BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter (A) May 8, 2019

Nonnus’ Actaeon: Destiny in a Name

Nonnus, Actaeon, Ovid, Nomina significantia, Acontius

Alessandro Schiesaro
From the journal Philologus

In Book 5 of the Dionysiaca, the story of Actaeon is told twice, first in the third person (5.287–369), and subsequently by Actaeon himself when he appears to his father in his sleep (5.412–532). Writing independently from Ovid’s Metamorphoses,[1] which strive to elide any trace of intention, let alone eroticism, on the hunter’s part, and stress the accidental nature of his error, Nonnus foregrounds in the opening sequence the role of Destiny in Actaeon’s demise (301 ἀλλά μιν ὤλεσε Μοῖρα)[2] and then goes on to follow a pre-Callimachean version of the myth which attributes his actions to an unrequited lust for Artemis.[3] Actaeon is thus depicted as an ‘insatiable’ voyeur (5.305 ἀκόρητος, on which more below),[4] who is ‘maddened by love’ (5.311 ἐρωμανέος), and keen to observe in its entirety (5.304 ὅλον δέμας) a virginal body that should remain hidden and which he instead ‘measures with his gaze’ (5.306 ἁγνὸν ἀνυμφεύτοιο δέμας διεμέτρεε κούρης). Nonnus focusses on the culpable gaze of Actaeon, a θηητὴρ ... ἀθηήτοιο θεαίνης (305) whose staring attracts the reciprocal angry glare of a nymph:[5] ὄμματι λαθριδίῳ δεδοκημένον, ὄμματι λοξῷ / Νηιὰς ... ἔδρακε Νύμφη (308–309).[6] Artemis quickly covers herself up, and at this stage the text omits to establish a direct link between her reaction and the metamorphosis which takes place immediately afterwards.

Later in the book, when he tells his story to his father, Actaeon offers a slightly different sequence of events. In a twist on the gesture of ἀποσκοπεῖν, which is occasionally found in pictorial representations of Actaeon as he observes Artemis from above,[7] he admits that he had climbed on a tree in order to gain a better view of the goddess (5.478–9), an act of reckless, intrusive presumption (478 ἀτάσθαλον ὕβριν). Before the nymphs can react (489–91), punishment comes directly from the goddess: Ἄρτεμις εὐκαμάτοιο μετὰ δρόμον ἠθάδος ἄγρης / λούετο μὲν καθαροῖσιν ἐν ὕδασι, λουομένης δὲ / ὀφθαλμοὺς ἀμάρυσσεν ἐμοὺς ἀντώπιος αἴγλη / χιονέας ἀκτῖνας ἀκοντίζουσα ῥεέθροις (483–6). The sheer splendour of Artemis’ whiteness, reflecting back on Actaeon, blinds him, makes him fall from the tree, and marks his transformation into a deer. Nonnus thus shifts onto the goddess the lack of intention which characterised Actaeon in other versions of the story, and encapsulates the drama in Artemis’ indirect, but lethal, reflection.

Line 486, the climactic moment of this dramatic development, highlights this reversal of roles by suggesting through alliteration and assonance the shared etymological derivation of ἀκτίς (‘sunbeam’ but also ‘gaze’) and ἀκοντίζω (‘throw a javelin’, ‘emit beams’),[8] and, by implication, of Ἀκταίων, whose name is thus reflected in the description of Artemis’ actions.[9] The two foundational elements of Actaeon’s characterization, his passion for hunting and his misguided gazing at Diana, are now fused together;[10] the tragic paradox of the hunted hunter, which Nonnus underlines more than once in the passage, is also put in stark relief: his lustful darts have met their match.[11] This pivotal moment has been prepared by the alliteration between Ἀκταίων and ἀκόρητος (305), and will be followed by the assonance with κτάνειν.

Both Ἀκταίων and ἀκοντίζω, in fact, share the Indo-European theme *ak-, ‘point’.[12] The verb is a denominative from ἄκων ‘javelin, dart’, ‘to hurl (a javelin)’, whilst the name refers among others to the eponymous hero of Attika, and the Theban hunter son of Aristaeus. In the former case it clearly originates from Ἀκτή,[13] Attika’s ancient name (from ἀκτή);[14] in the latter, the name harks back to the cult of Zeus Aktaios (‘Zeus of the peaks’) described by the periegetes Heraklides Kritikos (BNJ 369A F 2), a cult with which Actaeon’s story is also connected.[15] The etymology of ἀκτίς is unclear,[16] but the close resemblance to ἀκίς (‘arrow, dart’), would have naturally favoured a paretymological connection with Ἀκταίων and ἀκοντίζω.

There appear to exist no other istances of a similar wordplay on the name Ἀκταίων (or Actaeon), but a comparable one involving the same root occurs, both in Greek and in Latin,[17] in connection with the names Acontius and Aconteus. In particular, some aspects of Acontius’ treatment of the story in Ovid’s Heroides 20 and 21, and perhaps also in his model, Callimachus, point to features shared by Actaeon’s and Acontius’ stories.

