Learn how Classical Music harbors subliminal and not-so subliminal Pagan messages.
Have you ever wondered who the high priestess of Artemis was? it was Atalanta; a virgin huntress who could outrun just about everyone she met and protected the MEN she was with! According to Theoi.com, Atalanta was also a cross-dresser and her story carries overtones of transgendered and homosexual identity.
In Greek Mythology, Atalanta is a young woman who transgresses the boundaries of sex and gender roles by joining men in the capacities of war, athletics, and hunting. Her father, having wanted a son instead, exposed her on the Parthenian hill to die. She was suckled by a she-bear until hunters found her. She landed the first shot on the Calydonian Boar, and on the advice of the oracle, remained a virgin and wary of marriage. She was a favorite of Artemis, and dedicated herself to the Goddess. Her name means "Of equal weight," meaning that she was of equal weight with boys, could do the things boys could do, etc.
In George Frederic Handel's opera, Atalanta is a high-ranking Princess who runs away to the woods to avoid being courted, for which she is not ready. She conceals her identity under the assumed name "Amaryllis." Meleagro follows her to the woods, and assumes the name Thyrsis. Meleagro takes up with Nicandro and Irene. Irene is being courted by Aminta, of whom she is unsure of his love and pretends to disdain him in order to make him prove himself. Atalanta, as Amaryllis, is hunting a boar, and Meleagro wishes to come to her aid, but she won't let him. She kills the boar on her own.
After that, the plot winds around Irene's deception of Aminta; she pretends to love Thyrsis (Meleagro), and attempts to command him. He of course, resists. However, as Meleagro realizes his love for Amaryllis (Atalanta), he buys into Irene's deception in order to make Atalanta jealous enough to speak her mind on whether or not she loves him back. Aminta, at a loss for what to do with Irene's behavior, decides to declare his love for Amaryllis, claiming that Amaryllis is not nearly as cruel as Irene. Atalanta, meanwhile, is nursing an injury from hunting the boar, and knows that she is in love with Thyrsis (Meleagro), however, will not be able to select him as a mate, since he is a shepherd and she is a Princess and it would simply not work for them to be together. Just when the scene becomes too unbearable, Nicandro appears, and reveals that Thyrsis is really Meleagro, a king. Atalanta is now free to love him as she wishes. As luck would have it, Irene has also had enough of her own deception, and admits to Aminta that she really does love him, and that loving another man was just a game. Mercury comes down from above to make a speech, and then the opera ends happily ever after.
So, our major differences in the plots of the two stories are that in the original story, Atalanta was raised in the wild, and in the opera, she was raised in civilization, retreating to the woods to avoid marriage. The original also states that Atalanta kept herself a virgin, and when she reunited with her father (after winning a race), she agreed to marry the man to beat her in a footrace, and those who lost to her were to be put to death by her. In the opera, Atalanta marries Meleager after a boar hunt and silly love games, whereas in the original story, Meleager dies shortly after the boar hunt, and it is Hippomenes to beat her in the footrace. Having been given three golden apples by Aphrodite, Hippomenes drops them at critical moments as Atalanta is gaining on him. They are so beautiful that she picks them up, and thus loses the race.
As in many love stories, Atalanta keeps marriage at a distance. However, she is not afraid of it. In the original myth, she had been cautioned by an oracle to be careful in keeping her virginity, and also told to be wary of marriage, marrying the right person only. In the opera, she runs away to the woods, and it is revealed that Meleager had been seeking her hand in marriage. (In many operas, the reason that women avoid the marriage is because they simply don't know the person to whom they are going to be tied to for the rest of their lives.) It is not until Atalanta finds love in her heart that she decides to marry him. Whereas for the original Atalanta, marriage was not an issue of loving someone; it was more important to be sure that the husband was a fit life partner.
There are a number of operas titled Atalanta, and we shall see in the future which ones adhere more closely to the original story. For now, let this indicate that Eighteenth-Century opera had a favorable disposition towards Paganism, though if this work is any indication, love stories may just find themselves wound into the original mythological plots. We shall see!
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