Back

What Actaeon Did Wrong

Because I am privy to the private lives of a few of the more public gods and goddesses, I have, often, been accused of being a pagan (paganist? paganini? English is such a difficult language). This intended slander may or may not be true, but I will admit that I do, sometimes, consort with witches. Some of them are really quite attractive, you know. I'm thinking of one in particular who has eyes that are so clear and so calm that you could look into them and...

Uhhhh.., Err -,well, never mind.

Starting off again on a different track, there is another reason why I enjoy the company of witches which is, perhaps, more appropriate for a publication of this type. With some slight embarrassment, I confess that I have long been enchanted by one of their deities. There is something about "The Three Faced Woman" that I find both invigorating and calming. For those of you who are woefully ignorant of the other side of this our world, I will explain what's going on with the tri-visaged one. Her three faces are, respectively, the virgin (the young girl), the mother (or wife), and the hag (the old woman).

The virgin (do try to calm down a bit, boys. Whoever is giggling in the back, please stop) is the promise of all youth - the promise of love to come, not yet attained, but existing in potentia (and, I should add, it isn't just that mushy romantic love, nor is it just that sloppy physical love. It's the real deal, both the sloppy bit and the mushy bit). The mother, the wife, is love attained (mother, wife - see what I mean? Mushy and sloppy, if you're doing it right. You need the mushy stuff to enjoy a wife, and she can't get to be a mother without the sloppy stuff), and from that comes life, always new, always the same, yet always different. The comes the hag, who is the old woman at the end of her life, the fulfillment of the ultimate promise, the last great gift, which is death.

As near as I can figure it out from the gossip which is current amongst the powers and principalities, the turning of the great fiery wheel that moves the stars, planets, and people, uses this as fuel, burning and turning like this: At the beginning of all is the desire for love, they claim. We earthly folk are born with this desire, we live with this desire, and we will die with this desire, despite what the misanthropes claim (misanthropes - and I have known a few - are the ones who never manage to savor even a taste of love, and then bend their minds into tuba-like mazes pretending that they don't want it anyway. But the twist in self that comes from denying what can't be denied warps them into those creepy shapes we see lurking about under slimy rocks and decrepit wharves).

Love, as you know from your own experience, is the name we give to that compelling urge to find and merge with the other, the one who is not us, but is that part of ourselves which is always missing; it is what we need and must have to become complete. Through love, or better yet, in love, we merge with the other, and become one " flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood " as we were originally created before Yahweh's little bit of elective surgery for the removal of Adam's rib.

This (love) is the motivation for action; love is desire, desire is the cause of action, action is the movement of the turning wheel. Why act if not for love?

(Icky. I don't quite like little chunk o' writing. It all sounds so dreadfully goofy when you spell it out like this; I'm sure somebody, Shakespeare, for instance, could have said it much better in, ah, hmmm..., The Tempest, or something, maybe. What I wrote makes me think of the kind of drivel that Romeo might mumble when his Zoloft 'script runs out. Sorry. But I gotta go on. There are still two faces grinning at me, demanding attention. I'll try to do better.)

Let's go on then. Love is desire, desire is action, action is - face number two - the wife/mother. Assuming (at least) a moderate degree of success in love (we can't all be misanthropes now, can we? The species would die out) a guy ends up with a wife, or two, or more, or maybe he just fathers a few tykes (you will notice, by the way, that I unabashedly write like a man, because, well, I am one. I understand a man's relation to the woman in question - a woman's relation to her leaves me baffled because, well, I ain't one, and I hesitate to lay claim to knowledge I don't have. Women ought to write about that. My apologies to any of those bitter women or bitter women like men who believe any man who dares speak in public should be a castrato. I ain't one of them either)

(and I can prove it).

Hmm. Where was I? Oh yeah. Fathering children... (don?t take that too literally. I was talking about fathering children, not actually fathering children. I CAN prove I'm not a castrato, but I wasn't doing it right now).

Well, I hear you thinking - if this de Corbin fellow is old fashioned enough to be proud of having testicles located in situ, he is probably old fashioned enough to believe that children should be fathered within a family.

It's true.

