Let’s Talk About Mythology #6: Atalanta Beats the Men (And Suffers For It!)

Hello, everyone! I’ve returned from my month-long posting hiatus to add another entry into my favorite series Let’s Talk About Mythology. Recently in one of my classes we were reading W.E.B DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk and we analyzed the chapter where he likens the South’s obsession with capitalism to Atalanta and her greed for the golden apples. Reading the story again made me eager to dissect it in all of its bizarre glory. So here we go again, readers. Let’s dive into the dystopian world of Greek Mythology where happiness is fleeting and eternal judgment reigns supreme!

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Atalanta, like Artemis, loved no men, though many men fell in love with her because she was so graceful when she ran.

If I die with this line emblazoned on my gravestone, I shall be a happy corpse. I kid, I kid, I do love men, but damn if I don’t admire Atalanta’s attitude. Forget Friedan and de Beauvoir, Atalanta was the first feminist.

Of course, such a brazen worldview could only derive from a miserable childhood. We learn that her father abandoned her because she wasn’t a son and that she was found by a “she-bear” who raised her with her cubs.

Honestly, compared to the traditional life of a Greek woman where all that awaited them was 35 years of childbirth and housework, being raised by a she-bear sounds amazing. She probably grew up without gender roles and stereotypes and became bilingual in Greek and bearenese. Plus, if we’ve learned anything from Greek mythology it’s that all parents are cruel and evil and might even kill you to feed to the gods, so it’s clear that Atalanta got the right end of the stick in this scenario.

Years later, an astonished hunstman saw a girl racing with wild beasts through the woods. He caught her in a snare and brought her home. Soon she learned to talk and act like a human and her foster father was very proud of her fleetness of foot.

First of all, you don’t catch people in snares! She’s a human woman, not a rabbit! Second, what right did this so-called foster father have to trap poor Atalanta and raise her against her will? Somewhere in the vast forests of Greece, there is a she-bear weeping with misery for her stolen child. I’m sure Atalanta didn’t want to be re-introduced into misogynistic Greek society. Sure, she’s fleet of foot, but now she’s chattel and she can’t run away from the restrictions of society because someone will just trap her in another snare. Thanks, foster father!

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After kidnapping her (don’t Greek men just love to kidnap though), her foster father trots her out to races like a trained horse where she quickly gains fame for her speed. Her fame spreads all over Greece, where her real father, who’s actually a king, decides she’s good enough for him to reclaim and makes her his chattel. Isn’t that nice? From abandoned baby princess to free-spirited wildling to kidnapped show horse to subservient princess once again. A true fairy tale.

Her snobby father soon decides that his daughter must be married! It’s tragic how quickly Atalanta transforms from a free woman to a piece of hot marriageable property. However, Atalanta’s terrible experience with men has robbed her of  her wish to marry, so she stipulates that any man who wants her hand in marriage must race her and forfeit his life if he loses. It’s like the marriage version of the Hunger Games! C’mon NBC, make that your next big hit!

Now Atalanta isn’t some misandrist looking to decorate her room with men’s heads. She thinks that the men who want to marry her would be smart enough to realize that they have no chance against her preternatural talent and that risking their lives is ill-advised at best. Unfortunately, the men of Greek lore are known for their brawn, not their brains, and many poor souls lose their lives attempting to beat Atalanta at the one thing she’s good at.

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A quote by Atalanta, probably

Alas, there was one smart man in all of Greece. His name was Melanion (not related to Melania, so he’s got one thing going for him), and he knew that the fastest way to accomplish anything in Greece was to flatter the astronomical egos of the gods.

He sacrificed to Aphrodite and prayed for help. The goddess of love, who wanted to see all pretty girls married, gave Melanion 3 golden apples and told him what to do.

Um, bitch, why don’t you want to respect the desires of all pretty girls who don’t want to be married? She’s like that overbearing aunt who keeps asking “so are you seeing anyone?” every 3 weeks. No, Atalanta’s single and she’s happy and she just wants to run and live like a bear! Let her be freeeeeeee!

Anyways, Melanion challenges Atalanta to a race. Certain that she’ll win, Atalanta gives Melanion a head start, but soon catches up to him. How long is this race, by the way? Like is it a 100 meter dash? A 5k? A marathon? I would like to be able to visualize Melanion gasping for breath while Atalanta whisks by him like a gazelle. Alas, the book does not find this information as relevant as I do.

The minute that Atalanta approaches him, Melanion takes one of his golden apples and throws it off the track. The book keeps praising him as “clever” for devising this plan, but he didn’t devise anything! All he did was sacrifice a lamb to Aphrodite and she gave him the apples and told him the plan. Once again a mediocre man taking credit for a brilliant woman’s work. Poor Atalanta, who we can’t forget was raised by bears and probably has a stunted, child-like appreciation for glittery things, rushes after the apple. But she’s so swift that she catches up to Melanion, who dispatches his second apple, and then his third, until at the third apple he beats Atalanta across the finish line.

Melanion is like one of those Nice Guys™ who says ” I love smart women” then sulks when a smart woman out debates him. He’s not clever, he’s a cheater in all senses of the word. Instead of beating Atalanta fairly under her own conditions, he circumvents them, gets help from a divine source and takes the win through deception. Seems like their marriage will be full of bitterness and resentment, yet we get this cheery description from the book:

So, he had won her and they were married and Atalanta treasured her golden apples and loved her clever husband dearly.

Once again I repeat Melanion’s not clever, he’s a cheater. He’s like Randal in Monster’s Inc. I do like that fact though that Atalanta treasuring her golden apples is listed before loving her husband. It shows us her priorities: apples first, then husband. I second that.

So there, dear reader, is the happy end.

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Just kidding. You didn’t believe me, did you? This is a Greek myth! There is no happiness, only suffering! Do you think the Greeks became the ancient world’s premier naval empire by being happy?

When we left our lovers, they were content and lived for many happy years. Their happiness was not to last.

They never forgot to honor Aphrodite, who had brought them together. But they did not show proper respect to Zeus and he changed them into a pair of lions for punishment. For the rest of their lives they ran as lions hunting side by side through the woods.

Now that’s the ending we’ve been waiting for! Punishment and transformation. I do think this is one of the more positive endings to a story though, because at least Atalanta gets once again to be free and run as fast as she likes. If Melanion annoys her, she can just claw him and leave him to starve. So even though Atalanta had to suffer under the tyranny of idiotic men and marry that cheating fool Melanion, at least she gets to spend the rest of her life as she chooses. All’s well that ends well, at least in this tale.

The dubious moral: Don’t trust a man, especially one with apples. Run the fuck away, girl!

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