Atalanta's Golden Apples: The Love Triangle of Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes

by DerdriuMarriner

Atalanta, who loves apples and has a passion for running, learns that sometimes love entails choices.

The tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes can be considered among the world's most beloved stories about apples, love, and sports.

Racing enthusiast Atalanta learns that there is a time and a place for indulging in her love of apples.

The story is summarized in an original, creative episode.

It then is told within the context of the known details of Atalanta's life.

Atalanta's billowing scarf conveys sleek swiftness and suggests her ensnarement by Hippomenes:

1921 bronze figure by American sculptor Paul Manship (December 24, 1885 - January 28, 1966)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Cast and the Setting

 

Cast of Characters:

  • Atalanta, an athletic, confident young lady
  • Hippomenes, an athletic confident young man, in love with Atalanta

 

Spatial setting:

In an apple orchard, Atalanta is dancing, humming, and singing gracefully in circles around the apple trees.

Unbeknownst to her, Hippomenes is napping in the crotch of an old apple tree on the perimeter.

But Hippomenes wakes up to Atalanta’s singing.

 

Temporal setting:

  • Ancient, pre-historical times.
  • Early thirteenth century B.C. (ca. 1254, 1284, 1314 B.C.), three generations or 60 to 90 or 120 years before the Trojan War of 1194 B.C. to 1184 B.C.

 

"Portrait of a Young Girl in the Guise of Atalanta": "Portrait of a Young Girl in the Guise of Atalanta": 1899 oil on canvas by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (April 16,1755 – March 30, 1842)

Model is said to be Élisabeth's daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise Le Brun Nigris (Feb 12, 1780-Dec 8, 1819)
"Julie Le Brun as Atalanta"
"Julie Le Brun as Atalanta"

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Action

 

Atalanta:

Apple trees, I dreamed of swinging through your bower last night. I was singing a song as I was swinging; the words were a poem to express my admiration for your beauty. I’m dancing to those words, and I’m singing to those words. Here, I shall share them with you:

 

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees:

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees.

 

Apple trees, your beauty is enchanting;

Apple trees, your apples are delicious.

Apple trees, you captivate me all day.

Apple trees, you invade my dreams at night.

 

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees:

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees.

 

Apple trees, with fruit golden as the sun;

Apple trees, with fruit red as rich rubies;

Apple trees, your fruit is so enticing;

Apple trees, your fruit is so alluring.

 

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees:

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees.

 

Golden apples, how I love to eat you!

Golden apples, how I do admire you!

Ruby apples, how I love to eat you!

Ruby apples, how I do admire you!

 

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees:

Beautiful, most beautiful, apple trees.

 

Hippomenes:

If only Atalanta would love me as much as she loves her golden and ruby apples!

 

Atalanta is beguiled by an apple.

1921 illustration by William Andrew ("Willy") Pogány (August 1882 – July 30, 1955)
"Atalanta turned off the course, stooped and picked up the apple."
"Atalanta turned off the course, stooped and picked up the apple."

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Story of an Unhappy Birth and a Happy Childhood

 

Greek King Iasus (Ιησους) of Arcadia desired a male heir. He and his wife, Queen Clymene (Κλυμένη: "famous woman"), instead had a daughter. The crown and throne needed to pass on to a son. Iasus was so disappointed that he did not enjoy having the new-born girl in his presence.

The ancient Greeks did not sanction the murder of a royal family member … unless the child was female (or a male with a curse, such as the infant Oedipus). They let royals indirectly kill by abandoning the newborn on a mountain slope. The child would die from foraging wildlife or ravaging weather.

It was agreed to abandon the newborn girl. The infant was given the name Atalanta (Ἀταλάντη: "balanced, equal, unswaying"). She then was left on Mount Cyllene (Κυλλήνη).

A servant placed Atalanta on the mountain’s highest slope. This was done to prevent Atalanta's life being saved by a chance human passerby. The king and his wife hopefully would have another child: an infant male to keep and thereby retain the rule over Arcadia within the immediate family.

But wildlife did not avoid the higher slopes of Mount Cyllene. They indeed found the high ground an area where they could engage in the predator-prey interactions of the food chain without human intervention or threats. Such was the rationale behind a mother bear that went out foraging in the area where Atalanta was abandoned.

Atalanta’s life therefore ended up being saved by a bear. The mother bear was hungry, but not so hungry that she would take an infant’s life. So Atalanta was transported from the dangerous mountain slopes to the comfortable, sheltered environment of the mother bear’s cave den.

Not too long afterwards, a hunter chanced upon the cave den of the mother bear. He spared the lives of the bear family. The price was Atalanta as his adopted/foster daughter.

Atalanta became friends with wildlife. She learned how to play wildlife games and to survive in nature. Her favorite subjects in the wildlife school of life were sciences such as botany and sports such as running.

As a teenager, Atalanta distinguished herself as an athlete and huntress. As the purported daughter of a hunter, she moved in ever-widening circles of those who:

  • Chased after game for a living;
  • Hired hunters;
  • Respected hunters and hunting skills.