I confess to this shortcoming as well. Children, like flowers, need a stable environment in which to grow, and a reasonably sound marriage provides this fertile bit of dirt. But if I may wax poetical for a moment, there is a nifty little mystical element to this business which is often overlooked by those who are not used to looking at the nifty little mystical elements of daily life. The act of marriage, as long as it isn't one of those dreadfully sterile legal things done before a dually appointed representative of the law, or one of those modern and excruciatingly politically correct contractual things that might just as well have been written by a lawyer, invariably involves some sort of magical ritual in which the husband and wife agree to a binding of body and soul, making them into one person. Two separate people who agree to become one person, while still remaining two separate people, becoming, in fact, three separate entities (the husband, the wife, and the husband/wife combo platter). Mathematically, the equation looks like this: (1 + 1 = 1) = 3.

OK, so it doesn't make sense. That's what makes it mystical. Go ask your local Catholic about the holy trinity and see if you can get anything better.

Well then, what God has joined together, let no man cut asunder.

Alas! Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. Stop me if you've heard this one before: people start out on one path walking together, hand in hand, little red cartoon hearts floating in the air above their heads. Then the path branches, and they each pick a different route which runs parallel long enough to fool 'em, so they can still hold hands, but, eventually the paths diverge, and they grip tighter, the arm muscles bulge, their hands ache and are crushed, and eventually burst apart - sometimes with loss of blood. The cartoon hearts develop cartoon tears and blow away in a cartoon wind. Ah well. Such is life.

Still, wouldn't it be nice if we really could make a lifelong commitment? Not just the few of you who manage it, not just by forcing ourselves to continue something that should have ended a long time ago, but all of us, doing it because it really works? Ideally - ideally- that would be nice. The problem is, I think, largely the fault of time, that bastard Chronos (somebody should castrate him), who ends up swallowing everything. Even love. If we could all just manage to die earlier, love would be so much more permanent. It is fortunate that in the end we do get to die.

So that's the beauty of the third face. Do I really need to explain this to you? Haven't we all felt it? When we are young, we want everything, and we have the life and energy to go out and get it. When we have it, we begin by enjoying it, then discover that we never really got what we really wanted. At best we get some temporary facsimile, something which is good enough for now, as long as now isn't too long; at worst we get a cheap knockoff made in some little foreign country which breaks the first time we have to rely on it.

Having what we thought we wanted wears thin - having it is more work than getting it (due to the scarcity of good warranty contracts), and never quite as satisfying as pursuing it. I, for one, get very tired. Time was that when I was driving and had one of those near misses which involve a highway and a big truck, I would entertain myself by imagining what my last thought would have been. It was always something like "Oh shit." Now, as I get a little older, it turns out to be something more like "Oops." One day it will be "About time." When this happens, it's about time to meet the old lady. She's really not as bad as you might imagine. One does come to enjoy her company, as she begins to follow one closer and closer.

These are her three faces. Normally, a person will be more drawn to one face or another, depending on exactly what point they are at between the ouroboros' head and tail, so one's relationship to her changes with time and circumstances. I, myself, have for a long time liked her best at that exact point in which she slides from the virgin to the mother. I'm that kind of guy.

But, recently, I find my thoughts wandering in the direction of a different face. Why, just the other night she and I were sitting together out back by the little fire I sometimes light in my head to keep the creepy nasties away. I was busy playing that age-old and very delightful game where I try to slip my arm around her waist, and she was busy trying to slip out from my arm about her waist, and she was winning, as usual, and laughing, as usual, when I asked her, as usual, half in jest (but only half), when she would finally hold me in the way I wanted to hold her. This time, however, unlike all the other times I had asked her, she answered.

She ran that delicious hand of hers up my spine.

Now, if I were Edgar Allan, and I were out to create a "total tonal effect," this is where I would have to tell you about how cold her touch was, how it sent shivers down my spine, like a chill wind from the mouth of a tomb. Fortunately (or unfortunately, more likely, when I send this off to a publisher), I am here to tell you the truth, and so, tossing special diction effects to the winds, I shall do so.

