Perilous Ascent: An Exploration of Actaeon and Revolution
The myth of Actaeon expresses the pattern of revolution. The purpose of this article is to analyze how this pattern is imaged within the story. In this analysis, different elements of the myth will be drawn upon to show how the pattern manifests at different levels of reality.
Like many timeless myths, the story of Actaeon has many permutations and variations. Even more so than some, as it is not only a Greek myth, but a Roman myth as well. For the purposes of this article, we will be using the tale as told by Ovid (specifically Rolfe Humphries and Frank Justus Miller’s translations). Idiosyncrasies from other versions will be retold and discussed where relevant.
Despite the particular variations contained within a given version, the structure of the story itself is fairly universal in its core elements. A summary of the story follows:
Actaeon, the grandson of Cadmus (founder of Thebes), is hunting. He hunts successfully through to midday. Then, he leaves his hunting party and walks into a forest. He happens upon Diana(Artemis), the virgin goddess of the hunt, bathing. Angered that Actaeon has seen her nakedness, Artemis scoops a handful of water and flings it into Actaeon’s face. Actaeon begins to transform. He grows features of a stag; most notably the horns. Actaeon is then chased by his own hunting dogs. The dogs, unable to recognize their master, kill him.
The Pattern of Revolution
The pattern of revolution is a pattern of reality. It is a pattern of inversion, the bottom of a hierarchy overthrows the top. However, it is not simply a political manifestation. Revolution reveals itself anytime an authority is subverted by that which it should be ordering.
Understanding this allows us to see the multiplicity of ways this pattern manifests itself at different levels of reality within the story and the world we live in.
Actaeon being dragged down and mangled by his own dogs is perhaps the clearest image of revolution within the story. The master being killed by his own hounds. However, this is not simply a lesson of control of your dog. The pattern has more implications than this. To shed light on these implications, we must look to other parts of the story.
How did Actaeon end up in this position? Ovid writes the following in book 3 of his narrative poem “The Metamorphoses:”
“But if you seek the truth, you will find the cause of this in fortune’s fault and not in any crime of his. For what crime was mere mischance?” 1
It may have been mischance that Actaeon walked upon Diana(Artemis) and her nymphs while bathing; it may have also been fortune’s fault that he was privy to the nakedness of a goddess. Nonetheless, this trespass still seems to leave some of the fault with Actaeon. He is flawed somehow, and this makes him insufficient to properly interact with Diana.
This is hinted at in the beginning of the story. Actaeon seems to be obsessed with the hunt in some improper manner. He seems to care little about his prey:
“It was on a mountain stained with the blood of many slaughtered beasts…’Both nets and spears, my friends, are dripping with our quarry’s blood, and the day has given us good luck enough.’” 2
These lines reveal a vice of Actaeon. He derives too much pleasure from the hunt, slaughtering seemingly most if not all the prey he can find. It is an excess. In other variations his flaws are greater: Actaeon brags that his hunting abilities are greater than Diana’s; in another he tries to make her his consort. 3
All of these variations point to his insufficiency. Diana, by transforming him, deems him unworthy and makes his flaws manifest by transforming him into a beast. This transformation is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, it lowers Actaeon to the same level as his prey. Secondly, it leaves him unrecognizable to his hounds and huntsman as their master and leader. Thirdly, it is unclear how far his transformation extends. We are told by Humphries’s translation:
“Horns of the long-lived stag began to sprout, The neck stretched out, the ears were long and pointed, The arms were legs, the hands were feet, the skin A dappled hide, the hunter’s heart was fearful.” 4
It would appear that Actaeon is completely transformed into a stag. In Miller’s translation it appears that he is possibly a hybrid of man and stag as indicated by Actaeon raising “arms” to meet his hounds right before they devour him. In many artist’s depictions of Actaeon he is a monstrous amalgam of man and stag. In both translations, there is a particular emphasis on the growth of his horns. A defining feature of his new albeit short-lived form.
