Actaeon (/ækˈtən/; Ancient Greek: Ἀκταίων Aktaiōn),[1] in Greek mythology, was the son of the priestly herdsman Aristaeus and Autonoe in Boeotia, and a famous Theban hero. Through his mother he was a member of the ruling House of Cadmus. Like Achilles, in a later generation, he was trained by the centaur Chiron.

Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1556–59)

He fell to the fatal wrath of Artemis (later his myth was attached to her Roman counterpart Diana), but the surviving details of his transgression vary: "the only certainty is in what Aktaion suffered, his pathos, and what Artemis did: the hunter became the hunted; he was transformed into a stag, and his raging hounds, struck with a 'wolf's frenzy' (Lyssa), tore him apart as they would a stag."[2]

The many depictions both in ancient art and in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance art normally show either the moment of transgression and transformation, or his death by his own hounds.

Story edit

Actaeon, sculpture group in the cascade at Caserta

Among others, John Heath has observed, "The unalterable kernel of the tale was a hunter's transformation into a deer and his death in the jaws of his hunting dogs. But authors were free to suggest different motives for his death."[3] In the version that was offered by the Hellenistic poet Callimachus,[4] which has become the standard setting, Artemis was bathing in the woods[5] when the hunter Actaeon stumbled across her, thus seeing her naked. He stopped and stared, amazed at her ravishing beauty. Once seen, Artemis got revenge on Actaeon: she forbade him speech – if he tried to speak, he would be changed into a stag – for the unlucky profanation of her virginity's mystery.[6][7]

The Transformation of Actaeon, etching by Jean Mignon, 430 x 574 mm, 1550s?, without its very elaborate frame. Actaeon is shown three times, finally being killed by his hounds. with frame

Upon hearing the call of his hunting party, he cried out to them and immediately transformed. At this, he fled deep into the woods, and doing so he came upon a pond and, seeing his reflection, groaned. His own hounds then turned upon him and pursued him, not recognizing him. In an endeavour to save himself, he raised his eyes (and would have raised his arms, had he had them) toward Mount Olympus. The gods did not heed his desperation, and he was torn to pieces. An element of the earlier myth made Actaeon the familiar hunting companion of Artemis, no stranger. In an embroidered extension of the myth, the hounds were so upset with their master's death, that Chiron made a statue so lifelike that the hounds thought it was Actaeon.[8]

There are various other versions of his transgression: The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and pseudo-Apollodoran Bibliotheke state that his offense was that he was a rival of Zeus for Semele, his mother's sister,[9] whereas in Euripides' Bacchae he has boasted that he is a better hunter than Artemis:[10]

ὁρᾷς τὸν Ἀκταίωνος ἄθλιον μόρον,
ὃν ὠμόσιτοι σκύλακες ἃς ἐθρέψατο
διεσπάσαντο, κρείσσον' ἐν κυναγίαις
Ἀρτέμιδος εἶναι κομπάσαντ' ἐν ὀργάσιν.
Look at Actaeon's wretched fate
who by the man-eating hounds he had raised,
was torn apart, better at hunting
than Artemis he had boasted to be, in the meadows.
In François Clouet's Bath of Diana (1558-59) Actaeon's passing on horseback at left and mauling as a stag at right is incidental to the three female nudes.

Further materials, including fragments that belong with the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and at least four Attic tragedies, including a Toxotides of Aeschylus, have been lost.[11] Diodorus Siculus (4.81.4), in a variant of Actaeon's hubris that has been largely ignored, has it that Actaeon wanted to marry Artemis. Other authors say the hounds were Artemis' own; some lost elaborations of the myth seem to have given them all names and narrated their wanderings after his loss.

