Exhibit of the month

View all past exhibits of the month


Unfulfilled loves with tragic ending


Sarcophagus with the representation of Meleager and Atalante (The Calydonian Boar hunt).

National Archaeological Museum

Sculpture Collection inv. no. 1186

Provenance: Patras

Measurements: Height with lid: 1,50m. Length: 2,10m. Width: 0,96m.

Date: 150-170 A.D.

Place of display: Room 32

Meleager was the son of Oeneus, the king of Calydon in Aitolia, and of Althaea. His story is mentioned in Homer, Hesiod, the lyric poets, Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus, while the tragic poets, Sophocles and Euripides, had written plays titled «Meleager», fragments of which have been preserved. When Meleager was born, the Fates predicted that growing up he would become a brave hero, but also that he would live until the log burning on the hearth at that moment was burnt out. His mother terrified, as she had heard the Fates, ran and put out the log, tucking it away in the palace.

When, years later, goddess Artemis sent to Calydon a ferocious wild boar, which ravaged the cultivated land, in order to punish king Oeneus who had omitted the offering of the first fruits[1] to the gods, Meleager, by then a young man, organized the hunt of the wild animal, inviting together with his father the best hunters of Greece to participate. To his summon quite a few heroes responded, such as Theseus, Jason, Peleus, the Dioscuri Castor and Pollux, Admetus, Amphiaraus and many others. Among them stood out the formidable huntress and archer Atalante, daughter of the Arcadian hero Iasius, the only woman who had taken part in the Argonautic expedition. The visiting heroes were received by Oeneus, who organized banquets and festivals in their honour. In the course of the festivities, however, serious disagreements arose in relation to the presence of Atalante, whom many hunters did not accept, considering as provocative and unacceptable the participation of a woman in an activity that belonged exclusively to the world of men. Meleager, although he was married to Cleopatra, fell strongly in love with Atalante and persuaded his companions to accept her. Nevertheless, Atalante[2] was not meant to reciprocate this passionate love because having dedicated herself to the service of goddess Artemis, wished to remain a virgin.

On the day of the hunt Atalante was the first to hit the boar with her arrows, while Meleager struck the final blow with his spear. In accordance to the custom, the trophy of the hunt (the head and hide of the animal) should be given to that who had killed the animal, and therefore the trophy rightfully belonged to Meleager, who, even so, offered it to Atalante, since she was the first to injure the wild animal. This gesture enraged the men who right from the start did not want Atalante among them, perhaps because they deemed that her position, as that of all women, should be within the realm of their home, or perhaps because her superb hunting skills challenged the, undisputed in their view, superiority of their sex. Moreover, the two brothers of Meleager’s mother, who were of the opinion that the trophy belonged by right to Meleager, but in case he did not choose to take it, then it was the property of his family, seized it from Atalante. Meleager blinded by anger, killed his two uncles. His mother, upon hearing about the death of her brothers, threw infuriated the log, on which the life of her son depended, into the fire, causing his death.

The mythological theme of Meleager and Atalante in the Calydonian Boar hunt is very often depicted on the sarcophagi of the Roman times, as much in Greece as in Rome. On the sarcophagus of the National Archaeological Museum[3] the hero features in a second plane holding a spear in his raised right hand, with which he is getting ready to attack the beast, which has already thrown to the ground an aged man. On left, Atalante unlooses an arrow, clad in short chiton and high hunting boots (emvades).

The tragic love of Meleager for Atalante that led the hero to his death, while the heroine, rejecting his love, remained for ever a virgin and huntress in the service of goddess Artemis, provided a source of inspiration for many artists[4] through the centuries.


Dr Wanda Papaefthymiou


[1] The offering of the first fruits constitutes a common form of bloodless sacrifice to the gods in ancient Greece and relates to the offering of the first fruits of the annual crops to the gods.

[2] The myth of Atalante appears in two versions, in the first one Atalante is the daughter of Schoineus from Boeotia and in the second one of the Arcadian hero Iasius. When Atalante was born, her father exposed her in the Arcadian mountains, because he wanted a son, where she was raised by a bear. Atalante became a formidable huntress, committing herself to the service of goddess Artemis and vowing to remain a virgin.

[3] The sarcophagus of the National Archaeological Museum is made in an Attic workshop, of Pentelic marble. It has a saddle lid. The chest of the sarcophagus is decorated on all four sides. On the main front long side, the Calydonian boar hunt is depicted. From right to left, two young men rush towards the boar, which stands in front of them and attacks a fallen on the ground man. Behind it appears Meleager holding a spear. There follow two more men and the representation closes with Atalante, who shoots with an arrow the boar. On the left narrow facet of the sarcophagus there are depicted two more figures of hunters, while on the right narrow facet a griffin is devouring an ox. On the back long side of the sarcophagus two lions put one foot each on a kantharos/ drinking cup, which is placed between them.

[4] Six centuries before its depiction on the sarcophagus, the theme had been the favoured one of a vase painter, whose name is not known to research, but we conventionally call him the Meleager Painter. A work of his of the beginning of the 4th cent. B.C. is the amphora Α 15113 in the Vase Collection of the National Archaeological Museum, on which Atalante is portrayed seated among young male hunters. The hunter to the left of the representation, to whom Atalante turns in an affectionate gesture, rests his hand on her shoulder and could perhaps be Meleager himself.


Selective bibliography

Ν. Καλτσάς, Εθνικό Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο. Τα Γλυπτά (Athens 2001) p. 350, cat. no. 740.

G. Koch, Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs. Die Mythologien Sarkophage, Meleager, ASR XII, 6 1975 no. 160

G. Koch, Sarkophage der römischen Kaiserzeit (1993), p. 40, 100, fig. 58.

LIMC II 942, no. 22 (ATALANTE), LIMC VI 425, no. 112 pl. 219 (MELEAGROS).

Κ. Ρωμιοπούλου, Ελληνορωμαϊκά γλυπτά του Εθνικού Αρχαιολογικού Μουσείου (1997) no. 98.

Κ. Καθαρίου, Το εργαστήριο του ζωγράφου του Μελεάγρου και η εποχή του. (Thessaloniki 2002) pp.  48-56, 212 no. MEL 2, pl. 1ΓΔ.

Newsletter sign-up