MELEAGER AND ATALANTA

BY H. P. MASKELL

When Meleager, son of Œneus, King of Calydon, was born, his mother AlthŠa dreamed that she had brought forth a burning brand. The three Fates were present at the moment of his birth, and foretold his future greatness. Clotho promised that he should have bravery and courage, Lachesis uncommon strength, and Atropos that he should live as long as the fire-brand on the hearth remained whole and unburnt. AlthŠa no sooner heard this than she snatched the brand from the fire and quenched it with water. Ever after she kept the brand in a safe place with jealous care, knowing that on this depended the life of her dear son.

Grown to manhood, Meleager soon became famous for his knightly prowess. He sailed with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece, and when rebellious tribes made war against his father, he fought against their army and scattered it.

A year came, long after famous as the harvest year. Never within the memory of man had there been such plenteous crops in the land of Calydon, and Œneus the king made grateful offerings of first-fruits to the gods: corn to Ceres, wine to Bacchus, and olive oil to Minerva. All the gods received their tribute except Diana. Diana was forgotten, and the goddess was filled with jealousy. She resented the insult to her altars, and in revenge for the neglect sent a wild boar to ravage the kingdom. This boar was huge as a full-grown ox, his eyes were flaming and bloodshot, and the bristles stood up on his neck and flanks like long spikes. It was terrible to see his foaming jaws and large tusks—like an elephant's; when he roared his breath seemed to burn up the very herbage. Wherever he went he destroyed the farmer's hopes, trampling down the young shoots, devouring the corn in the ear, breaking the vines, and stripping the olive trees. Neither dogs nor shepherds could protect the sheep from being gored by his cruel tusks. The country folk had to fly for their lives into the walled cities.

So Meleager invited a choice band of heroes to join him and help to destroy the monster. Nearly all those who had joined in the quest for the Golden Fleece came and brought others with them. But the foremost in Meleager's eyes was the fair huntress Atalanta, daughter of Iasius. Her robe flowed loose to the knee, held up over her left shoulder by one golden brooch, and her hair was gathered into a single knot. At her side hung an ivory quiver. It had been hard to tell whether she were youth or maid, so strong and stalwart were her limbs and so smooth her face. Meleager saw her, and loved her at first sight. "Here," he cried, "is the one maid for me!" But this was no time or place for love-making. The mighty hunt was about to begin.

The monster had been tracked to a dense jungle, and the heroes got ready their nets and slipped the dogs. At length the pack gave tongue, and the hunters raised a shout as the boar came crashing through the wood, scattering the dogs right and left, some barking, some bleeding from ugly wounds. Echion's spear only grazed a maple tree. Jason was next to throw his swift lance, but it overshot the mark. The aim of Alastus was more true, but the iron head snapped off as it hit one of the mighty tusks, and the shaft failed to wound the brute.

Like a stone from a catapult the furious boar rushed madly on among the youths; lightnings flashed from his eyes, and his breath was like a furnace; two of the huntsmen were laid low, and a third received a deadly wound; Nestor saved his life by catching in the nick of time the branch of an oak tree. Having whetted his tusks on the trunk the monster advanced once more, and gored another hero in the thigh. Castor and Pollux, on their white horses, rushed with lances poised to despatch him; they were too late, for the boar had found safe cover in the jungle, where neither horse nor weapon could reach him.

Telamon, in his hot pursuit, was tripped up by a root. While Pelus was helping him to rise, Atalanta fitted an arrow to her bow and let fly. Diana, who loved the maiden, guided her aim. The shaft grazed the ear of the beast, leaving the bristles streaked with red; and Meleager was just as pleased as she herself at her success in drawing the first blood. Pointing it out to his companions, he exclaimed, "The maid is peerless in archery as in beauty! She puts us men to shame!"

