Artemis, as we have already discussed, has a bit of childishness to her nature. Okay, more than a bit. She literally sat on Zeus’s lap like a little girl asking for gifts from Santa, and Zeus was all too happy to indulge his (spoiled) little girl. The next story really isn’t that surprising, given that childishness, her insistence on remaining a virgin, and her decree that all who serve her must likewise remain chaste.
Artemis, in between her hunts, likes to bathe—which is why she has so many river and ocean nymphs in her retinue. She bathes deep in lakes, rivers, and streams with her entourage, often playing games.
Okay, not necessarily those kinds of games, get your mind out of the gutter. It’s certainly possible, but we can’t assume that’s the case. Nothing in this story states this happens. Artemis is goddess of the hunt, and she liked to play hunting games.
Anyways, she and her nymphs bathe out in nature. There are no houses, no temples, no walls, no doors, just open water. Nor has anyone posted a sign, “Danger: Goddess Bathing.” Actaeon really could have used a sign. He stumbles upon her, and she decides to transform him into a stag. That really should be punishment enough, but instead she decides that she will take Actaeon’s own dogs and hunt him down. The dogs tear him to pieces.
This was all because of a look. He saw her naked, yes, but this is clearly an overreaction. Some versions of the story (cough, Ovid) have Actaeon lingering as an explanation for the harsh punishment, but the original simply states that he saw her. Either he stumbled on her, or she swam into his view and decided to punish him for it. It’s not the fact that he saw her, but the idea that he might tell others that he saw her. This would be damaging to her reputation.
It’s interesting, however, that he is punished for what would be the truth. He did see her. This is not in dispute. Other transformations happen because some mortal boasts about something, as was the case with Athena and Arachne. Actaeon, however, merely witnessed her, and would have been able to speak the truth about her. Surely there are those who have lied about seeing one goddess or another naked, but it’s the potential truth-teller that is punished.
Arachne wove her tapestry about all of the gods’ indiscretions, so the sexual nature of the gods has been well-circulated. Is this a symbolic rape. Was Actaeon’s sighting of Artemis equivalent to a rape? Artemis certainly reacts as if that’s the seriousness of the crime, but this doesn’t ring true for me.
Artemis has, and retains, all the power. At no point does Actaeon force himself upon her in any way. Depending on how we interpret the circumstances, Artemis might have forced him to see her naked. Certainly Actaeon has been violated. Not only did he lose his human form, he lost his life, forever silencing his voice. There must be an explanation for why Artemis is so severe in her punishment. Why does she care so much about her modesty?