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Artemis in the Bath Surprised by Actaeon


Artemis in the Bath Surprised by Actaeon
Actaeon surprising Artemis in the bath mosaic

Actaeon surprising Artemis in the bath. Four nymphs surround Artemis and Actaeon is peeking through at the top left. Museum of Suweida: mosaic found in the environs of Philippopolis (IIIrd century)

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The Greek goddess Artemis, twin sister of Apollo, valued virginity and modesty. When any of her attendants was found to be pregnant, the poor young woman would pay dearly for her transgression. It didn't matter that it was involuntary, generally, rape at the hands of the king of the gods, Zeus, who just happened to be Artemis' father.

Artemis was as strict about her own personal boundaries as she was of those of her hand maidens.

The Boeotian Actaeon (Ακταίωνας) was a son of Aristaeus (sometimes a mortal, sometimes a god of shepherds and honey) and Autonoe, a daughter of Cadmus of Thebes -- which makes Actaeon a cousin of the Pentheus who was torn apart by his Dionysus-maddened mother [see Euripides' Bacchae]. When Actaeon, accompanied by his deer-hunting hounds, arrived at the spot where the goddess was about to bathe and saw her naked, she punished him by turning him into an antlered stag or, according to Pausanias, she put a deerskin -- pungent enough to attract dogs -- on him while he slept. In the version with a metamorphosis (yes, this transformation is one Ovid amply describes in Book III of his Metamorphoses), the newly created beast was scared and ran away, but then the dogs, searching for their beloved master, found him. Unfortunately for him, they recognized him only as their cervine prey and so, they tore him apart.

One source for this story is Hyginus, Fabulae 180 and 181, the second of which names Actaeon's hounds. Another source is Pseudo-Apollodorus:

"Autonoe and Aristaeus had a son Actaeon, who was bred by Chiron to be a hunter and then afterwards was devoured on Cithaeron by his own dogs. He perished in that way, according to Acusilaus, because Zeus was angry at him for wooing Semele; but according to the more general opinion, it was because he saw Artemis bathing. And they say that the goddess at once transformed him into a deer, and drove mad the fifty dogs in his pack, which devoured him unwittingly. Actaeon being gone, the dogs sought their master howling lamentably, and in the search they came to the cave of Chiron, who fashioned an image of Actaeon, which soothed their grief."
Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.4.4., translated by Sir James G. Frazer

Diodorus Siculus includes the familiar story, but adds an interesting subtext -- Actaeon deliberately went to Artemis, but not so much with prurient intention as hubris:

After this, they say, Aristaeus went to Boeotia, where he married one of the daughters of Cadmus, Autonoe, to whom was born Acteon, who, as the myths relate, was torn to pieces by his own dogs. The reason for this bad turn of fortune of his, as some explain it, was that, presuming upon his dedication to Artemis of the first-fruits of his hunting, he purposed to consummate the marriage with Artemis at the temple of the goddess, but according to others, it was because he represented himself as superior to Artemis in skill as a hunter. But it is not incredible that it was for both these reasons that the goddess became angry; for whether Acteon made an improper use of the spoils of his hunting to satisfy his own desire upon her who has no part in marriage, or whether he was so bold as to assert that as a hunter he was to be preferred above her before whom even gods withdraw from rivalry in the chase, all would agree that the goddess was justified in having become indignant at him. And, speaking generally, we may well believe that, when he had been changed into the form of one of the animals which he was wont to hunt, he was slain by the dogs which were accustomed to prey upon the other wild beasts.
Diodorus Siculus 4.81

According to "Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World," by Katherine M. D. Dunbabin (1999), this mosaic of Artemis in her bath comes from the southern Syrian town of Shahba-Philippopolis and is dated from the middle of the 3rd century A.D. The town was the birthplace of the third century Roman emperor Philip the Arab (r. 244-9). In his honor the town was renamed and built up with buildings worthy of an emperor; hence this and other mosaics.

This article was originally created in connection with the April 11, 2012 Guess Who.

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