The myth of Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest for the Golden Fleece, is one of the best-known legends of ancient Greece. It features renowned Greek heroes like Hercules and Theseus, and a journey to the ends of the earth in search of the mythical Golden Fleece, which was said to have been shorn from a divine ram which flew across the Black Sea. The Argo, the ship on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed, was commemorated in the ancient world as the first ever sailing vessel, and a replica (pictured below) now floats in the harbour of Volos, Greece, where Jason was said to have had his home. The voyage of Jason and the Argonauts was, in the Greek imagination – and still is today – the archetypal male explorer-adventure story: the brave band of warriors who overcomes all the odds to wrest the prize from the dragon and win the princess (in this case Medea, though we all know how that one ends).
But what most people don’t know is that, according to an ancient mythographer, one woman also went with them.
The story of Atalanta is, in many ways, very modern. All the ancient sources agree on how it begins. When Atalanta was born, her father – who had been hoping for a son – left her out to die on a nearby mountain. (The practice of exposure was sadly common in antiquity, particularly for girls who in most cases could not inherit or manage property like their male counterparts; almost two thousand years later, an Egyptian administrative document describes how city rubbish dumps were filled with abandoned children.)
But Atalanta survived against the odds. She was discovered and suckled by a she-bear (much like the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, who were fostered by a she-wolf), and grew up on the mountain, raised by huntsmen. Later – and this is where things get a bit hazy, because ancient myth is rarely strict in its chronology – she appears in a series of other heroic adventures. One of the most famous (at least in antiquity) is the Calydonian boar hunt, led by the hero Meleager, in which many of the most well-known ancient Greek heroes participated: the twins Castor and Pollux (brothers of Helen of Troy), Theseus, Jason, and also Atalanta. Not only was Atalanta the only woman to participate in the hunt – and it’s important to remember that for the ancient Greeks, hunting was an exclusively male activity – but she was also the first to wound the boar, an extraordinary accolade for a woman.
In most accounts, this is the last time we see Atalanta before the famous episode in which she is reunited with her father (which I’ll get to later) – but a second-century AD mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus, who wrote a Library of ancient Greek myth, has something else to say which is particularly interesting.
Sent to fetch the fleece, Jason … built a ship of fifty oars … and when the ship was built, and he inquired of the oracle, the god gave him leave to assemble the nobles of Greece and sail away. And those who assembled were as follows: … Orpheus, … Castor and Pollux, … Hercules, … Theseus, … and Atalanta … (Apollod. Bibl. 1.9.16, tr. Frazer)
Among a list of the fifty heroes who were said to have attended Jason on his voyage, Atalanta’s name is included as if it were completely natural for a woman to embark on a heroic journey with some of the greatest heroes of Greece. But in a mythical ancient world where women are expected to be both silent and subordinate – to the extent where, in some cases, they are even killed to further the male heroic cause (as with Iphigenia and Polyxena) – Atalanta is the exception, not the rule.
To me, this casual mention of Atalanta’s participation in the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts is extraordinary, and opens up all sorts of questions. How did Atalanta gain a place on the quest for the Golden Fleece? How did she train to become a warrior in the first place, and why would Jason have accepted her on his voyage? And what drove her to sail to the ends of the earth and fight with a band of men, when the accepted (and enforced) traditional role of women was to weave at home?
My second book For the Winner, the second instalment in the Golden Apple trilogy of ancient Greek myths, sets out to tell the tale of this extraordinary woman and warrior for the first time. Rather than focusing on Jason, Hercules, or Theseus – the heroes we already know – the novel follows Atalanta as she struggles to come to terms with her rejection by her father, as she fights her way onto the voyage of the Argo and travels to the ends of the earth on the most famous heroic journey of the age.
One of the most rewarding things about writing Atalanta’s story is that she interacts with so many of the most well-known figures of ancient Greek myth; and yet she herself has been largely forgotten, which means that it’s particularly important to bring her back to the forefront of the myth where she belongs. One of the areas where she has captured the popular imagination, however, is in her footrace with Hippomenes (or Melanion – the name changes in different accounts), made famous by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
The story goes that, when Atalanta was at last reunited with her father, he demanded that she marry. Not wanting to do so (Atalanta was famously a virgin), she asked if he might hold a contest: a foot-race for her hand. Being a fast runner, Atalanta expected to win: but Hippomenes, one of the suitors, rolled a golden apple in her path at the last moment and Atalanta was distracted, allowing Hippomenes to win the contest. The race became a subject for large-scale mythological paintings in the 18th century, as with Hallé’s The Race between Hippomenes and Atalanta, where we see Hippomenes in a fetching pink tunic dashing for the finish line, and Atalanta stooping behind to pick up the apple.
But if Atalanta’s participation on the voyage of the Argo raises questions, it is nothing to the problems posed by this myth. Why would Atalanta – by all accounts a fearless warrior and canny negotiator (as we see with the institution of the foot-race) – allow herself to be cheated by such a cheap trick? The (sexist) prejudice lying behind it is, I suspect, based on the twin assumptions of a woman’s lack of focus and her (caricatured) distraction by glittery golden trinkets. I wanted to dig deeper in For the Winner, and look at whether there might be any other reasons for Atalanta’s conscious decision to stop for the golden apple – reasons that might in fact legitimise her choice, and tell us more about why she travelled with Jason and the Argonauts in the first place.
And this is where For the Winner connects to my first novel, For the Most Beautiful – in its focus on the myths of the golden apples of the Hesperides which weave themselves through Greek legend. The golden apples represented both desire and danger in the myths of antiquity, and it’s at the nexus between sex, violence, and ambition that Atalanta’s story lies.
Born in Brighton and brought up in Suffolk, Emily Hauser is a classicist and author. She studied Classics at Cambridge, where she was taught by Mary Beard, and completed a PhD at Yale University. She is now a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. For the Most Beautiful — the first book in the Golden Apple trilogy — was her debut novel and retells the story of the women and siege of Troy. Her second, For the Winner, is a reimagining of the myth of Atalanta and the legend of Jason, the Argonauts and the search for the Golden Fleece.
- ‘Jason takes the Fleece’. Detail from Athenian red-figure clay vase, about 470-460 BC. New York. Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Replica of the Argo, Volos © konstantinos kolimpa
- The Race between Hippomenes and Atalanta, Noël Hallé, 1762-65. Musée du Louvre, Paris.