Commentary on Hymn XXI: To Antinous and Diana

Who is the man, or who is the god, who is favored
by Diana? Who can please the white-clad huntress,
swift of foot and swift of bow, chaste and just,
aloof and severe, surrounded by nymphs and
beasts of the chase? Only the one who, like Antinous,
also follows the hunt as master of the hounds,
who does not trespass on the goddess’ privacy
nor claim that which is not his right, the male
who extends his hand in friendship and delights
in comradeship, not scorning the fellowship
of woman or goddess, not despising the love
between women. Hail, Antinous, beloved of
Hadrian, Antinous Kynegetikos, favored of Diana!
Hail, Diana, goddess of Nemi and Lanuvium,
bright as the moonlight, mistress of the forest,
friend to those who earn her trust!

The association of Antinous and Diana stems from two roots: One, the archaeological evidence for their being worshipped jointly at Lanuvium, and two, their mutual passion for the hunt. The latter is no doubt the source of the former, as her role of huntress is one that Roman Diana shares with Greek Artemis, and with the mortal, historical Antinous as well.

I happen to be writing this commentary on the 21st of August, the Festival of the Lion Hunt. Hadrian and Antinous led a party to hunt down and kill a lion which had been killing people in Mauretania, in the Libyan desert. During that hunt, Antinous made a grievous error in judgment and was nearly killed by the lion, but Hadrian’s intervention saved his life (which perhaps made it more difficult when Antinous drowned, and nothing could be done). Devotees of Antinous observe this day by acknowledging our own shortcomings and failures, with the reminder that even Antinous was human, fallible, and fragile.

As a lifelong city dweller, I have never hunted. I know that while there are wealthy people who pay obscene sums of money to go and kill exotic animals to no purpose, there are also many people in the U.S. for whom hunting is an essential activity that helps to feed their family. Last weekend I was reading the essay “Gun Country” in Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno, a book I highly recommend, which helped me to begin to understand that hunting is not only subsistence for many people, but an experience of solitude and of communion with nature that they can get in no other way. The death of something is a precondition of food and life for something, someone else most of the time; even plants die when they are harvested, insects and small animals may be killed by the cultivation of crops, and farming and animal husbandry take their toll on human laborers. Antinous and Hadrian went out and put their lives at risk for the sport of it, in one way–it was not as if the Emperor were required to do the deed–but also to protect and preserve human lives, not unlike firefighters. Antinous made a mistake during that hunt and came very close to death, but he was saved by another fallible mortal human being who loved and cared for him. We, too, may fail and falter and yet not lack the help of our gods or our friends and loved ones.

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