Facts and Myths About Atalanta, Goddess of Running

Woman running
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Travelers to Greece often want to know about the ancient mythological Greek gods to enhance their journey. Atalanta, the Greek Goddess of Running, is one of the lesser-known gods worth knowing about.

Atalanta was abandoned in a forest on a mountaintop by her father Iasion (Schoneneus or Minyas in some versions), who was disappointed she was not a boy. The Goddess Artemis sent a she-bear to raise her.

In some stories, her mother is named Clymene. Atalanta's Spouse was Hippomenes or Melanion. And she had a child, Parthenopeus, by Ares or Hippomenes.

The Basic Story

Atalanta valued her freedom over everything. She had a good male friend, Meleager, with whom she hunted. He loved her but she did not return his affection in the same way. Together, they hunted the fierce Calydonian Boar. Atalanta wounded it and Meleager killed it, giving her the precious skin in recognition of her successful first strike against the beast. This created jealousy among other hunters and resulted in the death of Meleager.

After this, Atalanta believed that she should not marry. She found her father, who apparently still wasn't too happy about Atalanta and wanted to marry her off quickly. So she decided that all her suitors must beat her in a footrace; those who lost, she would kill. Then she fell in love at first sight with Hippomenes, who was also known as Melanion.

Hippomenes, fearing that he would not be able to beat her in the race, went to Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite came up with the plan of the golden apples. At a key moment, Hippomenes dropped the apples and Atalanta paused to gather each of them up, allowing Hippomenes to win. They were then able to marry, but because they made love in a sacred temple, an irate deity turned them into lions who were believed to not be able to mate with each other, thus separating them forever.

Interesting Facts

Atalanta may be Minoan in origin; the first women's sacred footraces are believed to have been held in ancient Crete. The "golden apples" may have been bright yellow quince fruit, which still grows on Crete and was a very important fruit in ancient times, before the arrival of citrus and other fruits from the East.

The Atalanta story may reflect an older tradition of athletic, empowered free women on Crete choosing their own husbands and lovers. The earliest version of the Olympic Games was believed to come from Crete and may have been made up of all women athletes competing in honor of the ancient Minoan mother goddess.