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. Together, they hunted deer with his bow and arrow. One day, as he was walking through the forest, he saw a movement through the trees. He 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. He looked and looked at the beautiful lady.
But after a minute the lady looked around and saw him! She was very angry – she immediately got out of the water and put on her dress. Unfortunately for Actaeon, this lady was the goddess Artemis. 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. Then he grew soft brown hair all over his body. He tried to tell the lady he was sorry, but it was no use.
Then the worst thing of all happened. Actaeon’s own hunting dogs thought he was a real deer. They 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. 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. That story is in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The older version involved the shepherd sleeping with Ishtar, not just looking at her: does that change the way you think about Actaeon’s story? But the shepherd’s story, too, is in a list of ways in which the gods are unfair.
Learn by doing: play with a dog
More about Artemis
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.