Shakespeare's Myths

Actaeon, Also Acteon, Atteon, Attheon


Related entries
 Atalanta, Calydonian boar, Diana, Actaeon’s dogs


Actaeon was the son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, Cadmus’ daughter. He was raised by the Centaur Chiron, who taught him how to hunt; he died devoured by his own hounds, while hunting in the forest.

There are several classical versions accounting for his death. Some (Stesichorus mid-6th century BC, preserved in Pausanias; Acusilaus’ Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, quoted in Apollodorus) say he was punished by Jupiter because he tried to seduce Semele. Others (such as Euripides) suggest that he was punished because of hubris. As early as the Hellenistic period, and up to the Renaissance, another version maintains that he was turned into a deer when he happened upon the naked Diana bathing in a secluded pool, either by chance – in the Ovidian version, which gives a full account of the Callimachean story – or intentionally.

The motif of the bath and the nude figure of Diana in a pool gradually became the standard cause for the death of Actaeon; after Petrarch’s recasting of the myth (inherited from Nonnos?), however, what was described by Ovid as innocent trespass is generally condemned as wilful and guilty intrusion – and often seen as the result of an act of intentional voyeurism targeting the divine.

In the Renaissance emblem tradition, two scenes of this tale are retained: the bath of the goddess and the death of Actaeon. Titian’s painting, Diana and Actaeon (National Gallery of Scotland, 1556-1559), illustrates the motif of the surprised goddess. The second motif often represents Actaeon in the course of being metamorphosed, animal-shaped and with branching antlers, or with a human body and a stag’s head.


How to cite

Agnès Lafont.  “Actaeon.”  2013.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology  (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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