[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).
Erysichthon fells Ceres’s sacred oak tree
Lelex finished, and the tale and the teller of it had moved them all, Theseus particularly. He wished to hear more of the marvellous acts of the gods. Achelous, the river-god of Calydon, leaning on his elbow, said:
Hero, there are those who, once changed in form, retain that transformation; there are others who are allowed to transmute into many shapes: you, for instance, Proteus, inhabitant of the earth-encircling sea. A moment ago they saw you as a young man, then as a lion, now as a raging boar, then as a serpent, they fear to touch — and, in a moment, horns revealed you as a bull. Often you might have appeared as a stone, often, also, as a tree: sometimes, you formed the likeness of running water, and became a river: sometimes fire, water’s opposite.
Mestra, Erysichthon’s daughter, the wife of Autolycus, had no less power. Her father was a man scornful of the gods, who burnt no incense on their altars. Erysichthon, it is said, once violated the grove of Ceres with an axe and desecrated the ancient woods with iron.
Within the woods stood a great oak, massive with the years, a sacred grove in itself: strands of wool, wreaths of flowers and votive tablets surrounded it, evidence of prayers granted. Often beneath it the Dryads held their festive dances: often, also, linking hands, in line, they circled its trunk’s circumference, its massive girth measuring fifteen arm’s-lengths round. The other trees were not less far below it than the grass was far below all of them. Triopas’s son would not hold back the blade, even for those reasons, commanding his servants to fell the sacred oak.
When he saw them hesitating at the order, 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.
Next: The Famine