By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Diana and Actaeon and his band of hounds is a well-known tale from classical myth, especially thanks to Ovid, who included the story in his great anthology of myths involving transformations of various kinds, the Metamorphoses.
But who was Diana, and who was Actaeon? Before we analyse this famous myth, it might be worth summarising its key details …
Summary of the myth of Diana and Actaeon
Actaeon was a youth who was raised by a centaur, Chiron, who taught him how to hunt. Centaurs were mythical beasts that were half-man, half-horse: the head, arms and torso were human, but from the waist downwards they had the lower body and legs of a horse. Centaurs had a reputation for being wild and barbaric, but Chiron was wise and a good tutor and mentor to his young ward.
But how did he come into contact with Diana? Well, first of all it’s worth mentioning that although the myth is usually known as the story of ‘Diana and Actaeon’, it had its roots in Greek mythology, and Diana was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess, Artemis. But because ‘Diana and Actaeon’ has become tradition, we’ll follow the Romans and call her Diana rather than Artemis.
One day, Actaeon, accompanied by a group of other men as well as his hounds, was out hunting a stag, when he caught sight of Diana bathing in a pool. Diana was the goddess of hunting, so it makes sense that she’d be found in the woods where hunts were common. Indeed, she often bathed in this part of the forest.
She was accompanied by her attendant nymphs who were all as naked as the goddess. Actaeon couldn’t believe it when he chanced upon them all, beautiful and without a stitch of clothes on. He had never seen something as beautiful as the goddess in all his days.
Then disaster struck – for Actaeon, staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed, was spotted by Diana.
The ancient gods – and goddesses – were a capricious and jealous and proud bunch of deities, and Diana didn’t like being seen naked by the young man one bit. As punishment for him gawking at her, she transformed Actaeon into a stag and then incited his hounds to turn on him and chase him.
Poor Actaeon, for catching a glimpse of a nude goddess, was thus hunted down by his own hounds, who failed to recognise that the stag they were pursuing was their master, thanks to Diana’s divine trickery. They soon caught up with him and devoured him.
Unaware that the stag they’d just gleefully had for lunch was their own master, the dogs proceeded to search for him throughout the forest. Eventually they returned to Chiron’s cave, where they looked crestfallen at the absence of Actaeon. Chiron is said to have created a statue of Actaeon, a sort of effigy, so that the dogs would think their young master had come back.
Analysis of the myth of Diana and Actaeon
The tale of Diana (or Artemis) and the unfortunate Actaeon clearly revolves around themes of modesty, virginity, and chastity. Diana, as the goddess of celibacy and chastity, is obviously affronted that this mere huntsman has clapped eyes on her when she has nothing on, and justice for his ‘crime’ must be swift and complete.
But if the moral of the story was ‘don’t go looking at goddesses naked’ it would obviously be of limited practical use. The myth seems to call for respect towards chastity as an idea: a reminder that those who fail to revere the cult of virginity that surrounded the figure of Diana/Artemis may expect some sort of comeuppance.
In this respect, we can draw a parallel with a later English myth involving Lady Godiva, who, in the eleventh century, was said to have ridden naked through the streets of the city of Coventry in order to persuade her husband to lower taxes.
All of the townsfolk agreed to hide away indoors and not to look at their lady as she performed this act of unclothed equestrianism, but one inhabitant – who subsequently became known as ‘Peeping Tom’ – dared to look at Lady Godiva, and was struck blind for his audacity. Like the story of Diana and Actaeon, the story of Peeping Tom is mythical – as, indeed, is the story of Lady Godiva’s naked horse-ride, in all likelihood.
But it is the brutality of Actaeon’s end which is likely responsible for the myth’s continued popularity: the punishment seems to far outstrip (to use a decidedly apt word) the crime. If he had hunted Diana with the intention of taking her by force, one could quite understand the severity, not to mention the singular aptness, of the hunter becoming the hunted, at the hands (or rather mouths) of his own dogs.
But all he did was steal a glance. And it’s not at all clear from Ovid’s telling of the story that Actaeon stood gawping for all that long before he was discovered:
Now all undrest the shining Goddess stood,
When young Actaeon, wilder’d in the wood,
To the cool grott by his hard fate betray’d,
The fountains fill’d with naked nymphs survey’d.
The frighted virgins shriek’d at the surprize
(The forest echo’d with their piercing cries).
Then in a huddle round their Goddess prest:
She, proudly eminent above the rest,
With blushes glow’d; such blushes as adorn
The ruddy welkin, or the purple morn;
And tho’ the crowding nymphs her body hide,
Half backward shrunk, and view’d him from a side.
Actaeon’s fate seems even harsher if he’d barely got his head around just what he was gazing upon before he was found out, and swiftly dealt with.
Poets throughout the centuries have been attracted to the tale of Diana and Actaeon, and it is as ‘Diana’, rather than ‘Artemis’, that the classical goddess tends to appear, thanks to the Roman Ovid’s influence on the popularity of the tale. But since Ovid, numerous other poets have used the story to represent themes of chastity versus audacity.
In his 1922 poem The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot offers us numerous images of modern decay, and this is clear in the third section of the poem, ‘The Fire Sermon’, when we hear the sound of car horns signalling the arrival of Sweeney, a latter-day Neanderthal figure – a modern caveman in a suit who features in several of Eliot’s other poems – who is coming to ‘Mrs Porter’, probably a brothel-owner.
But as with numerous other points in his poem, Eliot cleverly juxtaposes this scene of contemporary decadence – where sex has lost its deeper meaning – with an allusion to an earlier poem, John Day’s ‘Parliament of Bees’ from the seventeenth century:
When of the sudden, listening, you shall hear,
A noise of horns and hunting, which shall bring
Actaeon to Diana in the spring …
Actaeon was torn apart by his own hounds because he dared to gaze at the naked body of Diana while she bathed. In this classical myth, even gaining sexual gratification (however nascent) from the sight of a beautiful chaste woman (not even a woman, but a goddess, no less) was enough to get you executed in the most horrifically violent way.
Contrast that view of chastity, where even looking at a naked woman without her permission could spell the end of you, with what we have nowadays, Eliot’s poem seems to say: if you want to look at naked women (or even do more than look), all you need to do is bring your wallet with you to Mrs Porter’s establishment, like Sweeney.
Sticking with twentieth-century modernist poetry: as the critic Barry Sanders has identified, in his poem ‘all in green went my love riding’ the poet e. e. cummings essentially retells the classical myth of Diana and Actaeon: the latter spies the former bathing naked, and is torn apart by his own hounds as punishment.
The male gaze and the sensual power of the scene are captured through the enticing use of colour throughout, as well as the suggestive language (cummings’ beloved has a ‘Horn at hip’, for instance – reminding us of Diana’s hunting horn, since she was goddess of the chase among other things). All of the ingredients of the Diana and Actaeon myth are here: the beautiful woman, the deer, the woodland scene, the hounds, the male observer. You can read cummings’ poem here.