Greek Mythology >> Kings & Villians >> Erysichthon (Erysikhthon)


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Tearing up Earth

ERYSIKHTHON (Erysichthon) was a Thessalian king who chopped down the sacred grove of the goddess Demeter in order to build himself a feast-hall. As punishment for the crime the goddess inflicted him with insatiable hunger, driving him to exhaust his riches and finally, in abject poverty, devour his own flesh.


[1.1] TRIOPAS (Callimachus Hymns 6.65, Hyginus Astronomica 2.14, Ovid Metamorphoses 8. 739)
[2.1] MYRMIDON (Aelian Miscellany 1.27)
[3.1] HELIOS (Suidas s.v. Aithon)


[1.1] MESTRA (Ovid Metamorphoses 8. 739)


ERYSICHTHON (Erusichthôn), that is, the tearer up of the earth. A son of Triopas, who cut down trees in a grove sacred to Demeter, for which he was punished by the goddess with fearful hunger. (Callim. Hymn. in Cer. 34, &c.; Ov. Met. viii. 738, &c.) The traditions concerning Triopas and Erysichthon (from ereueirê, gobigo) may belong to an agricultural religion, which, at the same time, refers to the infernal regions.

Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.


Callimachus, Hymn 6 to Demeter 65 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
"Tell--a warning to men that they avoid transgression--how she [Demeter] made the son [Erikhthonios (Erichthonius)] of Triopas hateful and pitiful to see.
Not yet in the land of Knidos (Cnidus), but sill in holy Dotion dwelt the Pelasgians and unto thyself they made a fair grove abounding in trees; hardly would an arrow have passed through them. Therein was pine, and therein were mighty elms, and therein were pear-trees, and therein were fair sweet-apples; and from the ditches gushes up water as it were of amber. And the goddess loved the place to madness, even as Eleusis, as Triopion [in Karia (Caria)], as Enna [in Sicily].
But when their favouring fortune became wroth with the Triopidai (sons of Triopas), then the worse counsel took hold of Erysikhthon. He hastened with twenty attendants, all in their prime, all men-giants able to lift a whole city, arming them both with double axes and with hatchets, and they rushed shameless into the grove of Demeter. Now there was a poplar, a great tree reaching to the sky, and thereby the Nymphai (Nymphs) were wont to sport at noontide. This poplar was smitten first and cried a woeful cry to the others. Demeter marked that her holy tree was in pain, and she as angered and said : ‘Who cuts down my fir tree?’ Straightway she likened her to Nikippe (Nicippe), whom the city had appointed to be her public priestess, and in her hand she grasped her fillets and her poppy, and from her shoulder hung her key. And she spake to soothe the wicked and shameless man and said : ‘My child, who cutest down the trees which are dedicated to the gods, stay, my child, child of thy parents' many prayers, cease and turn back thine attendants, lest the lady Demeter be angered, whose holy place thou makest desolate.’
But with a look more fierce than that wherewith a lioness looks on the hunter on the hills of Tmaros--a lioness with new-born cubs, whose eye they say is of all most terrible--he said : ‘Vie back, lest I fix my great axe in thy flesh! These trees shall make my tight dwelling wherein evermore I shall hold pleasing banquets enough for my companions.’
