Metamorphoses III: 138-252 – Actaeon


Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition 1703

Your grandson, Cadmus, was the first cause of grief for your household, though many others followed. The antlers of another species grew from his forehead and they, his own hunting dogs, were glutted with the blood of their master.

But no matter how thoroughly you look for the sin that brought him to this fortune, you will find nothing. For what sin is there in a mere mistake?

It was high noon on a hillside stained with the slaughter of all sorts of animals. The sun balanced between the two horizons, before the day began its slope down into the shadows.

The Hyantian youth Actaeon cheerfully summoned his fellow hunters as they wandered through the tangled woods, “The nets are soaked with the blood of beasts and our spears are dripping, comrades. The day’s bag is sufficient. When Aurora has brought another dawn on the golden wheels of her chariot, we will resume the hunt. Now Phoebus balances midway between east and west, and the land cracks from the heat. Hold up here for the time being and bring the tangled nets.” His men obeyed orders and halted their business.

The Vale of Gargaphia, thick with pines and sharp-pointed cypresses, was sacred to short-skirted Diana. At the far end of the valley was a woodland spring which had not been improved by the hand of man. Nature by her own genius mimicked art, for in the outcrop of pumice and light tuff it had carved a natural grotto. A clear spring gurgled into a rivulet from the right side. Grassy margins bound the brook’s broad channel.

Here the goddess of the forests now came to wash her virgin limbs in the dew-clear water, as she often did when she was worn out from hunting. When she arrived she handed her javelin, quiver and bow to the nymph who acted as her armor bearer. Another nymph took Diana’s cape, and two nymphs undid her sandals.

Ismenian Crocale, a specialist, bound Diana’s free-flowing hair in a knot though her own remained loose. Nephele, Hyale, Ranis, Psecas, and Phiale filled large urns with water and showered the goddess with them.

While Titan-born Diana washed in the secluded spring, the grandson of Cadmus was wandering in the same unfamiliar region to which the hunt had brought him; he came to the grove by sheer mischance. As he entered the grotto, the nude nymphs beat their breasts and wailed at the sight of a man, filling the grove with their din. They tried to hide Diana with the curtain of their own bodies, but the goddess was taller than her minions and loomed head and shoulders above them.

The face of Diana standing nude was the color of the setting sun striking clouds in the east, or of rosy Aurora. Although she was hedged about by the throng of her companions she turned sideways, looking to snatch up her swift arrows. Since they were out of reach, she instead scooped water and splashed Actaeon’s face, drenching his hair with the avenging liquid. To the droplets she added these words of impending doom: “Now I give you leave to tell everyone that you saw me nude–if you can speak!”

With no further threats, the living horns of a stag sprang from Actaeon’s head. His neck lengthened and his ears grew pointed. His hands became hooves and his arms changed into long forelegs. A dappled hide covered his body.

On top of all else was the fear.

The heroic descendent of Autonoe fled, marvelling at his own swiftness. When he saw his true visage–and his horns–in the water, he tried to blurt, “Woe is me!” but found he had no voice. Instead he groaned, for that was the only sound he could now make, and tears dripped down the face that was no longer his.

His mind, however, remained. What should he do? Return to his home and the royal palace? Or should he hide in the woods? Shame forbid the first but fear prevented the other.

While Actaeon hesitated, his dogs spotted him: the barking of Melampus and wise Ichnobates first gave the signal. Ichnobates was of the Cretan breed, Melampus a Laconian.

The rest of the pack rushed to their call, swifter than the breezes: Pamphaos and Dorceus and Oribasos, all Arcadian hounds; strong Nebrophonos and fierce Theron along with Laelaps, and swift-footed Pterelas and scent-tracking Agre, and Hylaeus who had recently been shaken by a fierce boar, and Nape fathered by a wolf, and Poemenis the sheepdog, and Harpyia accompanied by her two pups, and narrow-waisted Ladon, a Sicyonian hound; and Dromas, and Canache, and Stichte, and Tigris, and Alce; and white-coated Leucon and black-furred Asbolus, and mighty Lacon, and Aello the pacer, and Thoos, and swift Cyprio with his brother Lyciscus, and Harpalos whose black head stood out from his white torso, and Lachnes of the long-haired Melanean breed, and the pups Labros and Argiodus, sired by a Cretan dog on a Laconian bitch, and sharp-voiced Hylactor.

But it’s pointless to list more of the dogs. The whole pack raced in lust for prey along the crags and rocks and trackless scree. They followed Actaeon along difficult paths and where there were no paths at all.

Actaeon fled through places blocked with brush. Alas! he fled his own hounds. He tried to cry, “I am Actaeon! Know your master!” The words failed his intent. Instead, the air was filled with the pack’s barking.

Melanchaetes tore at Actaeon’s back, then Therodamas; Oresitrophos seized his shoulder. Other hounds ran more slowly, but knowing the mountains they took shortcuts to head their prey. While they held their master, the rest of the pack surrounded him and buried their teeth in his body.

His hide was covered with wounds. He groaned; the sound, though not of a man, was as much as a stag was able to express; it filled the mountain ridges with grief. Falling forward on his knees like a suppliant begging, Actaeon looked about; his visage was as expressionless as his limbs.

In their ignorance Actaeon’s companions drove on the pack with their usual encouragement, all the time looking for Actaeon and calling for him to join them–as though he were absent! He could only lift his head when he heard his name. His companions regretted that he was missing this, that he was too slow to be in at this spectacular kill.

Actaeon certainly wished he were absent, but he was there! He wanted to watch, not to feel, the savagery of his hounds. The surrounded their master, sinking their muzzles into his body as they ripped him apart in the semblance of a stag. Nor was the wrath of quiver-bearing Diana sated until Actaeon died from these many wounds.

There are various opinions about this event: some say the goddess was unjustly brutal to a man who merely glimpsed her; others praise Diana and say that the punishment was merited as a defense of her rigid virginity. Each party has its reasons.

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