Metamorphoses VIII:260-444 – The Caledonian Boar

The Caledonian Boar

Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

Finally Sicily, the land of Mount Etna, received the exhausted Daedalus. There King Cocalus gained a reputation for mercy by taking up arms on behalf of the suppliant. 

This was at about the same time that the triumph of Theseus freed Athens from paying its mournful tribute. The citizens garland the temples, summoning warlike Minerva and Jove and the other Gods, then honor them with blood sacrifices, offerings to the temples, and piles of incense.

Rumor spread the fame of Theseus through the cities of the Argolid; the citizens of rich Achaea implored his help against their more serious dangers; and Calydon, though it was the home of Meleager, begged fervently for Theseus’ help.

The Calydonian problem was a hog, the servant and avenger of angry Diana. The Aetolians, once ruled by Oeneus, had at the end of the year paid first-fruits to Ceres, offered Bacchus his own wine, and poured the oil of Palladian olives to blond Minerva. The farmers rendered to all the Gods the honor They desired–except, the story goes, that they left the altars of Diana, daughter of Leto, without incense.

Wrath touches the Gods as surely as it does men. “We will not ignore this slight!” said Diana. “We have been dishonored, but we will not go unavenged!”

The spurned Goddess loosed an avenging boar onto the fields of Aetolia. He is bigger than the largest bulls of grassy Epirus and those of the pastures of Sicily, and his eyes glitter with blood and fire. The mane stands proudly on his unbending neck, and his bristles stick out like a hedge of spears.

Foam as hot as shrieking steam sprays down his armored flanks; his tusks are the size of elephant tusks. A thunderbolt blasts from his mouth, and vegetation shrivels at the touch of his breath.

He tramples the green crops which are just sprouting, he lays waste the ripe hopes of the weeping farmer, and he cuts down the heads of grain. The threshing yard lies empty, and empty too the granaries awaiting the promised harvest. He throws down trees: the tall palm with dates swelling from it, and the fruit, branches, and never-shed leaves of the olive.

He turns his rage also against the cattle. Neither the shepherd and his dog nor the fierce bulls can defend their herds. The country-people flee, seeing no safety save behind the walls of a city.

Meanwhile Meleager and a band of chosen youths assemble in hope of gaining honor. Here are the twin sons of Tyndarus, Castor and Pollux–one famed as a boxer, the other as a horseman. Jason, the builder of the first ship, arrives. Theseus and his close friend Perithous is here; Toxeus and Pexippus, the sons of Thestius; Lynceus and  swift Idas, the sons of King Aphareus; Caeneus, who would later become a woman; fierce Leucippus; Acastus who was master of the javelin; Hippothous and Dryas; Phoenix with his twin Amyntor; and Phyleus who was sent from Elis.

Nor was Telamon, the father of great Achilles, absent. Also came Admetus, the son of Pheres; Boeotian Iolaus; active Eurytion; the unrivalled runner Echion; Lelex from Narycion; Panopeus, Hyleus, and fierce Hippasus; Nestor (who was then a youth); Enoesimus and the other sons whom Hippocoon sent from ancient Amyclae; Laertes, who would become the father-in-law of Penelope; Parrhasian Ancaeus; wise Mopsus, the son of Ampycus; Amphiarus, whose wife would later murder him; and finally Atalanta, the ornament of the woods of Mount Lycus in Arcadia.

A smooth pin pinched together the top of her garment. Her unadorned hair was collected in a bun. An ivory quiver rattling with arrows hung from her left shoulder, and the bow too was in her left hand. Her whole appearance was what you would call virginal in a boy or boyish in a maid.

As soon as Meleager, the Calydonian hero, saw her, he was filled with desire. He drank deep of the flames (though the god of love was opposed!) and said, “Oh happy the man whom she would deign to notice!”

Time and embarrassment didn’t allow him to say any more: the great struggle upcoming took precedence.

A dense, virgin forest began on a plain above an arable valley. The hunters arrived, some stretching nets while others slipped the leashes of hounds. The remainder began following the boar’s tracks, hastening toward their own danger.

Rainwater trickled from the head of the hollow valley, forming a stream. Along its course were pliant willows and sedges, swampy rushes and reeds both long and short; the whole thicket was overgrown with vines.

From this covert the boar bursts into the midst of the hunters as violently as the lightning struck from colliding clouds. His charge flattens the vegetation, hurling trees aside with a crash. The youths shout and boldly present the broad-bladed spears in their right hands, quivering with light.

The boar rushes, scattering the barking pack. He slays with a side-stroke any dog which tries to oppose him.

The first javelin, hurled by Echion’s arm, missed; it grazed instead the trunk of a maple. The second would certainly have pierced the boar’s back if it hadn’t overflown its mark for being thrown too hard: it flew high. Thessalian Jason had made the cast.

