Atalanta, the kick-butt huntress, started off as a folk hero of the wild regions of Arcadia and/or Boeotia. Long before anybody was writing her story down, folks were sitting around campfires (or something like that) and telling each other of her daring do. One of the earliest mentions of her we have in print comes from Hesiod's Catalogues of Women. Only a super small fragment remains about her, though. We also know that great great granddaddy of all playwrights, Aeschylus, wrote a tragedy called Atalanta, but unfortunately no copy of the script remains. (Okay, seriously. Who lost the script?)
We can only get all the details of Atalanta's adventures in the works of much later writers, like Pseudo-Apollodorus, Statius, and Apollonius Rhodius. (Don't you wish your parents had named you Apollonius?) Probably, the most famous account of Atalanta's adventures comes from our main man Ovid, who included a version in The Metamorphoses, his massive collection of mythological poems. Later on (like waaaaay later), Atalanta belted out some arias in Handel's opera named after her, and her story was also told by big time British poet, Swinburne, in his Greek-style play, Atalanta in Calydon.
Don't go thinking that Atalanta is totally old school. She appeared in a recent TV movie of Jason and the Argonauts. Also, a version of her tried to get frisky with Hercules on the TV Series, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. And yet another version of her whooped some booty with the Incredible Hulk in the world of Marvel Comics. Atalanta is also no stranger to video games. She shows up in the Golden Sun series, Herc's Adventures, Zeus: Master of Olympus, Rise of the Argonauts, and Age of Mythology.
Beside her adventures abroad with the Argonauts, Atalanta spends most of her time in her home region of Arcadia. We can totally see why, too. The mountainous region of Arcadia was known for being wild and full of untouched nature. What better place for a tough huntress to hang out, right? Even into the age of the Renaissance, the region of Arcadia was associated with natural beauty and was seen as a place where people could chill out and get back to a simple, pastoral way of living.
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
The story of Atalanta doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. This structure actually works best if you zero in on Atalanta's time on the Calydonian Boar hunt. Check it out:
Atalanta is famous all around Arcadia for being an amazing huntress. Her typical days are spent tracking wild game and chilling in her own private grove.
A dude named Meleager shows up and asks Atalanta to join him in the hunt of the century. There's a giant boar wreaking havoc in Calydonia, and Meleagar needs Atalanta to help put an end to its funny business.
No refusal here. Atalanta signs right up.
There isn't really a specific mentor in this tale, unless you count Meleager who invites Atalanta along. She's just as good at hunting as Meleager is, though, so it's kind of hard to think of him as a mentor.
Atalanta hoists her quiver of arrows onto her back and follows after Meleager on the quest to nail one nasty boar. (Secretly, they both have crushes on each other too.)
Atalanta finds that Meleager is the only dude in the hunting party who's nice to her. All the other dudes are mad that a girl is along for the trip.
We don't get a lot of details about the approach, but we're guessing Meleager, Atalanta, and the rest of the hunting party were getting pretty nervous as they got near boar territory.
The heat is on when the hunting party finds the boar. Atalanta shows she's got the stuff when she's first to bloody the boar with her spear. Meleager finishes the beast off, but Atalanta totally makes her mark. (Meleager is head-over-heels smitten at this point.)
Meleager rewards Atalanta with the hide of the boar for efforts. Atalanta is super happy that her abilities are being recognized despite the fact that she's a woman. (Man, that Meleager sure is dreamy.)
Yeah, we just kind of skip right over this part.
Ironically, Atalanta's closest call with death doesn't come from the vicious beast she set out to hunt. Instead, it comes when the members of her own party, Meleager's uncles, try to take the hide from her. Meleager defends her, though, and kills them. For this offense, his mom, Althaea, kills him remotely by throwing a cursed log on a fire.
Atalanta returns with the boar's hide as a prize. It's a prize that comes with a lot of pain, though. The boar didn't leave a scratch on her, but she's definitely not unscathed. Not only has she lost like, the only guy she's ever started to fall for, she's also been reminded of just how tough it is to be a woman who doesn't follow the rules. Still, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and Atalanta returns to her life tougher than ever before.
Khutulun was a Mongol princess from the 13th Century. Don't go thinking she was some Disney style princess, though. Just like Atalanta, this girl was tough as nails. This tough lady was the niece of infamous conqueror Kublai Khan and the great-great-granddaughter of Ghengis Khan. Just like her famous male relatives, Khutulun was an awesome warrior; she fought beside her dad, Kaidu, in all his battles.
Also like Atalanta, Khutulun was in no rush to get married. Khutulun declared that any guy who wanted to marry her had to first beat her in wrestling. Hm, kind of reminds us of the footrace challenge that Atalanta set up. Unlike Atalanta, though, Khutulun was totally undefeated; no guy was ever able to take her down. Every time she won, the loser dude had to give her a hundred horses. (Maybe this is the origin of the term "pony up.")
We don't exactly know how many suitors she beat up, but by we do know that by the end of it, she was up to her neck in horses. The story of Khutulun was recorded by Marco Polo and later turned into the opera, Turandot, by Puccini.
This lady from Roman mythology has a lot of similarities to our girl Atalanta. For one, she was known for being a crazy fast runner. Though she wasn't famous for being a huntress, like Atalanta she was also a devotee of Artemis. Well, technically, Camilla worshiped Diana, who was the Roman version of Artemis.
Being a worshiper of Diana, Camilla was also determined to stay a virgin. Unlike Atalanta, Camilla was able to remain this way for her entire life. Camilla and Atalanta also have unusual wet nurses in common. Instead of being suckled by a she bear as Atalanta was, Camilla was nursed by a mare.
The she-bear who nurses little baby Atalanta in the wilderness isn't just any old bear. We're thinking she's got a whole bunch of symbolism hiding under that furry hide. For one, bears are a symbol of the warrior in many cultures. So, it makes sense that Atalanta, who would grow up to be a girl warrior, would be nursed by a female of the species. (Hm, does bear milk grow tough babies? Maybe we should market it.)
The she-bear is also a sacred animal of Atalanta's fave deity, Artemis, goddess of the wilderness and the hunt. In some cults of Artemis, young girls used to actually dress up as bears as a part of certain rituals. (Ca-yoot!) Though the story doesn't usually say specifically that Artemis tells the bear to go save infant Atalanta, ancient Greeks might possibly have inferred this because of the animal's association with the goddess of the hunt.
The story of a future hero getting reared in the woods by a benevolent beast would be all too familiar to the Romans, who believed that the legendary founders of Rome the martian twin (that is, the children of Mars) Romulus and Remus, were supposedly raised by a she-wolf.
We'd be leading you astray if we didn't point out that Atalanta herself is a big time symbol. The lady huntress is way different from most of the other girls in ancient Greece. She lives outside of the male-dominated society, literally and metaphorically. The fact that she's above average at hunting, wrestling, and running really sticks in the craw of most of the men she meets. All this has made Atalanta herself a symbol of total girl power over the years. Throughout the centuries, women living in societies run by men have seen Atalanta as an example of what women are capable of when given the chance to be all they can be.
Okay, here's another thing to think about. So, Atalanta represents girl power and all that, so what does it mean that she ends up being defeated by a man in the end? When Hippomenes beats her in the foot race, she's forced to marry him and be like every other woman. Is the myth trying to say that even women who manage to buck the system will inevitably be put back in their rightful place? Or does the fact that Hippomenes has to get help from Aphrodite in order to beat Atalanta show that women could be just as good (or better) than men if the deck wasn't stacked against them?
(Atalanta actually reminds us a whole lot of Queen Hippolyta and her Amazon warrior women. Click here to learn more about them.)