In Heroides 21.209–10 Cydippe remarks that Acontius is a speaking name, referencing the Greek ἀκόντιον:[18] mirabar quare tibi nomen Acontius esset: / quod faciat longe uulnus, acumen habes, and goes on to strengthen the connection in the subsequent couplet: certe ego conualui nondum de uulnere tali, / ut iaculo scriptis eminus icta tuis.[19] Albeit without a tragic ending, she, like Diana, has fallen prey to an aggressive gaze: forsitan haec spectans a te spectabar, Aconti, / uisaque simplicitas est mea posse capi (Her. 21.103–4), although Acontius had argued that the opposite was equally true: tu facis hoc oculique tui, quibus ignea cedunt / sidera, qui flammae causa fuere meae (Her. 20.55–6). Callimachus’ Acontius, too, is likely to have expanded on the beauty of the woman’s eyes.[20] The specularity that seals Actaeon’s fate is also enacted here, albeit without tragic consequences. If, as seems likely, fr. 70 Pf. = Harder of the Aitia deals with the same story,[21] Callimachus had indirectly suggested a move in this direction: ἀλλ’ἀπὸ τόξου / αὐτὸς ὁ τοξευτὴς ἄρδιν[22] ἔχων ἑτέρου. These lines also lie behind Her. 20.231–32 e quibus alterius mihi iam nocuere sagittae, / alterius noceant ne tibi tela caue, where Ovid contrasts the arrows of iaculatrix ... Phoebe (20.229), who has ordered him to compose his letter, with those of Amor (2.230).[23]

Virgil also links acer Aconteus (‘Javenlinman’)[24] with ἀκόντιον: continuo aduersis Tyrrhenus et acer Aconteus / conixi incurrunt hastis primique ruinam / dant sonitu ingenti (Aen. 11.612–4).[25] The warrior’s demise, too, elaborates on this point, since he is ‘thrown’ like a javelin: excussus Aconteus / fulminis in morem aut tormento ponderis acti / praecipitat longe et uitam dispergit in auras (615–7).[26] An indirect reference to the same etymological connection has also been surmised at Buc. 10.59–60, in a passage where Virgil may indeed have specific aspects of Gallus’ poetry in mind.[27] Here the lovesick Gallus appears to be following in the steps of Acontius, and the Cydonia ... / spicula he sees himself throwing would evoke the character’s name through etymology.[28]

Later epic writers continue to exploit the etymological implications of the name. In Ovid, Aconteus’ fate mirrors that of Actaeon’s: he looks at the Gorgon, and is turned into a statue (Met. 5.202 Gorgone conspecta saxo concreuit oborto);[29] but Astyages believes he is still alive, strikes him with a sword, and is also petrified – again the focus is on the reciprocity, and dangers, of the gaze: dum stupet Astyages, naturam traxit eandem / marmoreoque manet uultus mirantis in ore (Met. 5.205–6).[30] Silius’ Aconteus, a hunter, takes part in a javelin competition (16.557 tum iaculo petiere decus): cuius numquam fugisse hastilia cerui praerapida potuere fuga, uenator Aconteus (16.562–3). In the Thebaid, Aconteus kills Bacchus’ tigresses (7.593 insequitur telis, multumque hastile resumens / ter, quater adducto per terga, per ilia telo / transigit) and is killed in turn by an enraged Phlegeus after he runs out of arrows (Theb. 7.604 uacuum telis) – and with this metapoetic farewell Aconteus departs from Latin texts.[31]

Nonnus’ interest in nomina significantia,[32] to be sure, hardly needed encouragement from Latin models, suggestive as they are. Not only could he rely on a rich set of precedents harking back to the earliest stages of Greek literature, including the tradition of Alexandrian learned writing,[33] but further stimuli are likely to have come from the interest in allegorical and symbolic interpretation fostered by the Neoplatonic intellectuals active in Alexandria in his time[34] and the Christian conception of language.[35] In his sensual world, overdetermined with signification, speaking names represent a veritable ‘category of thought’,[36] reflecting the nature of things, the genealogy and character of people, and indeed their destiny. In this vein, for instance, Nonnus will go on to exploit the well-known etymological associations of the name of Actaeon’s father Pentheus, grieving for his son.[37] Actaeon’s nature, faults and demise are all already inscribed in his name. At the most dramatic point of the narrative, when light is reflected on water as in a distorted mirror, the hunter turns into a hunted prey, and thereby finds his death.


I am grateful to Gianfranco Agosti, Carlotta Dionisotti, Marco Mancini, Antonino Pittà and the journal’s readers for their much appreciated advice.

Published Online: 2019-05-08
Published in Print: 2019-05-29

© 2019 Alessandro Schiesaro, published by Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.