by Byron Petrakis
Atalanta “lived unwed in the shady woodlands, ridding herself of her insistent suitors by imposing harsh terms upon them. ‘No man may have me,’ she said, ‘unless he first defeats me in a race. Compete against me, and the one who is swift of foot will have my hand in marriage as his prize; but death will be the reward of those who are left behind. Let us race on those conditions’.” — Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X.
Wearing only a blue ribbon to keep her golden brown hair off her slender neck and shapely back, Atalanta gazed at her male competitors at the starting line of the Sappho 5K. Held annually in mid-August, the race celebrated the enduring legacy of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, whose birthplace in Eressos, on the northern Aegean island of Lesbos, was an international center of feminist culture. This year’s race drew an enthusiastic crowd of islanders and northern European tourists, drawn to the island by its warm, turquoise waters, rugged volcanic beauty, and popular naturist beaches.
According to ancient legend, Atalanta was abandoned by her father, who valued only his sons. The young girl grew up in the wilderness, suckled by a she-bear, before her rescue by hunters who taught her hunting and survival skills.
In time, she matured into a beautiful, strong, and swift young woman able to outfight, outwit, and outrun anyone who tried to catch her. Ultimately accepted by her father and reunited with him in his old age, she vowed never to marry anyone who could not beat her in a race. Nineteen and virginal, she remained proudly unbeaten, while all her unsuccessful suitors were condemned to death.
Likewise athletically gifted and virginal, Atalanta’s modern counterpart had been orphaned after her parents were killed in one of the frequent wildfires that plagued many parts of Greece during a particularly arid summer. Rescued by a neighbor from her burning home, she was brought up by a family of shepherds who taught her to tend their flocks of sheep and goats that roamed over the rock-strewn hills of Eressos.
As Atalanta grew into young adulthood, she gained exceptional strength and foot speed, nimbly scampering over the hillsides while tracking down an errant goat or sheep. She soon developed a reputation among the local youth as a fearless guardian of her flocks who could outrun any of the young men who were attracted by her shapely form, olive skin and long, flowing hair.
Proud of her body and athletic ability, Atalanta eagerly seized the opportunity to enter her first organized footrace as a way of testing herself against both native and foreign competitors. Besides the traditional island olive leaf wreaths presented to the male and female winners, the race organizers were offering a special prize to the woman who beat her male competitors: an assortment of the finest local agricultural products that included wild flower honey, an urn of the famous “Aegean Gold” olive oil from the fertile groves to the south, and a block of feta cheese made from the milk of goats and sheep.
Growing up outdoors for most of her life in the island’s warm, dry, and sunny climate, Atalanta joined her fellow competitors in adhering to both ancient Olympic custom and the modern island practice of running in the nude on the naturist section of the town’s long beach.
As she scanned the starting field assembled on the beach at low tide, she noticed one handsome young man with a powerful torso and muscular legs. A Greek from the island of Ithaca, ancestral home of the legendary Odysseus, he sported a red headband over his curly brown locks. On his left wrist, he wore a gold bracelet inlaid with small diamonds and emeralds, a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation to the oldest son. Confident in his ability to win the race, Meilanion, named after the young man in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, was looking forward to competing against the beautiful young shepherd girl with the reputation for unmatched speed.
In a dream the night before the race, the goddess Aphrodite appeared to Meilanion, telling him that he would run against a beautiful young maiden faster than he. His only hope of victory, she revealed, was to distract her long enough to throw her off course and allow him to overtake her at the end.
She warned him, however, to avoid the temptation of relying more on stealth than speed. If he became obsessed with winning by any means, substituting deceit for prowess, he would surely lose the race.
Furthermore, he would incur the wrath of Artemis, virginal goddess of the hunt and flocks, and protector of young girls up to the age of marriage. Aphrodite warned that Artemis was armed with a hunting bow and quiver of arrows which she used to cause sudden death to any mortal who threatened those under her protection. Observe the golden mean, Aphrodite instructed him, balance strategy with skill, and success would be his. Upset that balance so prized by the gods, however, and disaster would follow.
Upon awakening, Meilanion conceived a strategy he felt would allow him to win the race and Atalanta’s heart, while still heeding Aphrodite’s warning. In each fist, he concealed two gold coins. If he were losing to Atalanta at key points in the race, he would toss them near her in order to distract her and throw her off her pace.
Even if she had no interest in keeping them for herself, he thought, an innocent young girl like her might stoop to pick them up in order to return them to him at the race’s end. The extra seconds this would take, he reasoned, would allow him to outrun her to the finish.
As he played out his strategy in his mind, the young man recalled how Odysseus, ruler of Ithaca, had created the strategy of the Trojan Horse to win by trickery what the Greeks failed to win by arms in the last year of the Trojan War.
As the runners took their places at the start, Atalanta met Meilanion’s gaze and smiled softly, noting how the evening sun glinted against the jewels of his bracelet. While the other runners laughed and chatted casually among themselves, Atalanta began to block out all distractions, focusing her attention on the course itself.
When the starter shook a rawhide length of copper goat bells to signal “go,” she sprang forward, her strong bare feet gaining purchase in the still warm, sun-kissed sand. Before the first 400 meters, Atalanta took the lead, breaking contact with the rest of the field except for Meilanion, who positioned himself right behind her left shoulder, his warm breath blowing on her neck.
Responding to his presence, Atalanta increased her speed and by 800 meters had begun to open up a short lead of several steps.
As the two leaders rounded the purplish black volcanic rock that marked the return at the halfway point of the course, Meilanion tossed two of his golden coins forward and to the right of his rival, briefly startling her and causing her to alter her stride as she instinctively moved a few steps off course. Seizing his opportunity, he momentarily surged ahead, the strain showing on his tightly drawn, sweat-stained face.
Reacting quickly to his move, Atalanta sped forward and soon slipped by her rival, her eyes flashing with determination. Responding in kind, like a dancer in a line of folk dancers keeping in step with the leader, Meilanion tossed his remaining coins at Atalanta’s feet.
Looking over at him as the two ran side by side, Atalanta laughed and said that gold alone would not win her affections or him the race. Erroneously believing that his beautiful rival expected more than just coins from him and desperate for victory, Meilanion unclasped his bracelet and threw it at her feet while putting forth a burst of speed that sorely taxed his heart and lungs. Gasping for breath, with salty sweat burning his eyes and caked onto his parched lips, he lunged toward the finish line, less than 100 meters away.
Meanwhile, in a quick and graceful motion, Atalanta bent forward to scoop the bracelet from the sand while pulling even with her rival before finally outkicking him to the end. Intending to return his bracelet and graciously congratulate him despite his losing effort, Atalanta recoiled in horror as she looked over to see Meilanion clutching his chest and falling heavily onto the sand. A moment later, his body lay still.
According to the official medical report, the cause of death was sudden cardiac arrest.
Copyright © 2012 by Byron Petrakis