According to the Latin version of the story told by the Roman Ovid[12] having accidentally seen Diana (Artemis) on Mount Cithaeron while she was bathing, he was changed by her into a stag, and pursued and killed by his fifty hounds.[13] This version also appears in Callimachus' Fifth Hymn, as a mythical parallel to the blinding of Tiresias after he sees Athena bathing. The literary testimony of Actaeon's myth is largely lost, but Lamar Ronald Lacy,[14] deconstructing the myth elements in what survives and supplementing it by iconographic evidence in late vase-painting, made a plausible reconstruction of an ancient Actaeon myth that Greek poets may have inherited and subjected to expansion and dismemberment. His reconstruction opposes a too-pat consensus that has an archaic Actaeon aspiring to Semele,[15] a classical Actaeon boasting of his hunting prowess and a Hellenistic Actaeon glimpsing Artemis' bath.[16] Lacy identifies the site of Actaeon's transgression as a spring sacred to Artemis at Plataea where Actaeon was a hero archegetes ("hero-founder")[17] The righteous hunter, the companion of Artemis, seeing her bathing naked in the spring, was moved to try to make himself her consort, as Diodorus Siculus noted, and was punished, in part for transgressing the hunter's "ritually enforced deference to Artemis" (Lacy 1990:42).

Names of dogs edit

List of Actaeon's dogs
Dogs Source Consorts Source
Apollodorus[18] Ovid[19] Hyginus[20] Apollodorus Ovid Hyginus
Ovid[21][22] Other author Ovid Other author
Acamas Aello (Storm)
Aethon Alce (Stout)
Agrius Agre (Chaser)
Amarynthus Arcena
Arcas ? Arethusa
Argiodus (Towser) Argo
Asbolos (Sooty) Aura ?
Balius (Dappled) Canace (Barker)
Borax Chediaetros*
Bores Cyllo
Boreas Dinomache
Charops Dioxippe
Corus Echione
Cyllopodes Gorgo
Cyprius ? Harpyia (Harpy)
Dorceus (Quicksight) Lachne (Bristle)
Draco Lacaena
Dromas (Racer) Leaena
Dromius Lycisca (Wolfet)
Echnobas ? Lynceste
Elion ? Melanchaetes (Blackmane)
Gnosius ? Nape (Wildwood)
Eudromus Ocydrome
Haemon Ocypete
Harpalicus Oresitrophos (Rover)
Harpalos (Snap) Orias
Hylactor (Babbler) Oxyrhoe
Hylaeus (Woodranger) Poemenis (Shepherdess)
Ichneus Sagnos*
Ichnobates (Tracer) Sticte (Spot)
Labros (Wildtooth) Theriope
Lacon Theriphone
Ladon Therodamas (Savage)
Laelaps (Hunter) Therodanapis ?
Lampus Urania
Leon Volatos*
Leucon (Blanche) Number 1 13 15 20
Melampus (Blackfoot)
Melaneus (Blackcoat)
Nebrophonos (Killbuck)
Oribasos (Surefoot)
Pamphagos (Glutton)
Pterelas (Wingfoot)
Theron (Tempest)
Thoos (Quickfoot)
Tigris (Tiger)
Number 6 22 27 26
Volterra, Italy. Etruscan cinerary urn; Actaeon torn by the dogs of Diana, Volterra. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection


  • Names of dogs were verified to correspond to the list given in Ovid's text where the names were already transliterated.[23]
  • ? = Seven listed names of dogs in Hyginus' Fabulae, was probably misread or misinterpreted by later authors because it does not correspond to the exact numbers and names given by Ovid:
    • Arcas signifies Arcadia, place of origin of three dogs namely Pamphagos, Dorceus and Oribasus
    • Cyprius means Cyprus, where the dogs Lysisca and Harpalos originated
    • Gnosius can be read as Knossus in Crete, which signify that Ichnobates was a Knossian breed of dog
    • Echnobas, Elion, Aura and Therodanapis were probably place names or adjectives defining the characteristics of dogs

The "bed of Actaeon" edit

In the second century AD, the traveller Pausanias was shown a spring on the road in Attica leading to Plataea from Eleutherae, just beyond Megara "and a little farther on a rock. It is called the bed of Actaeon, for it is said that he slept thereon when weary with hunting and that into this spring he looked while Artemis was bathing in it."

