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Context of the Artemis and Actaeon myth

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They say there are two sides to every story, and that is definitely true when talking about Artemis and Actaeon. Here's the deal: some authors claim that Actaeon was an innocent man who just happened to be in the wrong place (Artemis's outdoor shower) at the wrong time (when she was totally nude). But others think that Actaeon was spying on the nude goddess, or—trying to proposition her.

Artemis and Actaeon Take the Stage

One of the first known accounts of the Artemis and Actaeon myth is a 5th century BCE play by Aeschylus called Toxotides, or "The Female Archers." Aeschylus presented a story very similar to the one we tell today: boy goes hunting, boy sees goddess naked, boy gets turned into a deer and eaten alive. Gripping.

Other authors from around this time period say pretty much the same thing, with a few notable additions. The writer Apollodorus added that Actaeon's hounds were eventually heartbroken about his demise, and Callimachus said that Actaeon's mother wandered the countryside looking for his bones. The traveler Pausanias also suggested that Actaeon's dogs had rabies, which is why they went berserk and tore him apart. So many options!

Then came the writer Diodorus who, in his book Library of History, suggested that Actaeon either propositioned Artemis or boasted that he was just as talented as she was at hunting. Oh, honey. Nobody indecently propositions the virgin goddess or claims they're as good as she is and gets away with it. Bad move.

Hapless Lads and Ancient Sexism

Surprise, surprise, the one and only Ovid takes things in a slightly different direction. In book three of his Metamorphoses, Ovid claims that Actaeon was a hapless lad who just encountered some "hard fate" (a.k.a. tough luck). He writes "You'll find it his misfortune, not his fault/ Or, if a fault, it was the fault of chance/ For how can guilt proceed from ignorance?" (source). Fair enough—maybe Actaeon had no idea what he was doing when he wandered into the grove, so how can he be guilty of anything?

Where Ovid's version gets a bit more problematic is in his depiction of Artemis as a woman unable to control her emotions. First, she's utterly embarrassed (standing above her nymphs, her cheeks glow with shame), and then she flies into a rage. Stereotypes, anyone? We need to be sure not to read our own post-feminist brains too much into this one, but just something to keep in mind as we read.

Borrowing from the Ancients

People love them some Ovid, though, and have been using his stuff for centuries. In As You Like It, Shakespeare uses Ovid's description of Actaeon's death to depict the sad scene of a deer dying by a riverbank. And in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the secret forest bower of the fairy queen Titania is pretty stinkin' similar to Artemis's secret bathing grove. It even comes complete with nymphs.

In contemporary pop culture, the motif of Tough Ladies Defending Themselves in the Woods is pretty common. You've got Katniss in The Hunger Games, Princess Merida in Brave, and Princess Fiona in Shrek—all of whom kick some tush against forest intruders. In terms of masters losing power over their former canine pets, look no further than the hyenas in The Lion King and the dog pack from Up.

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