This artwork, by Jan Leyniers of Brussels (c. 1630-1686), depicts the moment that doomed the Greek mythological hero, Meleager. Chronologically, this scene is set just after Meleager and an all-star cast of ancient Greek hunters slew a monster known as the Calydonian Boar. As the story goes, the Boar had been sent by the goddess, Artemis, to punish the city of Calydon, where Meleager was a prince. Meleager’s father, King Oineus, summoned the hunters, and not all of the warriors who answered the call were men—a single woman, Atalanta (or Atalante), also was in the mix. Besides King Oineus’ gifts and favor, the hunters also were equally covetous of obtaining the glory and trophies that could be obtained from successfully hunting the Calydonian Boar. 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 Atalanta with the coveted hide and head of the Calydonian Boar 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 and therefore the handing over of the boar’s head was an act of courtship. Whatever the case, Meleager did indeed give away the prize of the hunt to Atalanta. Other hunters present, however, did not take kindly to Meleager handing over the prize, and it was Meleager’s own kinsmen who were the most vocal in their dissent. Meleager, in turn, became quite defensive when other hunters criticized his decision. 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 (who was incensed over her son’s kinslayings), 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.