Atalanta’s Foot Race

Atalanta runs and the boys chase her, knowing that if they can catch her, she will marry them. Knowing that if they can’t, they will be put to death. All who try, fail. Why? Because Atalanta was born to run. It came about that one daring man, Hippomenes, prayed to Aphrodite (the Goddess of love) to help beat Atalanta and win her hand. Now love is a tricky thing, and Aphrodite is even trickier, so she granted him his wish: she gave him three perfect apples. So, Atalanta runs, and Hippomenes runs behind her. Every time Atalanta pulls clearly in the lead, he tosses an apple. Once, twice, thrice he throws an apple ahead of her. Once, twice, thrice she stops to eat the apple. Each time she does, Hippomenes bolts ahead until finally he is deemed victorious….

That is the story of the footrace of Atalanta, a woman determined to remain a virgin huntress, doubly so once the oracle forewarned her that any marriage would result in disaster. So Atalanta told her father that she would only marry one who could out-run her, knowing this to be an impossible task, and insisting that all failing suitors would be immediately put to death. Her father persisted though, holding race after race in the hopes to find the one that could best her, but Atalanta’s athletic prowess always prevailed. Hippomenes, one of the disciples of Chiron (a wise Centaur whose other students included the likes of Achilles, Perseus and Aeneas), thrived on impossible challenges. When he heard about Atalanta, he couldn’t help himself, and entered into the race despite the deadly punishment that awaited those who failed. With the help of Aphrodite and her golden apples, Hippomenes distracted Atalanta long enough to take the lead and win her hand.

Despite her initial reluctance to give up her virginity, Atalanta couldn’t wait to make up for lost time once she was defeated, and this is where the story takes a tragic turn. On their way back to Hippomenes’ home they stopped at a temple of the Goddess Cybele and were overcome with lust. Sating themselves in a recess beside the altar, Atalanta and Hippomenes mortally offended the goddess who in an act of revenge transformed them into lions and yoked them to her chariot. Now, as we’ve mentioned before, the Ancient Greeks could be inventive in their punishments, and managed to craft some very personalized vengeance, and Atalanta and Hippomenes were no exception to this. While being turned into lions may not seem so bad on face value, there is a deeper sadistic bent to this penalty. Firstly, at the time lions were not believed to be able to mate together, and the assumption would be that Atalanta and Hippomenes would never be able to be together. The second level of punishment cut just as deep: Atalanta was bridled alongside her husband, an act that meant that although they would be running together through the skies, he would always keep pace with her, Atalanta would never again be able to run like the wind, and the husband she could never have would be forever holding her back.

[Image: The Race between Hippomenes and Atalanta by Noël Hallé (1762-1765) at Louvre Museum, Paris]

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