Stung to action by the taunt the heroes bestirred themselves, and shouted to encourage each other, but their very number confused their aim. AncŠus, swinging his battle-ax, rushed madly to his fate, crying, "Make way for me, and I will show you how much better a man's weapon is than a girl's arrow. Though he bear a charmed life, my right hand shall finish the brute!" As he stood boasting the boar seized him and gored him through and through and through, so that the earth around was soaked with his red life-blood. Theseus stayed his dear friend, PirithoŘs, son of Ixion, who was making straight for the enemy just as rashly. Warning him that it was better to be valiant at a distance, he hurled his heavy lance of cornel-wood pointed with brass. It was well poised, but caught in a beech tree. Jason, too, hurled his javelin again, but by an ill-chance struck an innocent hound and pinned him to the earth.

Meleager's turn had now come, and he used his opportunity to good effect. Of two spears the first only grazed the boar's flank, the second transfixed the beast in the middle of the back. While it was writhing in agony, twisting about, covered with foam and blood, the conqueror lost no time. In a trice he had buried his gleaming blade behind the shoulder. His comrades crowded around him with shouts of joy. They marveled at the huge size of the boar as the carcass lay at full length, scarcely believing it safe even yet to touch, but each dipped his weapon in the blood. Meleager himself, placing his foot on the monster's head, exclaimed, "Receive, Arcadian nymph, the spoil that is thy right, for thou didst draw first blood! Only let me share thy glory!" So saying, he laid at her feet the skin, thick with stiffened bristles, and the head and monstrous tusks. The maiden was graciously pleased to accept the offering, and the smile that she bestowed on the giver more than repaid him for all his pains and perils.

But his comrades were jealous of the favor bestowed on the young hunter. They murmured amongst themselves, and said, "Who is this upstart youth who, without asking our leave, bestows on his lady-love the spoils that belong to us all?" And they snatched away the trophy.

This was more than the warlike prince could bear. Mad with anger and indignation, he plunged his sword into the breast of his uncle Plexippus (who had been the moving spirit in the protest), crying, "This will teach thee not to snatch away another's honors." And before long his blade was reeking with the blood of Toxeus, who seemed half disposed to avenge his brother's death.

Meanwhile, Queen AlthŠa had heard of her son's victory over the monster, and was on her way to the temples of the gods with thankofferings, when she beheld the dead bodies of her brothers being borne from the field. All her joy was turned to sorrow; with a shriek of horror she hastened back home to put on mourning. But when she learnt who was the author of their death, grief vanished and gave place to a thirst for vengeance.

She bethought herself of the brand which the Fates had given her, and which she had kept so carefully, knowing that her son's life depended on it. Now this fatal wood was to be the means of punishing the son for the murder of her brothers.

At her bidding a fire was kindled. Holding the fatal billet in her ruthless hand, she moaned, "Ye Fates, I both avenge and commit a crime. With death must death be repaid. He deserves to die, and yet the thought of his death appalls me. Oh, that thou hadst been burnt, unnatural son, when an infant, in that first fire!" So saying, with trembling hands, she threw the fatal brand into the midst of the fire. And the brand, as it was caught by the flames, seemed to utter a dying groan.

Meleager, far away, was seized with sudden pains. He felt his entrails scorched by secret fires; bravely he bore the torture. His one regret was that he was doomed to die an inglorious death, and he envied the fate of AncŠus. With his last breath he invoked a blessing on his aged father, his brother, and dear sisters—aye, and on his cruel mother. As the blaze kindled by AlthŠa rose and fell, so his torments waxed and waned. Both lives flickered out, and his spirit vanished into the light air.

In Calydon, young and old, noble and serf, were all lamenting. The matrons tore their hair as they bewailed the untimely end of their brave young prince. Aged Œneus abased himself on the ground, with dust on his white locks and wrinkled brow, bemoaning that he had lived to see that day. To the anguished mother, too, came tardy repentance. Natural affection had now gained the mastery over anger and revenge. "Wretch that I am!" she cried. "To the loss of my dear brothers, by my own ruthless deed I have added the loss of my dearer son." Horrified at her act, she could no longer bear to see the sun, and with a sword put an end to her misery and shame.