Sing to me Muse, of Actaeon, the grandson of Cadmus, founder and once-king of Thebes. Born of a royal family, and raised by the wise Centaur Chiron, mentor to all noble heros and talented young men.
One morning, a morning that began with the sun rising above the hills like it does to this day, Actaeon went with his friends to Mt. Citharion, to hunt. The young Actaeon was a very good hunter, accurate and brave. The group had very good luck and caught various forms of game. The sun was now high over their heads and the day was hot. “My friends, “Actaeon said, “we have shed enough blood for one day, our bounty is great. Let us stop, find cool shade, and rest.” All were agreement about the wisdom and this plan and the party dispersed as each of the young men went in search of shade, cool grass, and a breeze. Actaeon also wanders the mountainside and ultimately finds himself alone.
Actaeon and his friends are not the only ones out hunting this morning. The goddess Artemis has also been out on Mt Citharion with bow in hand. She is the virgin goddess of the hunt and of wild things, the patron of all young beings, animal and human alike, and of the young girls that we now call tomboys. She is the bear, the stag, the dog, and the crescent moon. Artemis lives in the wilderness and wants nothing to do with men, although she is close to her twin brother Apollo.
The lovely and fierce Artemis also stops to rest and cool off. She has a secret grotto on the mountain, with a graceful stone arch that opens onto a small meadow with a clear stream and a pool, perfect for bathing. No mortals know of this place. It is her refuge. Artemis is at the pool with her nymphs, the young women who attend her. They take her bow from her shoulder, help her undress, bind up her hair, and fill the urns with water to pour over her white body.
Alone, Actaeon comes upon the clear stream and follows it’s babbling course to the meadow. He spies the stone arch and steps inside the cool grotto to stand at the edge of the pool. There he finds Artemis and the nymphs. The young man is struck with amazement. He stands and stares. When the nymphs see him, they cry out and rush to surround the goddess, to shield her from his view. But she is taller than the rest and looks over their heads at the hunter, who is still looking at her.
Her cheeks turn red. Furious, Artemis says, “I bet you can’t wait to get back to your friends, to tell them that you have seen the goddess unveiled.” She glances around, searching for her bow and arrows, but they are lying on the banks out of reach. Just then, Actaeon hears his companions in the distance, calling his name. Without thinking, he opens his mouth to call out in reply but Artemis, wielding the only tool at hand, splashes the young man with water. "Now go and tell the others all that you've seen,” she says, “if you can."
The drops of water from her wet hands turn Actaeon into a stag. A pair of antlers emerge from his head. His arms and legs lengthen, his hands and feet become hooves and his skin turns to rough hide. The transformation of Actaeon is not only physical. He becomes a deer in mind and spirit too. Artemis completes the physical transformation with a flourish, and makes the young man timid. Afraid.
Actaeon, the hero turned stag, turns with a start and runs away across the meadow. As he runs, he marvels at his speed. "Amazing," he thinks to himself, "I am faster than the wind and just as tireless." Actaeon stops to drink at a small stream. He lowers his head, sees his reflection---oh my god!--realizes what has happened. A strangled cry, neither human nor animal, emerges from his throat.
While Actaeon stands gazing into the stream, his hunting dogs catch his scent. He has a large pack of 50 dogs of various breeds from different lands, and they are well trained. The young hunter runs and the dogs make chase, leaping and snapping. He cannot get away from them. A dog jumps onto his back. Another grips his hind leg in its mouth. Another bites his throat. Actaeon tries to moan and cry out but can only make small, strangled sounds. He pleads for mercy with his eyes, tries to make contact, as master to the dogs. But they bring him down.
His friends, hearing the commotion, gather to watch the show. They call out to Actaeon and imagine that he is fast asleep in the shade somewhere, or too lazy to answer their call. Put poor Actaeon is all too present.
Later, the story of Actaeon's fate is told and retold until it reaches the ears of mortals. Some people think that goddess was too harsh. Others say that Artemis simply acted according to her nature, and that the young hunter had bad luck.