Aktaion boasted he was a better hunter than his great-aunt Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Angry, she punished this hubris (arrogance) by transforming him (metamorphosis) into a stag, to be eaten by his own hounds. (A later version of the story told that Aktaion was killed because he happened upon Artemis while bathing, and saw her naked. Yet another version records that he courted Semele and thereby incurred the jealousy of Zeus.)
Artemis herself stands at left, an icy, implacable witness. Her lighted torch indicates the dawn twilight, when quarry is running. Hekate, her assistant, urges on the dogs, and indeed the head of a small dog has emerged from her own head. Aktaion occupies center-stage. His transformation into a stag has begun: antlers sprout from his forehead, and his dogs sniff the change of scent. Shortly he will be devoured. At right, two understandably agitated companions escape. One of them, who carries two spears is named Diokles. The artist's elegant restraint in showing only the incipient transformation contrasts with the raw brutality of the story.
On the reverse, the older bearded man who carries a scepter of authority may be Aristaios, son of Apollo and father of Aktaion. The women beside him may include Aktaion's mother Autonoe, a daughter of Kadmos, King of Thebes.
The figures stand at different levels on curvilinear groundlines that indicate open country. This unusual arrangement is borrowed from contemporary developments in wall-painting. The tree in the background stands for a forest, perhaps on Mount Kithairon which rises behind Thebes where the story took place.