Her touch wasn't anything like that at all. What it was was kind of warm. Not the warmth you get when you leave the oven on, and, passing through the kitchen on your way to somewhere else you notice that something is wrong, and you think, "Hmm. Something is wrong here," but you don't quite know what it is. Nope. It was, instead, the warmth you get when, on a cool day in the fall with dry leaves crumbling under your feet, and the promise of a chill drizzle coming in on the wind, and the dull throb of old injuries tapping away under your skin (much like dieing gerbils), the sun removes itself from behind a cloud, and passes it's face over your face. Then, if you are not too busy to notice it, the world opens up it's closed doors and calls your name, quietly, though quite emphatically.

It was like that.

So her warmth entered my spine, and made me remember a place I had never been, and the home in which I had never lived, but had always wanted.

With her hand on my back, she leaned over my left shoulder, all the way around, until her face was in front of mine, and a little below (Jesus, that woman has a body like a snake!). She looked up into my eyes in a way she had never done before, but I had long hoped she might. It is true that she wore no skin, that her eyes were not filled with light, that her teeth were too clean to belong to the living, but...

No, sorry, words fail. You can't say this in English without sounding weird. Her beauty was never so clear as when she was standing dressed only in her bones. She kissed me, and made the promise.

"One day," she said, "but not yet."

Morbid? Not to me, but maybe. You'll have to forgive a man who is on his way to growing old for falling in love with his inevitable bedmate. There is much to love there, if you're not too picky.

So here you are, nearly 2000 words into this peculiar essay, and now you're beginning to wonder if you've been cheated. The title, to refresh your memory, is What Actaeon Did Wrong, and I haven't even mentioned Actaeon yet. I want to assure you that this isn't a flaw, you haven't been cheated, and Actaeon is waiting just ahead 'round the next bend.

This bit is a bit like one of those traffic islands they have in the big city where you have to go right before you can go left. You're still on the right track, it's just that the right track isn't as straight as it could be. Don't worry, you'll still get there in time for the wedding. The bride isn't even dressed yet. And since we are now speaking of naked brides, it is time for a quick visit to a naked virgin.

Her name is Diana (or Artemis, but I really think Diana is a cuter name for a girl. Don't you?). It seems Diana is a huntress (or, to be politically correct, a hunter, since it is no longer permitted to designate a person's gender in their job title. Actresses have suddenly become actors, poetesses have suddenly become poets; it's getting to the point where you don't know what you're talking to anymore. And how fun is that? No wonder so many people are so deeply confused. Next thing you know some smart ass is going to insist that we all spray paint ourselves a dull shade of gray. Let's all take a vow right now to let women be women and men be men, at least if they want to be), and a perpetual virgin. Maybe she just never met the right guy, or maybe she had other reasons of her own, but there it is. She was one of them. She was also the moon.

This is why the witches like her. The moon is the female counterpart of the sun - the sun is the big show off, and, of course, male (I intent the "of course" to be taken as sarcasm. I'm not a chauvinist, despite your accusations. I'm just happy to admit that different things are different). But the problem is, you can't look at the sun. Don't even try it. I have it on good authority that it isn't good for your eyes.

The moon, on the other hand, is there for all to see who care to look. Do I really need to describe the beauty of the moon? Haven't we all, unless our hearts and souls have been completely annihilated by the filthy sky of urban life, looked up at night, or at dawn, or on those peculiar days when she shows up at noon, and been, once more, even after so many years of life, surprised by the ever recurring glamour of our beloved satellite, Luna? Sure, the sun is lovely at dawn, or at dusk, but the moon is always lovely, even when it is absent - like a teasing lover who leaves, for a while, so she can be fervently welcomed back. So that is Diana, the huntress in the dark. And what does she hunt? She hunts our eyes and our affection, she hunts our love.

So enter Actaeon.

Actaeon was also a hunter, who, with his cronies, was out hunting stag in the forest ('round here, we call 'em "bucks," son). Back in those days, they hunted deer a bit differently than we do here in America today. Nowadays, at least where I come from, you get yourself a good rifle with a high power scope so you can hit something 300 yards away without being very skilled, sit in a little box called a "deer blind," eat sandwiches and drink cheap whiskey, point your muzzle out the window, and bang away at anything that moves (as long as it isn't wearing orange). This is considered by many to be a very challenging sport. In Actaeon's day, however, they didn't go in for the fancy stuff. They would have liked the cheap whiskey, but there was no whiskey so they drank wine (generally with funky drugs mixed in). But aside from that, hunting was very different.

