Diana & Actaeon

There's a translation of this page into Swedish, if you'd prefer.

The myth of Diana and Actaeon is a disturbing one. Diana (aka Artemis) was the virgin goddess of the wild places - killer as well as protectress of furry things, protectress of girls evolving from virgin to mother - and killer of women in childbirth. At her temple at Brauron on the east coast of Attica (Vravrona) - and probably also at her sanctuary on the Acropolis in Athens - young pubescent girls from all over Attica took part in the strange ritual of "being a bear" - precise details are unclear, but there's some evidence that they played at being men for part of the time - there are "dining-rooms" at Brauron (andrones) and vases have been found showing girls taking part in athletics. At the end of their time as a bear, they'd dedicate their toys to Artemis, and return home to await marriage.

    But the Actaeon myth is strange. The goddess - seemingly a grown woman, but paradoxically one destined never to reach menarche (the "eternal teenager" ) - is observed (probably accidentally) by a young huntsman as she bathes naked in a stream. He stares in fascination and awe at "the most beautiful vision ever beheld by man" (to quote a title from a hilarious silent movie made of the myth in the 1920's). But his harmless voyeurism leads to tragedy; Diana sees him, and fears he will boast of what he's seen. And so she turns him instantly into a stag - which his own 50 hounds then tear apart. This is one of many myths which unmasks the Greek male's fear of women (Medea and Atalanta are two others) - female beauty is not just there for his enjoyment - it has a power to trap and then destroy.

[Artemis and Aktaion by the Pan Painter]

The huntress and the hunted

At the funeral of his sister Diana Princess of Wales [September 6th 1997], Charles, Earl Spencer, in his revolutionary address (the most provocative at a funeral since Mark Antony asked the crowd to lend him ears at Caesar's) , referred to her immortal namesake: pointing out the irony that Lady Di was invariably the hunted, not the huntress. Perhaps he was not aware of the further irony - that the goddess, when she found herself hunted and spied on by Actaeon, turned him into a stag who was then torn to pieces and devoured by his own hounds. Just so was Diana pursued by Actaeons - with long-range lenses - but despite being a princess, an icon, a symbol and now seemingly a saint and a martyr, she was not an immortal goddess. She did not have the power to destroy her persecutors. Her revenge will be posthumous, and less dramatic - but the Press will never be the same again. Once more the image that we want to see and yet we know is forbidden enthralls and destroys.

    Or has she now become a goddess - following good Classical precedents? Have we in fact been witnessing the first authentic apotheosis since ancient times? What is celebrity if not the 20th century equivalent of immortality? When Livia became a goddess no one seriously thought she was going to live on Olympus and chat with Jupiter and Venus: those who deified her hoped that she (and they too by association) would be remembered - because there'd be a cult and temples and priests dedicated to keeping the memory going as long as people cared. In fact Claudius' belated attempts to immortalise his grandmother were short lived: a few temples were rededicated (such as the great temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous) but the cult soon lapsed. It had more to do with Claudius than Livia - and then Claudius, too, became a god - whose temple at Colchester was destroyed by Boudicca "quasi arx aeternae dominationis" as Tacitus says - a symbol of never-ending tyranny. So deification for short-term political reasons was not especially effective. Apotheosis is mocked as apokolokyntosis (pumpkinification - Seneca on the "divine" Claudius).

    To find a human made god by popular demand we'd have to think more in mythological that historical terms - Hercules perhaps? Or Helen of Troy who was catasterised to join her brothers, Castor and Pollux, according to some accounts? Hercules seems a likely precedent: he spent his life alternately doing good for the benefit of all mankind, and indulging himself with wine and women: he would have been a poor candidate for sainthood - but gods and goddesses don't have to be morally perfect. They do have to be larger than life.

    But perhaps mere hero status would do - a demigod, who achieves immortality but on a more local level? Certainly the burial on a magical island amid trees planted by present and future kings and queens (which already hosts a convenient Temple built by a previous Earl) would seem ideal for instituting a local hero-cult (as the villagers of Great Brington obviously realised when they feared becoming a second Graceland if Diana were buried in their churchyard). But no - her worship is already too universal to be confined to a single shrine. Only the status of full goddess will do. Sainthood will be for Mother Theresa - after a decent interval. Diana will be - in the ancient sense - immortal. As immortal as Achilles (who like her chose the short and glorious life over the long and tedious one), though she will need no Homer, or Cleopatra - with whom she shares many qualities, but most of all as immortal as a female Hercules. I find it not at all improbable to imagine a garbled version of her story still circulating, like his, in cartoon form two millennia from now.

    Her death was indeed tragic - we see now clearly why Greek tragedy could only involve kings, queens and heroes of royal birth. The mundane circumstances of a car-crash become universally significant when the victim is a princess: how absurd now seems the fuss about David Cronenbourg's film of A J Ballard's Crash - which only dared to imagine Elizabeth Taylor as the "perfect" victim. We shall discuss her death and analyse it struggling to find the hidden meaning - just as we do with Macbeth or Hamlet or Oedipus or Hecuba (I was reminded so much of the death of Polyxena as descibed by Euripides in Hecuba: the Greeks demanded her sacrifice; but when they'd seen her die, overcome by her beauty and courage, they compete to bring presents and flowers to consecrate her memory. Only after her death did we realise how much we liked her - (to paraphrase Bob Geldof's tribute).