According to some sources, Atalanta became noticed because of her running abilities. The Olympic competition honored achievement in broad jumping, discus-throwing, and wrestling … to men. Everyone nevertheless realized that the hunter's daughter was capable of outdistancing all male foot-racers. The footrace of the time was the equivalent of a 1,500-meter run.

 

Hippomenes seeking to distract Atalanta by throwing another apple:

marble sculpture by Guillaume Coustou the Elder (November 29, 1677 - February 22, 1746)
Louvre Museum
Louvre Museum

Atalanta, easily distracted by apples:

ca. 1703-1705 marble sculpture by Pierre Lepautre (March 4, 1659 – January 22, 1744)
Louvre Museum
Louvre Museum

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Story of a Teen-aged Precursor to Olympic Runners

 

But Atalanta instead may have been involved in precursors to the Olympics. Ancient equivalents of the modern Olympics may have started as early as the eighth century B.C. This would have been about five centuries subsequent to Atalanta’s lifetime.

Specifically, Atalanta became the mother of Parthenopaeus (Παρθενοπαίος: "son of a pierced virgin"). Her son participated in the attempt of Theban Prince Polynices (Πολυνείκης: "manifold strife") --- one of twin sons of disgraced King Oedipus (Οἰδίπους: "swollen foot") and Queen Jocasta (Ἰοκάστη) of Thebes --- to assert his nevertheless legitimate royal claim to Thebes against his brother, King Eteocles (Ἐτεοκλῆς: "truly glorious"). Parthenopaeus most likely was killed by Periclymenus (Περικλύμενο). The preceding events subsequently were memorialized and recorded in 467 B.C. in the play "Seven Against Thebes" (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας, Hepta epi Thēbas) by Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525/524 B.C.-456/455 B.C.).

 

scene from Seven Against Thebes --- Capaneus scales city walls as King Creon watches from battlements:

c. 340 BC storage jar, attributed to Caivano Painter, anonymous vase painter, Capua, south Italy
Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, southern California
Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, southern California

 

As in the case of Polynices, Parthenopaeus left behind an infant son. Like Thersander (Θέρσανδρος), Promachus (Πρόμαχος: "who leads in battle") managed to avenge his father’s death. But unlike Thersander, Promachus was killed by a supporter of King Laodamas (Λαόδαμας: "tamer of the people").

Laodamas’ overthrow occurred before the Trojan War of 1194 B.C. to 1184 B.C. The events subsequently were memorialized and recorded in the lost epic Epigoni (Ἐπίγονοι: "Offspring") and in the lost play of the same name by Greek dramatist Sophocles (ca. 497/496 B.C. - 406/405 B.C.). They also were referenced in the Iliad (Ιλιάδα) by Greek epic poet Homer (flourished 8th century B.C.).

A 20 to 40-year span per generation therefore places Atalanta in the thirteenth century B.C.

 

Atalanta with Prince Meleager, preparing to hunt the Calydonian boar:

detail late medieval (c. 1475) Flemish or Netherlandish wool tapestry, "Meleager and Atalanta Setting Out to Hunt the Calydonian Boar"
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Story of the Happy Teen-Aged Victor against the Calydonian Boar

 

According to other sources, Atalanta chose the same career path as her adopted/foster father. She discharged her job as hunter very well. She ultimately distinguished herself in tracking the Calydonian boar (Καλυδώνιος Κάπρος) that devoured crops and frustrated all attempts to apprehend and subdue it. The valiant archer Atalanta finally wounded the boar and thereby received its hide as trophy.

The achievement brought Atalanta acclaim throughout ancient Greece. Her path therefore crossed with that of her widowed father. Father and daughter forgave and forgot.

Atalanta's biological father nevertheless continued to express concern over the royal succession. In contrast, Atalanta did not feel any pressure to resolve the upcoming crisis. Specifically, she felt bound to honor a youthful promise --- to the goddess of the hunt, Artemis (Ἄρτεμις: "[relating to the] bear [cult]") -- that she would remain unmarried.

Atalanta nevertheless buckled under the combined pressure of:

  • Her father;
  • His royal advisors;
  • The people of Arcadia.

No one favored going outside the currently reigning sovereign's bloodline. All relished having Atalanta as consort Queen of Arcadia.

Atalanta finally accepted the inevitability of marriage, with certain conditions. She agreed to marry whomsoever could beat her in a race. That race most likely was the equivalent of today's 200-meter sprint.

Whomsoever Atalanta defeated in the race faced ignominy and pain. The loser experienced the humiliation of bidding for a princess’ hand and having his application rejected. He also faced the humiliation of entering and failing in a race in which men traditionally excelled. Additionally, he faced the ultimate pain of losing his life.

The above-mentioned constraints nevertheless did not discourage suitors ... even as the casualty list became ever more extensive. They instead inspired ever greater numbers. Each applicant thought that he would be different. But applicants were all the same in defeat: dead.