What you'd do would be to get your friends together. They'd all bring their horses, their dogs, and their spears (or bows. Spears were better, though, because they were really only used for delivering the coup de gras, and you want to be up close for that). Everybody'd get on their horse, have a last big swallow of whatever was being passed around (technically referred to as the "stirrup cup," although the actual stirrup wouldn't be invented for a couple of thousand years yet), and ride out to the forest with the dogs.

Sooner or later the dogs would catch a whiff of their prey, and off they'd go. The buck would run, the dogs would run after the buck, the horsemen would ride off after the buck and dogs, everybody (except the buck) barking or shouting in excitement, according to their particular vocal skills. It was a lot like an English style fox hunt, except that at the end you got venison, which is a lot better than fox steak, and there was more for everybody, what with deer being so big and foxes so little and all.

The dogs chase the stag until the stag can't run any more, which usually takes a good part of the afternoon. Then the dogs surround the stag, jump at his throat, tearing out big chunks thereof, as well as of leg and tail, until fright, fatigue and blood loss bring about the collapse of the game beast. By this time, the hunters, who had been frantically following the dogs, arrive. Everybody cheers as the dogs attain a well deserved victory at the fatal expense of the stag. If the stag chooses to continue living longer than is considered decent, the leader of the hunt comes up and pokes him with a spear. Everybody pats him on the back for a job well done, and then it's time for the barbecue.

Unlike the hunting we do here in Northern Michigan, this is dreadfully male, dreadfully barbaric, and, well, just not a "nice" form of entertainment. Men are so bad. But you would do well to remember that this is what Diana did for kicks as well. What did she hunt? Well, Actaeon, for one thing.

\I am told that Actaeon was out hunting with the good ol' boys, and as you can imagine, what with all that chasing after stags and dogs, they were out late and, after a nice venison dinner, they decided to bed down for the night. Long about dawn, Actaeon woke up and decided to go for a little walk. Not far from camp he noticed a rosy colored light coming from a cave among the rocks of a small hill.

Back then, more people tended to encounter strange supernatural appearances than they do now, or, at least, they tended to report them more often, so Actaeon figured he might be on to something interesting. He crouched down among the bushes, and crept closer. Diana came walking out of the cave dressed quite attractively in her birthday suit. It seems she had had a hard day, and had decided that a quick bubble bath would be nice. Not expecting company, she was air drying.

Actaeon was in luck. There, right in front of his eyes, was a naked lady. More accurately, a naked goddess.

Now gentlemen, you and I are men of the world, and, while we know that this does, on occasion, happen, we also know that it never happens quite so often that we get used to it. Actaeon figured he was really in luck. But this wasn't just a metaphorical goddess, this was a Goddess with a capital "G," a certified, grade "A," card carrying member of the Mt. Olympus Club (dues paid in full). And dealing with Goddesses can be a little trying for plain old mortals. Actaeon crouched down even deeper into the shrubbery, and squatted there, watching. Quivering in fear, but watching none the less.

Unfortunately, one of the truisms in life that we all have to deal with sooner or later is that it is difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of deities for very long, and Diana, all too quickly, spotted Actaeon writhing in the dirt.

Man, did she get ticked!

So ticked, in fact, that her eyes blazed with their own inner fire and she turned our poor cowering quasi-hero into a stag. It is a rare event when a virgin can put horns on a guy and still be a virgin afterward, but she managed it all right.

Actaeon may have been a bit of a coward, but he wasn't stupid, and he figured it was about time he hightailed it out of there. Being now a buck, hightailing it out of there was one of his newly acquired job skills which, theoretically at least, should help in making up for having hooves for hands, and I'm sure it would have come out fine (one can get used to browsing on cedar branches, I suppose), except that his well trained hunting dogs were sleeping restlessly near by, their little paws flapping limpidly as they relived the day's excitement in their dreams.

As Actaeon lept past hunting camp, his gamey aroma wafted into the sensitive nasal cavities of the dogs, stirring the primitive instincts of these near-wolf carnivores, and they woke with a start, tongues lolling and ready for action. It was Actaeon who was the action for the evening, and the dogs dove into a high-speed pursuit.

