Diana and Actaeon: Censorship through Art

Diana and Actaeon (detail), Giuseppe Cesari 1603-1606

The story of Diana and Actaeon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells of a man who happened by chance upon a goddess bathing. The outraged goddess ensures that Actaeon can never tell what he has seen by changing him into a deer to be killed by his own hounds. Ovid explicitly compared the reasons for his own exile with the error that Actaeon unintentionally committed. Subsequently, many artists have used this story to comment on the censorship of a human being and to explore Ovid’s own thoughts on the subject. A 17th-century plaquette (Bowdoin College Art Museum), Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (National Gallery, London), and a tapestry depicting the same scene (Metropolitan Museum of Art), offer three different interpretations of Actaeon’s story. Each artwork (painting, tapestry, or plaquette) tells a unique story of Actaeon’s unfortunate fate and gives the viewer insight into the plight of the exiled author.


Actaeon’s Tragic Fate

Diana and Actaeon (detail) Titian 1Actaeon’s encounter with Diana shows the unfortunate fate of a young hunter who unknowingly happens upon a nude goddess. “But if you seek well, you will find the charge of chance, not a crime; for what crime did error have?” Actaeon did not mean to offend the goddess and is genuinely surprised when his wanderings in the woods bring him to the pool where the naked goddess is bathing. “Thus the fates bring that man.” Diana’s nymphs surround her and try to cover her but Diana splashes him with water, which transforms him into a stag before he even has time to realize what has happened. As Diana silences Actaeon forever, she sarcastically says to him, “Now you may tell that I have been seen by you, if you are able to tell, it is permitted.” She taunts him knowing full well that he will never be able to tell anyone what has happened. He is doomed as a human stuck in an animal’s body for the rest of his short life. Not even twenty lines later the attack of his own hunting dogs starts, and he is torn to bits as his fellow hunters look on wishing Actaeon was there to see. Contemplating the events that had transpired Ovid discusses the justness of the punishment: “Public opinion varied: For some, the goddess seemed more violent than was just, others praise her and call her worthy of her austere virginity; and each side finds reasons for their point of view.”

Apollo and Daphne, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1744Diana’s violent response may seem more reasonable when viewed against the context of multiple tales in previous books that create certain expectations about how woodland encounters between a male and and a female will unfold. Heath’s article, “Diana’s Understanding of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’”, emphasizes that the circumstances of Diana, rather than Actaeon, are unfortunate. Previous stories in the Metamorphoses that combine eroticism and hunting create an atmosphere of fear and a perception, “in which Diana, a careful and understandably suspicious audience of Ovid’s narrative world of hunt and rape, cannot help misinterpreting Actaeon’s actions.” For example, in Metamorphoses 1, Apollo becomes infatuated with Daphne who must resist the imminent danger of (a possible) rape. She then begs her father to allow her to be left alone, like Diana, the virgin goddess. Daphne’s fate is less than desirable as she is turned into a tree in order to deny Apollo her body. Later on, Jupiter disguises himself as Diana in order to force himself upon Callisto. You can find more on Callisto here. Therefore, Diana knows that a man finding a naked woman in the forest is never a good thing, even if he is a mortal against a goddess. “The goddess reacts to the only paradigm she understands, that of the narrative pattern which makes her open to assault.” Diana has no other option but to react and therefore, her transformation of Actaeon can be seen as necessary defense rather than a cruel punishment. She believes she is standing her ground!


Titian’s Diana and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon, Titian 1559In Titian’s painting, Actaeon seems to be surprised and feel guilty for happening upon the naked goddess. Diana (second from the right being bathed and guarded by her nymphs) does not show aggression or rage but rather embarrassment and fear. This painting highlights the contrast in reactions of the goddess and Actaeon. On the one hand, Diana has every right to be nervous for her safety. On the other hand, Actaeon has done nothing to warrant his cruel fate. This conundrum then brings to question if the cause was chance or criminal intent, and on whom should the reader place the blame? Concerning Ovid’s own exile, the story of Diana and Actaeon should entice the reader to follow Ovid’s lead and draw comparisons between the misfortune of Actaeon with that of the poet. However, this painting allows us to see Diana as the victim. We may thus also wonder if Augustus was backed into a corner and forced to exile Ovid.

