Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Race of Atalanta

Atalanta was a young and beautiful girl who lived near the city of Thebes. She asked an oracle to tell her fortune, and was answered that she must never marry, for if she did she would be most unhappy. She turned away from the company of young men, and found her pleasure in hunting. Life in the open air made her stronger and still more beautiful, and she learned to run more swiftly than any youth, or any other maiden, in her native country.

Young men heard of her loveliness, and went to ask her in marriage. "I do not wish to be married," she said, "Whoever would have me for his wife must run a race with me, but I warn you that every one who fails in that race must die."

These were hard terms, but some were willing to take the risk for the chance of gaining such a charming wife. None could run like Atalanta, and several lost their lives in the vain effort to win her.

A youth name Hippomenes was chosen to be judge of one of the races. He consented to act, thinking at the same time that any man was foolish to risk his life for the sake of a woman.

When he saw the girl, young, strong, swift, and lovely, he changed his mind.

The race was run. Atalanta seemed to have wings. Youth after youth was left behind. She had no pity on any. Whoever failed must pay the dreadful price.

Hippomenes said, "Why do you boast of having beaten such laggards as those? I myself will race with you, and I know that I shall win."

Atalanta looked at him, and for the first time her heart felt pity. She was sure that she could not be beaten by any mortal, and she was sorry that such a handsome young man would wish to put his life in danger.

Orders were given to prepare for the race. Hippomenes did not mean to be beaten, so he prayed to Aphrodite. "O goddess!" he said, "thou hast impelled me to undertake this race. Grant me thy help that I may win the maiden."

Aphrodite was pleased, and willing to aid her worshiper. She took three golden apples from the garden of her temple at Cyprus, and gave them to Hippomenes. "Use these as I tell you," she said. "They will win you the victory."

The race began. The two ran very close together, but Hippomenes was a step ahead. He threw down one of the golden apples, but the girl only glanced at it, and ran as rapidly as ever.

He threw another apple. She seemed about to stoop for it, but changed her mind and ran on. Then Hippomenes threw his last apple, and the temptation proved too strong for the maiden. She turned aside a little, bent down swiftly, and seized the apple, and in that moment Hippomenes threw himself forward, and touched the goal with two fingers.

Atalanta had lost, and Hippomenes became her husband. They were very glad and happy together, but in their joy they forgot to sacrifice to Aphrodite. She aroused against them the anger of Cybele, who was regarded by some nations as the great mother of all the gods. That goddess changed them from human into beastly forms. To Atalanta she gave the shape of a lioness, to Hippomenes that of a lion. She yoked them to her car, and in all paintings or statues of Cybele she is shown as drawn by these unhappy lovers, for whom the oracle was sadly fulfilled.