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The Myth of Artemis and Actaeon
The Goddess Artemis
Artemis (called Diana by Roman authors) was the Greek goddess of the woodlands, virginity, and hunting, as well as protector of babies and young animals and girls at the time of marriage and childbirth.
She was the daughter of Zeus and the nymph Leto and was also twin sister to Apollo, the god of music and prophecy. When she was a little girl, Artemis begged her father to be allowed to remain a virgin forever and the King of the Gods granted her request. Artemis thus remained as a beautiful young girl, and spent her time hunting in the woodlands with her bow and accompanied by her band of maiden nymphs. Her favourite place was Mount Kitheraon in Central Greece.
Actaeon Grandson of Cadmus
Actaeon was the grandson of King Cadmus, founder of the great city of Thebes. His mother was Cadmus' daughter Autonoe. His cousin was the God Dionysus, as Autonoe's sister Semele had given birth to the God after Zeus became her lover. Semele died in horrible circumstances due to the jealousy of Hera. Actaeon's other cousin Pentheus also came to a tragic end when he tried to stop the spread of the cult of Dionysus and was torn apart by his own mother and aunts in a Bacchic frenzy, believing he was a wild beast.
Other than the honour of having the God Dionysus as his grandson, Cadmus seems to have known little but sorrow from his daughters and grandchildren and the story of Actaon forms part of this pattern.
Acteon's father was Aristaeus, a mysterious demi-god who was the son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, who was worshipped in parts of Greece.
Acteon's Fatal Hunting Expedition
One hot day, Actaeon and his friends were hunting with hounds on Mount Kitheraon. Around noon, Actaeon decided that they had hunted enough for the day and went wandering in search of shade, becoming separated from his companions.
By mischance, Acteon entered a clearing and came upon Artemis and her maidens, bathing in a mountain stream. Furious that a man had seen her naked and afraid that he would boast about what he had seen, Artemis cast water on Actaeon while uttering a curse. Immediately, antlers began to sprout from the boy’s head and, bit by bit, he was transformed into a stag.
In terror and confusion, the young man fled into the forest. When he stopped and saw his reflection in a stream, he groaned aloud but could not speak a word of his distress. As Actaeon stood there, wondering if he could go home in his transformed state, or stay in the forest, he was spotted by his own hounds.
The End of Actaeon
Unable to recognise their master, the pack of hunting hounds surrounded him and attacked without mercy. Alerted by their excited barking, Actaeon’s companions came running up eagerly and urged on the hounds to make the kill. As the doomed young man cried out in a voice that was not human but was like nothing an ordinary stag could have uttered, he suffered the horrible irony of hearing his friends calling his name, and asking why he wasn’t here to witness this magnificent kill.
Alternative Versions and Significance of Actaeon Myth
Some versions of this story add that after Actaeon was dead, his bewildered hounds were so distressed by the absence of their master that Chiron, the wise centaur, (a mythical being,half man and half horse) created an image of Actaeon to comfort them.
While most versions of Actaeon’s story emphasise that he was the victim of sheer bad luck in coming upon Artemis bathing, there are alternative versions which suggest he was not entirely an innocent victim. Sometimes it is said that Actaeon deliberately spied on Artemis while she was bathing and even attempted to rape her; other versions claim that he boasted that he was a better hunter than she was or that he aspired to marry her, although she was dedicated to virginity.
In general, the story is understood to illustrate the ruthless and deadly aspect of the goddess and the wild nature that she represents, as well as her beautiful and nurturing side. It is a quality that she shares with her twin brother Apollo, along with skill with the bow. The myth also offers an example of the acute awareness of the ancient Greeks that sometimes terrible things happen to people for no just or comprehensible reason.