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In Greek mythology, King Oeneus of Calydon was one of the great mortal heroes of his day.  Just as Demeter had taught Triptolemus the secrets of growing grain, Dionysus himself taught Oeneus the secrets of unsurpassed winemaking. The merry monarch brought grape culture and the vintner’s arts to all of Aetolia and he grew rich and beloved because of his teaching and his greatness at making wine.  To this day “oenophiles” are people who love wine.

Oeneus with coat and sceptre, Attic white-ground lekythos, ca. 500 BC

The monarch was even luckier in his family.  He was married to Althea, a granddaughter of the gods who was said to be nearly as beautiful as her sister Leda, who drew the eye of Zeus himself.  He had many sons and daughters:  Deianeira (who wed Heracles), Meleager, Toxeus, Clymenus, Periphas, Agelaus, Thyreus (or Phereus or Pheres), Gorge, Eurymede, Mothone, Perimede and Melanippe.  But of all these Oeneus’ eldest son Meleager stood out as the greatest hero of his era—a peerless spearman and warrior.

Meleager had nearly died in infancy.  His mother Althea was spinning flax when she heard the three fates—the ancient and alien goddesses of all destiny– discussing the baby boy.  Old Atropos had pulled out her scissors and was saying that as soon as the brand burning in the fireplace was consumed, the child’s life would end.  Althea threw away her weaving and grabbed the blazing log out of fire.  She smothered the blaze and hid the log away in a huge locked coffer.  Thus Meleager grew into magnificent manhood.

King Oeneus loved the gods and he sacrificed generously to them, but he loved his wine and he drank generously too. One year as he sacrificed to the Olympians he forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt (who was not foremost on his mind anyway since he was a farmer and a wine maker).  Alas, it was a terrible error.  In her wrath the virgin huntress summoned the Calydonian boar, a descendant of the Crommyonian sow (which in turn was descended from Echidna herself).  The immense boar ravaged the countryside.  His tusks were huge like trees but sharp like razors and he impaled scores of Calydonian farmers along with their wives and children.  He tore up the fields and ate the grape vines.  The Corynthians huddled in their walled city and began to starve to death.

Oeneus sent Meleager out to gather the greatest heroes of the era for an epoch hunt and the spearman returned with the foremost fighting men of Greece.  He also returned with a woman, the virgin Atalanta, who was beloved of Artemis and had been raised by she-bears.  Atalanta could run faster and shoot better than any of her male peers.  Her strength and beauty did not go unnoticed by Meleager, who began to pay court to her.

Calydonian Boar Hunt (Peter Paul Rubens, ca.1611, oil on canvas)

The hunt for the Calydonian boar was terrifying and bloody.  Many heroes died under the creature’s iron hooves or upon its evil tusks.  However, at last Atalanta shot a perfect arrow into a vulnerable spot in its bronze-like hide.  Meleager followed up on the advantage and slew the great pig with his spear.  Later, at the drunken feast, he presented the creature’s hide to Atalanta and he was on the verge of begging for her hand when his uncle and brother started a quarrel.

Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. Marble, Roman copy from the Imperial Era (ca. 150 AD) after a Greek original from the 4th century BC.

Arrogant and drunken, Meleager’s kinmen asserted that no virtuous woman would be hunting with men and that the shot was lucky anyway.  Since everyone was drinking heavily of Oeneus’ fine wine (and since the guests were heavily armed) the quarrel flew out of control and, in the subsequent melee, Meleager slew both his own brother and his mother’s brother.  In fury Althea rushed to her chambers and ripped the charred wood from its coffer.  She ran back to the roaring bonfire where all the hunters and revelers were still stunned and hurled the brand into the fire where it was burned away in a moment leaving Meleander dead.

Thus was Artemis avenged on King Wine Man for slighting her in worship.

Theseus Fiighting the Crommyon Sow and Phaea (Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci)

In Greek myth, the Crommyonian sow was a great she-pig which lived on the Isthmus of Corinth and tormented travelers until the Athenian hero Theseus came along and killed her.  In some tales the sow was a lone wild animal, but in other stories she had a human woman named Phaea associated with her: it is unclear whether this woman was young or old, lovely or haggard, a rude swineheard or a great sorceress.  A few sources indicate she herself might have been a shapeshifter who became the pig.  Whatever the case, Theseus slew her in addition to her sow.  The Borghese Gallery has a very strange relief sculpture by Vincenzo Pacetti which portrays Theseus handling Phaea’s nude (human) corpse and looking perplexed.

It’s kind of unclear what happened here. Of all the children of Echidna, the Crommyonian sow seems to get the shortest shrift in art and literature.  The sow vanishes from almost everything made after the fifth century BC.  There are numerous red and black vases depicting Theseus fighting the great pig and/or her associated sorceress, so it seems like the story was important to Athenians.  However the full version of this myth seems to have been lost in the mists of time and all we have are allusions and brief conflicting accounts [this sentence could apply to just about everything—ed].  Strabo asserts that the sow was the mother of the great Calydonian boar, whose mythical life and death engendered much strife, chauvinism, murder, and grief in the pantheon of Classical heroes. So perhaps, like Echidna, the sow found her greatest fame through her descendants.

A Wild Sow with her Shoats

I am going to go with Strabo and assume that the Calydonian Boar has a place in my musings about Echidna (being her grandson and all).  The boar was sent by Artemis to obtain revenge on King Oeneus the winemaker who forgot to honor the goddess with ritual sacrifices.  The monster destroyed the king’s vineyards and murdered his subjects, but it was only when Oeneus gathered the heroes of his age and sent them out (with his beloved son Meleager) to kill the boar that the virgin goddess obtained her true and terrible revenge.  The machinations behind the story are long and complicated (and sad), but the story of the hunt of the Calydonian boar suits my Halloween theme for an entirely different reason.  This was a favorite theme of sarcophagus makers who enjoyed sculpting beautiful armed nudes in the passion of the hunt.  Beneath is a gallery of Calydonian boar themed sarcophagi from the lost classical world.  The makers knew the story’s terrible fatalist tragedy (which I am not telling you) and they found it a most fitting subject for funerary art:

Roman marble sarcophagus from Vicovaro (municipality northeast of Rome), carved with the Calydonian Hunt (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome)

Attic sarcophagos. Pentelic marble. Found at Ayios Ioannis, Patras.

Greek Sarcophagus of the Calydonian Boar Hunt (Piraeus Archeological Museum, Athens)

Sculpted neo attic sarcophagus representing the Calydonian boar hunt with Atalanta and Meleager in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum (Second quarter of the 3rd c. AD)

A Sarcophagus with the Calydonian Boar Hunt (provenance unknown)

Etruscan cinerary urn with boar hunt, 2nd C BCE, Volterra Museo Guarnacci

 

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