The Calydonian Hunt

Althaea, queen of Calydon, had borne a son to her husband, Oeneus, and amid scenes of great rejoicing the infant was named Meleager. Now on the seventh day as she lay in bed with her baby by her, Queen Althaea had a vision. It seemed to her that the wall of her chamber dissolved into a mist in which, far away, yet somehow near, she saw three old women spinning. They were incredibly yellow and ancient, yet their hands were quick and steady. One pulled fleecy wool from a distaff and twisted it into thread. Another drew out the end and began to wind it as it lengthened, while in the middle sat an old crone with a pair of open shears between which the thread passed as it was gathered in.

Althaea could see so clearly that she could even notice that the first who made the thread was quite unskillful. The thread ran thick here, and thin there almost to breaking, and between came knots and lumps such as would make it unfit for weaving. It seemed to her then that she had known all along that these were no ordinary women but the three Fates themselves, and that this was no weaving thread but the course of a man’s life that they spun. Even as she knew this, she saw the yellow, skeleton-like head of the winder turn to the crouching spinner, and an old voice said: “Spin out the life of Meleager, sister; spin it out even and strong.”

“How long?” said she with the shears, and the points quivered a little, “sisters, how long?”

“Not long,” said she who was winding. “Cut when the log which burns on the queen’s hearth is totally consumed to ash.” And the pale blue eyes of all three turned slowly to the fire as the white thread ran between their fingers. The queen’s eyes turned too. The great log on the hearth was burning merrily, already half consumed. Quick as a flash she looked back to the Fates, but the wall was solid again as though nothing had ever been there. Only an old voice seemed to say again, “Not long.”

The queen leaped from her bed and with her naked hands snatched the burning wood from the fire. She beat it against the hearth; she smothered it in her robe. When it was dead and black, she fetched a pitcher of water and poured it over. At last she stood, hands black, clothes scorched, feet in a puddle of water, and looked at the ugly thing. She dared not leave it where her servants might find it and finish what was begun, so after some thought she wrapped it in a piece of costly embroidery and put it in a chest where her chief treasures were and of which she alone had the key. Thereafter the boy grew up strong and handsome, for the thread of his life as the Fates had foretold was even and strong.

When Meleager had reached manhood and was already famous for bravery, his father, Oeneus, brought great trouble on the land, for he neglected the worship of the goddess, Artemis, and she in anger sent to the woods of Calydon a monstrous boar. None had ever seen such an animal before. His bristles stood up along his spine like spikes of wood. His skin was tough as the rhinoceros. His great tusks were so enormous that only the elephant’s could surpass them. The animal was as savage as he was formidable in appearance. Daily he trampled the growing corn and the green vineyards till the crops of the farmers were utterly ruined, and yet none could harm him. Dogs seemed helpless against him, spears glanced off his hide, and men who hunted him were crippled or killed.

At last Oeneus, in desperation, sent heralds all through Greece proclaiming a great hunt in the woods of Calydon and challenging every hero who wished for glory to try to slay the monstrous boar. From every kingdom all who were famous or who desired fame came to the meeting place. There was the fortunate Admetus with Jason, his cousin. There was Meleager himself with his two uncles, brothers of Althaea. There were many other heroes famous already or to be famous thereafter. Last of all there was Atalanta, the swift running huntress, with her bow in hand and her ivory quiver on her shoulder.

As soon as Meleager saw Atalanta, he fell in love with her beauty and her courage. He had eyes for no one else. This was by no means to the taste of other heroes who felt it was no part for a woman to join such a hunt with men. There were plenty there who disliked Atalanta and foremost among them were Meleager’s two uncles. These took it upon themselves to advise the boy to pay her less attention and were still further enraged when they were disregarded.

Nothing, however, came of the matter openly, and when the hunt began, Atalanta was included with no more than a secret muttering among the men. The boar’s lair was in a dense wood, thick with underbrush, which none had dared to enter since he came. Around most of this the men stretched their strongest hunting nets. Then they took stations all about, while some went down the trail with packs of dogs to rout the monster out.

