Atalanta is the greatest female hero, mostly for her role in the Calydonian Hunt—a great hunt for a vicious wild boar Artemis has sent to terrorize the kingdom of a king who forgot to pay her tribute. A large group of heroes hunts the boar, but it is Atalanta who finally causes its death. She first wounds it, and a warrior named Meleager, who is hopelessly in love with her, delivers the mortal blow. His love for her, however, results in his death. Meleager’s two uncles insult Atalanta, so he kills them. In turn, Meleager’s mother destroys him by burning the magical log that determines the length of his life.
Atalanta has other adventures, most notably beating Peleus, Achilles’s father, in a wrestling match. Some say she is one of the heroes who search for the Golden Fleece, but that is unlikely. In another story she has vowed never to marry but has many suitors. To appease them, she agrees to marry anyone who beats her in a race, as she knows she is unbeatable. However, a young man named Melanion (or Milanion or Hippomenes) defeats her with his wits. He carries several golden apples in the race and drops them along the way. Distracted by their beauty, Atalanta loses and marries him. At some point they both offend Zeus and are turned into lions.
Though Hercules is one of the most famous mythical characters—largely due to his colorful and spectacular exploits—he is far from the ideal Greek hero. He causes much misery and must endure much suffering as a result. On one level, he is a very simple character: strong, brave, good-hearted, and not much else. He is unlike the heroes Odysseus, Theseus, or even Perseus, who display wit and cleverness along with a clear awareness of the places of gods and men; Hercules, however, is stubborn, pig-headed, decidedly non-intellectual, and often directly challenges the gods.
His story, therefore, is one of constant struggle between his noble urges and his weaker impulses. Hamilton notes that the secret to Hercules’ heroism lies in “his sorrow for wrongdoing and his willingness to expiate it [by which] he showed greatness of soul.” His character is brutishly simple, but his story is compelling because it is about a hero struggling with himself. At every turn in his life, Hercules is his own worst enemy and must suffer to correct his errors. After he murders his family—which Hera induces and is not necessarily his fault—he essentially imposes the Twelve Labors upon himself. As Hamilton notes, his heroism stems from his strong sense of morality and his ability to see when he has done wrong. Hercules’ refusal to atone for one of his sins—even after Zeus has punished him for it—leads to his downfall. His death emphasizes that wrongdoing, as well as arrogance against the gods, will be punished.
It might seem odd that the intellectual culture of Athens would revere such a simple-minded brute. Yet Hercules’ emotional struggle is complex and tragic, and it is this aspect of his character that the great tragedians explore. Indeed, the most satisfying myths are not simple tales of victories over evil but tales of characters who encounter and confront the good and evil causes and consequences of their actions. Hercules is, on one hand, a superheroic character of vast strength and courage. On the other hand, his story, as an adventure tale motivated by his tragic missteps, is a very human one.
Atalanta may appear in this section on four heroes merely because Hamilton desired gender balance. Though a great heroine, her fame and adventures are no match for Perseus, Theseus, or Hercules. Her presence is nonetheless significant, as it is worth noting that the Greek myths do have a tradition of celebrating the female warrior-huntress. From the goddesses Artemis and Athena to the human Amazons and Atalanta, there are numerous proud, fiercely independent women who are every bit equal to men. Though we tend to locate the prototype of a self-sufficient, empowered woman as a twentieth-century phenomenon, these myths demonstrate its existence at a much earlier date.