The Winning of Atalanta

Atalanta hunted in the wild woods as she used to do. No one could tell whether she sorrowed for Meleager, for she said no word of that, but though many young men came to woo her, she steadfastly refused to marry. She loved her wild freedom, so she said, and had no desire to be mistress of a household or mother of children. Every suitor she counted as an enemy. Her father was not of the same mind, however, and for a long time he vainly urged his daughter to marry. At last, losing his patience, he insisted she make a choice among her suitors. Atalanta could not refuse her father directly, but she decided to outwit him if she could. She therefore set up a racecourse in a grassy valley, and declared that any who wished to marry must first race with her. He who could outrun her should be her husband, but if she were the faster, the beaten man should die. By this means she hoped to avoid having any suitors at all, while yet if they did persist, she could rely on her speed to defeat them.

At first the challenge of Atalanta only acted as a stimulus to her suitors. There were plenty of young men ready to risk their lives for fame and for the winning of so beautiful a bride. Perhaps they hoped that she would not be so cruel as to carry out her threat. But after a time when it was known that the swift and slender Atalanta ran like the very wind itself and that she always demanded the penalty of death when she was the winner, fewer and fewer men came to race with her. Spectators thronged the racecourse instead, drawn to see so desperate a struggle and to catch sight of so cruel maiden. Among these there was small pity for the unfottunate suitors. People thought they were fools to challenge the girl when many other beautiful and far kinder maidens might be won.

Among these spectators came Hippomenes, despising in his heart both the men who ran in the contest and the worthless girl who caused death to so many. So he thought until he saw her running, swift as a wild deer, hair futtering behind her and breath coming easily between her parted lips. Behind her toiled another runner, laboring with all his strength, but Atalanta spared no glance for him. Even when he was led away, she only stood there, cheeks flushed and panting slightly, looking out on the wild wood which was her home.

Hippomenes had never seen anyone so beautiful. This was indeed a woman to die for, yet die he very likely would if he raced with her, for he had watched her running and seen that she did not put forth all her strength. Yet he made the challenge, and when the girl came – as was her custom – and said a few words to discourage him from running, he thought she looked on him kindly and that the colour came into her cheeks as she met his eyes. But for all these signs of favour, he knew she would not spare him. He went then to the temple of Aphrodite and prayed earnestly for her aid. The goddess of love and beauty had no sympathy for Atalanta, worshiper of the cold moon goddess, Artemis. She came, therefore, to Hippomenes when he called her, put something into his hand, and gave him counsel. With this Hippomenes waited in confidence for the morning.

When the race began, Hippomenes shot a little ahead of Atalanta and made a great show of putting out all his strength. But soon he seemed to fail a little, and swift feet came up behind him. Then for a moment the two raced side by side. The girl glanced at her rival uneasily, and Hippomenes saw with joy that she was reluctant to pass him. Yet he knew that soon she would, and he stumbled a little and seemed to fail, in order that she needs must draw ahead. Then he smiled to himself as he watched her. She was easy and confident. She thought he was beaten and that she could play with him. At that he drew forth one of the things that the goddess had given him and threw it before Atalanta on the path. It was a golden apple, a miracle of a fruit which the goddess had plucked herself from a living tree. It rolled along in front of Atalanta, and the wonderful beauty of it tempted her.

She must have it, and the man was failing; there was plenty of time. She stooped to pick it up, and in that minute Hippomenes passed her. Still he seemed to be laboring and failing, though actually he ran fast. Atalanta marveled that with the efforts he made his speed did not slacken, and she was sure that soon it must. Again she ran evenly after him, caught him and passed him, though she did not wish to. Again a golden apple rolled before her on the path.

Atalanta was angry at the challenge of this second apple. She knew now that the man, poor runner as he was, intended to win by trickery. She would accept his challenge and win all the same. His hoarse breath seemed louder and louder, and greater the effort with which he ran. Nevertheless as she picked up the second apple, he passed her again. Now Atalanta was angry with him and ran after him, swifter than the wild deer, like the woodland wind itself. She passed him like the flickering shadow of a leaf. The goal was now in sight, and for the last time Hippomenes threw a golden apple. Then as the maiden stooped for it, he cast all pretences to the winds and ran for his very life. Quick as a flash Atalanta was after him, yet the goal was very near. If she had known that he was not really exhausted, she would never have dared to stoop for the third apple. One moment she was two paces behind, and the next her breath, panting now, seemed almost in his hair. But the winning post was only a few yards ahead, and still the girl was half a pace behind. They seemed for a breathless second to race side by side, and then with a final effort Hippomenes touched the winning post an instant before Atalanta’s outstretched hand.

Such was the winning of Atalanta, and the story says that the bride in spite of her anger at being tricked was not unhappy to be won. At all events, Hippomenes married her amid great rejoicing, thanks to Aphrodite, who had known that Atalanta would certainly be tempted by the gift of the three golden apples.

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