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Actaeon in the Wilderness: Ovid, Christine de Pizan and Gavin Douglas

Carole Newlands

University of Colorado, Boulder

Ovid has always been a controversial writer.  But, as Hawes argues, ‘flexibility of significance’ allows Ovidian narratives to remain relevant as they migrate through different interpretive communities ‘in the face of changing social, poetic, moralistic and personal concerns’ (Hawes 2018). The Actaeon myth is a case in point: in London in 2012 a major exhibition of Renaissance and contemporary art and poetry explored fresh interpretations of this myth.  Reception studies of Ovid, however, tend to focus on works produces by great metropolitan centres.  In this paper I will discuss the re-imagining of the Actaeon myth in two lesser-known works, the Epistre Othea of Christine de Pizan (1400) and The Palis of Honoure of Gavin Douglas (1502). A central feature of Ovid’s myth of Actaeon (Met. 3.138-255) is its setting, a locus amoenus which is swiftly transformed by cruel violence--a common pattern in the spatial aesthetics of Ovid’s epic (Hinds 2002). Christine and Douglas, however, relocate Actaeon to a Northern landscape.  While the theme of sight is integral to the myth (Ingleheart 2006), the topographical change, I argue, shifts the myth’s interpretive emphasis from the sexual politics of viewing to the political stakes involved in an interrogation of what constitutes humanity.

Christine’s  Epistre Othea is an amalgamation of mythical narratives, many Ovidian. A striking feature is its numerous illustrations.  The first of three chapters dealing with Diana shows her supervising a group of chaste young women readers, a scene apparently without iconographical precedent (Desmond and Sheingorn 2003). Despite the work’s male addressee, the Trojan Hector, the illustration establishes a female interpretative community for Christine’s retelling of Ovid, and it suggests too an interpretative approach that will defend women from charges of depravity. The illustration to the myth of Actaeon shows little interaction between Diana and Actaeon. Actaeon does not gaze at Diana, while she shows no anger but calmly shields her body with her hands, a figure of chastity.  But looming over the human scene is a stag which looks directly at Actaeon.  The stag anticipates Actaeon’s demise, but also, rather than Diana, appears as his accuser; its role as instrument as well as object of vengeance is thus emphasized.  This is no Ovidian locus amoenus but a wilderness. The stag’s antlers intertwine with the bare branches of trees in the background, trees that are barely topped with foliage. With its piercing gaze the stag blurs the boundaries between animal and human.

The Palis of Honoure by Gavin Douglas, the first translator of Vergil’s Aeneid in Britain, is steeped in Ovidian myth (Leahy 2016).  At its start the narrator falls asleep in a locus amoenus and awakens in a wilderness characterized by harsh winds, torrential rivers, and stunted trees. The first Ovidian figure he witnesses is Actaeon, ‘a hart translatit’ (324) pursued by his hounds, a sign that the narrator has entered an Ovidian universe.  Actaeon’s gaze, directed backwards to his hounds, is powerless. The flight of Actaeon is emblematic of the metamorphic processes at work in Ovidian reception; the Scottish narrator witnesses an event that occurs again and again in each retelling of the Ovidian myth. The verb ‘translatit’ (‘transformed’, 324) metaphorically acknowledges the Scottish poet’s act of translating Ovid’s myth into the vernacular and to a Northern landscape.

The wilderness in which Actaeon appears in both these works is starkly different from the beautiful setting of his myth in the Metamorphoses where aesthetics and ethics collide (3.155-164). Instead of opposition between nature and culture, the wilderness represents an arena that displays the porousness of the divide between animals and human beings and the political stakes involved in determining that divide.  This touching upon the art of ‘naturecultures’ (Haraway 2016) is intimated briefly in the myth’s earliest reception by Ovid himself who, stranded in the wilderness of Tomis, compared his exilic self with Actaeon (Tr. 2.103-110), a figure at the unstable threshold of humanity.

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Ovid Studies: the Next Millennium

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