Chapter 10. On the Death of Actaeon

The myth of Actaeon the hunter is famous from the version in Ovid Metamorphoses 3.13 and following, where Artemis literally turns Actaeon into a stag. The hapless victim is then torn to shreds by his own hounds. One critic has claimed that the same theme recurs in Stesichorus PMG 236. [1] This fragment has been derived from the following passage:
Στησίχορος δὲ ὁ Ἱμεραῖος ἔγραψεν ἐλάφου περιβαλεῖν δέρμα Ἀκταίωνι τὴν θεόν, παρασκευάζουσάν οἱ τὸν ἐκ κυνῶν θάνατον ἵνα δὴ μὴ γυναῖκα Σεμέλην λάβοι
Pausanias 9.2.3
Stesichorus of Himera wrote that the goddess [Artemis] flung the hide of a stag around Actaeon, arranging for him a death that came from his own hounds so that he might not take Semeie as wife.
If we follow this interpretation, the expression ἐλάφου περιβαλεῖν δέρμα Ἀκταίωνι ‘flung the hide of a stag around Actaeon’ reflects the actual words of Stesichorus, and it means figuratively that the goddess, by Hinging the dérma ‘hide’ of a stag around Actaeon, thereby transformed the dérma ‘hide’ of Actaeon into that of a stag. For this purportedly traditional usage of peribállō ‘fling around [someone]’ in the sense of ‘transform’, a striking parallel passage has been adduced, where we find the gods in the act of transforming Philomele into a nightingale: [2] {263|264}
περέβαλov γάρ οἱ πτεροφόρον δέμας
Aeschylus Agamemnon 1147
for they [the gods] have flung [verb peribállō] around her [Philomele] a feather-wearing body [démas]
While conceding that the verb peribállō implies ‘transform’ in this passage, another critic rejects the argument that this usage applies also to the context of Stesichorus PMG 236. [3] Rather, he reads peribállō in the Stesichorus fragment to mean that Artemis merely flung a deerskin around Actaeon. For support, he cites the evidence from Greek iconography, where the motif of a dying Actaeon clad in deerskin is clearly attested. [4] As a prime example, he singles out a metope from Temple E in Selinus (middle fifth century B.C.), [5] which features Actaeon wearing the deerskin and his hounds lunging more at it than at him. [6]
Such evidence, however, is inconclusive: the theme of Actaeon’s wearing rather than having the hide of a stag may be a visual as well as verbal metaphor. On the verbal level peribállō implies clothing, as in the Philomele passage of Aeschylus quoted above. The gods transform Philomele into a nightingale, but the words of Aeschylus represent the action as if the gods clothed her with the démas ‘body’ of a nightingale. The meaning of peribállō as ‘clothe’ is commonplace in Greek (Odyssey v 231, xxii 148; Herodotus 1.152.1, 9.109.1; Euripides Iphigeneia in Tauris 1150, and so on), and the derivative períblēma actually means ‘garment’ (Aristotle Problemata 870a27, etc.). I propose, then, that the wording peribállō Stesichorus PMG 236 is also metaphorical: ἐλάφου περιβαλεῖν δέρμα Ἀκταίωνι ‘[that the goddess] flung the hide of a stag around Actaeon’, meaning that the goddess transformed him into a stag.
In favor of the nonmetaphorical interpretation, the objection still remains that “δέρμα [dérma ‘skin’] is not the same as δέμας [démas ‘body’].” [7] This objection does not reckon, however, with the traditional theme of equating one’s identity with one’s “hide.” The lexical evidence of the Indo-European languages reveals traces of this equation. We may consider, for example, a cognate of Indic tvác- ‘hide’ and Greek sákos ‘cowhide-shield’, namely, Hittite tweka-: besides meaning ‘body’, this word is also regularly used to designate ‘person, self, one’s own self. We {264|265} may consider also Latin uersipellis, meaning literally ‘he whose hide is turned’ (from verb uertō ‘turn’ and noun pellis ‘hide, skin’). In Plautus Amphitruo 123, uersipellis designates Jupiter when he transformed himself into the human Amphitruo; in Pliny Natural History 8.34 and Petronius 62, uersipellis means ‘werewolf.
Thus we have comparative evidence in favor of the argument that the text of Stesichorus PMG 236 reflects a traditional usage, which we can interpret metaphorically to mean that Actaeon was indeed transformed into a stag. The iconographical evidence may be explained as an equally symbolic means of representing the same conception as we find in the poetic evidence.
One last problem remains. It has been argued that such expressions as peribállō in Stesichorus PMG 236 “are ultimately not metaphorical” on the grounds that the Actaeon myth seems to be connected with rituals of hunting. [8] If I understand this argument, its underlying assumption is that metaphor must be incompatible with ritual. Such an assumption seems to me unjustified: for a ritual participant to wear the skin of a stag in a ritual context is potentially just as much a matter of metaphor as it is for an audience of myth to hear that Artemis flung the deerskin on Actaeon’s body. {265|266}


[ back ] 1. Rose 1931.
[ back ] 2. Ibid.
[ back ] 3. Bowra 1961.99-100.
[ back ] 4. Bowra pp. 99-100, 125-126, with the alternative representation of Actaeon as sprouting antlers also taken into account
[ back ] 5. Richter 1950 fig. 411
[ back ] 6. Bowra 1961.125.
[ back ] 7. Bowra p. 100.
[ back ] 8. Renner 1978.286n16, citing e.g. Burkert 1983.111-114.