Study Guide

Atalanta in The Metamorphoses

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Atalanta is an interesting character for many modern readers. A lot of this has to do with her ambiguous relationship to gender stereotypes. On the one hand, Atalanta does not conform to female stereotypes because she is athletic and likes hunting. She is the only female participant in the hunt to kill the dangerous Calydonian boar; in fact, she is the first to hit it with her spear. (Meleager, who gives it the final blow, insists of sharing the credit with her.)

Later, for reasons that aren't clear, she consults an oracle to learn who she should marry. The oracle tells her to avoid marriage like the plague. For some reason, Atalanta's response to this is to organize a running contest: whoever beats her, she says, can marry her; whoever loses will be killed. Ironically, her undoing is the fact that she still is, in some underlying way, a stereotypical woman. (We're just following Ovid here, don't blame us.) That's because, when Hippomenes races against her, he succeeds in distracting her by throwing three gold balls along the side of the course. At least according to Ovid, women are attracted to shiny objects, and Atalanta is duped.

Unfortunately, the oracle was right; Atalanta comes to a bad end as a result of marrying Hippomenes (though through no fault of her own). Because Hippomenes doesn't thank Venus for her help in winning him his wife, Venus makes him crazed with lust. The newlyweds defile a temple of Cybele with their love-making, and Cybele turns them into lions.

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