When Meleager, son of Calydon’s king Oineus (and brother of Tydeus), was born, the three Fates appeared miraculously in his mother Altheia’s bedroom. One promised that Meleager would be strong, another that he would be noble, but the third foretold that he would die when a log already smouldering on the hearth turned into ashes. Hastily Altheia doused the log and hid it in a chest; and Meleager grew to heroic manhood.
Years later, as the elderly Oineus was making offerings to all the gods in turn, he forgot to sacrifice to Artemis – so she sent a boar of supernatural size, strength and savagery to devastate his land. Homer describes it ‘tearing towering trees out of the ground and flinging them about, a mess of roots and apple blossom’.
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Meleager swore he would slaughter it. So he invited all the greatest heroes of his age to join him in the hunt, promising the creature’s pelt to whoever killed it. They included Theseus from Athens, Jason from Iolcus, Achilles’ father Peleus – and one young woman, Atalanta.
Exposed at birth by her father, who wanted a son, Atalanta was reared by a she-bear, sacred to Artemis, which taught her hunting and endurance. Now a young woman, attractive, athletic and determined to preserve her virginity, she saw no reason why she should not join the hunt. Many of the men, however, were uneasy. Meleager’s maternal uncles especially resented her inclusion on such a daring enterprise, while others found Atalanta dangerously irresistible. Among these latter was Meleager.
At last the hunters found the boar lazing by a stream Suddenly alert, it charged them, killing two, hamstringing a third, and causing Peleus to scramble up a tree in terror. Atalanta’s arrows drew first blood, but, despite being hacked and stabbed by Greece’s finest heroes, the beast did not weaken until Meleager skewered it with his spear. Rather than keep the prize for himself (as was his right), he presented the warm, dripping hide to Atalanta. Meleager’s uncles were outraged. Blows were exchanged, and in the ruckus two were killed. Two others vowed vengeance, and hurried home to rally troops.
As battle raged outside Calydon, Meleager killed his mother’s two remaining brothers. In rage Altheia took the log out of the chest and threw it on the fire; as the blackened wood crumbled to red-hot ash, the young hero died. His sisters’ grief caused even Artemis to pity them, so she turned them into guinea-fowl, which the Greeks called meleagrides.