Aktaion and Diana
by Veronica Maresca
Aktaion and Diana – Myth and Communication in Ancient Art
Art, the wordless means of communication in antiquity
In antiquity, art had a much higher status than today. It was the wordless means of consciously representing oneself, one’s possessions and one’s social position. The guest very often knew at the threshold which personality he was going to meet, how wealthy he was, what he believed in or what his life themes were. My next articles will therefore deal with different topics, from mythology to architecture. For today’s visitors, many things appear as “simply beautiful”, but for the inhabitants of that time, the identical decorative element meant much more – it said something about themselves.
The Mythical Topics
The myth of Aktaion and Artemis
A very popular theme, which we find depicted in many houses in Pompeii as well as in Herculaneum, is the myth of poor Aktaion and Diana, wonderfully described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
“Aktaion was a grandson of Kadmos. After a successful hunt, he had sent his companions home at midday with the spears and nets until the following morning. Artemis, had set up a spring in a sacred grove at Gargaphia in Boeotia, where she used to bathe after a successful hunt.
One of the nymphs takes her hunting weapons, Krokale from Thebes fixes her hair, while her colleagues Nephele, Hyale, Rhanis, Psekas and Phiale wet the goddess from water jugs. Carelessly roaming the forest, Aktaion enters the grotto and surprises the bather.”
That is, the encounter was purely accidental, it was neither wanted nor provoked by Aktaion and he was not to blame for it. Nevertheless, the following happens
“The nymphs seek to cover the nakedness of the goddess with their bodies, but she towers above them by headlength and blushes fervently under the mortal’s gaze. Deprived of her bow, she splashes Aktaion with the water of the spring and calls out to him, “Now say, if you can, that you have seen me naked!”
Thereupon the hunter’s metamorphosis takes place, antlers grow out of his forehead, his ears grow longer, hands and feet change to paws and a pied coat covers his body. He takes flight and is himself amazed at his speed. When he finally catches sight of his reflection in the water, he wants to scream in amazement, but his human voice has disappeared and only a groan escapes his throat. His mind unchanged, he ponders what to do as tears stream down his furry face. Shame keeps him away from his father’s palace, fear from the surrounding forests. And suddenly he hears his hounds, they pursue him, spurred on by his own friends, who only regret that Aktaion himself misses this hunt. They call after him, not noticing how the stag is still listening for the name, while his own dogs tear him apart.
Why is this topic so often presented?
Is it simple cruelty of a special goddess whose nakedness and virginity were not meant for the eyes of mortals?
Or is there much more to this myth?
Giordano Bruno had a different take on this narrative. For him, the story speaks of the consequences for mortals who are inadvertently involved in the affairs of the gods, and the inevitable tragedies that befall them mark the Greek gods as extremely indifferent to the fate of humans. There is no forgiveness, no regret, no redemption or second chance for those who encounter them and their relentless will.
This could mean that in my home, in my intimate realm, I respond to an invasion of my privacy as the Goddess Diana did, whether your intrusion was intentional or unintentional. It could be a simple remembrance of the cruelty of a goddess or even a criticism of the same cruelty of the higher. So why approach the deity? The answer is up to each.
Atteone da Casa di Octavio Quartio, © Veronica Maresca
Aktaion and Diana in the excavations
We find a representation of this myth in Pompeii in the house of Octavius Quartio.
The “House of the Stags” in Herculaneum bears this name thanks to the wonderful marble statues depicting the stag.
To learn more about this myth and the interpretation of this story throughout ancient literary history, I recommend the Metamorphoses by Ovid Giordano Bruno “Sulle Passioni Eroiche” (1652).