But then along came Hippomenes (Ἰππομένης). Unlike the others, Hippomenes followed proper procedure in love. He sought the advice of Aphrodite (Ἀφροδίτη), the goddess of love.

 

"Atalanta and Hippomenes": 1680 oil on canvas by Nicolas Colombel (1644 – May 27, 1717)

Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, northeastern Austria
Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, northeastern Austria

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Story of two Teenagers in a Potentially Fatal Footrace

 

The love goddess indeed gave Hippomenes the edge which he needed to win. Specifically, Aphrodite harbored hurt feelings and ill will towards Atalanta. She recalled Atalanta’s participation in hunt-related offerings and presence in beautiful Artemis’ temples. She likewise remembered Atalanta’s absence from love temples and non-participation in love rituals. Aphrodite was so angry that she advised Hippomenes on how to win and gave him the means by which to do so.

On the day of the competition, Hippomenes showed up with three beautifully fragrant, luscious, shining golden apples.

“What was he doing with them?” the crowd pondered. “Would they be his last meal as Atalanta flew past him to the finish line?”

 

Atalanta, one apple safely in hand, a second about to be clasped, and only one more between her and the finish line:

detail of "Atalanta and Hippomenes," 1622-1625 oil on canvas by Guido Reni (November 4, 1575 – August 18, 1642)
Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli, southwest Italy
Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli, southwest Italy

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: the Story of Happily Married Teen-aged Footracing Parents

 

Each apple which Hippomenes rolled into her path distracted Atalanta. Atalanta twice regained the lead. But the third apple slowed Atalanta enough that Hippomenes won.

The twosome chased each other after marriage and family. They let Iasus raise his grandson as Arcadia’s king. But they neglected to thank Aphrodite.

 

Cybele in chariot pulled by Atalanta and Hippomenes, punitively transformed into lions:

Cybele sculpted by Francisco Gutiérrez Arribas (1727-1782), lions by Roberto Michel (1720 - January 31, 1786)
Fuente de la Cibeles, Madrid, central Spain
Fuente de la Cibeles, Madrid, central Spain

Atalanta, Golden Apples, and Hippomenes: Where the Story Comes From

 

There are two main ancient Greek sources regarding Atalanta and Hippomenes:

  • The ancient Greek poet Hesiod (8th to 7th centuries B.C.);
  • The "Bibliotheca" (Βιβλιοθήκη, Bibliothēkē: "library"), which also may be referred to as "Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus)" and "The Library and Epitome." The mention of Pseudo-Apollodorus reflects the traditionally mistaken identification of Apollodorus of Athens (born ca. 180 B.C.) as the compiler of the ancient Greek legends and myths found within the trilogy. The identity of the author and the time of the trilogy's writing in fact remain unknown.

 

"Atalanta": 1908 oil on canvas by John William Godward (August 9, 1861 - December 13, 1922)

private collection
private collection

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

"Atalanta and Melanion":

1922 fresco by John Dickson Batten (October 8, 1860- August 5, 1932)
Victoria and Albert Museum, Brompton District, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, central London
Victoria and Albert Museum, Brompton District, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, central London

Sources Consulted

 

Climo, Shirley. Atalanta's race, a Greek myth. Illustrated by Alexander Koshkin. New York: Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

Colum, Padraic. The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles. Illustrations by Willy Pogany. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/goldenfleeceandh00colurich

Gods and heroes of the Greeks: The library of Apollodorus. Translated with introduction and notes by Michael Simpson. Drawings by Leonard Baskin. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

Hesiod. Theogony; and, Works and days. Translated with an introduction and notes by M.L. West. Oxford, England & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lang, Jean (Mrs. John Lang). A Book of Myths. With Twenty Original Drawings in Colour by Helen Stratton. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons; London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1915.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: http://archive.org/details/bookofmyths00lang

Lutz, Frank E. Field Book of Insects. With Special Reference to Those of Northeastern United States, Aiming to Answer Common Questions. With 800 Illustrations, Many in Color. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons-The Knickerbocker Press, 1918.

  • Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library at: http://biodiversitylibrary.org/item/17499

Most, Glenn W. (Ed., Trans.). Hesiod. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated and with notes by Charles Martin. Introduction by Bernard Knox. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

Tyndale, Marcia. "Another Atalanta." Atalanta, Vol. I (October 1887 to September 1888). London and Bungay: Richard Clay and Sons, 1887.

 

"Atalanta stopped, and she picked up the irresistible treasure":

1915 illustration by Helen Stratton (1867 - June 4, 1961)
Jean Lang, Book of Myths (1915), opposite p. 80
Jean Lang, Book of Myths (1915), opposite p. 80
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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Atalanta and Hippomenes, circa 1612

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Women Draped in Antique Holding an Apple (Atalanta?)

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/12/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 12/12/2013

AbbyFitz, Atalanta's adventures have interested her admirers for over 3 millennia!
Myths about her have been my favorites since childhood.
Being told stories from Greek myths is also a legacy from my father.

AbbyFitz on 12/11/2013

This was really interesting. My father used to tell me Greek stories when I was small, but I've never heard of Atalanta.

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