THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

20 March 2017

Actaeon was not a voyeur

The current small exhibition about Ovid in art (primarily ceramics) at the Wallace Collection reminded me of an earlier one at the National Gallery. Here some artists of our time paid homage to Actaeon on the entirely bogus grounds that he was a voyeur, and regaled us with a mock-up of a peep-show and similar treats.

But let’s back to the text, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book III: Actaeon was out hunting and stumbled on Diana, goddess of chastity and the hunt, bathing with her nymphs.

Actaeon MS Harley 4431

Actaeon surprising Diana at her bath, miniature from Christine de Pizan, L’Épître Othéa, part of MS Harley 4431.

In Mary Innes’s translation for Penguin Classics (1955 and much reprinted):

The nymphs, discovered in their nakedness, beat their breasts at the sight of a man ... Crowding around Diana, they sheltered her with their bodies, but the goddess was taller than they, head and shoulders above them all

Vengefully, the goddess sprinkles Actaeon with water, turning him into a stag and causing him to be killed by his hounds.

Actaeon Emblemata 12305.bbb.37 Actaeon transformed, and pursued by his own hounds, from Andreas Alciatus, Emblemata (Lyons, 1551). 12305.bbb.37

Ovid gives the message right at the start:

Fortunae crimen in illo,
non scelus invenies; quod enim scelus error habebat?
(Destiny was to blame for Actaeon’s misfortunes, not any guilt on his part; for there is nothing sinful in losing one’s way.)

Ovid himself likens himself to Actaeon in Tristia II. Explaining why the Emperor Augustus exiled him to Romania, he says “Like Actaeon, I saw something”. What we don’t know, but Ovid obviously thought Actaeon was innocent, which meant that he was innocent too.

Actaeon 833.l.1

Diana and Actaeon from Ovid, Metamporphoses (Venice, 1513) 833.l.1.

But later authorities couldn’t help wanting to put the blame on Actaeon.

Fulgentius (5th century) said that Actaeon wasted all his time on money on leisure (hunting) and was therefore consumed by his hobby.

Actaeon IB.23185

 The story of Actaeon, from Ovidio methamorphoseos vulgare, translated and allegorised by Giovanni di Bonsignore (Venice, 1497) IB.23185.

Giovanni di Bonsignore (14th century) said he turned into a stag because his love of the solitary pursuit of hunting had made his proud and anti-social, like the stag.

Camões in the Lusiads (16th century) says much the same about Actaeon, but this is interpreted by Manuel de Faria e Sousa in the 17th century as something to be applied to the young King Sebastian.


Actaeon King Sebastian 10631.c.4
 The headstrong King Sebastian of Portugal from Fray Bernardo de Brito, Elogios dos reis de Portugal (Lisbon,
1603) 10631.c.4

Headstrong young Sebastian, like Actaeon, was too keen on sports and neglectful of the need to find a wife. And of course he died young, at the battle of Alcacer Quibir, because of his hot-headedness and left Portugal without an heir, leading to what the Portuguese call the “Philippine Domination” of 1580-1640.

So, be careful when you go down to the woods.

But whatever his mistakes Actaeon was not a voyeur.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References:

Barry Taylor, ‘O mito de Actéon: interpretação e poetização’, in Mythos: a tradição mitográfica portuguesa; representações e identidade séculos XVI-XVIII, ed. Abel N. Pena (Lisbon, 2008), pp. 55-66. YF.2012.a.29085

The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated and with an introduction by Mary M. Innes (Harmondsworth, 1955) W.P.513/58.

Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich, Sabine Lütkemeyer, Hermann Walter, Ikonographisches Repertorium zu den Metamorphosen des Ovid : die textbegleitende Druckgraphik (Berlin, 2004-), I.1, pp. 38-39. YF.2008.b.1354