The Story of Actaeon

Diana and ActaeonPhoto Credit: Diana and Actaeon, Francesco Albani, 1617, oil on copper, Louvre Museum, Paris, France: JarektUploadBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)

“And so [Actaeon] perished, hunter and hunted.” (Preston-Peabody, par. 8)

My upcoming book, the first book of my Waxwood Series, is called The Order of Actaeon. This is a blog post not so much about why I chose this title (which I think will be clear when you read the book) but about the myth of Actaeon and some of the myth’s connections to the book.

The title of my book refers to a group of men that Jake Alderdice, the main character, becomes involved with through another character, the charismatic and enigmatic Stevens. When I was looking to name the group, I had the idea of using a mythical character as the group has a mythical aspect to it. I came upon the story of Actaeon, “a grandson of the great king Cadmus” (Preston Peabody, par. 4), the founder and first king of Thebes. I was intrigued by Actaeon for several reasons. Unlike many mythical characters, Actaeon is rather a mystery. As Carlos Parada points out in his article about Actaeon, “there are almost no accounts of his life, except that he was trained by the Centaur Chiron to be a hunter” (par. 2). His identity as a skilled hunter seems to be clear but beyond this, Actaeon didn’t have many specific deeds or acts of heroism that make him stand out in the mythology. In fact, it’s safe to say we wouldn’t have hardly heard about him at all except for one incident that thrust him to the forefront – his run-in with Diana (Greek name Artemis).

Diana was known as the virgin goddess of the hunt. As Josephine Preston-Peabody tells in her version of the story between Actaeon and Diana, “[s]he and her maidens shunned the fellowship of men and would not hear of marriage, for they disdained all household arts; and there are countless tales of their cruelty to suitors” (par. 1). In other words, Diana and her companions were bad-ass women who “as untamed and free of heart as the wild creatures they loved to hunt, and whoever molested them did so at his peril” (Preston Peabody, par. 4). Actaeon was one of these who violated their privacy and paid the penalty for it.

There are many versions of the story between Actaeon and Diana, most of them adhering to the main facts with slight variations. Probably the most definitive version is from Thomas Bulfinch’s book of myths and fables from the 19th century. Bulfinch’s tale begins with Actaeon taking a break from a particularly hard day of hunting with his comrades and wandering into the sanctuary of Diana and her maidens:

“While the goddess was… employed in the labors of [bathing], behold Actaeon, having quitted his companions, and rambling without any especial object, came to the place, led thither by his destiny. As he presented himself at the entrance of the cave, the nymphs, seeing a man, screamed and rushed towards the goddess to hide her with their bodies.” (Bullfinch, par. 4)

As noted above, Diana and her comrades were modest ladies and the idea of a man invading their space did not sit well with them. So right off, Diana reacted:

“[S]he dashed… water into the face of the intruder, adding these words: ‘Now go and tell, if you can, that you have seen Diana unapparelled.’  Immediately a pair of branching stag’s horns grew out of his head, his neck gained in length, his ears grew sharp-pointed, his hands became feet, his arms long legs, his body was covered with a hairy spotted hide.” (Bullfinch, par. 4)

Turning Actaeon into a stag seems almost a humorous joke but the joke turns deadly for Actaeon. Staggering around the forest, trying to figure out what to do, he encounters his own hunting dogs who turn on him:

“Where he had often chased the stag and cheered on his pack, his pack now chased him, cheered on by his huntsmen. He longed to cry out, ‘I am Actaeon; recognize your master!’ but the words came not at his will.” (Bullfinch, par. 4)

The result is pretty gruesome: Actaeon is devoured by the dogs he has trained to kill.

How much Actaeon was responsible for his own end has been highly debated. Many versions of the myth (including Bulfinch’s) show Actaeon as an innocent victim of Diana’s wrath who was just wandering around the forest and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Parada points out, “[b]ecause of this deed, some deemed Artemis to be … cruel…” (par. 4). However, others point out that Actaeon was known for his arrogance and his predatory skills (both with game and with women) and his encounter with Diana may not have been so incidental. For example,

“it has also been told that Actaeon presented himself as superior to Artemis as a hunter, being his boast the reason behind his unfortunate fate. And again, others say that Actaeon came into the cave, and tried to ravish the goddess who, in her anger, made horns grow on his head, turning him into a stag.” (Parada, par. 5)

OOA Actaeon Teaser

Photo Credit: Actaeon being attacked by his dogs, group statue of Actaeon in Caserta, taken 7 July 2007 by japiot: Japiot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

For my story, the pseudo-manly image of Actaeon as a skilled hunter and predatory arrogance suited my purpose for the order I had created. These men live outside of society for their own reasons. In addition, Stevens, the man who introduces Jake to the Order of Actaeon is a kind of modern-day Actaeon (although his character becomes much more complex than the myth suggests). Although Stevens takes more of a backseat in the first book of the series, he comes back as a main character in the third book, Dandelion Children, where the Actaeon analogy will be explored a little more.

Further, I loved the story of Actaeon’s fate at the hands of Diana (because who doesn’t love bad-ass women in history?) I found myself looking at Vivian Alderdice, Jake’s sister, as a Diana-like character in some respects. As I rewrote the book, I found, like many authors, that my characters began speaking for themselves, especially between Vivian and Stevens. Their relationship began to remind me of Actaeon and Diana. For example, in Chapter 2, Jake and Vivian meet Stevens when he stumbles upon them on a drawing excursion (Jake is an artist) in the woods. Jake had a frozen image of his sister at eight or nine in his mind and he draws her that way. Stevens crosses Vivian’s path as she poses for her brother is reminiscent of Actaeon coming upon Diana near the stream. This analogy of Vivian and Stevens with Diana and Actaeon will return in Dandelion Children.

Sometimes writers make connections between literature and mythology on purpose to add richness to their story intentionally but sometimes these connections begin as something that intrigues them but develops into something deeper on a subconscious level. I started with the idea of Actaeon the arrogant hunter as an image for a group of characters but as I wrote, it blossomed into something more between the two characters who appear throughout the three books of the series. This was just one of the delightful surprises of the creative process.

Works Cited

Bulfinch, Thomas. “Diana and Actaeon.” The Age of Fable: Or, Stories of Gods and Heroes. Boston: Sanborn, Carter, and Bazin, 1856. Pp. 53-56. Web. 6 December 2017.

Parada, Carlos. “Actaeon.” Greek Mythology Link. Carlos Parada and Maicar Forlag, 1997. Web. 6 December 2017.

Preston Peabody, Josephine. “Diana and Actaeon: The Myth of Diana and Actaeon – The mythical story of Diana and Actaeon.” Tales Beyond Belief. Siteseen, Ltd., 2017. Web. 6 December 2017.

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