His father was Aristaeus, and his mother was Autonoe, daughter of Cadmus. He was trained as a hunter by the centaur Cheiron. According to the most common version of the story, while hunting in in the mountains of Kithairon, between Attica and Boeotia, with his fifty dogs, he saw Artemis bathing in a spring. To prevent him from telling anyone that he had seen her naked, the goddess turned him into a deer and his dogs, driven into a frenzy, devoured him. The dogs howled with grief at the loss of their master, but Chiron made a lifelike image of them, which soothed them. The Greek geographer Pausanias identifies the rock Actaeon slept on and the spring Artemis bathed in, on the road from Plataea to Megara.
According to another version, Artemis threw a deerskin over him to make the dogs attack him, because Zeus wanted to prevent him from wooing Semele. This version may be the older, as it derives from the lost works of Acusilaus and Stesichorus, both dating to the 6th century BC, quoted by pseudo-Apollodorus and Pausanias respectively. Euripides, in the 5th century BC, says that his crime was to boast of being a better hunter than Artemis. Diodorus Siculus records another version, that he intended to marry the goddess in her temple.
- Callimachus, Hymns 5.106 (3rd century BC); Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.131-250 (1st century AD); Seneca the Younger, Oedipus 751 (1st century AD); Hyginus, Fables 180-181 (1st century AD); Statius, Thebaid 4.573 (1st century AD); Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 3:4.4 (2nd century AD); Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5.287-551 (5th century AD)
- Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 3:4.4 (2nd century AD)
- Pausanias, Description of Greece 9:2.3-4 (2nd century AD)
- Euripides, Bacchae 340 (5th century BC)
- Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library 4:81.3-5 (1st century BC)