In a previous article, 6I have discussed the negative aspects of the symbolism of the horn. This would imply that Actaeon has not properly ordered his passions. As a result, he is unable to properly host Diana due to his own insufficiency. Actaeon was in the wrong place at the wrong time without the proper ability to handle the situation. This lack results in his death.
Levels of Reality
The pattern of revolution as presented in this myth applies to the individual. Actaeon could not order his passions, and they overwhelmed him. His lack of virtue results in the violence of the hounds that murder him. His own failure to control them is his downfall.
As an individual we can relate to this on a lesser scale. We all have passions that we struggle with and are not always successful. We all have felt guilt and possibly nausea when we have eaten too many cookies or chips. And like the hounds, we may not recognize who we were in that moment of gluttony, lust, or rage. Our hounds of passion overwhelmed us. The higher aspect of ourselves was lost. In this way, the pattern of revolution can manifest at the level of the individual
An individual who cannot properly order their own passions can affect those who surround him in negative ways. Indeed, an individual like this may even have never been provided the wisdom to order his passions by those above, his parents. One only has to recall the experience of a child screaming and crying in a store for a toy or sweet they want. The pained and embarrassed parent submits to the child’s demands and the hierarchy of familial authority is subverted.
Sorrow and pain is produced in the excesses of revolution. Anger can overwhelm spouses and cause them to say cruel and hurtful comments to their beloved (or violence at its extreme). A household in which the excesses of revolution manifests can be one of tears, turmoil, and chaos.
In the myth of Actaeon, we see his death bring despair to his family, even though it is not by his actions against a family member. The great love of his grandfather, Cadmus, turns to sorrow at his demise.
“..and none be counted happy till his death, till his last funeral rites are paid. One grandson of yours, Actaeon, amid all your happiness first brought you cause of grief, upon whose brow strange horns appeared, and whose dogs greedily lapped their master’s blood.”7
The revolution within the individual can bring pain and sorrow to members of their family. Even those who succeed in overthrowing the rule within the home may feel a hollowness at their victory (i.e. the child who grows to despise an overindulgent parent). In a variation of Actaeon’s story, the hounds that kill him are aggrieved by his death. So sorrowful are they that Chiron, Actaeon’s teacher, creates a lifelike statue of him to assuage their grief.8 In this way, the pattern of revolution at a higher level of reality affects multiple individuals as well as the family unit.
The sociopolitical level is the one that typically comes to mind when the word revolution is brought up. Freedom, oppression, tyranny, hope, civil war, insurrection, heroes, protest, riots, and bloodshed come to mind. Much of modern history has been filled with revolution for good and ill. The massive consequences of this pattern manifesting at such a large scale allow it to be seen, heard, and felt quite easily.
One can select from any number of historical texts on the Western World and find pages and chapters dedicated to revolution. The pattern manifests itself when the people at the bottom of the hierarchy refuse to recognize the authority of those at the top. They rise up and overturn the ruling class, replace them, or establish an entirely new hierarchical system.
We can see this played out in the image of Actaeon being murdered by his hounds. Actaeon is the master of his hounds. He is also royalty, the grandson of the founder of Thebes, and has divine parentage. The horns he grows are a symbol closely related to crowns. 9 The hounds, creatures who exist close to the earth, are physically lower than Actaeon, not just in their station. After his transformation, they fail to recognize him not just visually. The very voice that he uses to issue commands has transformed. His capacity to exert authority as their rightful master is lost to him.
“He would cry ‘I am Actaeon! recognize your master!’ But words fail, and nobody could hear him… He groans, Making a sound not human, but a sound No stag could utter either… They circle him, dash in, and nip, and mangle And lacerate and tear their prey, not master, No master whom they know only a deer.” 10
What once was master has become prey. The hierarchy has completely flipped, as those from below now exert their power to the ruin of that which was above.
The story lists the names of many of the hounds and even includes their heritage. Several hounds are specifically noted as being Cretan or Spartan, rivals to the city of Thebes. The hounds are the image of a multiplicity of groups or city-states each acting in concert to pull down the ruling class.
