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 letâs back to the text, Ovidâs Metamorphoses, book III: Actaeon was out hunting and stumbled on Diana, goddess of chastity and the hunt, bathing with her nymphs.
Actaeon surprising Diana at her bath, miniature from Christine de Pizan, LâĂpĂźtre OthĂ©a, part of MS Harley 4431.
In Mary Innesâs 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.
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 Actaeonâs misfortunes, not any guilt on his part; for there is nothing sinful in losing oneâs way.)
Ovid himself likens himself to Actaeon in Tristia II. Explaining why the Emperor Augustus exiled him to Romania, he says âLike Actaeon, I saw somethingâ. What we donât know, but Ovid obviously thought Actaeon was innocent, which meant that he was innocent too.
Diana and Actaeon from Ovid, Metamporphoses (Venice, 1513) 833.l.1.
But later authorities couldnât 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.
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.
CamĂ”es 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.
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 âPhilippine Dominationâ 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
Barry Taylor, âO mito de ActĂ©on: interpretaĂ§ĂŁo e poetizaĂ§ĂŁoâ, in Mythos: a tradiĂ§ĂŁo mitogrĂĄfica portuguesa; representaĂ§Ă”es e identidade sĂ©culos 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 LuÌtkemeyer, Hermann Walter, Ikonographisches Repertorium zu den Metamorphosen des Ovid : die textbegleitende Druckgraphik (Berlin, 2004-), I.1, pp. 38-39. YF.2008.b.1354