LIVES OF THE GREEK HEROINES.
BY LOUISA MENZIES
"BEAR away the infant from my sight! I want no weeping girls. When thou bringest me a sturdy boy I will give thee thy freedom and much treasure beside, so that thou shalt be an object of envy to all thy gossips."
It was Iasius of Arcadia who spake to Eriphyle, the prudent nurse of Klymene, his wife, who brought him the little daughter just born to him.
"Alas!" cried the nurse, trembling, "and what is to become of this sweet innocent? Wilt thou not at least look at her? She is the very image of thyself!"
But Iasius was sore disappointed. He had made up his mind to have a son who should stand by him in the field and in the council, and having no knowledge of how weak a thing a little infant is at the best, the glance he cast at the little face which Eriphyle held up to him only made him more angry. He would not have such a feeble creature grow up to call him father; so he hastily called Eurubates, his trusty attendant, who had many a time executed an evil command at his bidding, and he told him to take the child and carry it to some lonely spot on the hills, where cold and hunger would quickly make an end of it. Perhaps if he had once taken the little maid in his arms, the tender fatherly love which the gods have placed in the hearts of all men might have been wakened in him; but the Moirae had willed it otherwise, who had ordained that this feeble nursling should become a name for strength and beauty among the nations.
Eriphyle, the nurse, returned weeping to the queen, who, robbed of her sweet babe, had much ado to rally from her weakness, and Eurubates carried the little maid to a cave which he knew on the side of a hill, and there laid her softly within its shadow and turned and went quickly away, never daring to look behind him; and at his dying day, when the many evil deeds of his life rose before him, the vision of that royal robe, within the folds of which he had never looked, troubled him more than grosser deeds of violence and blood-shedding to which he had lent a hand.
But the acts of men are not unheeded by the gods, and Artemis, the maiden goddess, had compassion on the little forsaken child, and sent a she-bear to the cavern of Mount Parthenius, or the Maiden Hill, as it came to be called in later times, and the wild beast became a nursing-mother to the infant, and warmed her with her shaggy coat, and nourished her with her rich milk, so that she grew into a sturdy child, clinging to the long hair of her foster-mother, or trotting on all fours by her side; and haply she might have grown up with more of brutal than human in her temper and manners, had not Artemis taken her away and given her to her own attendant Orythieia, to rear and to teach all the arts that become a huntress, especially the shooting with the bow and swiftness of foot.
Under the fostering care of Orythieia, the little Atalanta (it was thus that Artemis had named the maiden) learned to know the haunts and habits of all woodland creatures, from the wild boar who makes his lair in the hill-side, a terror to men, to the little field-mice that have their homes in the mossy bank where the violets grow; every creature that had beauty of form or colour was her playfellow--she outran the roe, and leapt from crag to crag as strong and nimble as the wild goat; every bird that piped upon a spray seemed to speak to Atalanta's ear, and many a time and oft her arrow or her spear saved some tender creature of earth or air, some brooding dove or mother deer from talon of vulture or ravening tooth of lynx or lion.
And so the maiden grew in strength and beauty, and in the favour of the great goddess, who perfected her, as she well deserved, in all the arts of the huntress, and in that secret lore, the fruit of watchful observation, in which the open-eyed children of Latona are so abundantly skilled; but it pleased Artemis that she, who was so richly endowed with special gifts, should live a chaste, unworldly life, and leaving marriage and motherhood to the ordinary daughters of men, should spend the years of her mortal life in high communing with nature. In early youth this seemed to Atalanta not a loss, but a gain; having the whole world of earth and air to claim kindred with, what did it concern her that men and women alone were strangers to her? And she grew so perfect and so wise, that Artemis found it in her heart to grieve at her mortal parentage, and to desire that she also might be one of the deathless ones.
When Atalanta was now some seventeen summers old, a cry of lamentation rung through the Achaean land from the pleasant fields of Aetolia. A mighty monster of a boar, sent by some angry deity (Artemis herself, it was whispered) had made his lair close to rocky Kalydon, and neither man nor dog was able to dislodge him. In vain the vine-dressers dressed the vineyards, in vain the husbandmen sowed the corn; no sooner was the gracious earth ripening her fruits, than the brute sallied forth, rooting up the tender shoots with his tusks, and treading the grapes and corn alike in the dust, and vine-dresser and husband-man were torn to pieces if they attempted to guard their labours: and so sore was the distress, and so lusty grew the boar, that the noble Oeneus, king of Kalydon, was weary of his life, for the constant wail of the husbandmen, of their widows and orphaned children, and for the havoc wrought by that evil beast. Then he took counsel with his son, the bright-haired Meleager, and they proclaimed a great hunt throughout all the Achaean land, from Hellas famed for lovely women, to pleasant Lacedaemon, lying in a hollow. And all the Achaean land hearkened, and sent forth her brave young spirits to aid the suffering Aetolia; and to rid the earth of that evil beast. And from Arkadia came the maiden Atalanta, bearing her boar-spears in her hand, and on her shoulders the skin of a spotted panther: and Oeneus and Meleager greeted her courteously, for they knew that Artemis herself had taught her woodcraft; but some of the chieftains were angry, and took it ill that a girl should be thought worthy to join with men in the chase; and especially Plexippus, the uncle of Meleager, was full of angry scorn.