"As to Actæon there is a tradition at Orchomenus, that a spectre which sat on a stone injured their land. And when they consulted the oracle at Delphi, the god bade them bury in the ground whatever remains they could find of Actæon: he also bade them to make a brazen copy of the spectre and fasten it with iron to the stone. This I have myself seen, and they annually offer funeral rites to Actæon."[24]

Parallels in Akkadian and Ugarit poems edit

In the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh (tablet vi) there is a parallel, in the series of examples Gilgamesh gives Ishtar of her mistreatment of her serial lovers:

You loved the herdsman, shepherd and chief shepherd
Who was always heaping up the glowing ashes for you,
And cooked ewe-lambs for you every day.
But you hit him and turned him into a wolf,
His own herd-boys hunt him down
And his dogs tear at his haunches.[25]

Actaeon, torn apart by dogs incited by Artemis, finds another Near Eastern parallel in the Ugaritic hero Aqht, torn apart by eagles incited by Anath who wanted his hunting bow.[26]

The virginal Artemis of classical times is not directly comparable to Ishtar of the many lovers, but the mytheme of Artemis shooting Orion, was linked to her punishment of Actaeon by T.C.W. Stinton;[27] the Greek context of the mortal's reproach to the amorous goddess is translated to the episode of Anchises and Aphrodite.[28] Daphnis too was a herdsman loved by a goddess and punished by her: see Theocritus' First Idyll.[29]

Symbolism regarding Actaeon edit

In Greek Mythology, Actaeon is widely thought to symbolize ritual human sacrifice in attempt to please a God or Goddess:[30] the dogs symbolize the sacrificers and Actaeon symbolizes the sacrifice.

Actaeon may symbolize human curiosity or irreverence.[citation needed]

The myth is seen by Jungian psychologist Wolfgang Giegerich as a symbol of spiritual transformation and/or enlightenment.[31]

Actaeon often symbolizes a cuckold, as when he is turned into a stag, he becomes "horned".[32] This is alluded to in Shakespeare's Merry Wives, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and others.[33][34]

Cultural depictions edit

Death of Actaeon by Titian
Actaeon by Paul Manship
Vasiliy Ryabchenko, The Death of Actaeon, oil on canvas, 1988

The two main scenes are Actaeon surprising Artemis/Diana, and his death. In classical art Actaeon is normally shown as fully human, even as his hounds are killing him (sometimes he has small horns), but in Renaissance art he is often given a deer's head with antlers even in the scene with Diana, and by the time he is killed he has at the least this head, and has often completely transformed into the shape of a deer.

