A son of Oeneus — whence he is called Oeneides (Οἰνεΐδης) — and Althaea, the daughter of Thestius, and was married to Cleopatra, by whom he became the father of Polydora.1 Other accounts call Meleager a son of Ares, by Althaea;2 and Hyginus calls Parthenopaeus a son of Meleager.3 His brothers and sisters were Phereus or Thyreus, Agelaus, Toxeus, Periphas, Gorge, Eurymede, Deianeira, Melanippe.
Meleager is one of the most famous Aetolian heroes of Calydon, and distinguished himself by his skill in throwing the javelin, as one of the Argonauts, and in the Calydonian hunt. Thus he gained the victory at the funeral games of Acastus;4 and the spear with which he had slain the Calydonian boar he dedicated in the temple of Apollo at Sicyon.5 In the expedition of the Argonauts he was said in some legends to have slain Aeëtes in the contest for the golden fleece.6
While Meleager was at Calydon, Oeneus, the king of the place, once neglected to offer up a sacrifice to Artemis, whereupon the angry goddess sent a monstrous boar into the fields of Calydon, which were ravaged by the beast, while no one had the courage to hunt it. At length Meleager, with a band of other heroes, whose number and names are different in the different accounts,7 went out to hunt the boar, which was killed by Meleager. Artemis, however, created a dispute about the animal's head and skin among the Calydonians and Curetes. Late writers represent Atalanta as taking part in this famous hunt; but the huntsmen refused to go out with her, until Meleager, who loved her, prevailed upon them. According to Ovid,8 Atalanta inflicted the first wound upon the animal; while, according to others, Meleager first struck and killed it. He gave his prize, the boar's skin, to Atalanta, who was deprived of it by the sons of Thestius; but Meleager slew them.9
During the war between the Calydonians and Curetes, the former were always victorious, so long as Meleager went out with them. But on one occasion he killed his mother's brothers; and his mother pronounced a curse upon him, in consequence of which he became indignant, and stayed at home, so that the victorious Curetes began to press Calydon very hard. It was in vain that the old men of the town made him the most brilliant promises if he would again join in the fight, and also the entreaties of his own friends remained without effect. At length, however, he yielded to the prayers of his wife, Cleopatra: he put the Curetes to flight, but never returned home, for the Erinyes, who had heard the curse of his mother, overtook him.10
The post-Homeric account gives a different cause of his death. When Meleager was seven days old, it is said, the Moirae appeared, declaring that the boy would die as soon as the piece of wood that was burning on the hearth should be consumed. When Althaea heard this, she extinguished the firebrand, and concealed it in a chest. Meleager himself became invulnerable; but after he had killed the brothers of his mother, she lighted the piece of wood, and Meleager died, whereupon Althaea and Cleopatra hanged themselves.11 The sisters of Meleager — the Meleagrides — wept unceasingly after his death, until Artemis changed them into guinea-hens (μελεαγρίδες), who were transferred to the island of Leros. Even in this condition they mourned during a certain part of the year for their brother. Two of them, Gorge and Deianeira, through the mediation of Dionysus, were not metamorphosed.12
The story of Meleager, his hunt of the Calydonian boar, his contest with the sons of Thestius, and other scenes of his life, were frequently represented by ancient artists.13 He usually appears as a robust hunter, with curly hair, the Aetolian chlamys, and a boar's head.14 He is portrayed naked or with a mantle draped across his left arm, and is usually accompanied by a dog. Famous is the statue by Scopas (fourth century BCE). Meleager frequently appears on Greek vases and sarcophagi in the setting of the Calydonian Hunt. Some vases and mirrors depict the scene where Meleager presents the boar's hide to Atalanta. The saga of Meleager was a favorite subject of Rubens, Jordaens, and others.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 8.2; Pausanias. Description of Greece iv, 2 in fin.; Orphic. Argonautica, 157.
- Plutarch. Parallela Minora, 26; Ovid. Metamorphoses viii, 437; Hyginus. Fabulae, 171.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 99, 270.
- ibid., 273; Athenaeus, iv, p. 172.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 7.8.
- Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iv, 48.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 8.2; Ovid. Metamorphoses viii, 300 ff.; Hyginus. Fabulae, 174; Pausanias. Description of Greece viii, 45.4.
- Metamorphoses viii, 380.
- Apollodorus, Ovid, ll.cc.; Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iv, 34.
- Homer. Iliad ix, 527-600; comp. ii, 641.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 8.2 ff.; Hyginus. Fabulae, 171; Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iv, 34; Ovid. Metamorphoses viii, 450 ff., 531.
- Antoninus Liberalis, 2; Ovid. Metamorphoses viii, 532 ff.; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 8.3.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece iii, 18.9; viii, 45.4.
- Philostratus of Lemnos. Imagines, 15; comp. Welcker. Zeitschrit für die alte Kunst, p. 123 ff.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.