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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #244: Atalanta

Leave me alone. I don't like fast women.

There's been an effort in recent popular culture to create strong female characters (or, somewhat less inventively, to reimagine established male characters as female). The argument, not without merit, points to a paucity of independent, well-drawn young heroines in literature and cinema. Certainly that's been true historically, and recent efforts to close the gap have touched off resistance from traditionally male producers and consumers of fantasy, science fiction, or comic book fare, resistance that has sadly been a little bit understandable and a lot ugly. The results have been mixed - we've gotten some wonderful, creative, textured female characters, and some lousy, derivative, forgettable ones. We get Rey and Buffy, but we also get Katniss and Bella. That's probably a good thing - equality means equal opportunity to succeed or to suck, like everyone else.

As always, I look to the ancient Greeks for guidance. The Hellenes knew how to crank out a worthy character, and those seeking a template for a fierce leading lady should turn their eyes to Atalanta. Born to a father who wanted a son, she was left on a mountaintop to die, but was raised to adulthood by a she-bear. She was fast and strong and a deadly hunter with bow or spear. She was beautiful, too, of course, because the girl hero has always had to be pretty, even three thousand years ago. And yet part of Atalanta's appeal is that beauty wasn't her primary attribute. She was hell on wheels, a real nasty piece of work. She joined the hunt for the Calydonian Boar and drew first blood among a company of men who deeply resented her participation. She joined Jason's Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece, again the only female in the boat. She was like Title IX for Greek mythology.

A sworn disciple of the virgin hunter-goddess Artemis, Atalanta swore never to marry. (Aside: Meleager, a companion who finished off the boar she wounded, gave her the pelt to try to seduce her. His mother, by the way, was so insulted that she burned the charmed log that contained his life's essence. Because Greek myths.) Her father insisted she find a husband, so Atalanta announced that she would marry anyone who could beat her in a footrace. Any that failed, she would kill. Many tried, and the corpses piled up until a guy (Hippomenes) prayed to Aphrodite, goddess of love, to help him cheat. She gave him three golden apples, a go-to move for meddling Greek goddesses, and during the race Hippomenes would toss down the apples and Atalanta would pause to retrieve them, which allowed him to win. Shady, but if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying. The two got married, and some kids (the myths vary on this).

The wonderful postscript is that Hippomenes idiotically forgot to thank Aphrodite (Greek heroes were always doing this) and she caused them to become mad with lust while in the temple of chaste goddess Cybele, and they got busy on the marble, a big no-no. So Cybele turned them into lions (Greeks thought lions only bred with leopards, and so this was a horrible fate, sentencing the lovers to never again be able to make love.)

Atalanta hunted boars, quested for the Golden Fleece, killed men who couldn't outrun her, and eventually was turned into a lioness for screwing in the wrong temple. How Hollywood hasn't made this into an epic yet is beyond me. Get me Charlize Theron on line one.

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