The myth of Diana and Actaeon is kind of a disturbing myth. Just why do people have to suffer for no fault of theirs? Mythology is replete with examples where characters undergo trials and tribulations for no fault of theirs, but this one still seems to be different.
Diana (also known as Artemis sometimes) was the virgin goddess of hunting and wildlife. From an early age she had decided to remain a virgin and thus as a goddess she remained unattached and was also at times worshiped as the goddess who protected girls who had not attained puberty.
Actaeon was the son of King Cadmus and was at the peak of his youth. He was brave and strong and was fond of hunting. Once he led a hunting expedition to the forests with his friends and hunting dogs. After a tiring day, all of them decided to take some rest. Actaeon, moved away from the group in search of water. Unknown to him, there was a secret place of Diana, who would come to rest and pamper herself in a spring. On that fateful day, Diana had just dipped herself in the pool and begun to let her attendants take away her clothes. Her bow and arrow and javelin were parked far away and Diana had just begun to relax her tired body, when Actaeon, unknown to the forest landed at the exact spot.
Not used to men, her attendant’s shrieked and all tried to cover the bare body of Diana, by using themselves as shields. But Diana was tall and beautiful and the attendants could not cover her enough. Actaeon had never seen such divine beauty and even before decency could enable him to shift his gaze, Diana threw some of the waters from the spring at him and said that he would never be able to tell any mortal what he saw. What she uttered was a curse, and no sooner had she completed her statement, Actaeon found himself running from there.
|A painting by Titian|
While running, Actaeon suddenly grew antlers and from two legs he had gone on four. When he reached a spring, he saw his reflection and shouted in disbelief, he had turned into a stag! But his voice had changed into the call of a stag. Soon he realised that he had reached close to where he had left his friends and the hunting dogs had heard his call. His friends had started chasing the stag and the dogs were after him, unaware that it was none other than their leader and friend. Actaeon had now suddenly become the object of the sport that he was leading till a few hours back. Soon, the dogs caught up with him and tore him to pieces without anybody even realising what had happened and why.
|Death of Actaeon|
As I mentioned earlier, this is a disturbing myth. Was Actaeon to be blamed for what he saw, unintentionally? Nowhere are his thoughts on what he saw mentioned. Did Diana act in haste? Let us understand the myth slightly better and understand the lesson it tried to impart, to the Greeks then.
This myth can be interpreted in different ways. This can be seen as the malevolent powers of the feminine power, especially of the one who is the embodiment of chastity. It tells man, that the beauty of a female has the power to trap and sometimes lead to ultimate destruction. Such beauty can make the hunter the hunted, even before the hunter realises it. It also serves as a lesson to the wayward not to take the feminine spirit as benign and for granted.
According to Greek mythology, stags were associated with spiritual qualities and were supposed to the favourites of the goddess Diana. Here Actaeon being changed into a stag seems ironic, especially when the very form leads to its destruction by dogs. However, the dogs represent the unconscious lust that is hiding deep inside every man’s secret thoughts, and such thoughts have not spared even those who have sought spiritualism.
In Hindu mythology, we see a similar malevolent aspect in goddess Kali. Even in her devastating form, she is referred to as Mother. She spares none, who have evil in their heart and actions. The all pervasive benevolent Mother changes into a malevolent form in no time and rests only on drinking the blood of the evil.