After reading Luke’s retelling of the story of Actæon, I sought another, more ancient source than Bullfinch: the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Even Ovid draws attention to the ambiguity that surrounds this episode, as if it is a tabloid-reported story discussed on a Monday morning in the office: “Men heard his fate—and disagreed: some thought/ Diana was too cruel, too unjust;/ while others said her action, though severe, was worthy of a virgin so austere./ Both sides brought suasive arguments to bear.” Even in its reported form, this story lacks a satisfactory interpretation.
In Luke’s reading of the story, Diana acts mercifully, saving Actæon from a life of disappointment after his fateful eye-full. Though Diana is clearly acting out of surprise and some godly form of embarrassment, her curse gives meaning to Actæon’s life, which would otherwise continue in emptiness, forever haunted by the prey he can never catch.
The way Ovid tells the story, though, I cannot help but see a third way of reading Actæon’s gruesome death: as a consummation of the savagery and beauty of the hunt itself, which defines Actæon as we know him. The hunter becomes the hunted, reaching a kind of sublimity in death. This hardly justifies this strangely ambivalent tale; the goddess’s motivations remain inscrutable. But for all our notions of cosmic justice or injustice in narrative, the true significance of any tale is in how we tell it.
Ovid makes sense of the narrative as a poet, evoking the sympathetic and the beautiful in a scene of gruesome death. He takes his time with the death scene, lingering over small details—similar to Luke’s contemplation of the scene of discovery. The hounds are listed, each and every one, by name, as they descend upon their master. The order that each hound reaches him is noted, and the placement of their attack is painfully described: “there is no place left/ to wound.”
Actæon’s life ends in a brutal chase, his hounds sighting him and tearing him apart as he wails and moans in terror. Yet Ovid finds an eerie beauty in Actæon as a stag, making sounds with a mixture of stag and human voice, filling “the heights/ he knows so well with his laments and cries.” He experiences his old world from a familiar perspective, transmuted. Even as a stag he must feel some pride in the viciousness of his dogs, in the success of the hunt. He thus feels the event from both vantages at once: the agony of the stag, the ecstasy of the hunter. He feels the paradox of suffering and elation, life and death, in the same moment, his last.
In the destruction of his body, Actæon is fully alive to the brutality and beauty that are the essence of the death which defines his sport, his life. His death is the hunter’s apotheosis. His friends bear witness to the beauty of this savage spectacle, “the sight of such a splendid stag at bay.” This stag, Actæon would “delight to see—not feel and fear.” But feel and fear he must; he feels the hunt, each tooth sunk into his flesh, each hound’s warm, panting breath on his flesh. To see, feel, and ultimately fear, is to live, if only for a moment.