So spake the youth and Nemesis [goddess of just retribution] recorded his evil speech. And Demeter was angered beyond telling and put on her goddess shape. Her steps touched the earth, but her head reached unto Olympos. And they, half-dead when they beheld the lady goddess, rushed suddenly away, leaving the bronze axes in the trees. And she left the others alone--for they followed by constraint beneath their master's hand--but she answered their angry king : ‘Yea, yea, build thy house, dog, dog, that thou art, wherein thou shalt hold festival; for frequent banquets shall be thine hereafter.’
So much she said and devised evil things for Erysikhthon. Straightway she sent on him a cruel and evil hunger--a burning hunger and a strong--and he was tormented by a grievous disease. Wretched man, as much as he ate, so much did he desire again. Twenty prepared the banquet for him, and twelve drew wine. For whatsoever things vex Demeter, vex also Dionysos; for Dionysos shares the anger of Demeter. His parents for shame sent him not to common feast or banquet, and all manner of excuse was devised. The sons of Ormenos (Ormenus) came to bid him to the games of Athene Itonia. Then his mother refused the bidding : ‘He is not at home: for yesterday he is gone unto Krannon (Crannon) to demand a dept of a hundred oxen.’ Polyxo came, mother of Aktorion (Actorion)--for she was preparing a marriage for her child--inviting both Triopas and his son. But the lady, heavy-hearted, answered with tears : ‘Triopas will come, but Erysikhthon a boar wounded on Pindos (Pindus) of fair glens and he hath lain abed for nine days.’ Poor child-loving mother, what falsehood didst thou not tell? One was giving a feast : ‘Erysikhthon is abroad.’ One was brining home a bride : ‘A quoit hath struck Erysikhthon,’ or ‘he hath had a fall from his car,’ or ‘he is counting his flocks on Othrys.’
Then he within the house, an all-day banqueter, ate all things beyond reckoning. But his evil belly leaped all the more as he ate, and all the eatables poured, in vain and thanklessly, as it were into the depths of the sea. And even as the snow upon Mimas, as a wax doll in the sun, yea, even more that these he wasted to the very sinews: only sinews and bones had the poor man left. His mother wept, and greatly groaned his two sisters, and the breast that suckled him and the ten handmaidens over and over. And Triopas himself laid hands on his grey hairs, calling on Poseidon, who heeded not, with such words as these : ‘False father, behold this the third generation of thy sons--if I am son of thee and of Kanake (Canace), daughter of Aiolos (Aeolus), and this hapless child is mine. Would that he had been smitten by Apollon and that my hands had buried him! But now he sits an accursed glutton before mine eyes. Either do thou remove from him his cruel disease or take and feed him thyself; for my tables area already exhausted. Desolate are my folds and empty my byres of four-footed beasts; for already the cooks have said me "no."’
But even the mules they loosed from the great wains and he ate the heifer that his mother was feeding for Hestia and the racing horse and the war charger, and the cat at which the little vermin trembled.
So long as there were stores in the house of Triopas, only the chambers of the house were aware of the evil thing; but when his teeth dried up the rich house, then the king's son sat at the crossways, begging for crusts and the cast out refuse of the feast. O Demeter, never may that man be my friend who is hateful to thee, nor ever may he share party-wall with me; ill neighbours I abhor."

