The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Calydonian Boar Hunt by Ovid

Source: Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book VIII, The Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Translated by A. S. Kline © 2000 All Rights Reserved.
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See: Notes On The Boar's Head Carols


Bk VIII:260-328 The Calydonian Boar Hunt – the cause

Now Sicily, the land of Mount Etna, held the weary Daedalus, and King Cocalus, regarded as peacable, had taken up arms, against Minos, in defence of the suppliant: and thanks to Theseus, Athens now had ceased to pay Crete the sorrowful levy. The temple was wreathed with flowers, and the Athenians called out to warlike Minerva, to Jupiter and to the other gods, honouring them with gifts, and the blood of sacrificial offerings, and the contents of their incense-boxes. Far-wandering fame had spread the name of Theseus through all the cities of the Argolis, and the peoples inhabiting wealthy Achaia begged for his help in their great trouble, and Calydon, as a suppliant, despite having Meleager, asked his help, with anxious prayers.

The reason for their asking was a wild boar, servant and avenging power of Diana’s aggression. King Oeneus of Calydon, they say, made offerings, from the successful harvests of a full year, of the first fruits of the crops to Ceres, of wine to Bacchus, ‘the deliverer from care’, of libations of flowing oil, from the olives, to golden Minerva. The honour they desire was paid to all the gods, beginning with the rural deities: only the daughter of Latona’s altar was passed by: neglected, it is said, and left without its incense. Anger even touches the gods. ‘I shall not suffer this without exacting punishment’ she cried ‘and, though not honoured, it will not be said that I was un-avenged.’ And the goddess, spurned, sent an avenging wild boar, over the Aetolian fields: grassy Epirus had none greater than it, and those of the island of Sicily were smaller. Its eyes glowed with bloodshot fire: its neck was stiff with bristles, and the hairs, on its hide, bristled stiffly like spear-shafts: just as a palisade stands, so the hairs stood like tall spears. Hot foam flecked the broad shoulders, from its hoarse grunting. Its tusks were the size of an Indian elephant’s: lightning came from its mouth: and the leaves were scorched, by its breath. Now it trampled the young shoots of the growing crops, now cut short the ripeness, longed-for by the mournful farmer, and scythed down the corn in ear. The granaries and threshing floors waited for the promised harvest in vain. Heavy clusters of grapes were brought down along with the trailing vines, and fruit and branch of the evergreen olives. It rages among the cattle too. Neither the herdsmen and dogs, nor their own fierce bulls can defend the herds. The people scatter, and only count themselves safe behind city walls.

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis.

Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle.

And Atalanta, the warrior girl of Tegea, the glory of Arcadia’s woods, with a polished brooch clasping the neck of her garment, and her hair simply done, caught in a single knot. An ivory quiver, holding her arrows, that rattled as she moved, hung from her left shoulder, and her left hand held the bow. So she was dressed: as for her face, you might truly say, the virgin was there, in a boy, and a boy, in the girl. The moment he saw her, that moment, Meleager, the hero of Calydon, desired her, though the gods might refuse it, devoured by secret fires. ‘O, happy the man, whom she might think worthy!’ he said. Neither time nor honour allowed him further words: the greater task of the greater conflict urged him on.

Bk VIII:329-375 The Calydonian Boar Hunt – the boar is roused

A forest thick with trees, that had never been cut, at any time, began above the plain, and overlooked the sloping fields. When the heroes reached it, some spread out hunting nets, others loosed the dogs from their leashes, while others again followed the deeply-marked trail, keen to discover their quarry. There was a deep valley that collected streams of rainwater, falling near it: and it held, in its depths, pliant willows, smooth sedges, and marsh grasses, and osiers and tall bulrushes, above the lowly reeds. The boar was roused from there, and made a violent charge into the midst of its enemies, like lightning forced from colliding clouds. Trees were flattened by its impact, and the woods crashed as it drove into them. The warriors shouted, and held their spears spread outward, with firm hands, waving their broad blades. The boar rushed them, scattering the dogs, as they obstructed it in its fury, putting the baying pack to flight with sidelong swipes of its tusks. The first spear, delivered by Echion’s arm, was ineffectual, and gave the trunk of a maple a glancing blow. The next, if it had not been thrown with too great a force, aimed at the creature’s back, seemed certain to stick there, but the throw was too long. Jason of Pagasae hurled the spear.

Then Mopsus, son of Ampyx, cried out ‘Phoebus, if I have worshipped you, and do so now, grant what I ask, that my spear strikes surely!’ The god did what he could, to fulfil the prayer: the boar was hit, but without being wounded. Diana had stolen the iron point of the javelin, in flight: what arrived was the wooden shaft without its tip. The wild beast’s anger was aroused, and blazed out no more gently than lightning. Flame burned in its eyes, and was breathed from its chest. With dangerous and unerring momentum, the boar hurtled towards the young men, as a stone flies from a taut catapult, aimed at walls or battlements full of soldiers. Hippalmus and Pelagon, holding the right flank, were knocked to the ground: their friends caught them up as they lay there. But Enaesimus, son of Hippocoön, did not escape the fatal blow: about to turn his back, in alarm, he sank down, as the sinews of his knee gave way. And King Nestor of Pylos, might perhaps have perished before his time at Troy, but, using the leverage of his firmly planted spear, he vaulted into a tree, that stood close by, and looked down, from a place of safety, on the quarry he had escaped.

