The story of Atalanta is very old, but Hamilton mostly takes it from Apollodorus and Ovid. Atalanta is the greatest female hero of the Greeks. Her father, disappointed at not having a son, leaves the newborn Atalanta in the mountains to die. A bear then takes the baby in, and she is later raised by a group of hunters. She becomes swifter and more deadly than any of them, and once kills two Centaurs who pursued her.
Like the other heroes, Atalanta is also raised as an abandoned child. Her quests and deeds are not as extensive as Hercules or Theseus, but her existence complicates the Greek idea of women. In many myths they are sources of evil (like Pandora) or beautiful objects to be captured (like Persephone), but Atalanta is a hero with her own agency.
Atalanta is most famous for her role in the hunt of the Calydonian boar. Artemis had sent to boar to terrorize the land of King Oeneus because he had forgotten to make the proper sacrifice to the gods. Oeneus assembles a group of heroes to hunt the boar, among them Atalanta. Some of the heroes don’t want her to come, but Meleager, who has fallen in love with Atalanta, convinces them.
The Calydonian Hunt is basically a mass hero’s quest, as they all assemble to try and slay a dangerous beast. Like the Minotaur, the boar is a punishment for a king’s sin, but the punishing monster then turns against innocents, and so must be killed.
The boar kills and wounds many men, but it is Atalanta who gives the beast its first wound. Then Meleager rushes in and finishes it off. Meleager gives the honors of the hunt and the boar’s skin to Atalanta. Meleager’s uncles are angry that Atalanta should have the boar’s skin, and Meleager kills them in a quarrel. Then Meleager’s mother Althea, enraged and wanting to avenge her brothers, kills Meleager by burning a magical log that is connected with the length of his life. Althea then hangs herself.
Like Athena and Artemis, Atalanta proves herself through her own great deeds and independence, rather than through beauty or winning the love of a man. Meleager’s fate is its own tragic story, like a miniature of the later story of Orestes and Clytemnestra – Althea is caught between the sin of letting her brothers die unavenged, and the sin of killing her own son.
Atalanta has more adventures after the Hunt. Some stories say she sailed with the Argonauts, but Hamilton thinks this is unlikely. At a contest Atalanta beats Peleus, who will father Achilles, in a wrestling match. She then learns who her parents are and goes to live with them.
Atalanta is less famous and has fewer great adventures than the other three heroes of this section, but Hamilton includes her among the great heroes to show that the Greek idea of heroism also celebrated the female warrior and hunter.
Many men want to marry Atalanta, but she has no interest in them. To appease her suitors, she promises to marry any man who can beat her in a foot race. No one can do it, until a young man called Melanion distracts her during the race by rolling several golden apples (from the garden of the Hesperides) in front of Atalanta. The apples are magically intriguing and Atalanta can’t help stopping to pick them up. She loses the race and agrees to marry Melanion. Later in their lives they both somehow offend Zeus or Aphrodite and are turned into lions.
The apples of the Hesperides return, and Atalanta’s story then becomes less unique – as most of the myths about women mostly revolve around their marriage. This story is still different in that Melanion is not the hero winning the hand of the princess – Atalanta is still the protagonist and the one immortalized by fame. Like many of the heroes, her later life ends in decline and punishment of some kind.