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Althaea (mythology)

File:Althaea baur.jpg
Illustration of Althaea by Johann Wilhelm Baur.

Althaea or Althea /ælˈθə/ (Ancient Greek: Ἀλθαία, Althaía) was, in Greek mythology, the daughter of King Thestius and Eurythemis, and was sister to Leda, Hypermnestra, Iphiclus, Euippus.[1] She was also the wife of Oeneus, king of Calydon, and mother of five sons, Meleager, Melanippe (one of the Meleagrids), Toxeus, Thyreus, Clymenus, and two daughters, Deianeira and Gorge.[2] According to some writers, Meleager was the result of a liaison with the Greek god Ares, and Deianeira the progeny of Althaea and the god Dionysus.[3]

Althaea is especially celebrated in ancient story about the fate of her son Meleager; they became the cause of each other’s deaths. When Meleager was born, the Moirai (the Fates) predicted he would only live until a brand, burning in the family hearth, was consumed by fire.

Oeneus and Mars both slept one night with Althaea, daughter of Thestius. When Meleager was born from them, suddenly in the palace the Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, appeared. They thus sang his fate: Clotho said that he would be noble, Lachesis that he would be brave, but Atropos looking at a brand burning on the hearth and said, “He will live only as long as this brand remains unconsumed.” When Althaea, the mother, heard this, she leaped from the bed, put out the fatal brand, and buried it in the midst of the palace, so that it shouldn’t be destroyed by fire.[4]

In Aeschylus' Libation Bearers Althaea is mentioned by the Chorus of captive slaves, serving women of Clytemnestra, in a recollection of 'hatreds that stopped at nothing'.

Let anyone whose mind is steady remember this, once he has learned the story of Thestius' daughter, ruthless Althaea, who killed her own son. She contrived a plot to burn the brand that fate assigned to span his life; it had been kept since the day he came out crying from his mother's loins. Deliberately, deceitfully, she set on fire what was to have kept pace with him from birth to death. It glowed bright red before the fire blackened it.[5]

Meleager grew to be a well-respected prince. One spring Oeneus sacrificed the first fruits of the seasons to all the gods, omitting Artemis by mistake. Enraged by the slight, Artemis sent a boar of unnatural size and strength to ruin the land of Calydon. Meleager was one of the warriors who hunted the boar, along with the famous huntress Atalanta and Althaea’s brothers. Meleager killed the boar, but gave the skin to Atalanta both because he had fallen in love with her and because she had landed the first blow on the animal. When Althaea's brothers, “thinking scorn that a woman should get the prize in the face of men, took the skin from her, alleging that it belonged to them by right of birth if Meleager did not choose to take it,”[6] Meleager flew into a rage and killed both of his uncles.

When Althaea learned what had happened, she retrieved the brand from where she had concealed it and placed the brand back upon the fire, killing him. Some say that she and Meleager’s wife Cleopatra later hanged themselves, others that she killed herself with a dagger.[7][8]


  1. ^ Schmitz, Leonhard (1867). "Althaea". In William Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 134. 
  2. ^ Hesiod, Catalogue of Women fr. 25.14–17; Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca i. 7. § 10, 8. § 1
  3. ^ Comp. Gaius Julius Hyginus, Fabulae 129, 171, 174
  4. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 171
  5. ^ Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 596-625
  6. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca i. 8. § 2
  7. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca i. 8. § 3
  8. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses viii. 445, &c.

Other sources

  • Thomas Bulfinch. Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable or Stories of Gods and Heroes. 1855 (Chapter XVIII).