Aelian, Historical Miscellany 1. 27 (trans. Wilson) (Greek rhetorician C2nd to 3rd A.D.) :
"They say that the following were gluttons : . . . Erysikhthon (Erysichthon) the son of Myrmidon, who as a result was called Aithon (Aethon, Fiery)." [N.B. The word aithon "fiery" is also used by Callimachus.]

Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 14 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[The constellation Ophiochus, the Serpent-Holder.] Some, too, have said that he is Triopas, king of the Thessalians, who, in trying to roof his own house, tore down the temple of Ceres [Demeter], built by the men of old. When hunger was brought on him by Ceres for this deed, he could never afterward be satisfied by any amount of food. Last of all, toward the end of his life, when a snake was sent to plague him, he suffered many ills, and at last winning death, was put among the stars by the will of Ceres. And so the snake, coiling round him, still seems to inflict deserved and everlasting punishment." [N.B. "Triopas" should probably be read as "the son of Triopas."]

Ovid, Metamorphoses 8. 739 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Some have the gift to change and change again in many forms . . . That gift of shape-changing Erysichthon's daughter [Mestra] also possessed. Her father was a man who spurned the gods and never censed their shrines. His axe once violated the cereal goddess' [Ceres-Demeter's] grove, his blade profaned her ancient holy trees. Among them stood a giant oak, matured in centuries of growing strength, itself a grove; around it wreaths and garlands hung and votive tablets, proofs of prayers fulfilled. Often beneath its shade Dryades danced in festival and often hand in hand their line circled its trunk, full fifty feet of giant girth; it towered high above the woodland trees as they above the grass. Yet even so that wicked man refused to spare his blade, and bade his woodsmen fell that sacred oak, and when he saw them slow to obey he seized the axe himself, and cried ‘Be this the tree the goddess loves, be this the goddess' very self, its leafy crown shall touch the ground today,’ and poised his axe to strike a slanting cut. The holy tree shuddered and groaned, and every leaf and acorn grew pale and pallor spread on each long branch. And when his impious stroke wounded the trunk, blood issued, flowing from the severed bark, as when a mighty bull is sacrificed before the altar and from his riven neck the lifeblood pours. All stood aghast, but one was bold to thwart the crime, to stay the steel. Then Triopeius (the son of Triopas) glared at him : ‘Take this for pious thoughts’ he cried and turned the axe against the man and struck the man's head off, and blow on blow, attacked the oak again.
Then deep from Deoia [Demeter] the tree's heart there came a voice : ‘I, Ceres' [Demeter's] Nympha, Ceres' most favourite Nympha, dwell in this oak, and, dying, prophesy that punishment is night for what you do, to comfort me in death.’
But he pursued his crime, till weakened by so many blows, hauled down by ropes, at last the giant oak crashed and its weight laid low the trees around. Heartbroken by their loss--the grove's loss too--her sister Dryades, clad in mourning black, going to Ceres, prayed for punishment on Erysichthon. That most lovely goddess assented and the teeming countryside, laden with harvest, trembled at her nod.
A punishment she planned most piteous, were pity not made forfeit by his deed--hunger to rack and rend him; and because Ceres [Demeter] and Fames (Hunger) [Limos] may never meet, she charged a Mountain Sprite (Numinis Montes), a rustic Oreas (Oread), to take her message . . . She gave the chariot; riding through the air the Oreas reached Scythia; on a peak of granite men call Caucasus she unyoked the Serpents and set out in search of Fames (Hunger), and found her in a stubborn stony field . . . Eyeing her from a distance, fearing to go closer, the Nympha gave her the goddess' orders and hardly waiting, though some way away, though just arrived, she felt, or seemed to feel, hunger and seized the reins and soaring high she drove the Dracones (Dragon-Serpents) back to Haemonia.
Fames (Hunger) did Ceres' bidding, though their aims are ever opposite, and, wafted down the wind, reached the king's palace and at once entered the scoundrel's room and, as he slept, wrapped him in her arms and breathed upon him, filling with herself his mouth and throat and lungs, and channelled through his hollow veins her craving emptiness; then, duty done, quitting the fertile earth, returned to her bleak home, her caves of dearth. Still gentle Somnus (Sleep) [Hypnos] on wings of quietness soothed Erysichthon. In his sleep he dreamed of food and feasting, chewed and champed n nothing, wore tooth on tooth, stuffed down his cheated gullet imaginary food, and course on course devoured the empty air. But when he woke, and peace had fled, a furious appetite reigned in his ravenous throat and burning belly.
At once whatever sea or land or air can furnish he demands, and when the board groans he complains he's starving; while he feasts calls for more courses; more he crams his guts, the more he craves. And as from every land the rivers flow to fill the insatiate sea, which never fills; or as fire never refuses fuel and, ravening, burns logs beyond counting, and the more it gets the more it wants and, glutted, grows on greed; so wicked Erysichthon's appetite with all those countless feasts is stoked--and starves; food compels food; eating makes emptiness. Now hunger and his belly's deep abyss exhausted his ancestral wealth, but still hunger was unexhausted and the flame of greed blazed unappeased, until at last, his fortune sunk and swallowed, there remained his daughter [Mestra], undeserving such a father.
Her too he sold; but she, a highborn girl, would be no master's slave and, stretching her hands towards the sea near by, ‘Save me,’ she cried, ‘from slavery, thou who didst steal the prize of my virginity!’ The thief was Neptunus [Poseidon], who did not spurn her prayer and, though her master a moment past had seen her, changed her shape--she was a man, clothed like a fisherman . . . [and in this fashion escaped her captor.]
When her father saw his daughter had this changeability, he often sold her and away she went a mare, a cow, a bird, a deer, and brought her glutton father food, unfairly gained. Yet when his wicked frenzy had consumed all sustenance and for the dire disease provision failed, the ill-starred wretch began to gnaw himself, and dwindled bite by bite as his own flesh supplied his appetite."

Suidas s.v. Aithon (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Aithon (Aethon, Blazing) : Violent hunger. [So called] from a certain Aithon son of Helios (the Sun), who chopped down Demeter's sacred grove and suffered due punishment and for this was was ever famished." [N.B. Aithon is Erysikhthon.]






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