The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tales. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.
The story of Artemis and Actaeon doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:
We begin our adventure on a typical day for Actaeon and his bros: getting up early and slaughtering deer for a few hours. By noon, they're all sweaty and exhausted, so Actaeon decides that everyone should take a rest. They've killed enough game for the day, and now it's time to kick back and recharge. Everything's looking pretty ordinary.
As his friends unwind, Actaeon gets a strange impulse to leave this "ordinary world" and venture further into the forest. Perhaps it's the cool, refreshing forest interior he's after, or maybe he just needed some alone time. Either way, Actaeon leaves his fellow hunters and walks deep into the spooky woods.
This step is kind of missing from this myth. At no point does Actaeon think, "Hey, you know what? Maybe wandering alone into these scary, unknown woods isn't the greatest idea." Nope. Instead, he blithely walks on, without so much as a compass or Nalgene bottle in hand.
Again, not so much. You might argue that Actaeon believes himself to be his own mentor, since he has amazing amounts of self-confidence. According to some versions of this myth, Actaeon thought he was just as good at hunting as Artemis, who was, uh, the goddess of the hunt. Anyone with that high of an opinion of himself probably isn't going to want a mentor.
Ah, here we go. Yes, Actaeon definitely crosses a threshold. As he gets further into the woods, the forest begins to get dimmer and more mysterious. Ovid calls it a "darksome wood," and notes that there are pine and Cyprus trees everywhere. At this point in the myth, Actaeon is definitely stepping out of his comfort zone and into a more dangerous place.
Not too many tests or enemies for our friendly bro, Actaeon. He trips on a branch here and there, and perhaps gets spooked by a strange birdcall, but for the most part, it's smooth sailing until he hits Artemis' grotto.
Hello, secret grotto! This is where the story really picks up. As Actaeon walks through the woods, he encounters the goddess Artemis, as naked as the day she was born. Depending on which writer you read, Actaeon either leered at Artemis like a total creepo, or he was completely surprised to see her. Artemis, as it turns out, was very surprised to see him, too.
Actaeon—frozen with either shame or shock at the sight of a naked, rage-filled goddess—doesn't try to defend himself when Artemis yells at him. He also doesn't think to jump out of the way when she splashes a handful of magical water at his face. Think fast, buddy.
Of course, this all happens pretty quickly, so he could probably be forgiven for not jumping out of the water's way. And besides, it's water. How much harm could it do? Well, a lot, as it turns out. As soon as the liquid touches Actaeon, he starts to grow horns and hooves, and is transformed into a deer. Talk about unfortunate life changes.
At this stage, the hero usually emerges from the battle as a stronger, wiser person. In Actaeon's case, he emerges as a scared, confused deer. His reward is, sadly, being transformed into the very creature he's spent his whole life hunting.
In a strange way, this transformation is its own kind of gift, as it teaches Actaeon a valuable lesson about the Golden Rule. By experiencing the deer's confusion and fear, he finally understands why it's important to treat living creatures with respect and kindness.
Away from the grotto Actaeon runs! Galloping through the woods, he tries desperately to find his friends. He's not aware that he's been transformed into a deer and wonders why he's able to run so fast.
According to the poet Ovid, as Actaeon flies through the forest, he catches sight of his reflection in a river. He realizes that he's been transformed into a deer and is consumed with sadness. Sure, he managed to escape death at the hands of Artemis (the goddess showed some mercy by not offing him on the spot), but now he's been resurrected as a deer.
Actaeon is inconsolable, and morosely wonders what he should do in this new skin. Should he try to return home or simply "herd among the deer, and skulk in the woods," as Ovid says? Actaeon stands by the brook, unable to commit to either of these options.
In this phase of the journey, the hero is supposed to return home as a changed person. Sadly, Actaeon never makes it back to his father's house, or even to the place where his group of friends laid down to rest. Instead, home comes to him in the form of his old hunting dogs.
Not recognizing their master, the dogs descend on Actaeon and tear him limb from limb. In this sense, he has returned "home" to the familiar realm of hunting (and to the same situation that began the story), but has changed from the hunter to the victim.