Once upon a time, there was a baby named Atalanta. Atalanta the Baby was perfect except for one small flaw: she was a girl. This was not a trait her father valued and he had her taken up a mountain and left there to die.
(You might think that Atalanta grows up to kill her father. I don’t want you to worry, so I’ll tell you now that Dad lives to a ripe old age but was never nominated for Father of the Year.)
In true Mowgli fashion (even though Mowgli hadn’t been invented yet) the baby was adopted by animals (a bear to be exact). Eventually some people-type hunters found her and taught her to hunt and run in a people-type way. And it turned out that she was quite excellent at hunting and was a better hunter than the hunters. And it turned out that she was quite excellent at running and could beat anyone in a race. And she was tall and graceful and probably was able to wear high fashion (what with being tall and graceful) and yet she didn’t because she ran around the woods all the time.
Despite hitting the proverbial glass ceiling (she wasn’t allowed to go on the voyage to find the Golden Fleece because of that pesky gender thing), she managed to get in on the hunt for the Calydon Boar (big, mean, nasty, possibly mythical animal) and even got the first shot that led to the kill. But that’s not part of today’s story.
Then arrived the Time for Atalanta to Get Married. It’s not clear how this particular Time arrived. Some say it came in on little cat’s feet (extra points for getting the reference). Some say she made up with Daddy Dearest and he decided she should be wed. Still others say it was her fame and beauty that led to the paparazzi which led to upteen different dudes wanting to get hitched. However it happened, it was clear that the Single Life was about to be Over for Atalanta.
It may not surprise you to learn that this didn’t sit particularly well with our heroine. She preferred running and hunting and being a virgin. It may also not surprise you that she was a dame used to getting her own way (what with being able to out hunt, out run, and out wrestle pretty much everyone).
Rather than just pouting or running away, Atalanta decreed (or perhaps she had someone do the decreeing for her) that she wasn’t going to marry just Anybody. Atalanta agreed to race anyone who wanted to race her. If Dude won, Atalanta would marry him; if she won, Dude would get his head chopped off.
More than one dude remembered it was hair-washing night and hurried on home.
Atalanta was quite sporting about the whole endeavor. She gave the racers big head starts. She occasionally wore armor when she ran. She never even wore an iPod during the race. Yet the heads piled up and Atalanta remained unattached.
And so things went until Romance woke up from a very long nap. Romance took one look at the situation, got violently ill at all the piled up heads, and decided to Do Something. The Something happened to be Melanion.
Melanion was tall, he was handsome, and he was smart because he was the only dude to race Atalanta that actually had a name.
Romance introduced Atalanta and Melanion and whomp! they fell in luv. But there was still a race to be run. Melanion turned to Aphrodite for help.
Now, to properly understand this part of the story, you must first understand that when Auntie M and I were growing up we had a record (I’ll explain another time) that had the story of Atalanta on it. And the music that accompanied the story was Troika by Prokofiev. It is not possible for me to think of the story of Atalanta without hearing the music, so I’m including it as a critical accompaniment.
Aphrodite gave Melanion three golden apples. Atalanta gave Melanion a head start. And the race began.
Because of the head start Melanion was in the lead (who says I couldn’t have been a sports commentator?), but quite soon Atalanta began to catch up. Melanion threw the smallest of the golden apples just a bit off the path. Atalanta sprinted after the golden apple, scooped it up, and continued the race. But Melanion had retaken the lead. (I hope you’re playing the music—it’s a much better story that way.)
After a few minutes, Atalanta had closed the gap to a mere hair (this is so exciting, isn’t it?) and Melanion threw the second gold apple. Did I mention these were magic apples given by a goddess? It wasn’t Atalanta’s fault that she stopped to pick up the second apple. Besides, she was in love with Melanion and really didn’t want to see his head and his body part company.
When Atalanta was about to pass him the next time, Melanion threw the third golden apple. Atalanta chased it down, Melanion won the race, and they lived happily ever after. Or at least that’s how the story ended on the record. (Don’t think the record mentioned Atalanta being kicked out as a baby either, come to think of it.)
But wait, there was a catch. With the gods and goddesses of old, there was pretty much always a catch. The stories pretty much always involved mortals messing up and forgetting about the catch (or doing it wrong) because of being human and all. And this story is no exception.
Melanion was supposed to sacrifice to Aphrodite (the giver of the apples), and—wait for it—he forgot. How one could forget such a thing is beyond me—you’d think you’d make a note in your iPhone or on the bottom of your shoe or something. Or that your new wife might say something like “where did you get these gorgeous golden apples?” which might jog your memory. But he forgot.
Aphrodite was Not Amused. And after a few twists in the story that I won’t bother with, she turned them into lions (which in those days was not King of the Jungle, hakuna mattatah stuff.)
Also, golden apples are not good for dipping into honey.