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THE FAMILY OF ^ETOLUS.
§ 148. The Calydonian Hunt.1 — One of the heroes of the Argonautic expedition had been Meleager, a son of GEneus and Althaea, rulers of Calydon in yEtolia. His parents were cousins, descended from a son of Endymion named ^Etolus, who had colonized that realm. By ties of kinship and marriage they were allied with many historic figures. Their daughter Dejanira had become, as we have already noted, the wife of Hercules;2 while Leda, the sister of Althaea, was mother of Castor and Pollux,3 and of Clytemnestra and Helen, intimately concerned in the Trojan War.
When her son Meleager was born, Althaea had beheld the three Destinies, who, as they spun their fatal thread, foretold that the life of the child should last no longer than a certain' brand then burning upon the hearth. Althaea seized and quenched the brand, and carefully preserved it, while Meleager grew to boyhood, youth, and man's estate. It chanced, then, that (Eneus, offering sacrifices to the gods, omitted to pay due honors to Diana; wherefore she, indignant at the neglect, sent a boar of enormous size to lay waste the fields of Calydon. Meleager called on the heroes of Greece to join in a hunt for the ravenous monster. Theseus and his friend Pirithotis,4 Jason,5 Peleus," the father of Achilles, Telamon,T the father of Ajax, Nestor,8 then a youth, but who in his age bore arms with Achilles and Ajax in the Trojan War,9 — these and many
more joined in the enterprise. With them came, also, Atalanta, the daughter of Iasius, —
Arcadian Atalanta, snowy-souled,
Fair as the snow and footed as the wind.1
A buckle of polished gold confined her vest, an ivory quiver hung on her left shoulder, and her left hand bore the bow. Her face blended feminine beauty with the graces of martial youth. Meleagei saw, and with chivalric reverence, somewhat thus addressed her: —
"For thy name's sake and awe toward thy chaste head,
But there was no time then for love: on to the hunt they pushed. To the hunt went, also, Plexippus and Toxeus, brothers of Queen Althaea, braggarts, envious of Meleager. Speedily the hunters drew near the monster's lair. They stretched strong nets from tree to tree ; they uncoupled their dogs; they sought the footprints of their quarry in the grass. From the wood was a descent to marshy ground. Here the boar, as he lay among the reeds, heard the shouts of his pursuers, and rushed forth against them. One and another is thrown down and slain. Jason, Nestor, Telamon open the attack, but in vain.
. . . Then all abode save one,
Plunged, and the hounds clung, and green flowers and white
It was a slight wound, but Meleager saw and joyfully proclaimed it. The attack was renewed. Peleus, Amphiaraus, Theseus, Jason, hurled their lances. Ancaus was laid low by a mortal wound. But Meleager,—
Rock-rooted, fair with fierce and fastened lips,
Clear eyes and springing muscle and shortening limb —
With chin aslant indrawn to a tightening throat,
Grave, and with gathered sinews, like a god,—
Aimed on the left side his well handled spear,
Grasped where the ash was knottiest hewn, and smote,
And with no missile wound, the monstrous boar
Right in the hairiest hollow of his hide,
Under the last rib, sheer through bulk and bone,
Deep in; and deeply smitten, and to death,
The heavy horror with his hanging shafts
Leapt, and fell furiously, and from raging lips
Foamed out the latest wrath of all his life.1
1 From Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon.
Then rose a shout from those around; they glorified the conqueror,— crowded to touch his hand. But he, placing his foot upon the head of the slain boar, turned to Atalanta, and bestowed on her the head and the rough hide — trophies of his success. Thereat she laughed —
Lit with a low blush to the braided hair,
And rose-colored and cold like very dawn,
Golden and godlike, chastely with chaste lips,
A faint grave laugh; and all they held their peace,
And she passed by them. Then one cried, "Lo now,
Shall not the Arcadian shoot out lips at us,
Saying all we were despoiled by this one girl?"
And all they rode against her violently
And cast the fresh crown from her hair, and now
They had rent her spoil away, dishonoring her,
Save that Meleager, as a tame lion chafed,
Bore on them, broke them, and as fire cleaves wood,
So clove and drove them, smitten in twain; but she
Smote not nor heaved up hand; and this man first,
Plexippus, crying out, "This for love's sake, Sweet,"
Drove at Meleager, who with spear straightening
Pierced his cheek through; then Toxeus made for him,
Dumb, but his spear shake; vain and violent words,
Fruitless; for him, too, stricken through both sides
The earth felt falling, . . .
. . . And these being slain,
None moved, nor spake.1
Of this fearful sequel to the hunt, Althaea has heard nothing. As she bears thank-offering to the temples for the victory of her son, the bodies of her murdered brothers meet her sight. She shrieks, and beats her breast, and hastens to change the garments of joy for those of mourning. But when the author of the deed is known, grief gives way to the stern desire of vengeance on her son. The fatal brand, which the Destinies have linked with Meleager's life, she brings forth. She commands a fire to be prepared. Four times she essays to place the brand upon the pile;
1 From Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon.
four times draws back, shuddering before the destruction of hei son. The feelings of the mother and the sister contend within her. Now she is pale at the thought of the purposed deed, now flushed again with anger at the violence of her offspring. Finally the sister prevails over the mother: — turning away her face, she throws the fatal wood upon the burning pile. Meleager, absent and unconscious of the cause, feels a sudden pang. He burns; he calls upon those whom he loves, Atalanta and his mother. But speedily the brand is ashes, and the life of Meleager is breathed forth to the wandering winds.
When, at last, the deed was done, the mother laid violent hands upon herself.