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The Myth of Artemis and Actaeon

Updated on May 17, 2016
SarahLMaguire profile image

Sarah has a PhD in Classical Civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the Ancient World and other topics.

The Goddess Artemis
The Goddess Artemis | Source

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.

Actaon
Actaon | Source

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.

The death of Actaion.
The death of Actaion. | Source

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.

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    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      18 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Haunting story, I enjoyed your version of telling it.

    • SarahLMaguire profile imageAUTHOR

      SarahLMaguire 

      18 months ago from UK

      Hi Sa Maria, there are several versions of the myth of Actaeon, some of which suggest he either deliberately spied on her or tried to rape. The myth writer Pseudo-Hyginus in Fabulae 180 suggests that Actaeon spied on Artemis and tried to rape her. The 4th century CE epic poet Nonnos also suggests that he spied on her deliberately. Here is a link to quotes from ancient authors about the different versions of Actaeon's death. http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/ArtemisWrath.html#Ak... Hope it helps and good luck with your project!

    • profile image

      Sa Maria 

      18 months ago

      Hi,I was wondering if you could tell me the name or author of the version of the myth where Actaeon rapes/spies on Diana or Artemis? Its for a project at school

      Warm regards!

    • parwatisingari profile image

      parwatisingari 

      6 years ago from India

      He also has an ongoing stuff between the hunters of Artemis and the children of Aphrodite.

    • SarahLMaguire profile imageAUTHOR

      SarahLMaguire 

      6 years ago from UK

      Turning irritating boys into cantaloupes sounds more fun than setting dogs on them! It sounds entertaining.

      Artemis did in fact turn nasty if one of her maidens was ever led astray - one girl, Kallisto got turned into a bear.

    • parwatisingari profile image

      parwatisingari 

      6 years ago from India

      He has Artemis as the eternal maiden, and she has her group of hunters, who are eternal teenagers, They can only die if they fall in a war. But if they do fall in love then they invite the wrath of the Goddess. Oh! yes Artemis turns boys who irritate her into cantaloupes.

      Needless to say, all the 12-15yr old girls who have read the Percy Jackson series are fans of Artemis.

    • SarahLMaguire profile imageAUTHOR

      SarahLMaguire 

      6 years ago from UK

      What's his take on the story?

    • parwatisingari profile image

      parwatisingari 

      6 years ago from India

      Rick Riordon has used this myth very interestingly.

    • SarahLMaguire profile imageAUTHOR

      SarahLMaguire 

      6 years ago from UK

      That's true - no one deserves to be torn to pieces by a pack of dogs! Thanks for commenting.

    • sasanka7 profile image

      sasanka7 

      6 years ago from Calcutta, India

      Very sad and unfortunates story. Whatever be the versions the death of Actaeon is painful he deserves our sympathy spontaneously.

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