The fierce creature, sharpening its tusks on the trunk of an oak, threatened them with destruction, and confident in its freshly renewed weapons, ripped open mighty Hippasus’s thigh, with one curving edge. But now the Gemini, Castor and Pollux, not yet changed into stars in the sky, twin brothers, conspicuous among the rest, both rode up, on horses whiter than snow, and brandishing their javelins in the air as one, hurled them, the points quivering with the motion.

Bk VIII:376-424 The Calydonian Boar Hunt – the kill

They would have wounded the beast, had not the bristling creature retreated into the dense woods where no horse or spear could penetrate. Telamon did follow, and careless where he was placing his feet, in his enthusiasm, fell flat on the ground, tripping over the root of a tree. While Peleus was lifting him, the girl from Tegea strung a swift arrow, and sent it speeding from the curved bow. The shaft just grazed the top of the boar’s back, and fixing itself below one ear, reddened the bristles with a thin stream of blood. Nor did she praise her own successful shot more than Meleager did. He was supposed to have been the first to see the blood, and first, having seen it, to point it out to his friends, saying: ‘You will be honoured for the value of this service.’ The warriors flushed with their shame, urged each other on, gaining courage from their clamour, hurling their spears without sense of order. The jostling spoilt their throw, and prevented the strike they intended. Then Ancaeus of Arcady, with his twin-headed axe, rushing to meet his fate, cried: ‘O warriors, learn how much better a man’s weapons are than a girl’s, and leave the work to me! Though Latona’s daughter herself protects this creature, in her own way, in spite of Diana, my right arm will destroy it.’ Swollen with pride, like this, with boastful words, he spoke, and, lifting the double axe in both hands, he stood on tiptoe, poised for the downward blow. The boar anticipated this daring enemy, and struck at the upper groin, the quickest way to kill, with his twin tusks. Ancaeus collapsed, and the slippery mass of his inner organs fell away in a pool of blood: the ground was soaked with the red fluid.

Then Pirithoüs, son of Ixion, went against the quarry, brandishing his hunting-spear in his strong right-hand. Theseus, Aegeus’s son, called out ‘Stay, farther away, my soul’s other half, O dearer to me than myself! It is fine to be brave at a distance, also: Ancaeus’s rash courage only did him harm.’ He spoke, and threw his heavy spear, of cornelian cherry-wood, with its bronze blade. Though well aimed and capable of reaching its mark, it was deflected by the leafy branch of an oak. Jason, Aeson’s son, hurled his javelin, which swerved by accident, and the fatal throw transfixing the flanks of an innocent hound, pinned it to the ground.

But Meleager’s hand made the difference, and of the two spears he threw, though one stuck in the earth, the other fixed itself in the boar’s back. Now, while it raged, and twisted its body round, and spouted out hissing foam and fresh blood, the author of its wound came at it, pricked his quarry to fury, and buried his shining hunting-spear in his enemy’s shoulder. Then the companions give proof of their joy, shouting, and crowding around him to grasp his hand in theirs. They gaze, wonderingly, at the huge creature covering so much of the earth it lies on, and still think it unsafe to touch the beast, but nevertheless each wets his spear in its blood.

Bk VIII:425-450 The Calydonian Boar Hunt – the spoils

Meleager, himself, pressed his foot down on the head of the deadly creature, and said to Atalanta ‘Girl from Nonacria, take the prize that is mine by right, and let my glory be shared with you.’ Then he gave her the spoils, the hide bristling with hair, and the head remarkable for its magnificent tusks. She delighted in the giver no less than the gift, but the others were envious, and a murmur ran through the whole company. Of these, Plexippus, and Toxeus, the sons of Thestius, Meleager’s uncles, stretching their arms out, shouted loudly: ‘Come on, girl, leave them alone: do not steal our titles to honour, and do not let too much faith in your beauty deceive you, lest your love-sick friend turns out to be no help to you.’ And they took the gifts away from her, and denied him the right to give them. The descendant of Mars could not bear this, and bursting with anger, gnashing his teeth, he said: ‘Learn, you thieves of other men’s rights, the difference between threats and actions’, and plunged his iron point into Plexippus’s chest, he expecting nothing of that kind. Meleager gave Toxeus, who stood in doubt, wanting to avenge his brother, but fearing his brother’s fate, scant time for doubt, and while his spear was still warm from the first brother’s murder, he warmed it again with the second brother’s blood.
Althaea was carrying thanksgiving offerings, for her son Meleager’s victory, to the temple of the gods, when she saw them bringing back her dead brothers. She filled the city with the clamour of wailing, beat her breasts, and replaced her golden robes with black. But when she heard who the murderer was, she forgot her mourning, and her longing changed from tears to revenge.

