by snatching the log out of the fire, extinguishing any embers on it, and safely locking away the fateful piece of wood in a secure chest. Safe for the time being, Meleager grew up to be a stereotypical strong and brave hero of ancient Greek myth.
Calydon was blessed to have Meleager’s talents and heroics many years later, when King Oeneus angered the goddess, Artemis, resulting in the wrathful deity sending the monstrous Calydonian Boar to ravage the kingdom. Meleager and a colorful band including some of the greatest hunters in Greece set out to hunt the boar and save the realm. In the epic battle that ensued, the hunters succeeded in defeating and killing the boar. Yet, at this point, the ancient storytellers and their versions of Meleager’s story began to differ in their accounts of what happened next. In all accounts of the story, the hunters began to quarrel over who should take credit for killing the beast, and, more importantly, they argued over who would take possession of the giant animal’s carcass. In some versions of the story, a small-scale (but deadly) brawl erupted between the hunters who had undertaken the mission. Yet, another tradition of the story told that the hunting trophy dispute catastrophically spiraled into a full-scale war between the different peoples and cities that had sent hunters to kill the Calydonian Boar. It is this second variant of the tale that is depicted in F. F. Sedmigradsky’s painting.
In all accounts of the myth, the relationship between Meleager and his mother, Althaea, eventually broke down after the hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This rift was caused when Meleager reportedly killed one or more of Althaea’s kinsmen during the brawl or war that erupted after the hunt’s conclusion. Althaea did not forgive her son; quite the opposite, she started to curse him publicly and began to plot his death. In the variation of the story that was preserved by the famous poet, Homer (c. 8th century BCE), Meleager reacted to his mother’s hostility by withdrawing completely from Calydon’s war efforts, and he did so just as an army of armed foes—the Curetes—were posing a serious threat to the kingdom. Homer described the scene:
“Meleager took to bed with [his wife] Cleopatra and nursed his heart-rending anger. This anger had been caused by his mother Althaea’s curses…Again and again the old charioteer Oeneus prayed to Meleager. He stood on the threshold of his lofty bedroom and shook the solid wooden doors, imploring his son. Again and again his sisters and his lady mother supplicated him too, though they only made him more obstinate. Again and again his comrades-in-arms tried, the dearest and most cherished friends he had. Even so they could not win him over. But then Curetes began scaling the walls and setting fire to the great town, and the missiles started hailing down on the bedroom itself. At that point, Meleager’s well-girdled wife Cleopatra supplicated him in tears. She pictured all the miseries people suffer when their town is captured…Her recital of these disasters touched his heart, and he came out and put on his gleaming armor. In this way, by yielding to his personal feelings, he saved the Aetolians from disaster” (Homer, The Iliad, book 9, between lines 565-600).
It is this scene, of Meleager’s family and friends pleading for the hero to rejoin the war, that F. F. Sedmigradsky re-creates in his painting. Unfortunately, Meleager’s last-minute rescue of the city would not win him much public applause, and it did nothing to improve his relationship with the deadly woman whose approval he needed most—his mother. In the stories of Meleager’s demise, his own mother, Althaea, usually played a key role, with her either unleashing deadly magic against him, or ending his life by destroying the aforementioned log that was tied to his lifespan.
Written by C. Keith Hansely
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.