Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mythological Story

While hunting alone in the forest Actaeon suddenly came upon a clearing. There he saw the goddess Artemis bathing in a large pool, surrounded by her nymphs. When they noticed the hunter they threw themselves before the goddess, but he had already seen her splendid nakedness. Angered, she turned him into a stag, for she refused to let any mortal say that he had seen Artemis naked.

Actaeon moved away from the clearing feeling different and confused, not yet realizing what had happened to him. The truth hit him when he saw his own reflection in a river and he knew he was no longer human. In the distance he heard the sound of his own hounds. A brief moment of joy quickly turned into fear when he realized they were hunting him now, not recognizing their former master. He fled but was eventually overrun and torn to pieces.

I was hunting through back issues of the London Review of Books this morning to find an article from last summer that I had promised to send my daughter (it might be mildly useful for a publishing project she told me about when we went shopping together last night). In the course of rifling through the pages of many issues (I did eventually find the thing I was looking for and sent it off) I also very happily found the poem below by Lavinia Greenlaw.


He walks his mind as a forest
and sends of himself into dark places
to which he cannot tell the way.
The hunt comes on and he in his nerves
streams ahead – hounds flung after
a scent so violent no matter the path
or what's let fall.

A burst of clearing.
Water beads and feathers her presence
as she thickens and curves.
He says words to himself not to look
but his eyes are of their own
and she at their centre a dark star
contracting to itself discarding
wave on wave on flare on fountain.
His skull erupting, branching ...

And his blood is shaken down.
And he is all fours.
And his noise.
And his hounds.

There is a life-size group of white statues in the park of a palace in Italy where Actaeon is forever assaulted by his dogs on a little man-made island.

Two famous Titans exist to represent this scene. The earlier one (above and below) is from Actaeon's point of view and nothing bad has happened to him yet.

Titian's late version reverses the positions of the two main players, and now Actaeon, being devoured, is seen in the distance, merging with the forest.

All the traditional depictions I have examined, whether masterpieces or whether mediocre, seem to agree in telling this violent story of killing and eating without resorting to overt or graphic bloodshed. I think this is because the artists (just like Lavinia Greenlaw) were not interested (like a modern movie would be) in "what happened" as a sort of news event, but only in what it felt like to be Actaeon.

Basic plot summary (in italics) printed at top (slightly revised) originated here.