Royal House of Thebes family tree edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ He was sometimes called Actaeus (Ἀκταῖος), as in the poetic fragment quoted at Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.4.4: "then [they] killed Actaeus at Zeus's instigation", τότ' Ἀκταῖον κτεῖναι Διὸς αἰνεσίῃσι
  2. ^ Walter Burkert, Homo Necans (1972), translated by Peter Bing (University of California Press) 1983, p 111.
  3. ^ Heath, "The Failure of Orpheus", Transactions of the American Philological Association 124 (1994:163-196) p. 194.
  4. ^ Callimachus, Hymn v.
  5. ^ Callimachus gives no site: a glen in the foothills of Mount Cithaeron near Boeotian Orchomenus, is the site according to Euripides, Bacchae 1290-92, a spring sanctuary near Plataea is specified elsewhere.
  6. ^ Coulter-Harris, Deborah M. (2016-07-29). "Ancient Greece: Defining Immortality in an Age of Gods and Mortals". Chasing Immortality in World Religions. McFarland Inc. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-7864-9792-8.
  7. ^ Conner, Nancy (2010-02-10). "Artemis: The Thrill of the Hunt". The Everything Classical Mythology Book: Greek and Roman Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Monsters from Ares to Zeus. Adams Media. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-4405-0240-8.
  8. ^ Fragmentary sources for the narrative of Actaeon's hounds are noted in Lamar Ronald Lacy, "Aktaion and a Lost 'Bath of Artemis'" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 110 (1990:26–42) p. 30 note 32, p. 31 note 37.
  9. ^ Thus potentially endangering the future birth of Dionysus, had he been successful. Pausanias referred (9.2.3) to a lost poem by Stesichoros also expressing this motif. The progressive destruction of the House of Cadmus to make way for the advent of Dionysus can be followed in the myths of its individual members: Actaeon, Semele, Ino and Melicertes, and Pentheus.
  10. ^ This mytheme would link him with Agamemnon and Orion (Lacy 1990).
  11. ^ Lacy 1990, emphasizing that the central core is lost, covers the literary fragments, pp 26-27 and copious notes.
  12. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses iii.131; see also pseudo-Apollodorus' Bibliotheke iii. 4
  13. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  14. ^ Lacy, "Aktaion and a Lost 'Bath of Artemis'" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 110 (1990:26-42).
  15. ^ Pausanias (ix.2.3) reports that "Stesichorus of Himera says that the goddess cast a deer-skin round Actaeon to make sure that his hounds would kill him, so as to prevent his taking Semele to wife"; the lines of Stesichorus have not survived.
  16. ^ Lacy 1990:27f.
  17. ^ Plutarch. Aristeides, 11.3 & 4.
  18. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca, 3.4.4
  19. ^ Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book III, 206–235)
  20. ^ Hyginus Fabulae 181
  21. ^ In this list, Hyginus fails to correctly differentiate between masculine and feminine names
  22. ^ See the Index nominum in R. J. Tarrant (2004) P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoses, Oxford, pp. 503-534
  23. ^ Ovid. Metamorphoses, 3 for the exact names of the dogs
  24. ^ "Pausanias' Description of Greece, Vol. II., by Pausanias—A Project Gutenberg eBook". Retrieved 2024-04-12.
  25. ^ "Gilgamesh VI" in Myths from Mesopotamia... a new translation by Stephanie Dalley, rev. ed.2000:79; note 60, p. 129: "This metamorphosis has been compared to the Greek myth of Actaeon."
  26. ^ The comparison is made in Michael C. Astour, Hellenosemitica: an ethnic and cultural study of West Semitic impact on Mycenaean Greece (Leiden:Brill, 1965).
  27. ^ Stinton "Euripides and the Judgement of Paris" (London, 1965:45 note 14) reprinted in Stinton, Collected Papers on Greek Tragedy (London, 1990:51 note 14).
  28. ^ Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.
  29. ^ Jasper Griffin, "Theocritus, the Iliad, and the East", The American Journal of Philology 113.2 (Summer 1992:189-211) esp. pp 205f.
  30. ^ Biedermann, Hans (1989). The Dictionary of Symbolism. Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-2593-2.
  31. ^ Wolfgang Giegerich, The Soul’s Logical Life, (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001)
  32. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed, 2010, s.v.
  33. ^ John Stephen Farmer, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, 1903, s.v., p. 15.
  34. ^ Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, 2001, ISBN 0-485-11393-7, p. 8-9.
  35. ^ "Rooms 83-84: Roman sculpture". British Museum. Retrieved 2014-04-08.
  36. ^ What Is Contemporary Art? Terry Smith. 10 August 2012. University of Chicago Press. p. 173-81, 186
  37. ^ "The Scattering of the Son". The STRP Festival of eindhoven. January 2011.
  38. ^ Farago, Jason (21 March 2019). "A Lighter Matthew Barney Goes Back to School, and Back Home". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2022-01-01.
  39. ^ Heaney, Seamus (1975). North. London: Faber and Faber. p. 45. ISBN 0-571-17780-8.

References edit

External links edit