Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Ethics of Hunting

According to the myth, Actaeon the hunter was turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his own dogs.   Many versions add that this was because Actaeon offended Artemis.  He viewed her as she bathed, or he attempted to violate her.  His punishment was to be transformed from hunter to hunted.  His own dogs did not recognize him as they devoured him, (though Apollodorus adds that they later grieved as they searched for their master.)

Just as there are many versions of the myth, so there are many interpretations, and many things that Actaeon and Artemis might symbolize.  The divinity of Artemis suggests to some that hunters seek something much loftier than meat for their table.  Her femininity and virginity suggest to others that hunting represents sexual violence in another guise.

Both of these may be correct, but let me offer a third possibility: perhaps this is a story about virtue.  Actaeon acts without virtue, and he then becomes the victim of his own plans.  He makes the mistake of thinking that a hunter is the rightful possessor of all he sees, and so he fails to act with humility and gratitude.  As a result, he loses everything, including those relationships that were most dear to him.

The myth of Actaeon is a vivid picture of what good hunters know: the hunter is not lord of the forest nor master of nature.  Most of us live our lives as far from predation as we can arrange.  A certain type of hunter attempts to erase some of that distance.  The best hunters may be those who, in doing so, discover their true place in nature and emerge from the forest and field remembering their place with humility and gratitude.  Actaeon forgets who he is when he attempts to take Artemis as his own, and his forgetfulness is absolute.  

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