Greek and Roman Mythology > Diana and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon

It was midday, and the sun stood equally distant from either
goal, when young Actaeon, son of King Cadmus, thus addressed the
youths who with him were hunting the stag in the mountains:--

"Friends, our nets and our weapons are wet with the blood of our
victims; we have had sport enough for one day, and tomorrow we
can renew our labors. Now, while Phoebus parches the earth, let
us put by our instruments and indulge ourselves with rest."

There was a valley thickly enclosed with cypresses and pines,
sacred to the huntress-queen, Diana. In the extremity of the
valley was a cave, not adorned with art, but nature had
counterfeited art in its construction, for she had turned the
arch of its roof with stones as delicately fitted as if by the
hand of man. A fountain burst out from one side, whose open
basin was bounded by a grassy rim. Here the goddess of the woods
used to come when weary with hunting and lave her virgin limbs in
the sparkling water.

One day, having repaired thither with her nymphs, she handed her
javelin, her quiver, and her bow to one, her robe to another,
while a third unbound the sandals from her feet. Then Crocale,
the most skilful of them, arranged her hair, and Nephele, Hyale,
and the rest drew water in capacious urns. While the goddess was
thus employed in the labors of the toilet, 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. But she was taller than the rest, and overtopped
them all by a head. Such a color as tinges the clouds at sunset
or at dawn came over the countenance of Diana thus taken by
surprise. Surrounded as she was by her nymphs, she yet turned
half away, and sought with a sudden impulse for her arrows. As
they were not at hand, she dashed the 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.
Fear took the place of his former boldness, and the hero fled.
He could not but admire his own speed; but when he saw his horns
in the water, "Ah, wretched me!: he would have said, but no sound
followed the effort. He groaned, and tears flowed down the face
that had taken the place of his own. Yet his consciousness
remained. What shall he do? Go home to seek the palace, or lie
hid in the woods? The latter he was afraid, the former he was
ashamed, to do. While he hesitated the dogs saw him. First
Melampus, a Spartan dog, gave the signal with his bark, then
Pamphagus, Dorceus, Lelaps, Theron, Nape, Tigris, and all the
rest, rushed after him swifter than the wind. Over rocks and
cliffs, through mountain gorges that seemed impracticable, he
fled, and they followed. Where he had often chased the stag and
cheered on his pack, his pack now chased him, cheered on by his
own huntsmen. He longed to cry out, "I am Actaeon; recognize
your master!" But the words came not at his will. The air
resounded with the bark of the dogs. Presently one fastened on
his back, another seized his shoulder. While they held their
master, the rest of the pack came up and buried their teeth in
his flesh. He groaned, not in a human voice, yet certainly not
in a stag's, and, falling on his knees, raised his eyes, and
would have raised his arms in supplication, if he had had them.
His friends and fellow-huntsmen cheered on the dogs, and looked
every where for Actaeon, calling on him to join the sport. At
the sound of his name, he turned his head, and heard them regret
that he should be away. He earnestly wished he was. He would
have been well pleased to see the exploits of his dogs, but to
feel them was too much. They were all around him, rending and
tearing; and it was not till they had torn his life out that the
anger of Diana was satisfied.

In the "Epic of Hades" there is a description of Actaeon and his
change of form. Perhaps the most beautiful lines in it are when
Actaeon, changed to a stag, first hears his own hounds and flees.

"But as I gazed, and careless turned and passed
Through the thick wood, forgetting what had been,
And thinking thoughts no longer, swift there came
A mortal terror; voices that I knew.
My own hounds' bayings that I loved before,
As with them often o'er the purple hills
I chased the flying hart from slope to slope,
Before the slow sun climbed the eastern peaks,
Until the swift sun smote the western plain;
Whom often I had cheered by voice and glance,
Whom often I had checked with hand and thong;
Grim followers, like the passions, firing me,
True servants, like the strong nerves, urging me
On many a fruitless chase, to find and take
Some too swift-fleeting beauty, faithful feet
And tongues, obedient always: these I knew
Clothed with a new-born force and vaster grown,
And stronger than their master; and I thought,
What if they tore me with their jaws, nor knew
That once I ruled them, brute pursuing brute,
And I the quarry? Then I turned and fled
If it was I indeed that feared and fled
Down the long glades, and through the tangled brakes,
Where scarce the sunlight pierced; fled on and on,
And panted, self-pursued. But evermore
The dissonant music which I knew so sweet,
When by the windy hills, the echoing vales
And whispering pines it rang; now far, now near
As from my rushing steed I leant and cheered
With voice and horn the chase; this brought to me
Fear of I knew not what, which bade me fly,
Fly always, fly; but when my heart stood still,
And all my limbs were stiffened as I fled,
Just as the white moon ghost-like climbed the sky,
Nearer they came and nearer, baying loud,
With bloodshot eyes and red jaws dripping foam;
And when I strove to check their savagery,
Speaking with words; no voice articulate came,
Only a dumb, low bleat. Then all the throng
Leapt swift upon me and tore me as I lay,
And left me man again."