Bk VIII:451-514 Althaea and the burning brand

There was a piece of wood that the Three Sisters placed in the fire, when Althaea, the daughter of Thestius, was in the throes of childbirth. As they spun the threads of fate firmly under their thumbs, they said: ‘We assign an equal span of time to you, O new born child, and to this brand.’ When the goddesses vanished, after speaking the prophecy, the mother snatched the burning branch from the fire, and doused it with water. It had long been hidden away in the depths of the inner rooms, and preserved, had preserved your years, youth. Your mother now brought it out, and called for pinewood and kindling: and, once that was in position, she lit the hostile flames. Then she tried, four times, to throw the brand in the fire, and four times, held back. The mother fought the sister in her, and the two tugged at the one heart. Often her cheeks grew pale at imminent wickedness. Often fierce anger filled her eyes with blood. One moment she seemed like someone threatening some cruelty: the next you would think her full of compassion. When her heart’s fierce passion dried up her tears, the tears welled up again. As a ship, that the wind, and the tide opposing the wind, both seize, feels the twin forces and obeys the two, uncertainly, so the daughter of Thestius, was swayed by her emotions, and her anger alternately calmed, and then flared again.

However, the sister in her begins to outweigh the mother, and to appease the shades of her own blood, with blood, she escapes guilt by incurring it. Now, as the baleful fire strengthens, she cries ‘Let this be the funeral pyre that cremates my child.’ As she held the fatal brand in her deadly hand, and stood, wretched woman, in front of the funeral altars, she said ‘Eumenides, Triple Goddesses of Retribution, turn your faces towards these fearful rites! I take revenge, and I do a wicked thing: death must be atoned for by death: crime must be heaped on crime, ruin on ruin. Let this impious house end in a flood of mourning! Shall, Oeneus, fortunate, rejoice in his victorious child, while Thestius is bereaved of his sons? Better for both to grieve. Only, my brother’s spirits, new-made ghosts, recognise my sense of duty to you, and accept the sacrifice I prepare, so great its cost to me, the evil child of my womb! Ah me! What conclusion do I rush towards? My brothers, forgive a mother! The hand is unequal to what it began: I acknowledge he deserves to die, but I do not desire to be the cause of his death. Shall he go unpunished? Shall he live, victorious, proud of his success, and be king in Calydon, while you lie there, the scant ashes of chill shadows? For my part I cannot suffer that to be: let the wicked die, and pull down his father’s hopes, his kingship, and the ruins of his country! Where are my maternal feelings? Where are the sacred allegiances of a parent? Where are the anxieties I suffered over those ten months? O, I wish, when you were an infant burning in those first flames, I had allowed it to be! By my gift, you lived: now for your own fault, you die! Suffer the consequences of what you have done, and give me back the life I twice gave you, once at your birth, once when I snatched at the brand, or let me join my brothers in the tomb!

I yearn to do it, and I cannot do it. What shall I do? Now my brothers’ wounds are before my eyes and the image of all that blood: and now heart’s love, and the word ‘mother’ move me. Woe to me! Evil is in your victory, my brothers: but victory you shall have: only let me follow you, and the comfort I bring you!’ She spoke, and turning her face away, with trembling hands, threw the fatal brand, into the midst of the fire. The piece of wood itself gave, or seemed to give, a sigh, as it was attacked, and burnt, by the reluctant flames.

Bk VIII:515-546 The death of Meleager

Far off, and unaware, Meleager is alight with that fire, and feels his inner organs invisibly seared. He controls the fierce agonies, with courage. Nevertheless he is sad that he must die a bloodless, cowardly death, and calls Ancaeus fortunate in his wounds. At the last, groaning with pain, he names his aged father, his brothers, his loving sisters, the companion of his bed, and, it may be, his mother. The fire and the suffering flare up, and die away, again, and both are extinguished together. Gradually his breath vanishes into the light breeze: gradually white ashes veil the glowing embers.

Noble Calydon lies dead. Young men and old lament, people and princes moan, and the women of Calydon, by the River Euenus, tear at their hair, and beat their breasts. His father, prone on the ground, mars his aged features and white hair with dust, and rebukes himself for his long years. As for his mother, conscious of her dreadful action, she has exacted punishment on herself, with her own hand driving the weapon into her body. Not though the god had given me a hundred mouths speaking with tongues, the necessary genius, and all Helicon as my domain, could I describe the sad fate of his poor sisters. Forgetting what is seemly, they strike their bruised chests, and while there is something left of the body, the body is caressed again and again, as they kiss it and kiss the bier on which it lies.

Once he is ashes the ashes are gathered, and they press them to their breasts, throw themselves down on his tomb, and clasping the stone carved with his name, they drown the name with tears. At last, Diana, satiated with her destruction of the house of Parthaon, lifted them up, all except Gorge, and Deianira, the daughter-in-law of noble Alcmena, and, making feathers spring from their bodies, and stretching long wings over their arms, she gave them beaks, and, changed to guinea-hens, the Meleagrides, launched them into the air.

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