When the boar rushed out, all was confusion. The animal scattered the yelping dogs and made straight for the men. The hunters were many, but they were not all together in one place. Nor could they aim their spears in time, for the boar’s speed was too great. Besides, they were fighting in dense woodland where it was very hard to move about and where spears glanced off branches without even hitting the raging beast. He, on the other hand, charged straight through the thicket and laid two heroes low. Two more were knocked down and trampled, while a third saved himself only by vaulting hastily into a tree, using his spear as a pole. Rocks and arrows were whizzing around the beast, but nothing hit except the blunt shaft of one spear. This slowed his rush. The yelping dogs closed in on him, and while they did him no harm, they did bring him for a moment to bay. He stopped and glared at them, red-eyed and snorting. In that moment an arrow from Atalanta’s bow grazed along his back and stuck below the ear. The animal was only slightly hurt, but he turned and made off in the direction from which he had come, while Meleager raised a joyful shout that Atalanta had drawn first blood and then headed the rush down the trail. There was a desperate struggle when the boar was brought to bay again, but at last he fell, and the spear that gave the final stroke was Meleager’s.

There was great rejoicing as the heroes gathered round to marvel at the great beast and measure his mighty tusks. Meleager was the hero of the hour, perhaps the more because he was the host and because the heroes did not wish to remember that the timely arrow which wounded the boar and turned him at a critical moment was Atalanta’s. Meleager sensed this feeling and, drunk with his achievement, could not conceal his resentment from his older companions. He received, therefore, the spoils of the chase, the head and skin of the fearsome monster, which were presented to him with great ceremony, and then offered them to Atalanta, saying that the first wound and the chief credit were hers.

At this insulting treatment of the honor paid to him, there was a tense silence, broken after a moment by Althaea’s two brothers. As Meleager’s uncles, these saw fit to reprove him for his behavior in awarding the prize against the wishes of the other heroes. Meleager was far from quietly putting up with this. One retort led to another, and the furious uncles told him exactly what they thought of Atalanta, her forward manners and unwomanly behavior. This was too much for the excited lover. In a blind passion he threw his spear at one of the speakers with all his might and killed him instantly. Before he had time to realize what he had done, the other fell on him and in self-defense he struck again, killing him likewise.

It had all happened too quickly for anyone to interfere. Afterwards there was muttering and great dismay. Meleager himself was appalled but covered his feelings with sullen defiance. So the group broke up, most of them ranging themselves in a procession around the biers of the dead, but Meleager still stayed with Atalanta and declared loudly that his uncles had brought death on themselves.

Althaea was like a madwoman when the message came. She cared little for her husband; her pride was in her brothers and her son. All the reports announced that Meleager had struck first, had started the quarrel by his open preference of Atalanta. Althaea too felt that ranging the woods with heroes was no occupation for a woman. Meleager was in the wrong from first to last – not only had he forgotten the great respect which younger men should always pay to elder, not only had he slain his own kinsmen, the greatest crime a man could commit, but he showed no sign of shame or sorrow. Althaea would speak to no one and eat nothing. She went to her room and paced up and down there all night and all day. At last as the evening came, the frightened servants in the doorway heard the queen speak. “I am cold,” she said to them between her teeth. “Light me a fire.”

When they came back with materials, the chest by the far wall was open and the queen held in her hands a blackened piece of wood. “Let justice be done,” she said to herself and put it in the flame. Then she drew up a chair and sat down to watch it burn.

Even at that moment on his way home from the woods of Calydon, Meleager gasped, clutched himself and fell writhing to the earth. “I am burning up,” was all he could say, and he died in agony, no drink or cool application being capable of relieving his pain. But the queen far away in her chamber, as she saw the last piece crumble into ash, lifted her hand from her side before her women could stop her and drove a dagger through her heart. So ended the Calydonian hunt amid mourning and lamentation. Each of the heroes returned soberly to his home, and Atalanta, saying no word to any, went back to the woods from whence she came.

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