Who is Actaeon? - Artemis and the Hunter Actaeon
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Who is Actaeon?

Actaeon

Actaeon (ac-TAY-on) was a young man who liked to go hunting in the woods. He spent a lot of time alone in the woods with his hunting dogs, chasing deer with his bow and arrow. One day, as he was walking through the forest, he saw a movement through the trees, and turned to look. To his surprise, he saw the most beautiful lady he had ever seen, with absolutely no clothes on, taking a bath in a forest pond! Actaeon was so surprised that he just stood there, forgetting everything, and looked and looked at the beautiful lady.

But after a minute the lady looked around and saw him! She was very angry, and immediately got out of the water and put on her dress. Unfortunately for Actaeon, this lady was the goddess Artemis, and Artemis hates for men to see her when she is in her bath. She was so angry that she pointed at Actaeon, and he began to turn into a deer! His feet and hands turned into little hooves, he grew horns, and he grew soft brown hair all over his body. He tried to tell the lady he was sorry, but it was no use.

Actaeon metope
Metope from Temple E at
Selinus, Sicily (about 460 BC)

Then the worst thing of all happened: Actaeon's own hunting dogs, thinking he was a real deer, jumped on him and tore him to pieces.

(This story might seem a little unfair to you, but that's the point: gods do not operate by the same rules as people, and they can do things that are unfair if they want to. In fact, a look around at how many bad things happen to good people was enough to convince the Greeks that the gods did unfair things all the time. The story of Medusa is another along the same lines).

The story of Actaeon seems to be based on an older West Asian version involving the goddess Ishtar and a shepherd; the story is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The older version involved the shepherd being Ishtar's boyfriend, not just looking at her: does that change the way you think about this story? But it, too, is in a list of ways in which the gods are unfair.

Learn by doing: play with a dog
More about Artemis

Bibliography and further reading about Actaeon:

D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire. (Look under Artemis).

Actaeon, the Unmannerly Intruder: The Myth and Its Meaning in Classical Literature, by John Heath (1993). By a specialist, for specialists.

Or check out this article on Actaeon in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about Artemis
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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