King Oeneus of Calydon married Althaea, but she lay with the god Ares and gave birth to Meleager. Shortly after the child was born the Fates visited Althaea, warning her that if a certain log on the fire was burned Meleager would die. Althaea hurried to rescue the log and stored it safely away. In time Meleager became an unbeatable warrior and an expert with the javelin.
King Oeneus neglected to honor Artemis one summer as he was sacrificing the first fruits of his harvest to the Olympians. To avenge herself Artemis sent a gigantic boar to ravage Calydon. The animal succeeded in destroying the crops and killing Oeneus' cattle and men. To rid himself of the boar Oeneus sent out word that he needed hunters to slay the beast, and that the one who triumphed would be rewarded with its tusks and pelt. Heroes showed up from many parts of Greece, among them Jason, Theseus, Nestor, Castor and Polydeuces. Yet one who turned up was a woman, Atalanta, who was as good at tracking and killing game as any man in the party. Artemis was her protectress. The goddess had sent the young huntress as a source of contention.
Atalanta had beauty, toughness, and competence. Her life had not been easy. When she was born her father exposed her on a mountain to die in his disappointment at not having a son. She had been nursed by a she-bear and raised by a family of hunters. Artemis had chosen well in sending her to the Calydonian boar hunt, for she proved a great source of trouble.
Although he had a wife, Meleager fell passionately in love with her. Atalanta was a woman after his own heart. Some of the hunters refused to join in the hunt because of her presence, but Meleager managed to persuade them to stay. The group flushed the boar from its lair. Two men were killed in the onrush of the beast, and another died from a javelin that missed its mark. Atalanta struck the boar with an arrow, but Meleager finally killed it with two javelins.
In a gesture of gallantry Meleager awarded the pelt and tusks to Atalanta, who gladly accepted them. However, two of Meleager's uncles objected to this disgraceful act, since Atalanta had not killed the boar and because she was only a woman. In a rage Meleager killed the two uncles. But two other uncles raised a fighting force against Meleager, who killed them too. Meleager's mother, Althaea, became infuriated at the death of her brothers all because of a coarse, mannish girl. She took the log she had rescued from the fire years before and proceeded to burn it. Meleager felt himself devoured from within and died in agony.
Having obtained the trophies of the hunt, Atalanta went to her father's home to be reconciled to him, having proved herself the equal of men. Her father insisted that she marry, but Atalanta set the conditions. She would only marry a man who could beat her in a footrace. Since she was swifter than any young man, she could easily preserve her virginity. In addition, however, she would kill anyone who failed to beat her. A number of suitors died at her hands. But one Melanion requested help from Aphrodite, who gave him three golden apples and told him to roll each one in Atalanta's path as she gained on him. Aphrodite, after all, had no use for a woman who scorned to love. Atalanta looked stunning in her nudity, for in Greece races were run without clothes. Melanion, each time he saw Atalanta passing him, threw a golden apple in her way. She stopped to pick each one up, and in this manner Melanion won the race and gained her for his wife. Later Melanion persuaded her to make love in a place sacred to Zeus, and for this impiety Zeus changed the pair into lions.
The greatest mortal musician of all was Orpheus. The son of a Thracian prince and the Muse Calliope, he was beloved of Apollo, who presented him with a wondrous lyre. Orpheus became a devotee of Dionysus and practiced the mysteries. He achieved vast skill on the lyre. Through the magical power of his music, rivers changed their courses, trees and wild beasts followed him enraptured, stones arranged themselves in a circle around him, and no mortal, divine, or natural force was immune to his enchantment.
Orpheus sailed on the Argo and performed prodigies with his music. The ship launched itself as he played. Quarrels were forgotten under his spell. Exhausted rowers gained new strength to his strains. Once Orpheus saved the life of every man aboard when his music lured the crew away from the fatal singing of the Sirens.
He fell in love with the wood nymph Eurydice, who agreed to marry him. On their wedding day Eurydice was pursued by Aristaeus, who had also become enamored of her. As she ran through a field a viper stung her as she stepped on it, and she died. Orpheus was heart-stricken with grief, but he decided to go down to the underworld and persuade Hades and Persephone to release his bride. Taking his lyre, he charmed the watchdog of Hades to allow him to pass, melted the hearts of the Furies, and spellbound all the frightful powers of the netherworld. The king and queen of Hell were softened by his music, and they agreed to let him take Eurydice back to the land of the living, provided that he not look back along the way. Orpheus led his love back to the realm of light. As he stepped from the cavern of the underworld he anxiously glanced behind him, eager to see Eurydice. But he did so too quickly, for she had not yet emerged. She faded from his sight murmuring, "Farewell."
From that time forth Orpheus avoided inhabited places, keeping to the wilds of Thrace. He still played the lyre but he lacked the old enthusiasm. Orpheus took no other women, and for that reason the lecherous Maenads hated him. As he wandered in the forest one day, those frenzied worshipers of Dionysus swept upon him and tore him to pieces. They threw his head into a river, where it floated out to sea and came to the island of Lesbos, and there it uttered prophecies.
The legends of Meleager and Orpheus show two heroes who become soft-headed over a woman and bring destruction upon themselves because of it. Meleager is a tough, skilled warrior; and although he is married, he falls passionately in love with the tomboyish Atalanta, killing his uncles because of her and thereby provoking his own death. Orpheus, on the other hand, is gentle, a dedicated musician who conceives a passion for Eurydice that lasts long after she dies, a love that calls the wrath of the Maenads down upon him. The Greeks regarded promiscuity in their heroes as permissible, but a headlong infatuation with one woman was dangerous, for it destroyed a man's prudence. Love was a form of intoxication that could ruin a hero.
A culture that stresses heroic values usually relegates women to an inferior position. To dedicate one's life to the memory of a woman, as Orpheus did, was considered unmanly. With Orpheus we see the end of the Greek heroic tradition, a poet-musician whom the Alexandrians elevated to the status of a hero. In contrast to him there are such ruthless, mannish heroines as Medea and Atalanta who seem to devour the men that lay claim to them. The soft man and the hard woman were generally unpleasant realities to the Greeks — the reverse image of their usual standards for the sexes.
The basic substance of the heroic legends is roughly the same material that our daily tabloids exploit: sex, violence, and wonders. Yet whereas these elements are presented randomly and without form in the tabloids, they have been given shape and meaning in the heroic legends. Frequently the hero is the man blessed by the gods to rid the world of some evil. He performs his feats without hesitation, and if he succumbs in the end his fame outlives him. Sex, violence, and wonders are his natural means of expression.