In Shelley's poem Adonais is the following allusion to the story
of Actaeon:--

"Midst others of less note came one frail form,
A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm,
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature's naked loveliness,
Actaeon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o'er the world's wilderness;
And his own Thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued like raging hounds their father and their prey."
Adonais, stanza 31.

The allusion is probably to Shelley himself.


Some thought the goddess in this instance more severe than was
just, while others praised her conduct as strictly consistent
with her virgin dignity. As usual, the recent event brought
older ones to mind, and one of the bystanders told this story.
"Some countrymen of Lycia once insulted the goddess Latona, but
not with impunity. When I was young, my father, who had grown
too old for active labors, sent me to Lycia to drive thence some
choice oxen, and there I saw the very pond and marsh where the
wonder happened. Near by stood an ancient altar, black with the
smoke of sacrifice and almost buried among the reeds. I inquired
whose altar it might be, whether of Faunus or the Naiads or some
god of the neighboring mountain, and one of the country people
replied, 'No mountain or river god possesses this altar, but she
whom royal Juno in her jealousy drove from land to land, denying
her any spot of earth whereon to rear her twins. Bearing in her
arms the infant deities, Latona reached this land, weary with her
burden and parched with thirst. By chance she espied in the
bottom of the valley this pond of clear water, where the country
people were at work gathering willows and osiers. The goddess
approached, and kneeling on the bank would have slaked her thirst
in the cool stream, but the rustics forbade her. 'Why do you
refuse me water?' said she; 'water is free to all. Nature allows
no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water.
I come to take my share of the common blessing. Yet I ask it of
you as a favor. I have no intention of washing my limbs in it,
weary though they be, but only to quench my thirst. My mouth is
so dry that I can hardly speak. A draught of water would be
nectar to me; it would revive me, and I would own myself indebted
to you for life itself. Let these infants move your pity, who
stretch out their little arms as if to plead for me'; and the
children, as it happened, were stretching out their arms.

"Who would not have been moved with these gentle words of the
goddess? But these clowns persisted in their rudeness; they even
added jeers and threats of violence if she did not leave the
place. Nor was this all. They waded into the pond and stirred
up the mud with their feet, so as to make the water unfit to
drink. Latona was so angry that she ceased to feel her thirst.
She no longer supplicated the clowns, but lifting her hands to
heaven exclaimed, 'May they never quit that pool, but pass their
lives there!' And it came to pass accordingly. They now live in
the water, sometimes totally submerged, then raising their heads
above the surface, or swimming upon it. Sometimes they come out
upon the bank, but soon leap back again into the water. They
still use their base voices in railing, and though they have the
water all to themselves, are not ashamed to croak in the midst of
it. Their voices are harsh, their throats bloated, their mouths
have become stretched by constant railing, their necks have
shrunk up and disappeared, and their heads are joined to their
bodies. Their backs are green, their disproportioned bellies
white, and in short they are now frogs, and dwell in the slimy

This story explains the allusion in one of Milton's sonnets, "On
the detraction which followed upon his writing certain

"I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs
By the known laws of ancient liberty,.
When straight a barbarous noise environs me
Of owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs.
As when those hinds that were transformed to frogs
Railed at Latona's twin-born progeny,
Which after held the sun and moon in fee."

The persecution which Latona experienced from Juno is alluded to
in the story. The tradition was that the future mother of Apollo
and Diana, flying from the wrath of Juno, besought all the
islands of the Aegean to afford her a place of rest, but all
feared too much the potent queen of heaven to assist her rival.
Delos alone consented to become the birthplace of the future
deities. Delos was then a floating island; but when Latona
arrived there, Jupiter fastened it with adamantine chains to the
bottom of the sea, that it might be a secure resting place for
his beloved. Byron alludes to Delos in his Don Juan:--

"The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!"

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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