At a time when common custom dictated that the refined Greek lady be neither seen nor heard, and when only the poor or enslaved woman was allowed to go out and about, the rich μυθος allowed for the expression of many of the characteristics which women share with men, but were forced to suppress. Many women in classical Greek mythology were known and celebrated for their athleticism and ability to keep up with, or even better, their male counterparts. Sometimes the women were punished either by the gods for their temerity in defying the traditional female role, but many, including the five discussed below, lived on in legends as extraordinary figures.
Many women in mythology who wished to pursue a life free from the confines of marriage, or who loved the hunt and the wild of the outdoors dedicated themselves to the virgin goddess of the hunt, Artemis. She was attended by a number of like-minded nymphs as she hunted almost incessantly throughout the lands. Artemis was a master of the bow, whose shots never missed, and she could also run down the fleetest deer. The daughter of Zeus and Leto, and sister of Apollo, she was often required to defend herself from both gods and men, but was always able to outrace them, or in drastic circumstances, she made use of her archery skills. On one occasion, her brother Apollo made a bet that he was a better shot, and pointed out a far-distant target which she could hardly see. Her shot was perfect, as always, and she won the bet, not realizing that Apollo had tricked her into shooting one of her favorite male hunting companions Orion, hitting him directly in the center of his forehead. Her embodiment of sheer athleticism in contrast to the norms of Greek society was equaled only by her half-sister, Athena.
Pallas Athena sprang from her father Zeus’ head in full armor, sending a message to the other gods that she would be assertive and independent. She was not as skilled a hunter as her sister, Artemis, but she also sought to hold herself apart from men, in an effort to preserve her freedom from a husband’s influence, and to also enjoy the resultant opportunity to exercise what were considered to be masculine attributes. She ran races, she did occasionally hunt, but she preferred to employ her wit and intelligence in outsmarting her rivals in combat, and so joined in battle, displaying a master’s skill with the spear and shield, never accepting defeat. She bested a number of larger and stronger foes by means of her unparalleled skills, including one of the most powerful of the Giants, Pallas.
In the tradition of Artemis, and with the boldness of Athena, the mortal Atalanta out-hunted and outran all of her male competition. She took part in many hunting adventures, but is best known for challenging potential suitors to footraces. The deck was always stacked in the competition’s favor. They ran naked and unencumbered; she ran in full suits of armor. They ran a measured distance; she began from twice as far back and always, she passed them up. The only race she ever lost was the one which she chose to lose. It was only when she finally fell in love that she deliberately allowed her rival to distract her during the race, and even so, she only barely lost.
Penthesilea, famed queen of the Amazons, was one of the daughters of Ares, the god of war, yet exhibited more of the attributes of Athena, with her exceptional hand-to-hand abilities in combat. Similar to Athena, she employed a keen intelligence and a mastery of skills that conquered many famous Greeks when she came as an ally to the Trojans in the Trojan War. Over the ten year stretch of the war she became a very valuable ally, not only excelling in battle, but triumphing in many one on one competitions by means of her nearly flawless skills. The only warrior who was able to face her and defeat her was Achilles, considered to be the greatest living warrior in the known lands, in part due to divine protection which Penthesilea did not have the same fortune to possess. She was not only a great athlete alone; she led a large battalion of women whom she trained personally, and this force was both feared and respected because of her leadership.
Hippodameia, daughter of Oenomaüs of Pisa, was another woman who, like Atalanta, loved running and often won. She not only ran for herself, however; she instituted the Heraean Games at Olympia in honor of the goddess Hera, where groups of girls and women ran races and competed in several other competitions every four years. The Games are thought to predate even the Olympic Games, and were an institution even into classical times, when girls ran with only one shoulder covered, and their hair let down loose. Hippodameia created an acceptable venue for women to compete and win honors without also winning the scorn of their male counterparts for temporarily breaking out of the prescribed female role.
Myths are often based on real occurrences or phenomena to allow an allegorical expression of societal ideas that help humanity to understand and articulate feelings and ideas. The abovementioned women, however much invented be their personas and exploits, assisted real-life women by serving as heroes and valuable role models, who showed them how capable they could be should they so choose.
Tripp, Edward. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. New York: Meridian/New American Library, 1970.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942.