Diana and Actaeon Plaquette

17th Century Plaquette. Diana and Actaeon. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

17th Century Plaquette. Diana and Actaeon. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Ovid’s literary depiction of this tale asserts the role of fate in Actaeon’s encounter with Diana, and yet this plaquette pictures Actaeon in an aggressive stance. While his horns are already starting to form on his forehead, he still strides forward with a (phallic?) spear in hand. The antagonistic posture of this hunter can easily be seen as a potential threat to Diana. In this scenario, it is in Diana’s best interest to respond violently. This then reinterprets the roles which Ovid has laid down at the start of Actaeon’s story. Before anything else, Ovid states that it was chance, not a crime, that brought Actaeon to his fate. Ovid, who is so deliberate in his word choice and his references, would not be so careless as to forget his own experience of angering the godlike Augustus. As Actaeon is forever silenced even when the crime is questionable, the reader is again tempted to draw comparisons between Actaeon and Ovid. The fault is Actaeon’s, not Diana’s. The victim must do what is necessary to keep the aggressor from doing harm, just as Augustus had to do what was necessary to Ovid. Does Ovid seek mercy for himself by absolving Augustus of any guilt, while also reminding the emperor that the poet, too, was innocent of any malicious intent?


Diana and Actaeon Tapestry

Diana and Actaeon, tapestry,Workshop of Jean Jans the Younger (French, 1644–1723)In this 17th century tapestry, Actaeon is seen fleeing the scene  and again, the horns are already on his head implying his impending death in the jaws of his own hunting dogs. Actaeon is a doomed man who feels guilt and shame, or even fear, from happening on the naked goddess. Diana, on the other hand, seems much more regal and poised. She does not seem like she is acting out of fear, but rather out of a sense of divine dignity. This makes the punishment seem much more cruel and depicts Actaeon as a hapless victim much less responsible for his actions. Would Ovid identify more with the scene depicted in this artwork over the other two? The blame is placed entirely on the one who is silencing. Actaeon just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is banished forever from human existence to be killed as a stag by his own beloved hunting dogs.


Bad Luck or Gross Misconduct?

Augustus of Prima Porta, 15 CE, Museo Chiaramonti, VaticanBehind Actaeon’s transformation and doom, Ovid’s own exile from Rome by Augustus resonates. Throughout the story, Ovid reminds the reader that it was indeed fate that brought Actaeon to Diana and not his own wrongdoing. “Thus the fates bring that man.” Later artists make specific decisions that illuminate different thoughts on the guilt or innocence of both Actaeon and Diana. These decisions reflect on the unfortunate censorship of the Roman poet turned exile. Ovid comments on the fortune of Actaeon in Tristia: “Ignorant Actaeon saw Diana without clothes: nevertheless he fell as prey for his dogs. Even fate must be atoned for among the powers that be; chance carries no weight when a god has been hurt.” Even if Actaeon was just unlucky, maybe the goddess acted in an understandable manner given the circumstances. Was Diana unjust in her punishment, or was she right to be defensive in the presence of a man given the many stories ending in rape after a hunt? A close analysis of Ovid’s text reveals that Actaeon was brought there by fate, but can we still call the reaction of the goddess unjust? The story of Diana and Actaeon may be up for debate but what this conversation yields is the opportunity to reflect on the exile of Ovid and the silencing of many others.


Works Cited

Metamorphoses 3.141-2
Metamorphoses 3.176
Metamorphoses 3.192-3
Metamorphoses 3.253-5
Heath, p. 233 
Heath, p. 241 
Tristia 2.103-6
Metamorphoses 3.194
Metamorphoses 3.176
Tristia 2.105-8