The Death of Actaeon

Robin Robertson

after Ovid

for James Lasdun

The midday sun finds a way down
into a deep cleft in the mountain meshed
with cypresses and pine, to flare
on a distant speck of glass: the sacred pool
where twenty Amnisian nymphs
attend their queen, huntress and protectress
of this place, these woods and hills.
As she steps forward, they take her clothes
and stand aside, while the deftest
folds the locks of hair into a knot.
Scooping a palmful of water to her neck
and throat, letting it run the length of her,
she straightens in the sunlight, her back’s
curve bending like a longbow as she raises her arms
to unbind the knot,
shake loose her hair
and stretch.

*

The baking ground is brown
with the blood of beasts, drained
since dawn by Actaeon and his men;
their nets are stiff with it.
It cakes their hands and spear-shafts.
Enough for one day, they sleep in the shade.
Where Actaeon left them.

Arms outspread,
one step at a time,
he inched down
through the cooling air,
to enter – though he did not know it –
the grove of the virgin goddess, Artemis.
He parted the branches,
slipping through ferns
that dripped with spray,
and reached the grassy bank
and the murmur of voices, or water.
Edging into the open,
he saw stillness,
and grace, in the space of one heartbeat;
then he saw his own death.

Like gazelles at a waterhole sensing a lion,
the glass split, and shattered. Light
went everywhere – into the screams of the women
as they covered their breasts,
into the water, as they thrashed it white,
crowding round their queen, trying
to hide her body with their own.
But she stood too high above them, and began to burn –
and turned away, glaring over her shoulder,
as if to reach for an arrow
from a quiver that wasn’t there.
There was no weapon but water.
Enraged, she caught up a handful
and flung it in his face,
leaving a trail of gold as she spoke these words:
‘Now go and tell, if you can,
that you have seen the goddess Artemis naked.’

With that,
a rack of branching stag’s horns
burst from his wet brow.
Actaeon felt his bones stretch and the sinews snap
as she lengthened his neck, drew the tips of his ears to a point,
put hooves in place of hands and feet,
turned his arms into forelegs that reached and lunged
as his hindlegs tensed and gathered,
and thickened his pale skin to a brindled hide.
And last of all she poured a white fear into his heart
like a stream of other blood. And it was done.

He fled.
Sharp hooves bit into the ground,
horns clattering the branches –
plunging out
across the grove in springs and bounds
he was amazed by his own lightness.
But when he saw his antlered head
looking back at him from a mountain pool, he knew
only his mind remained – and it was scattered –
torn between running home to the palace,
or hiding out here in the woods; torn between shame and fear.

As he hesitated, the dogs caught his trail and decided for him.
First to give tongue were Blackclaw and keen-
scented Tracer, never mistaken:
Tracer a Cretan dog, Blackclaw a Spartan; then others
came rushing on, wave on successive wave:
Stag-chaser, Ravener, Fell-ranger – all from Arcadia –
Fawnbane the fawn-killer, Hurricane and Death-bringer,
Wingfeet, the swift of foot, Hunter the hungry;
the boar-scarred Sylvan, Harrier the wolf-dog,
Shepherd the rallier; Grappler with her black kin,
Catcher from Sicyon, thin in the flank; Runner and Courser,
Blazon and Tiger, the roistering Ravager,
white-coated Frost-biter and black-haired Mourner,
and fast at their shoulders, famed for his strength, came Spartan,
and Tempest, renowned for his stamina;
Wildfire and Wolf-taker with her brother The Cyprian,
Grasper with his white star, Bristler and Blackbeard,
Lightfoot and White-tooth, shrill-tongued Ring-the-Wood,
and others, many others, it would take too long to name.

Locked on to their quarry,
the whole pack, thick with bloodlust,
flowed over the rocks and crags, over the trackless cliffs
– where the way is hard, or where there is no way at all.
He leapt and jinked through the killing grounds
longing to cry out: ‘I am Actaeon!
Don’t you know your own master?’ but there was no sound
but the baying of dogs; the air cracked with their barking.
And then they came.
The three outrunners broke from the trees to outstrip the others.
Hellhound clamped his teeth – with two puffs of red –
into his master’s back, then Deer-killer and Hill-fury
latched to his shoulder and hung on.

While they held down their prey
the rest of the pack broke on him like surf,
dipping their teeth in his flesh
till there was no place left for further wounds,
and at every wound’s mouth was the mouth of a dog.
Surge upon surge, the lethal riptide crashed and turned,
battening on, and tearing away – maddened – in the red spume.
Actaeon groaned: a sound that wasn’t human
but which no stag could produce.
Falling to his knees, like a supplicant at prayer, he bowed
in silence as the angry sea crashed on him once again
and the dogs hid his body with their own.
Drowning now,
his horned head reared, streaming, from the ruck,
as if a god was being born
– not a mortal soul transformed and torn apart.
The huntsmen looked around for Actaeon: calling
– each louder than the one before – for Actaeon,
as if he weren’t there.
Should he not share this unexpected gift?
This fourteen-pointer brought to bay?
Actaeon turned his head at the sound of his name.
He wished he were as far away as they thought;
or watching this death, not living it.
And his dogs kept swivelling round to look for their master,
barking their signal for him to come,
come and dispatch the beast they’d brought down;
and Actaeon turned again.
Then for the last time
the thirsty hounds surrounded him,
closed over him,
worked their heads into his body, and pulled him
inside out.
Then, and only then, they say,
was the anger of Artemis, goddess of chastity, appeased.

*

It is also said that the dogs devoured the body, then hunted for Actaeon in vain throughout the forest. Finally their search brought them to the cave of Chiron the centaur, who had fostered Actaeon as a child and taught him how to hunt. Only after he had fashioned a statue of their lost master could the dogs be calmed and allow themselves to be led home.