Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ancient World (Greek Myths): Atalanta’s Race (by Shirley Climo)

In most of the Greek myths and tales, women are relegated to a subservient role, portrayed as a temptress, or depicted as a monster (literal or figurative).  The story of Atalanta is in stark contrast to most of these narratives.  Atalanta is independent, resourceful, and brave.  Here is her story.

King Iasus of Arcadia only lacks one thing in life:  a son.  He prays often to the god Zeus to fulfill his greatest wish for an heir to his throne.  When a baby is finally born to his wife, though, she is a girl. The Queen sees her as a gift from the gods and names her Atalanta.  King Iasus is so outraged; he gives the baby to a guard and commands him to “cast her on the highest slope of Mount Cyllene.”   Instead, the guard carries the baby up the snowy mountainside and places her inside the mouth of a cave where a she-bear lives.   The she-bear cares for the baby along with her two cubs. 

A year later, a hunter named Ciron finds Atalanta in the dark cave as he seeks out the bear for her skin.   Ciron teaches Atalanta all about hunting, and her swift feet make her the talk of the land.  King Iasus, now bent with age and loneliness, requests to meet the remarkable, young woman.  During her visit, he learns that she is his daughter.  Now full of grief and humility, the King asks her to stay with him.  She accepts his offer.   Atalanta wants for nothing in the palace and becomes the “pride and pleasure” of Iasus. 

Yearning for a grandson who could take over his kingdom after his death, the King insists that Atalanta finds a husband.  No one suits her, though, so to put off (hopefully permanently) making a marriage commitment, she proclaims that she will marry the man who can defeat her in a footrace.  Any man who challenges her but does not win will be put to death.  Despite the possible consequences, many men come forward.  None are able to outrun her…until a young Greek warrior, Melanion, comes along.  With the help of Aphrodite, Melanion is able to win the race and Atalanta’s love.   The compatible couple lives happily together and provides a future heir for the kingdom.  Their happiness and pride prompt a surprising punishment from the Aphrodite. 

Author Shirley Climo has created a indispensable retelling of this famous myth.  She depicts a strong but flawed Atalanta as well as portrays well the character changes in Iasus.  Artist Alexander Koshkin used watercolors, tempera, and gouache for the illustrations which wonderfully capture the ancient Greek world and compliment the text perfectly. I recommend Atalanta’s Race: A Greek Myth for a unit or study of the ancient world or Greek myths.  Atalanta’s story is especially pivotal because it centers on a competent female protagonist—a rarity in ancient literature.  Also, this story compliments well with a study of the ancient Olympics.  Despite being a superior athlete, Atalanta would not have been able to compete.  The story prompts a discussion of that rule, the role of women in the ancient Greek world, and the example of Atalanta to women past and present.  Atalanta’s Race: A Greek Myth is geared for readers 8 and up. 

Teaching Opportunities:

  • Journal—Do you think Atalanta let Melanion win?  Why or why not?
  • Physical Fitness—Hold races within the class (or between classes) or neighborhood/family.  Experiment with different types like three-legged, sack, and foot.  Replicate the race of Atalanta and Melanion.  Allow one runner to throw down three objects that another runner (preferably stronger) must pick up during the race.  See who wins.
  • Social Studies—Discuss the role of women in the ancient world/Greece.   Compare it to the role or women in the modern world. 
  • History—Learn about the first Olympic games and the traditions/competitions in the ancient Olympics.
  • Literature—Read and compare/contrast Atalanta’s narrative with other Greek myths.
  • Reading Skills—Identify the sequence of events and cause/effect relationships in the story. 

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