Art Spotlight: The Death of Actaeon


'Diana and Actaeon,' detail, by Pittoni the Younger. DeAgostini/Getty

Our podcast episode "Mystery of the Antler" mainly handles the curious science of antlers, but it also delves into the symbolic power of deer. Humans have lived alongside these bone-shedding herbivores for ages, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. As such, we've developed a rich and complex relationship with this creature of beauty, stealth and vital sustenance.

Eating animals, as we explored in our podcast episode "Don't Eat the Panda," comes with a certain amount of baggage -- and we see that psychic buildup in many of humanity's deer myths. As Psychologist Thomas R. Hersh points out in The Deer as Symbol, we process the guilt of the hunt in different ways. Sometimes the deer is designated food for humans as punishment by the gods, other times the deer is continually reborn or actually grants the hunter "permission" for the kill.

But the deer is ever a creature of the deep, inhuman wood -- and elusive creature of supernatural properties. As hunters pursue their prey and ceremonially don their skins and antlers, they run the risk of transforming into a deer and suffering the fate of their quarry.

This brings us to the subject of our Art Spotlight. As illustrated in this 1721 painting by Giovanni Battista Pittoni the Younger (1687-1767), the Greek hunter Actaeon happened upon the goddess Diana bathing naked in a pool. Naturally, such sights are forbidden to mortals and Diana was quite furious at being surprised like this. As punishment, she turned him into a stag and he was torn apart by his own hunting dogs.

It's such a wonderfully symbolic death. Actaeon loses his voice in the transformation, rendering him incapable of boasting what he saw -- and also incapable of calling his own hunting dogs off. He becomes the very prey animal he hunted, but there's also a sexual overtone to the myth as Hersh points out in The Deer as Symbol:

"... I would add that the deer symbolized a female-goddess from the male point of view. It was an aspect of male psychology, an example of what Jung called an "anima" figure-a fascinating image that takes a man into the deeper levels of the unconscious, into the mundus imaginalis. Perhaps 60% of the deer tales I have read concern the elusiveness of the deer in the hunt, and, therefore, express the psychology of male hunters. The hunter chases a fast and elusive deer deeper and deeper into unknown areas of a vast forest, into some strange world."

As such, Actaeon is destroyed by the very masculine energies that consumed him in life. Here is Pittoni the Younger's full painting, resplendent with the sort of divine nudity than can easily spell a man's doom:

Diana and Actaeon, 1721, by Giovanni Battista Pittoni the Younger. You'll notice the detail from above in the upper left quadrant.
DeAgostini/Getty

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.