Scandareview #4: Erisichthon

This is my last week at home before heading back to school, and due to the ridiculous amount of stress created by cramming a large amount of things into several small bags, I’ve again made the decision to talk about a fairy tale (or myth, in this case) that I’m familiar with. I’ve also been taking some time to think about Scandareviews and the direction I want them to go in, and I want to discuss that before plunging headlong into the tale of horrible tree-chopping daughter-selling Erisichthon.

I love doing Scandareviews. I really enjoy them, even though I’ve only done four so far — but a nagging voice in the back of my head kept telling me last week that my Blondine review was too long, and I’m afraid it was right. I’m not sure it’s too long for readers — I’m definitely not an expert at figuring out what readers like and don’t like, and this blog is really for me — but I think I’d majorly underestimated the amount of work involved in the reviews I’ve published so far.

I don’t want the quality of them to lessen, and I definitely don’t want to drop the project, so my decision for now is to try to make Scandareviews more concise. I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do that, but with the added load of schoolwork and the coming semester, I’m just going to have to find a way to cross that bridge. We’ll see how things go!

Anyway, today’s story comes from my beloved Bulfinch’s Mythology, which contains some of the best rainy-day reading in the world.

I was surprised to discover “Erisichthon” when I read it my sophomore year in high school, because until then, my main source for Greek and Roman mythology had been the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, which it’s conspicuously absent from. It’s a dark, cold-winds-in-December kind of story, and not many people seem to have heard it before.

(Continued after the jump.)

Unlike most Scandaroona stories, it’s actually reasonably short, and can be found here. I think it would have been an especially thought-provoking story if I lived in a time when society believed in the Roman gods and goddesses, because the “morals” that stand out can be interpreted in a religious way — problems created by ignoring the gods, disrespect of sacred places, the way Poseidon helps Erisichthon’s daughter because she is faithful to him, even the concept of being a child of God (or gods!), which I had no idea existed outside of single-god faiths.

But “Erisichthon” can also be read in a more universal way — what it means to behave selfishly, respecting people different from yourself, the fact that women can be strong in painful situations, the morality of torture, even (maybe at a stretch) the importance of protecting the environment. That, coupled with its scariness and the fact that it’s so little-known (I’m becoming a fairy tale hipster!) makes it one of the most intriguing fairy tales I’ve read.

E-thon has supper. Thanks to the Etyman Language Blog for the picture.

Short Skipping-Around Summary: Erisichthon, “a profane person and despiser of the gods”, desecrates a grove belonging to Ceres (or Demeter, the goddess of the harvest), by chopping down a lovely old oak, killing one of Ceres’ favorite nymphs. As Roman gods tend to be vengeful, she sends a messenger in a dragon-drawn carriage to get Famine, a gaunt, shroud-like being, who possesses Erisichthon and makes it impossible for him ever to feel full again. He’s so hungry that he eats or sells everything he owns, including his own daughter, Mestra. But Neptune/Poseidon is on her side, and changes her into an impressive selection of people and animals in order to avoid slavery.

Unfortunately, even the money Erisichthon makes from trying to sell Mestra isn’t enough to feed him. “By this base method”, says Bulfinch’s, “the starving father procured food; but not enough for his wants, and at last hunger compelled him to devour his limbs, and he strove to nourish his body by eating his body, till death relieved him from the vengeance of Ceres.”

Shivers and horror and shivers.

From the play Metamorphoses, in a performance by Mendocino College. Our man serving up his foot.

Highlights:

  • The extent of Erisichthon’s incredible cruelty. To me, the power of the story is that I sympathize with this disgusting guy, in spite of the fact that he has no moral compass and is probably a complete psychopath. But honestly, counting his crimes: he knows the tree he’s chopping is Ceres’ favorite, and he knows it’s important to the Dryads, and he knows a tree nymph lives inside it, and he still doesn’t care. He tries to make his hesitating servants do it, and when they won’t, he takes an ax himself, starts cutting, kills a man who tries to stop him, and continues to ignore all other people even when the tree starts bleeding. Ugh. Horrible man!

And still, I feel sorry for him.

  • Mestra’s girl power. I guess she doesn’t do too much herself — merely prays to Neptune, who sorts her problems out for her — but still, she refuses to let her dysfunctional family situation get to her. She goes on with life and does what she has to do. It’s always nice to see strong female characters in stories that were written so long ago.

Poseidon: promoting girl power since 3000 BC.

  • And then there’s the writing. I always come back to this beautiful but incredibly frightening description of what Ceres wants her messenger (a being called an Oread, which I am just finding out is a kind of mountain nymph) to do:

There is a place in the farthest part of ice-clad Scythia, a sad and sterile region without trees and without crops. Cold dwells there, and Fear and Shuddering, and Famine. Go and tell the last to take possession of the bowels of Erisichthon. Let not abundance subdue her, nor the power of my gifts drive her away.”

Then, a few sentences on, you have the terrifying image of Famine herself:

“…she stopped the dragons and found Famine in a stony field, pulling up with her teeth and claws the scanty herbage. Her hair was rough, her eyes sunk, her face pale, her lips blanched, her jaws covered with dust, and her skin drawn tight, so as to show all her bones.”

The use of language is incredible. And it makes me think so hard about so many things — what’s the Roman goddess form of Fear like, and who is Shuddering, who to me sounds the scariest of all? Why is Famine so willing to do as Ceres asks? And why is Ceres so harsh?

If there was ever a rehashed, novel-length version of this myth (as seems so popular nowadays), I’d snatch it up in a second. There’d be so much to work with and talk about — I’d love to get some of these questions answered.

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