"Bring to us the distaff and the lute," he cried, contemptuously, "if the boar-spear and the bow are come to be the tools of women. Nay, nephew, for shame! take the damsel to the upper chamber, where Kleopatra thy honoured wife, sits spinning among her maidens; there she will find fit companions and worthy occupation. Surely it becomes a maiden to weave garments for heroes, rather than to waste her feeble powers in the battle or the chase."
"Hist! uncle; speak not so unwisely!" replied Meleager, angrily. "Wist ye not that the great goddesses, Athena and Artemis, delight in the battle and the chase? Oeneus hath invited all skilled hunters to aid us in this our strait, and may Zeus Zenius bring evil on my head, if I fail in my duty as a guest-friend to this damsel who has come in answer to our summons, and whom Artemis herself has instructed in the art of hurling the spear, and in all things that pertain to the slaying of wild beasts."
Then all the other chieftains frankly gave in, and bade the damsel welcome; only Plexippus remained dark and angry, waiting an occasion to show his wrath.
It was a gallant band of hunters that went out to slay the Kalydonian boar, for there were the twin princes Kastor and Pollux, Jason of Pherae, Peleus of Thessaly, and many more of whom the old world was justly proud; but among them all Atalanta stood pre-eminent by her skill and by her beauty, and it was her spear that first drew blood by a well-aimed blow which smote the boar in the mouth; her Meleager quickly followed, striking the huge brute to the heart, and hero followed hero until spears stood thick on his back and shoulders, and the creature rolled on the plain, pouring out his life from a hundred wounds, and fertilizing with his blood the ground he had wasted.
Then Meleager drew his sword, and cutting off the head, presented it as the first fruits of victory to Atalanta, but Plexippus rudely snatched it from her, declaring that it was a prize for a king, and should be given to no one but to Oeneus of Kalydon, whose of right it was.
Then the wrath of Meleager flamed up, and he smote Plexippus on the temple with his doubled fist, and the man fell as falls an ox in the shambles when the butcher smites him, and the ruddy blood gushed from mouth and nostrils. Consternation seized all the chieftains, none more than Atalanta, the innocent cause of the calamity, and Meleager stood aghast over his fallen kinsman. In vain the gracious twins lifted his head and strove to see if there were any breath of life in him; in vain Nestor of Pylos, the youngest man there, ran to seek a leech; the soul had passed the ivory portals of his teeth, and Plexippus would never utter a threat or insult more.
Meantime, tidings that the boar was slain had reached the city, and Althaea, the queen, was coming forth with her women bearing garlands, to do honour with dancing and with song to the victors, when, as she stood on the threshold of the gate, one came flying, white and horror-stricken, and told how the prince Plexippus was slain.
"Ah! woe is me!" exclaimed the queen; "how slain? I heard the boar was dead, but wist not that he had given my brother his death wound."
"Alas! lady, it was not by the boar that the noble Plexippus was slain, it was Prince Meleager who wished to give the first fruits of the victory to the strange Arkadian huntress, but Plexippus would not have it, and Meleager was wrathful and smote him, so that he died."
"My son slew my brother for the sake of the foreign woman I" shrieked the queen. "But Plexippus shall not die unavenged; the soul of my mother's son shall be appeased!"
And scarce knowing what she did, Althaea rushed to the chamber where her choice treasure was laid up, and turning the key in the great cedar chest, where many rich garments and costly ornaments were stored, she snatched from beneath them a billet of wood and flung it on the fire that was burning on the hearth.
Strange treasure to be laid up among gold and silver and needlework--a billet of fir-wood about the size of a child's body, black with age and charred, as though it had been already in the fire!