“Phoebus!” cried Mopsus, the son of Ampycus. “As I worship and have worshipped you, grant this my prayer: let my spear strike home.”

The God granted the prayer as far as He could: Mopsus’ spear struck the boar, but it didn’t leave a wound. Diana had snatched the iron head from the flying javelin, so the shaft sailed on without a point.

The beast, driven to fury, blazed as fiercely as a thunderbolt. His eyes sparkled and flames curled from his lungs. Like a stone flying from a catapult either at a wall or toward a siege tower filled with soldiers, so the wound-dealing hog hurled itself into the band of hunters, laying low Hippalmon and Pelagon on the right end of the line. Comrades lifted the stricken men to safety.

But Enaesimus, scion of Hippocoon, couldn’t flee the deadly strokes. The boar severed his leg at the knee and threw him down as he tremblingly prepared to flee.

Pylian Nestor might’ve died before the Trojan War had not he butted his spear in the ground to use as a pole, vaulting into the branches of a nearby tree. Safe, he was able to look down at the enemy whom he had escaped.

The grandson of Eurytus and Hercules rushed to destruction in confidence of the arms he’d only recently taken up. He had his thigh ripped open by a hooked tusk.

The handsome twins Castor and Pollux, though not yet raised to the heavens, were mounted on horses whiter than snow; they shattered the trembling air with the javelins they brandished. They would’ve dealt wounds, had not the bristling beast plunged into black brambles which no horse could penetrate.

Telamon followed, but he was too focused on his pursuit; tripping over a root, he sprawled on his face. While Peleus paused to help him up, the Tegean maid Atalanta laid a swift arrow to her curved bow and loosed it. The reed arrow struck beneath the beast’s ear and grazed its body, leaving the bristles stained with a little blood.

Happy as she was at her success, she was no happier than Meleager was. “You have rightly earned the reward of courage!” he cried.

The men of the party blushed and drove forward, encouraging one another with shouting as they hurled their javelins wildly. The very number hindered the casts, causing the missiles to foul one another.

“Take a lesson from me, you men whose weapons are being outdone by those of a woman!” cried Arcadian Ancaeus, maddened by his coming doom. He lifted his double-bitted axes. “Just let me at it! Though Leto’s daughter herself shields the beast, my right hand will slay it in Diana’s despite!”

Puffed up and mouthing these grand boasts, he rushed forward on the tips of his toes with a double-axe in either hand. The beast caught the rash fool, directing its twin tusks toward the shortest path for death: they ripping Ancaeus from groin to throat. He curled up in a welter of blood and spilling intestines. The ground was wet with his gore.

Next Perithous the son of Ixion went up against the foe, brandishing a hunting spear in his strong right hand. To him Theseus, son of Aegeus, shouted, “Get back, friend dearer to me than life! Stop, you part of my soul! A brave man has the right to choose his distance: boastful courage brought doom to Ancaeus!”

Thus he spoke, bending his heavy bow with a bronze-tipped arrow nocked. He loosed it with accompanying prayers, but a leafy branch blocked the shaft and was severed instead.

Jason, son of Aeson, then hurled another javelin. Bad luck turned it from its target to the doom of undeserving Celadon, pinning his thighs together and spiking them to the ground.

Meleager, son of Oeneus, had mixed luck. His first javelin drove into the dirt between him and the boar, but the second stood up from its back. Without hesitation Meleager stepped close, driving the beast to further wrath. As it raged, whirling in a circle as its shrieking jaws spewed bloody froth, he buried a glittering hunting spear in either shoulder.

Meleager’s comrades signalled their joy with cheers and rushed to shake the victor’s right hand. They marvelled to see what an expanse of ground the great boar’s corpse covered, nor even now did they think themselves safe: each man bloodied his spear to be sure.

Meleager set his foot on the monster’s doom-laden head and said, “By my judgment, Maiden of Nonacris, these spoils go to you. I give you a share of my glory!” He offered Atalanta the head with glittering tusks and the mane which bristled along the spine.

The gift was as joyful to its author as it was to the maiden. The others, though, were envious and began to mutter among themselves.

Toxeus and Plexippus, the sons of Thestius, reach out shouting, “Put that down, girl, and step back! Don’t try to take our rightful trophy! You can’t trust your good looks to get you this, nor will the fact you’ve captured the giver with love take you so far!” They snatch the gift from Atalanta, claiming it as theirs by right.

Meleager, scion of Mars, wouldn’t bear that. Gnashing his teeth in tumbling fury, he shouted, “Learn, thieves of another’s honor, how far deeds outstrip threats!”

His spear drank deep in the breast of Plexippus, who was expecting no such thing. Meleager then turned to Toxeus, who was still goggling at what had happened–half wanting to avenge his brother and half fearing his brother’s fate. He didn’t have long to wait: Meleager heated the blade already steaming with slaughter in the brother’s blood as well.

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