Diana and Actaeon: When an Innocent Encounter Turned Deadly
Diana and Actaeon is a story found in Classical mythology. The myth centers on the hero and hunter Actaeon, who is transformed by the goddess Diana (Artemis to the Greeks) into a stag, after which he is torn to pieces by his own hounds.
In Greek mythology, Actaeon was a Theban hero and hunter. He was the son of Aristaeus, a minor god, and Autonoë, the daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes in Boeotia. In the standard version of the myth, found in both Ovid’s Metamorphoses (written during the Roman period) and Callimachus’ (a poet of the Hellenistic period) Hymn V. On the Baths of Pallas , Actaeon incurred the wrath of Diana/Artemis when he saw her bathing in the woods by accident.
‘Diana and Actaeon’ (1556-1569) by Titian. ( Public Domain )
An Innocent Encounter Soon Turns Deadly
According to Ovid, there is a valley sacred to Diana/ Artemis called Gargaphia. The goddess frequented this valley and enjoyed bathing in a pool after a tiring day of hunting. She would be attended by her nymphs - some would hold her hunting equipment and clothes and others would bathe the goddess. It was during one of these bathing sessions that Actaeon was wandering through the woods and stumbled onto the goddess and her entourage.
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‘Diana Hunting’ by Guillaume Seignac. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Diana/Artemis was renowned as a virgin goddess and was outraged that a man had seen her naked. As she did not have her bow at hand, she was unable to kill Actaeon. Instead, she transformed him into a stag, as the story says:
“she fixed the horns of a great stag firm on his sprinkled brows; she lengthened out his neck; she made his ears sharp at the top; she changed his hands and feet; made long legs of his arms, and covered him with dappled hair—his courage turned to fear.”
Actaeon dashed away and was soon spotted by his hounds. Unaware that the stag was their master, they began to chase after it, surrounded the animal, and tore it into pieces.
‘The Death of Actaeon’ (1559-1575) by Titian. ( Public Domain )
An Alternate Reason Behind the Wrath
Whilst Callimachus and Ovid state that Actaeon’s ‘crime’ against Diana/Artemis was seeing her naked, Diodorus Siculus provides an alternative reason for the goddess’ wrath. According to the Greek historian, it was Actaeon’s hubris that caused his tragic transformation into a stag. Diodorus Siculus reports that according to some, Actaeon had dedicated to Diana/Artemis the first fruits of his hunting and expected the goddess to marry him in return. Others, continues the historian, state that Actaeon had boasted that he was a more skillful hunter than Diana/Artemis. In either case, Diodorus Siculus is of the opinion that Diana’s/Artemis’ reaction was justified.
Ripping Off Gilgamesh’s Epic?
Interestingly, the myth of Diana and Actaeon has been compared to a story in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh . In one of the episodes in the epic, the goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh, and desires that he becomes her lover. Gilgamesh, however, rejects Ishtar, citing the misfortune that befell all her previous lovers. One of them, Gilgamesh points out, was “the shepherd, herdsman, and chief shepherd”, who Ishtar hit and “turned him into a wolf, / His own herd-boys hunt him down / And his dogs tear at his haunches”.
Ishtar’s Midnight Courtship, from Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon, 1884. ( The British Library )
The two myths are similar only in the transformation of a human being into an animal - Diana/Artemis and Ishtar are two completely different goddesses. Whilst the former is a virgin goddess, the latter was worshipped as a goddess of love and fertility. Moreover, the nature of Actaeon’s offence is known, but that of Ishtar’s shepherd lover is not stated, though it is entirely possible that it was an arbitrary decision, which would explain Gilgamesh’s fear and rejection of Ishtar’s advances.
Depicting the Myth of Diana and Actaeon
Finally, the myth of Diana and Actaeon was a popular subject matter for the artists of the Renaissance period. The best-known depiction of the myth are the paintings made by the Italian painter Tiziano Vecelli (better-known as Titian in English) for King Philip II of Spain. These were two paintings – Diana and Actaeon , and The Death of Actaeon , the former depicting the moment Actaeon stumbles on Diana/Artemis and the latter the moment of the hero’s death. The Death of Actaeon is displayed by the National Gallery, London and Diana and Actaeon is shared between that art gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland; the painting alternates between the two on five-year terms.
Top image: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (1602-1603) by Giuseppe Cesari. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
Anon., The Epic of Gilgamesh. [Dalley, S. (trans.), 2008. The Epic of Gilgamesh , in Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Callimachus, Hymns. [Mair, A. W. and Mair, G. R. (trans.), 1921. Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron. Aratus .] Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Text/CallimachusHymns1.html
Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History. [Oldfather, C. H. (trans.), 1933-1957. Diodorus Siculus’ The Library of History .] Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/home.html
Ovid, Metamorphoses. [More, B. (trans.), 1922. Ovid’s Metamorphoses ] Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Actaeon. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Actaeon
The National Gallery, 2019. Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon'. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/research/titians-diana-and-actaeon
www.greekmythology.com, 2019. Actaeon. Available at: https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Heroes/Actaeon/actaeon.html
www.talesbeyondbelief.com, 2019. Diana and Actaeon. Available at: http://www.talesbeyondbelief.com/myth-stories/diana-actaeon.htm