Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Atalanta, cont.

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 750 words.

Remember: Venus is telling this story to her lover Adonis, so when Hippomenes prays to Venus for guidance, Venus says, "Hippomenes invoked my aid" (my aid = Venus's aid). Venus then brings to Hippomenes three golden apples and, as she says, "I approached Hippomenes, showing myself only to him, and told him how to use them." The basic structure of this story has a great deal in common with later European fairy-tales: there is a beautiful princess, but her father has created an impossible wedding challenge - the only way that a suitor can hope to win the challenge is with a magical helper (in this case, the goddess Venus).

Hippomenes prays to Venus

Now her father and the people were calling out for the usual foot-race, when Hippomenes, Neptune's descendant invoked my aid, as a suppliant: 'Cytherea, I beg you to assist my daring, and encourage the fire of love you lit.'

A kindly breeze brought me the flattering prayer, and I confess it stirred me, though there was scant time to give him my help. There is a field, the people there call it the field of Tamasus, the richest earth in the island of Cyprus, which the men of old made sacred to me, and ordered it to be added to my temples, as a gift. A tree gleams in the middle of the field, with rustling golden leaves, and golden branches. Come from there, by chance, I was carrying three golden apples, I had picked, in my hands, and I approached Hippomenes, showing myself only to him, and told him how to use them.

The trumpets gave the signal, and, leaning forward, they flashed from the starting line, and skimmed the surface of the sand, with flying feet. You would think them capable of running along the waves without wetting them, and passing over the ripened heads of the standing corn. The young man's spirit was cheered by shouts and words of encouragement: 'Run, Hippomenes! Now, now is the time to sprint! Use your full power, now! Don't wait: you'll win!'

Hippomenes races with Atalanta

Who knows whether Megareus's heroic son, or Schoeneus's daughter, was more pleased with these words? O how often, when she could have overtaken him, she lingered, and watching his face for a while, left him behind against her will! Panting breath came from his weary throat, and the winning post was far off.

Only then did Neptune's scion throw away one of the fruits from the tree. The girl was astonished and, eager for the shining apple, she ran off the course, and picked up the spinning gold. Hippomenes passed her: the stands resounded with the applause. She made up for the delay and the lost time by a burst of speed, and left the youth behind once more.

Again she delayed when a second apple was thrown, followed, and passed the man. The last section of track was left. 'Now,' he said, 'be near me, goddess who made me this gift!' He threw the shining gold vigorously, sideways, into the deep field, from where she would take longer to get back.

The girl seemed to hesitate as to whether she should chase it: I made her pick it up, and added weight to the fruit she held, and obstructed her equally with the heaviness of the burden and the delay.

And lest my story be longer than the race itself, the virgin was overtaken: the winner led away his prize.

Hippomenes fails to thank Venus for her favor

Adonis, did I deserve to be thanked, to have incense brought me? Unthinking, he neither gave thanks, nor offered incense to me. I was provoked to sudden anger, and pained by his contempt, so as not to be slighted in future, I decreed an example would be made of them, and I roused myself against them both.

They were passing a temple, hidden in the deep woods, of Cybele mother of the gods, that noble Echion had built in former times fulfilling a vow, and the length of their journey persuaded them to rest. There, stirred by my divine power, an untimely desire to make love seized Hippomenes.

Near the temple was a poorly lit hollow, like a cave, roofed with the natural pumice-stone, sacred to the old religion, where the priests had gathered together wooden figures of the ancient gods. They entered it, and desecrated the sanctuary, with forbidden intercourse. The sacred images averted their gaze, and the Great Mother, with the turreted crown, hesitated as to whether to plunge the guilty pair beneath the waters of the Styx: but the punishment seemed too light.

So tawny manes spread over their necks, that, a moment ago, were smooth; their fingers curved into claws; forelegs were formed from arms; all their weight was in their breast; and their tails swept the surface of the sand. They had a fierce expression, roared instead of speaking, and frequented the woods for a marriage-bed. As lions, fearful to others, they tamely bite on Cybele's bit.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • who helped Hippomenes to win the race? how did Hippomenes win the race?
  • why as the goddess Cybele angry at Atalanta and Hippomenes?
  • what happened to Hippomenes and Atalanta in the end?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Ovid's Metamorphoses (2000). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM