Skip to content

See Plan your visit for health and safety information including mandatory check-in and use of face masks.

Bronze statuette of Peleus (Pele) and Atalanta (Atlenta) wrestling; from top of cista. - click to view larger image
Handle of a cista (casket)

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It may be small, but this statuette brings together two of the biggest names in Greek mythology, the warrior Peleus and the famous huntress Atalanta. Peleus is shown naked. Atalanta wears a short tunic – women did not compete naked.

This bronze would have originally been used as a decorative handle on a cylindrical box, now lost. It would have reminded its owner of one the most famous sets of athletic games in Greek myth. These games were held at the funeral celebrating the death of the villainous king Pelias, king of the northern Greek city of Iolcus (and not to be confused with Peleus the warrior shown on this statuette). Among many other dreadful deeds, Pelias attempted to kill the hero Jason by sending him off on a treacherous voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The splendid funeral games commemorating the king’s death marked the end of a dark period in the history of Iolcus and attracted heroes from all over the Greek world. These games became a favourite subject in epic poetry and pottery painting.

The heroes Peleus and Atalanta enthusiastically participated in these games. Peleus was a skilled hunter and athlete. In antiquity, he is famous as the father of the greatest of Greek warriors, the hero Achilles. His skill in wrestling was legendary. He managed to capture his wife, the shape-shifting sea goddess Thetis, by wrestling her to the ground and not letting go no matter how many times she transformed from woman to fire, to water, to wind, to tree, to bird, to tiger, to lion, to snake, and finally to cuttlefish. However, for all his skill in wrestling, Peleus was no match for Atalanta.

Abandoned on a mountainside by her parents at birth, Atalanta had been raised by a bear before she was taken in by a group of hunters. She rejected the company of men, and spent her time hunting as a companion to the goddess Artemis. During this period, she single-handedly killed two centaurs who tried to rape her. In the wrestling match with Peleus, Atalanta was victorious and this only confirmed her views on the weakness of men. She challenged any man who wanted to marry her to a running race. If she defeated them, she speared them to death. Many men died at her hands until eventually, Hippomenes managed to beat her by dropping some golden apples on the track, which Atalanta stopped to pick up. To the Ancient Greeks, Atalanta was a fascinating figure who broke all the conventional stereotypes about the female body and character. Pilgrims would go to Arcadia to visit where she ran her fatal races, intrigued by tales of this remarkable, unconventional woman and keen to make offerings to her heroic spirit.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

Return to Top