Well, with your newly acquired expertise on ancient hunting methods, I don't need to tell you the gory details of what happened next. Suffice it to say that Actaeon had a golden opportunity to take part in the great game of the hunter and the hunted which he had previously enjoyed so much ( I'm sure thoughts of The Most Dangerous Game would have been bumping about in his head, except that the story hadn't been written yet). Unfortunately, in his new role as prey, he did not enjoy it as much as he had before. He ended up as little bits of torn flesh dripping redly in the mouths of his own dogs.

Now, I've been a mythical character myself long enough to know that, in addition to being rollicking good stories (much too good for their current roll as cleaned up and sanitized stories for children. Kids should stick to Harry Potter and leave the grand old tales for adults), there is much to be learned from them. So what do we learn from this myth?

This is a question I have lived with on a daily basis for quite some time. I have, in fact, a cheesy concrete statue of naked Diana residing in my backyard which I inspect often (checking carefully for horns and dogs afterwards), hoping that the answer will be revealed. SHE won't tell me anything, so I asked the witches who seem to be so fond of her.

When dealing with a witch, it is sometimes best to inquire, like Dorothy, whether she is a good witch or a bad witch. I am, incidentally, able to write "she" here without a guilty conscious because Wicca is a predominately female religion. True, there are male witches, but it's the women you want to talk to. It's kind of like the opposite of Catholics. No doubt a sister could give you a lot of useful information, but if you want the heavy poop, go to the pope. I should also, at this time, to save myself from the need to fend off a horde of malignant little spells, tell those of you who suffer from THE PREJUDICE that most of the witches are very nice people, and even the bad ones aren't too bad, although, what with this being a female religion run largely by female priestesses (oddly enough, this is one place where the old standard of differentiating males from females in their job title is still acceptable. Apparently, priestesses are proud of being female priests. Kudos to them), it can attract some of those radical feminists who can be so annoying, and they can, when the mood hits them, be very witchy indeed. One of these women carefully, with spit flying from her mouth, explained to me that this story is a warning to those men who would dare look at a woman with lust in their hearts. "She'll gitcha," I was warned.

Please forgive such women. According to their own legends, the transmission of their ancient secrets was slashed by what they refer to as "The Burning Time," when some unpleasant radicals of a competitor religion roasted millions of their former colleagues alive on stakes all over Europe. There is still bad blood between these two groups today. At any rate, much was lost to them of their ancient knowledge, and they are struggling today to reconstruct what they once knew. Unfortunately, so much was destroyed or lost that they were left with very few good role models to follow, and, not knowing what else to do, they looked at their opponents for ideas. Some of them picked up the idea that there is a conflict between men and women which can only be resolved by lighting fires and torching their enemies (is that weird or what?). It is my hope that I can, humbly, suggest something better.

On the other hand, anthropologists who look at this kind of thing have suggested that the story has to do with what they call an "ancient taboo," which is their cute way of saying "a big no-no." Their idea is that Diana's bath was a metaphor for a ritual cleansing bath, necessary because she was menstruating (it's that rosy glow coming from the mouth of the cave, you see). According to these erudite folks, ancient people had a horror of menstruating women, so men were not allowed to look at them.

Well, that's anthropologists for you. Everything is either a menstruation taboo, or a fertility ritual. Personally, I prefer the fertility rituals, but they haven't been able to fit that into this story so we are stuck with menstruation.

OK, maybe.

But you should never ask an anthropologist for any important information because what they fail to realize is that menstruation taboos and fertility rituals are physical metaphors for profound spiritual concepts. They get the metaphor, they get the meaning of the metaphor, but they miss the meaning of the meaning, figuring that what is physical is the real deal. It's actually the other way around.

Anthropologists are the kind of people who would go to a Thanksgiving dinner and eat the harvest, explain the meaning of the ritual meal,, then leave without giving thanks (Every anthropologist ought to go to Eluseus at least once in his or her life. There are things there so mysterious that seeing them would straighten out any professor's short hairs).

No, neither one of these explanations is very satisfying. So I filed the question away for another day, hoping that it would come clear in time.

