At the same time I have been thinking about animals and humans, and how our relationship to our companion species illuminates our differences and similarities. In particular, of course, I have been thinking about dogs, and how humans and dogs appear to have co-evolved as species, neither of which would be the same without its long history of living with the other.
The ancient myth of Diana (or Artemis in the Greek version) and Actaeon is situated smack bang in the middle of these two trains of thought: violence and expression, human and animal.
Around the birth of Christ, Roman poet Ovid set down in his collection of myths, Metamorphoses, the by then already old story. It begins on a beautiful evening, when both Actaeon, a nobleman from Thebes, and Diana, goddess of the hunt, the moon and wild animals, have been out hunting with their separate parties. It is late and hot and both decide to call it a day.
“In a fair chace a shady mountain stood,
Well stor'd with game, and mark'd with trails of blood;
Here did the huntsmen, 'till the heat of day,
Pursue the stag, and load themselves with rey:
When thus Actaeon calling to the rest:
"My friends," said he, "our sport is at the best,
The sun is high advanc'd, and downward sheds
His burning beams directly on our heads;
Then by consent abstain from further spoils,
Call off the dogs, and gather up the toils,
And ere to-morrow's sun begins his race,
Take the cool morning to renew the chace."
They all consent, and in a chearful train
The jolly huntsmen, loaden with the slain,
Return in triumph from the sultry plain.
Down in a vale with pine and cypress clad,
Refresh'd with gentle winds, and brown with shade,
The chaste Diana's private haunt, there stood
Full in the centre of the darksome wood
A spacious grotto, all around o'er-grown
With hoary moss, and arch'd with pumice-stone.
From out its rocky clefts the waters flow,
And trickling swell into a lake below.
Nature had ev'ry where so plaid her part,
That ev'ry where she seem'd to vie with art.
Here the bright Goddess, toil'd and chaf'd with heat,
Was wont to bathe her in the cool retreat.”
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book the Third, trans. by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al, 1717)
As it happens, Actaeon stumbles on Diana as she is bathing naked. Having left her trusted bow on the bank, the incensed goddess throws a handful of water on Actaeon, proclaiming: "Now tell you saw me here naked without my clothes, if you can tell at all!".
|“This said, the man begun to disappear|
By slow degrees, and ended in a deer.”
Diana’s revenge lies not so much in turning Actaeon into a stag, however, as in making him mute. The bold hunter becomes the voiceless prey. Stunned, Actaeon doesn’t know where to turn, his castle or the woods, and as he hesitates his hounds catch sight of him:
“First ‘Black-foot’, Melampus, and keen-scented Ichnobates, ‘Tracker’, signal him with baying, Ichnobates out of Crete, Melampus, Sparta. Then others rush at him swift as the wind, ‘Greedy’, Pamphagus, Dorceus, ‘Gazelle’, Oribasos, ‘Mountaineer’, all out of Arcady: powerful ‘Deerslayer’, Nebrophonos, savage Theron, ‘Whirlwind’, and Laelape, ‘Hunter’.
Then swift-footed Pterelas, ‘Wings’, and trail-scenting Agre, ‘Chaser’, fierce Hylaeus, ‘Woody’, lately gored by a boar, the wolf-born Nape, ‘Valley’, Poemenis, the trusty ‘Shepherd’, and Harpyia, ‘Snatcher’, with her two pups. There is thin-flanked Sicyonian Ladon, ‘Catcher’, Dromas, ‘Runner’, ‘Grinder’, Canache, Sticte ‘Spot’, Tigris ‘Tigress’, Alce, ‘Strong’, and white-haired Leucon, ‘Whitey’, and black-haired Asbolus, ‘Soot’.
Lacon, ‘Spartan’, follows them, a dog well known for his strength, and strong-running Aëllo, ‘Storm’. Then Thoos, ‘Swift’, and speedy Lycisce, ‘Wolf’, with her brother Cyprius ‘Cyprian’. Next ‘Grasper’, Harpalos, with a distinguishing mark of white, in the centre of his black forehead, ‘Black’, Melaneus, and Lachne, ‘Shaggy’, with hairy pelt, Labros, ‘Fury’, and Argiodus, ‘White-tooth’, born of a Cretan sire and Spartan dam, keen-voiced Hylactor, ‘Barker’…”
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk III:206-231, trans. by A.D. Kline, 2000)
The fact that Ovid spends quite some time naming and describing Actaeon’s dogs, reminds us of the close bond between us and our companion species. It also reminds us that this bond is forged in language, in the names we choose to give the animals we share our lives with. Terrified Actaeon flees over the mountain, pursued by his own pack. He tries to shout: "Actaeon ego sum: dominum cognoscite vestrum!" - ‘I am Actaeon! Know your own master!’, but nothing but noises are heard. Actaeon has lost his voice and his name. The dogs soon catch up and pounce on him.
|"Actaeon ego sum!"|
“First ‘Black-hair’, Melanchaetes, wounds his back, then ‘Killer’, Theridamas, and Oresitrophos, the ‘Climber’, clings to his shoulder. They had set out late but outflanked the route by a shortcut over the mountains. While they hold their master the whole pack gathers and they sink their teeth in his body till there is no place left to wound him. He groans and makes a noise, not human, but still not one a deer could make, and fills familiar heights with mournful cries. And on his knees, like a suppliant begging, he turns his wordless head from side to side, as if he were stretching arms out towards them…
They surround him on every side, sinking their jaws into his flesh, tearing their master to pieces in the deceptive shape of the deer. They say Diana the Quiver-bearer’s anger was not appeased, until his life had ended in innumerable wounds.”
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk III: 232-252, trans. by A.D. Kline, 2000)
As Actaeon dies wordless, the violence inflicted upon him speaks volumes of Diana’s rage, and about our relationship with dogs. In the presence of cuddly puppies and cute toy dogs, it is easy to forget that at the centre of our cross-species evolutionary connection with dogs lies violence. Dogs and humans have thrown their lot in with each other for two mutually beneficial reasons: hunting and protection. Both activities imply violent acts, as is illustrated by the myth of Diana and Actaeon. It is by killing, that the hounds aid Actaeon in is hunt, and Diana in the protection of her honour. We are companions in killing.
|Actaeon torn asunder by his own dogs|
From a behavioural perspective we need to keep this in mind. All dogs are instinctive hunters and protectors, to some degree, whether they are of a “dangerous” breed or not. A number of problem behaviours stem from a domestic dog’s lack of an outlet for these instincts.
However, what also unites us as species, apart from violence, is the ability to communicate, by verbal and non-verbal means. Yet, violence and language also separate us: if dogs bring us prey and protection, we bring them our capacity for naming. Linked with our capacity for verbal language, which dogs lack, is the ability to categorise and organize the world around us. As I have mentioned before, research indicates that over the time that dogs and humans have spent together, the brains of both have shrunk. Humans have ended up with less acute senses, in particular smell, and dogs with less capacity to organize and plan – instead we are sharing these tasks between our species.
It falls to us then, to figure out when hunting and protecting is necessary and when it is not, and exactly what is to be hunted and who is to be protected from whom. In naming our dogs, we take on the responsibility to name the world for them, too. Games, training and activities can satisfy our dogs’ instincts to hunt and protect, but it is up to us to tell them how. The key, of course, is communication. As always I come back to this, even in reading an ancient myth: its good, nay necessary, to talk (albeit not always using words) to your dogs. If we don’t have a voice, our dogs, like those of Actaeon, will not recognize us.