Some of the best-known depictions of mythical hunts feature legendary figures such as Odysseus, Heracles and Meleager. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, is also a favourite: she may be armed with bow and arrow either accompanied by or pursuing wild animals. The prevalence of hunting scenes undoubtedly reflects the popularity of the sport.
We see ancient heroes pursuing wild game with hounds, nets and traps, or chasing deer and wild boar on horseback. Wild boar was associated with death, as its hunting season began in late September near the end of the year. Its dark colouration and nocturnal habits conjured notions of darkness battling against light. It was also considered a worthy opponent for young aspiring warriors, who proudly displayed the spoils of successful hunts as boar tusk helmets in battle. We see these helmets in Mycenaean art and find them buried as grave goods in their owners’ tombs.
You can read the earliest mention of a boar hunt in Europe in Homer's Odyssey (book 19). He tells how Odysseus, as a boy, armed with a spear pursued a boar to its lair. Attempting to escape the boar gored the boy’s leg, leaving a scar. Odysseus was greeted at home by his proud parents as “a young man filled with joy”. In other words, this hunt marked Odysseus coming of age. Many years later the scar led his old nurse, Eurycleia, to recognise him on his return to Ithaca in disguise.
Other heroes had to deal with supernatural monsters. When King Oineus of Calydon forgot to make his annual sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess sent a gigantic boar to ravage his kingdom. Oineus recruited a band of heroes to slay the beast led by his son, Meleager. The hunting party included a woman – fearless Atalanta, who had been suckled by Artemis and raised as a hunter. Atalanta struck the first blow to the beast, piercing its thick hide with an arrow and bringing it down for Meleager to finish it off. Several male hunters resented being bested by a woman. Meleager’s misogynist uncles in particular protested angrily when he offered Atalanta the boar’s pelt. Meleager, who had fallen for the Atalanta, slew his uncles in a rage.
Heracles’ encounter with a monstrous boar had a happier ending. For his third labour he had to capture the Erymanthian Boar, which may also have been created by Artemis or her brother, Apollo. He drove it into a snowdrift, bound it and carried it back to Eurystheus, who set the task. Petrified by the beast, Eurystheus ordered Heracles to get rid of it. Obligingly, Heracles threw the boar into the sea – it swam to Italy, where its tusks were preserved in the Temple of Apollo!
By Celine Castelino
Homeric Boar Hunters
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Hunting myths that Ancient Greek storytellers narrated at gatherings were often based on the exploits of their Mycenaean ancestors whose remains have been dated to the late Bronze Age. We know them from Homer’s epic poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey, sculptured reliefs, frescoes and painted pottery.