I N all the realm of King Cadmus there was no mortal hunter like young Prince Actaeon. The fiercest boars fell at the touch of his spear, so strong and sure was his thrust, and the dogs of his pack were not more swift in overtaking the deer than was Prince Actaeon himself.
Only one other excelled him in the hunt, and that was the goddess Diana, twin sister of Apollo. Followed by her nymphs, the fair goddess loved to roam the woods and mountains by day, hunting until the noon sun was high overhead, and the heat became too great for comfort.
Then the nymphs laid aside their bows and arrows, their spears and their mantles, to rest in a glade deep in the forest. Diana had chosen this home for herself, and it was held sacred for her use.
No mortal might go into the glade and live. The very air of this charmed place was so clear and sweet, so cool and fragrant, that mortals seemed warned before entering it. They knew that here among the trees in this fair grove was the resting place of some deity, and turned their steps away in reverence.
But one day when the noon heat was great, Actaeon, tired of the hunt, left his comrades and, following a little brook, wandered away into the depths of the wood, seeking a cool and restful spot. He came at last to the edge of Diana's glade and heard the splashing of water and the merry voices of the nymphs at play.
Parting the branches of some laurel trees, he peeped through and saw a silvery fountain gushing from a rock, and a little pool of clear water where Diana and her nymphs were preparing to bathe. One nymph loosed the fillet which bound Diana's hair, so that it fell in shining waves over her bare shoulders and floated around her like a golden cloud. One untied the thongs of her sandals, while another laid aside her mantle and held ready fresh linen. Others busily drew water and filled great urns.
All these things Actaeon watched without thought of wrongdoing, until one of the nymphs happened to look toward the laurel trees and saw him peering out through the branches.
The nymph screamed, and ran to shield Diana from his curious gaze. The other maidens rushed also to screen the goddess, but it was too late!
A rosy color spread over Diana's cheeks and brow. Shame and anger were in her heart. She reached for her spear to kill Actaeon, but it lay far from her hand. Then she seized one of the urns and, raising it high above her head, dashed the water in Actaeon's face.
Raising one of the urns high above her head, Diana dashed the water in Actaeon's face.
"Go, now," Diana cried, "and boast, if you can, of your boldness!"
Actaeon fell down on the bank of the little brook, and as he fell huge ears and branching antlers sprang from his head. His arms became hairy, and hoofs took the place of his hands and feet. Gazing in the clear water of the little brook, he saw only a frightened stag which bounded away through the woods.
A frightened stag bounded away through the woods.
Back toward his comrades Actaeon ran, but at sight of his dogs he felt a great fear and turned again into the forest. But the dogs had seen him and, leaping up at the sight of a deer, followed hard after poor Actaeon.
Never did he run so swiftly. Over rocks and hills and across streams he sped, with the fleetness of the wind, but still his dogs pursued him.
Now he thought sadly of how he himself had chased other deer, rejoicing to see them panting and weary. He remembered how often he had urged on his dogs and felt no pity.
As he ran Actaeon's heart beat wild and fast from fright and weariness, until at length, worn out, he fell to the earth, and the dogs overtook him.
His spirit passed from the body of the stag and slumbered ever after in the land of the shades.
Such was the harshness of the goddess Diana to mortals who were overbold.