The merry flames leapt up and kissed the black brand, which lay for a few minutes dull and still among them; but the fire was bright and strong, and soon the outer bark cracked and glowed, and then the whole mass grew ruddy like a bar of iron in a smith's forge, and the jocund flames leapt higher, with many a fountain of sparks; then the billet began to whiten and to smoulder, and flakes of grey ash dropped off, and it grew smaller and smaller, passing away in light atoms; and all the while the Queen Althaea stood gazing at it, her white face set like a flint and her tremulous hands clasped tight together; for well she knew what the burning of that firebrand meant--well she remembered that when her little Meleager was newly laid in her bosom, and the mother's joy was fresh in her heart, there came floating into her chamber three weird women. The nurse who sat by the hearth thought it was but a wreath of smoke blown by the wind across the chamber, but Althaea knew them to be the dread Moirae, the sisters who order the lives of men. They hung about the bed while one might count a score, waving with their hands in mystic gestures over the new-born child; then she who seemed the oldest snatched a firebrand from the hearth, and flinging it into the flames, exclaimed--
"Brave and lovely shall the child be, and as long as yon firebrand remains unconsumed, so long shall be his life upon earth"
The Moirae vanished, and Althaea leapt from her bed and snatching the burning brand from the hearth quenched the flame and hid it beneath her pillows, and had ever kept it as her chiefest treasure and as the safeguard of Meleager's life.
What sound is yon of slowly-tramping feet, of stifled sobs--what burden are these stout men of Kalydon and these guest-friends bearing into the great hall of Oeneus? Althaea turned to look. What shrunken form is yon, with yellow locks hanging and feeble hands dragging on the ground? Can this be her Meleager, the pride of Aetolia, her bright-haired son? A shriek that pierced to the halls of the Olympians rang through the palace; it was he, and her hand had slain him.
Alas, alas! what were fifty brothers to one such son? In vain she plunged her hands into the flames to grasp what yet remained of the brand, the white ashes crumbled at her touch, and with a groan, like that of a parting spirit, she rushed to hide her horror in darkness and in solitude.
So perished the noble Meleager, fordone by the rash act of his mother, and the gallant troop of hunters who had gathered so lightly at the call of Oeneus broke up silently and sadly when the funeral rites were ended and the lofty barrow piled; and most solitary, most sad, went Atalanta, she who had been the innocent cause of Meleager's death. But the fame of her beauty and her matchless skill was spread abroad through all the Achaean land, by the heroes who had seen her in Kalydon; and Iasius, her father, who was now growing into years, and had no child, neither son nor daughter, save the little maid who had been laid in the cave of Mount Parthenius, became ten times more anxious to recover her than he had been to destroy her feeble life, and learning from the shepherds the wondrous tale of her preservation by the she-bear, and of her life afterwards, he sent with much ado to fetch her from the hill-side where she was wont to dwell, and besought her to come home to his palace, to live with him as his beloved daughter, and when he should die to rule the Arkadians after him.
But Atalanta would not hearken to the messengers.
"If Iasius be indeed my father," she said, "I owe him no filial duty; when I needed care and tenderness he spurned me from his hearth; now that he has no longer hope of a son, and that Artemis hath made me famous, he would have me home. Tell him, that the home he decreed for me, when an infant, pleases me better now than palace of bronze or roof of cedar-wood."
Then Iasius came himself and entreated her, and the heart of Atalanta smote her at the sight of his white hair and his tearful eyes; it was not right, she felt, for a father to be a suppliant to his own daughter; so she went, sorely against her will, from the woodland to dwell in the city, and learn the manners and the ways of men. When it was known that King Iasius had a fair daughter dwelling in his palace, who should inherit his wealth and all his lands, and who besides was the famous huntress Atalanta, wooers, many and noble, from all parts of the Achaean land came to seek her in marriage; but Atalanta remembered the lessons of Orythieia, that she who is beloved by Artemis must have nothing to do with love and marriage, and Iasius, though he was proud to see so many noble chieftains hanging about his palace gates, was by no means disposed to let his daughter go; but because she was wondrously swift, and he loved to see her run, he caused a proclamation to be made, that Atalanta should become the wife of him who should outstrip her in the race, but that if she should outrun him he should yield himself vanquished, and should perish beneath the axe. To many this proclamation seemed too haughty, but there were not wanting youths who thought the maiden worth the seeking even at this price, and Atalanta came to dread the sound of the herald's trumpet, which proclaimed the coming of a new suitor, from whose presence she could only be delivered by the alternative of his death.
On a summer day there came to Atalanta the tidings that a fresh suitor had presented himself, and the warning to hold herself in readiness to run at the appointed hour. It was a slim, fair-haired youth, swift enough among his comrades, but who had no chance with the wind-footed Atalanta; but when he was led away to his death, there stood forward one who had borne him company, who looking Iasius straight in the eyes, spoke as follows:
"I also, King Iasius, claim the right to run in the race with the Princess Atalanta. I am called Meilanion, the son of Amphidamas, and my father owns hills and valleys near to thine."
"I know the noble Amphidamas well," said Iasius, eyeing the stranger keenly; "he and I are guest-friends. Come thou home with me to my palace and taste of the banquet and of the brimming goblet; it were better thus, than that thou shouldst risk thy life in running with Atalanta."
