Friday, May 18, 2007


Not surprisingly, the story of Erysichthon which Dante mentions in Canto 23.25 involves a tree. The story of Erysichthon's destruction of an oak sacred to Ceres sets up his own destruction by Famine:

...the wretched man snatched the axe from one of them, saying: “Though this be, itself, the goddess, not just what the goddess loves, now its leafy crown will meet the earth.” As he spoke, while he balanced the blade, for the slanting stroke, Ceres’s oak-tree trembled all over and gave a sigh, and at the same time its acorns and its leaves began to whiten, and its long branches grew pale. And, when his impious hand made a gash in the trunk, blood poured out of its damaged bark, like the crimson tide from its severed neck, when the mighty bull falls, in sacrifice, before the altar.

All stood astonished, and one of them tried bravely to prevent the evil, and hinder the barbarous double-edged weapon. But the Thessalian glared at him, saying: “Here’s the prize for your pious thought!” and swinging his blade at the man not the tree, struck his head from his trunk. He was hewing at the oak-tree repeatedly, when the sound of a voice came from inside the oak, chanting these words:

“I am a nymph, most dear to Ceres,
under the surface of this wood,

who prophesy to you, as I die,

that punishment will follow blood:

out of my ruin, the only good.”

But he pursued his course of evil, and at last, weakened by innumerable blows, and dragged down by ropes, the tree fell, its weight cutting a swathe through the wood.’

Ovid describes the hunger of Erysichthon:

The more he puts away inside, the greater his desire. As the ocean receives the rivers of all the earth, and unfilled by the waters, swallows every wandering stream: as the devouring flames never refuse more fuel, burn endless timber, and look for more, the greater the piles they are given, more voracious themselves by being fed, so Erysichthon’s profane lips accept and demand all foods, in the same breath. All nourishment in him is a reason for nourishment, and always by eating he creates an empty void.

Erysichthon's daughter, Mestra, was given the gift of metamorphosis, which enabled her father to sell her over and over. She'd just change shape and return to him. In the end, Erysichthon consumed himself, and Mestra married Autolycus, the grandfather of Odysseus.

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