In the image of a misshapen Actaeon being ripped apart by his own hounds, we can see echoes of the French aristocracy being guillotined, the Americans dumping tea into Boston’s harbor, the Berlin Wall being broken, the assault on the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks, history is full of countless examples. This is the pattern of revolution writ large. At the level of reality that breaks nations and recreates them. 11
There are three main characters in the myth of Actaeon: Actaeon, his hounds, and Diana(Artemis). We have already discussed Actaeon and his hounds at length. However, the key to understanding the pattern of revolution at the cosmic level lies with Diana and water.
Diana is a goddess and Actaeon sees her nakedness. She is the goddess of the hunt. As a hunter, Diana is to Actaeon the highest of principles. To Diana, Actaeon is no different than his own hunting hounds. He is the way in which her will as the goddess of the hunt is manifested in the world at his level of reality. Just as Actaeon’s hounds enact his will. He experiences her, unveiled, in all of her divine glory and is transformed by it.
Although he enacts the will of Diana, he is not worthy to look upon her unveiled glory. He is reaching for that which is above him improperly. This becomes even more evident in variations in which he tries to make her his consort. This is an improper ascent. He has entered the Holy of Holies unworthily and is struck dead.
It is no coincidence that Diana uses water to transform Actaeon. It is also no coincidence that Actaeon sees his monstrous transformation in a pool of water right before his hounds rise up to kill him. Water is symbolic of transformation. As we have already discussed, revolution is a transformative pattern. And this is clearly manifested in the rising waters of a flood.
A flood rises from below and changes the lands it subsumes. I can recall the floating marshes where I killed my first deer, now turned to an open pond after the floodwaters of a hurricane rolled them away. One only has to search images of hurricane Katrina or other large scale floods to see homes, trees, and fences removed from their foundations. Levees break, items of all sizes are swept away, and the rhythms of a city are disrupted. A flood is a great clearing of the structures (material and otherwise) which bring order to a space. Diana is like the storm that brings the rising waters. Actaeon is the victim of those waters which are the hounds.
The image of Actaeon being ripped apart by his own hounds is symbolic. It is an image that contains the pattern of revolution. A true symbol is an image that reveals a pattern of reality at many levels. In this very condensed and concise myth, we can see the extreme negative aspects of revolution: fragmentation through violence and death. We are not left with the positive aspect of revolution: the creation of something new from the old. Actaeon is insufficiently capable of hosting Diana due to his own flaws. And so, in the resulting flood, he was neither able to walk on the stormy waters, nor to come up out of the waters that rose from below.
Linked Articles & Posts
Linked Premium Articles & Posts
- Ovid. Miller, Frank, Justus. Metamorphosis, at 48. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.https://www.amazon.com/Metamorphoses-Barnes-Noble-Classics/dp/1593082762/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=9781593082765&qid=1595022392&s=books&sr=1-1[↩]
- Ovid. Miller, Frank, Justus. Metamorphosis, at 48.[↩]
- “Actaeon,”World Heritage Encyclopedia, http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Actaeon[↩]
- Ovid. Humphries, Rolfe. Metamorphoses, at 63. Indiana University Press, 1983.https://www.amazon.com/Metamorphoses-Ovid/dp/0253200016/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1YVMQWE2Q8T[↩]
- “Acateon,”Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Actaeon#/media/1/4307/121277[↩]
- Flores, David.”Of Crowns and Horns,”The Symbolic World, August, 2020. https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/of-crowns-and-horns/[↩]
- Ovid. Miller, Frank, Justus. Metamorphosis, at 48.[↩]
- “Actaeon,”World Heritage Encyclopedia[↩]
- Flores, David. “Of Crowns and Horns.”[↩]
- Ovid. Humphries, Rolfe. Metamorphoses, at 63-64.[↩]
- It is not the intent of the author to evaluate the morality of any particular historic revolution. This analysis is limited to the pattern of revolution itself which can manifest for good or evil.[↩