"Nay, not so, O king. When I came hither, I confess that I thought thy proclamation harsh and unworthy of a free-born Achaean king, but now that I have beheld the noble Atalanta, and seen her run, so help me Zeus! I think the condition good, for indeed no one who cannot surpass her in the foot-race, is worthy to be her yokefellow, and he who has failed, having aimed at so great honour, is to be envied if he at once enter the house of Hades, for what other mortal maid could he brook to wed, having once beheld her matchless form?"
"Nevertheless, death is bitter, especially to a young man," said Iasius, pityingly. The princess said nothing, but she looked at the comely youth, and a sorrow filled her soul such as she had not felt for anyone of the chieftains who had died for her sake--such a sorrow as darkened her soul when Meleager lay dying beside the slain boar, for this was a youth bright-eyed and beautiful, broad-chested and narrow-flanked, looking as Phoebus looks when he stands in the glory of the morning on the hills of Lycia.
"Father," she said softly to Iasius, "send him away!"
"I would willingly indeed send him away, Atalanta, seeing it is impossible for any mortal man to contend with thee in swiftness of foot; but if he persists I cannot refuse him his chance." Then he turned once more to the stranger. "Know," he said, kindly, "that this maiden has been trained to swiftness from her infancy; a she-bear was her nursing-mother, the mountain nymphs who attend on Artemis, the tamer of wild beasts, were her trainers; not Boreas himself rushes more swiftly when he tips the crests of the waves with foam. Be advised, retire from the contest while thou art still unconquered!"
But Meilanion would not hearken; the look of pity in Atalanta's eyes kindled the longing more sharply in his heart, he was well content to win her or to die, and he would gladly have run the race at once; but this Iasius would not permit, for the day was far spent and both Atalanta and her wooer stood in need of food and rest. So they went home to the palace and partook of the well-appointed banquet, and of the sweet wine, seasoning the food with much pleasant talk of men and places, and listening to the long-haired Thamyris, 6 who was sojourning at the court of Iasius, a sweet minstrel truly, but not yet so famous or so proud of his skill as to challenge the Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Jove!
When at length the feast was over, and Iasius and all his court were wrapt in sleep, the stranger felt no touch of weariness, all his soul was filled with the image of the princess, and kneeling, he prayed this prayer to golden Aphrodite.
"O, thou irresistible daughter of highest Jove, who hast imbued the maiden Atalanta with a share of thine own loveliness, desert me not in this my strait: Yea, verily, I pray thee desert us not, for I think that, thanks to thee, the maiden herself would not be ill-pleased to be conquered in this race if only Artemis, rejoicing in the bow, were not displeased! Hearken to me, golden Aphrodite, if ever I have hung thy shrine with garlands; so shall frankincense burn for ever at thy shrine, and garlands of fragrant flowers be daily hung about thine altars!"
And Aphrodite heard him where she sat beside the Trojan Anchises in a glade of Ida, and she laughed to think that Atalanta, the sworn attendant of her shrewish sister Artemis, had at length yielded to the arrows of her playful son; so she poured sweet sleep upon Meilanion, and in his sleep she showed herself to him in the form of Arené, his own mother, and bade him be of good cheer, and she gave him three golden apples from the gardens of the Hesperides, bidding him throw them in the path of the maiden as she ran, who, trusting to her swiftness, would stop to pick them up, and so be easily vanquished. And it came to pass even as the goddess prophesied. Atalanta, beholding the beautiful golden fruit--such fruit as mortal eye had never before looked on--could not restrain herself, and while she stooped to pick them up, Meilanion darted on ahead, and won an easy victory. Thus Atalanta was at last vanquished, and became the wife of Meilanion, son of Amphidamas, and dwelt in the sweet Arkadian land, content to be a wife and mother, and to care for housewifery; but one son was given to her, whom his father called Parthenopaeus, a noble youth, who grew to man's estate only to perish with Polynices, the son of the unhappy Oedipus, when the flower of the Achaean chivalry died beneath the fatal walls of Thebes.
When the tidings of the death of her son came to Atalanta, a mighty longing for the woods and water-brooks took possession of her soul, and an unconquerable weariness of the ways of men and all the restraints of court life; and she persuaded Meilanion to leave the cities and the haunts of men, and to go out with her alone into the wild woodland, where they could live in unrestrained freedom like the wild creatures that people it. Wherefore the poets have feigned that the gods changed them both into bears, which ever haunt the mountain glades and shun the paths of men.
"And Dorian where the Muses met,
With Thamyris of Thrace and made him cease
From song as from Oechalia he came,
Leaving the court of Eurylus, for he
Boasting, declared that he would conquer all,
Yea, though the Muses sang with him themselves,
Daughters of Aegis-bearing Jove, in wrath;
They made him blind and took away his song,
And caused him to forget his minstrelsy."
HOMER, L. II. 595-600.