Then, recently, on a trip to Alexandria, I had a few moments to spare, so I did as I always do when there with time to spare in Alexandria - went for a quick visit to the library.

I was browsing amongst the dusty old scrolls in a back room when I came across a shelf with the intriguing inscription Secrets. Read only on a "need to know" basis inscribed above it. As one who is curious about the winding and little known turnings of the ancient world, I resolved to examine the stack. It was my lucky day. Stashed in amongst curious scrolls with titles like Osiris: What He Lost and How Isis Felt About It, What Loki Slipped Into the Ginnungagap When Sigyn Wasn't Looking, and What Bran Said When He Lost His Head was an intriguing scroll entitled What Actaeon Did Wrong.

Everybody should read this bit of classical Greek prose, but, unfortunately, the library has since burned down (some Roman with no respect for "No Smoking" signs, I suspect. You know how Romans can get), and I fear that the only copy is less than dust in the wind today. However, I would be pleased to give you a brief synopsis of what I learned.

First, you can forget all about that menstruating business. The fact is that Goddesses do not menstruate. They are in a permanent state of either fertility, or of near fertility (old joke amongst us myth guys: Q: How many times does a Goddess have to have sex before she gets pregnant? A: Almost once). Let's be honest here. If you were a Goddess, and you had amazing supernatural powers, what is the first thing you would change about your body? Gentlemen, if you can't answer this, and you can think of a polite way to enquire, ask your wife, girlfriend, or any local barfly. She'll tell you. And just to be sure, the last time Hermes popped by for a visit, I asked him, and he told me all about it (although I can't repeat his exact words here). And Hermes is certainly the one who would know.

That leaves us with what I like to call "The Vindictive Witch Hypothesis."

It is a sad comment on our world that some people actually believe this one. Why would a beautiful Goddess object to being seen naked? It's what they were made for. What good is the moon if you don't look at it? It's just a bunch of rocks. Very attractive rocks, when seen from earth, but just a bunch of rocks. Not a single palm tree or white sand beach anywhere. It is there to be looked at. Ergo, Diana, who is also the moon, is there to be looked at. If A = the moon, B = Diana, and C = to be looked at, and if A = C, and A = B, then B = C. It's simple math.

Use your education, kids!

\Now it is true that looking at naked Goddesses is dangerous. I myself am forced to wear spectacles due to a few past indiscretions.

Looking at a naked Goddess can befuddle your mind in such a way that speaking becomes difficult, and you end up talking in tongues of fire, which isn't nearly as unpleasant as it sounds (it's a lot like going to a good Tai restaurant and ordering something off the menu with three little red peppers next to it. Sure it hurts, but it hurts soooo good).

Or, it could happen that her image is permanently burned on your retina resulting a loss of visual acuity, making everything you look at thereafter seem pale and ghostly, so that you end up wandering around forever trying to relocate the positive image that matches the negative image scorched onto the back of your eyeball.

There have even been cases, attested to by reliable witnesses, of those who beheld a naked Goddess bursting into spontaneous flames, and burning to little greasy cinders which floated in the air for a while before being scattered by a sudden burst of chill wind.

Sure, all of these are hazards of the game, like missing teeth in a goalie, but each one is well within reason because it is the price of admission for an experience without which life is barely worth living.

But turning into dog meat?

I think not. That's just plain nasty.

What then did Actaeon do wrong?

Ah ! it is so obvious. Once you hear it, you'll wonder why you didn't see it yourself:

A Goddess is power.

Raw, beautiful, flaming power; power beyond the wildest imagination of mortal men - the power of a truly beautiful woman.

And the only way to face power is with power. Stand up. Conquer fear, even though you are damned sure that you will be turned into a greasy cinder by doing so. Look her boldly (though humbly, of course) in the eye and let what happens happen.

And welcome it.

This was Actaeon's error. He was a hunter. He should have stayed a hunter, stood up like a man, and dealt with his prey, as dangerous as it was. But, instead, he crouched quivering in the bushes. He turned himself into prey. And the dogs knew it, and killed him.

Which reminds me of that little witch with the marvelous eyes. There is something I need to say to her...

Back

Copyright 2010 B. de Corbin and Splendid Fish Studio