Monday, December 6, 2010

Artemis and Aktaion

I was browsing Ovid's Metamorphoses the other day, looking for a reference, and I stumbled upon the story of Artemis and Aktaion. In case you don't remember what this was about, I'll save you the trouble: Aktaion was the hunter who accidentally saw Artemis when she was bathing; the goddess was so angry she turned him into a stag, and Aktaion was torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs.

(No, I didn't find the reference I was initially looking for in the Metamorphoses. Which is why you're reading this instead of the smart post I planned for today, based on the reference I didn't find.)

So, Ovid has the following description of Aktaion being torn to pieces by his dogs:

“Melampus and Ichnobates first gave tongue, wise Ichnobates Cnosius swift as the wind the rest came rushing on: Dorceus, Pamphagos, Oribasos, fierce Nebrophonos, sturdy Theron, moody Laelaps, Pterelas unsurpassed for speed, Agre for scent, bold Hylaeus lately wounded by a boar, Nape a slender bitch sired by a wolf, Poemenis with two pups, gaunt Harpyia Sicyonius, and Ladon, once a guardian of her flock; Dromas, Canache, Tigris, Sticte, Alce, dark-coated Asbolos, Leucon with snowy hair, Lycisce and his nimble brother Cyprius, huge stalwart Lacon, Aello, never tired; Thoos, his dark forehead crowned with a white star, Melaneus; rough-coated Harpalos; a couple of hounds born of a Cretan sire and Spartan dam, Labros and Argiodus; Hylactor, noisy bitch; and many more too long to tell. The pack, hot in pursuit, sped on over fells and crags, by walls of rock, on daunting trails or none he fled where often he’d followed in pursuit, fled his own folk, for shame! He longed to shout ‘I am Actaeon, look, I am your master!’ Words failed his will; their baying filled the sky. Melanchaetes bit first, a wound deep in his haunch; next Theridamas; Oresitrophus fastened on his shoulder. ”

Um... What? Ovid is generally quite good at selecting a juicy detail from the pages of dreary Greek myths, but clearly this was not his day. That's 36 named dogs.

Who cares about all these murderous Blitzen, Comet and Cupid of the ancient Greeks?

Well, apparently, the Romans did. About the same time as Ovid, another author, named Gaius Julius Hyginus wrote his Fabulae, and included the same story about Artemis and Aktaion. Now, this Hyginus is generally much, much more boring than Ovid, so I was already prepared for something worse... and guess what, it was worse:

“As a stag, then, he was mangled by his own hounds. Their names were (these are all male): Melampus, Ichnobates, Echnobas, Pamphagos, Dorceus, Oribasus, Nebrophonus, Laelap, Theron, Pterelas, Hylaeus, Nape, Ladon, Poemenis, Therodanapis, Aura, Lacon, Harpyia, Aello, Dromas, Thous Canache, Cyprius, Sticcte, Labros, Arcas, Agriodus, Tigris, Hylactor, Alce, Harpalus, Lycisca, Melaneus, Lachne, Leucon. Likewise there who devoured him - females: Melanchaetes, Agre, Theridamas, Oreistrophos. Other authors give these names too: Acamas, Syrus, Leon, Stilbon, Agrius, Charops, Aethon, Corus, Boreas, Draco, Eudromus, Dromius, Zephyrus, Lampus, Haemon, Cyllopodes, Harpalicus, Machimus, Ichneus, Melampus, Ocydromus, Borax, Ocythous, Pachylus, Obrimus; and females: Argo, Arethusa, Urania, Theriope, Dinomache, Dioxippe, Echione, Gorgo, Cyllo, Harpyia, Lynceste, Leaena, Lacaena, Ocyptete, Ocydrome, Oxyrhoe, Orias, Sagnos, Theriphone, Volatos, Chediaetros.”

That's 39 participants, plus 46 witnesses who might have been accessories to murder. Or not. You can count them if you want, I'm done with this story.

So, we don't know exactly what was the second of Ovid's terrible crimes, which led to his life-long exile in Tomis. We don't know whether Tacitus' name was Publius or Gaius. Not a single line survived from Agrippina's memoirs. But there you have it, 100 dogs went hunting. Makes you wonder what the little green aliens will find from our civilization 2,000 years from now. I'm betting on Blitzen, Comet and Cupid. No, not their Cupid. Ours.

Oh, and in case you missed the end of the story: the dogs were so devastated after tearing their owner to pieces, that Chiron the centaur made a life-like statue of Aktaion for them, which the dogs happily adopted as their master. So, if the reindeer ever eat Santa... never mind. Dumb story to begin with.