Perhaps the ultimate tale of revenge, Actaeon is the Hunter who becomes the Hunted when he stumbles upon Artemis (or 'Diana' as she is known in many of these stories) and her Nymphs. There are many fragments to these stories, in ancient plays and in poems, with the reason for Actaeon's punishment slightly different in each. But one thing remains unchanged through them all - Artemis is righteous, and is merciless.
Bathing at the Sacred Grove
"There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Artemis of the high-girded tunic... a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid."
Actaeon, on his return from the hunt "strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove". Artemis' nymphs rush to surround their Mistress, to hide her nakedness, but it is too late. She stands head and shoulders above her followers, and Actaeon is taken by her natural beauty. He simply cannot look away.
Artemis does not hide her fury at the intrusion. She fills her palms with water and sprinkles it over Actaeon's head and face, cursing him with the words ‘Now you may tell, if you can tell that is, of having seen me naked!’. He is transformed into a stag, horns and all. Actaeon runs, at first not realising the curse that has been laid upon him. Not until he catches sight of his reflection in the water - his head now adorned with horns, his skin now dappled fur. He tries to shout out, and finds that he cannot, for Artemis has stolen his ability to speak. 'Tears run down his altered face. Only his mind remains unchanged.' Not only has he been transformed into an animal, but he has retained his human mind and consciousness, only adding to the horror.
Immediately, Actaeon's own dogs catch sight of him, and in a fury begin ruthlessly chasing their master - no longer recognising him as such. "The pack of them, greedy for the prey follow over cliffs and crags, and inaccessible rocks, where the way is hard or there is no way at all. He runs, over the places where he has often chased, flying, alas, from his own hounds. He longs to shout ‘I am Actaeon! Know your own master!’ but words fail him, the air echoes to the baying."
The hounds tear him to pieces. In a cruel twist of fate, the Hunter becomes the creature that he hunted.
*Text in italics is quoted from A.S. Klines translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
No better Hunter
Euripides has a different interpretation of the Actaeon and Artemis story. In the poem Bacchae, the story goes that Actaeon foolishly boasted that he was a better hunter than the great Goddess of the Hunt, Artemis. Omnipotent deity that she is, Artemis hears these boasts and is overcome with rage at Actaeons impudence. His ego becomes his downfall.
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.
The Virgin Huntress
Some other retellings of the story of Actaeon posit that he was a Hunter alongside the Goddess; they knew one another, having a kinship and mutual respect. But he stepped over the mark when he was so enamoured with her that he wanted to marry her.
The stories of Actaeon symbolise clearly the high-regard in which Artemis keeps her chastity. As we mentioned in an earlier blog, 'chastity' in terms of Artemis should not be considered simply a type of sexual purity. In the times of these stories, virginity was a term more synonymous with 'unmarried', and marriage something expected of all women; an act of submission to men, their superiors. To Artemis, to remain chaste is to remain unmarried and untethered by men. To Artemis, her chastity is her freedom. To desire Artemis in such a base way is not to flatter her - it is to demean her. So it is not surprising that a man merely expressing delight at the mere sight of her is something that Artemis deems a punishable offence.