As Ovid recounts in his Metamorphoses, the hunter Actaeon, deep in the woods engaged in a hunt with his dogs, suddenly stumbles upon the goddess Artemis while she is naked. Artemis interprets this as a form of violation, which requires a punishment. She transforms Actaeon into a stag, who is eventually ripped apart and murdered by his own dogs. In line with this summary of the myth from Ovid, there appears to be three crucial moments in the particular story of Actaeon and Artemis. Firstly, Actaeon, a mortal, encounters, the divine, here the goddess Artemis in a state of nudity.
Secondly, the consequence of this encounter is the punishment rendered by the immortal upon the mortal. Thirdly, what is of importance to the story is that Actaeon is punished by the specific manner of being transformed into that which he himself hunts, the stag. There is a clear theme, therefore, that there are limits to the world of the human, and, in so far as the human being oversteps this limit, he is to receive a punishment, according to which a type of humiliation of the human being is carried out, so that he once again understands his proper place in the world and the hierarchy of the mythical world is preserved.
Actaeon encounters Artemis during the hunt. Here, there are clear symbolic messages present in Ovid’s recounting of the myth. In the first sense, Actaeon is a hunter. This corresponds to a certain pre-condition for the human being to encounter the divine. Namely, Actaeon is aggressive as a hunter, and he intrudes into the life-worlds of others. The hunter does not give peace to alternative forms of life, but his entire existence is based on entering the space of another entity and disrupting it violently. The hunter is thus a destroyer, but a specific type of destroyer, a destroyer who enters the spaces of others and annihilates this space.
However, in this case, the hunter has stumbled upon the “highest” form of “prey” possible: that of the divine and the sacred. Through his aggression and bravura, he has crashed the boundary between the profane world and the sacred world. He has therefore seen the divine world without having permission to access this world. In other words, Greek myths are ripe with encounters between the mortal world and the immortal world of the Gods. The Gods continuously interact in the world. But this relationship has a hierarchical structure. It is the Gods who decide to intervene in the human world, either in a manner that is benevolent or in a manner that is shaped by spite and violence.
In this myth, Actaeon has entered the space of the divine, the mortal encounters the immortal. This is a reversal of how these relationships play out: it is now the human being who has intervened in the life of the Gods. Actaeon is namely the one who has disturbed the tranquility of the Gods, here symbolized in the nakedness of Artemis. This nakedness further emphasizes the suddenness of the arrival of the human being: it is the Gods who have been taken by surprise by the human being. This is a reversal of the entire hierarchy of the relationships between the immortal world and the mortal world.
Because of this reversal of the hierarchy, a punishment is therefore required. The human being has overstepped his limits in the form of Actaeon’s actions. The human being has entered the realm of the divine without the permission of the divine. Accordingly, the human being has challenged the hierarchical structure of the mythical world. Hierarchies are maintained and continue to exist, in this myth, according to the sense in which they are able to preserve their power of structures. For this reason, the transgression of Actaeon must be punished. If Artemis did not punish Actaeon, this would entail a certain submission of the Gods to the mortal world, a type of revolution, where the traditional and ancient hierarchy is reversed. Thus, the human being must be punished for upsetting the hierarchy of relations.
But a very specific punishment is chosen for Actaeon. Artemis could have conceivably punished Actaeon in any number of ways, because of her power as a goddess. However, she chooses the specific punishment of turning the hunter into the hunted. This punishment repeats the concept of hierarchy. The hunter clearly possesses his own position in the hierarchy of things. He is an aggressive being, who, using his strength and power, is able to terrorize those under him. In this sense, the figure of the hunter does come into close relationship with the figures of the Gods. The hunter is able to enact violence on his prey; he is also able, in a moment of charity, to let his prey free, such as when fishermen release their catch. But Actaeon is a hunter, that is to say, he only possesses this power within the sphere of the mortal world. When he attempts to exert his power outside of this sphere, he is essentially stating he is a God. For this reason, Artemis does not only punish Actaeon, but also takes from his place in the hierarchy. Therefore, Actaeon does not only feel the punishment for being a mortal who has angered the Gods; he also feels the punishment through having his own place in this hierarchy taken from him and he is made to experience what it means to occupy a space in this hierarchy which is not his.
In the myth, therefore, by dissecting the key parts of Ovid’s narration, some clear themes emerge. Considering the nature of the encounter between Actaeon and Artemis, as well as the punishment that follows, a clear mythological narrative is told about the necessity of a universal hierarchy. The mythical world is structured according to levels: the threat to these levels is a threat to the mythical world itself.