Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Famine

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

Ceres sends Famine to Erysichthon

All her sister Dryads, mourning and dressed in black, horrified at the forest’s loss and their own, went to Ceres and begged her to punish Erysichthon. She assented, and, with a motion of her head, that most beautiful of goddesses stirred the fields, heavy with ripened grain. She devised a punishment to rouse men’s pity, if his actions had deserved any pity: to torment him with baleful Hunger.

But since the goddess herself could not approach her (for fate does not allow Famine and Ceres to meet) she called for one of the mountain spirits, an Oread of wild places, and said to her: “There is a place at the furthest bounds of icy Scythia, with sombre, sterile ground, a land without crops or trees. Torpid Cold inhabits it, Fear and Trembling and barren Hunger. Order Famine to immure herself in the belly of that sacrilegious wretch, and let no plenty oust her, and let her overcome me in any trial of strength. So that the length of the journey does not worry you, take my chariot, take my winged dragons, and govern their bridles on high.” And she gave her the reins.

The nymph came to Scythia, carried through the air in the chariot she was given. On the summit of a frozen mountain chain (they call the Caucasus) she loosed the dragons’ necks and, searching for Famine, saw her in a field of stones, picking at the sparse grass with her nails and teeth.

Famine's hair was matted, her eyes sunken, her face pallid; her lips were grey with mould, her throat with scabrous sores: through the hardened skin, her inner organs could be seen; dry bones stuck out beneath her hollow loins; her belly was only the excuse for a belly: her breastbone seemed to hang loosely, only held by the frame of her spine. Emaciation made the joints look large; the curve of her knees seemed swollen, and the ankles appeared as extravagant lumps.

When the Oread saw her, she relayed the goddess’s command from a distance (since she did not dare to approach her), and though she only delayed an instant, and stayed far off, though she had only arrived there a moment before, she still seemed to feel the hunger. Changing course, high in the air, she directed the dragons towards Haemonia.

Famine carried out Ceres’s orders, though their tasks are ever opposed, and flew down through the eye of the wind to the appointed house. Straightaway she entered the bedroom of the sacrilegious man who was sunk in profound sleep (since it was night) and breathed herself into him, covering his throat, and chest, and lips, with her exhalations, and causing a lack of nourishment in his hollow veins. Completing her mission, she left the fertile lands, returning to the houses of poverty and her customary caves.

Gentle Sleep still lulls Erysichthon, with his peaceful wings. He, in sleep, in imagination, dreams of feasts, closes his mouth on vacancy, grinds tooth on tooth, exercises his gluttony on insubstantial food, and, instead of a banquet, fruitlessly eats the empty air.

But when indeed peace departs, a desperate desire to eat possesses his famished jaws and burning belly. Without a moment’s delay he calls out for whatever earth, air and sea produce, and at table complains of hunger, and in the midst of eating demands to eat. What would feed a city, or satisfy a people, is not enough for one. 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.

The fate of Erysichthon and his daughter Mestra

Now hunger, and the deep pit of his gut had consumed his wealth, but even so, Famine worked unabated and his burning appetite was unappeased. Eventually, when all he owned was inside him, only his daughter, Mestra, was left, a girl whom the father was not worthy of. Having nothing, he tried to sell her too.

The honourable child refused to accept a possessor and, stretching her hands out over the waves of the shore, she cried: “You god, who stole away the prize of my virginity” — for Neptune had stolen it — “save me from slavery.” He did not scorn her prayer. Although the buyer had been following her, and had seen her a moment ago, the god altered her shape, giving her a man’s features, and clothes appropriate to a fisherman.

Her purchaser looked at her, and said: “O, you who control the rod and hide your bronze hook in a little bait, may you have calm sea and gullible fish that feel nothing of the hook until they bite. Tell me where she is, the girl with shabby clothes and straggling hair who stood here on this beach a moment ago (since I saw her, standing on the beach): there are no footprints further on!”

She sensed the god’s gift was working well for her and, delighted that he was asking her for news of herself, replied to his question: “Forgive me, whoever you are; I have had no eyes for anything except this pool: I have been occupied taking pains over my fishing. To convince you, and may the sea god help me in these arts of mine, no man has been on this beach, except myself, for a long time, and no woman either.”

He believed her, and turning round on the sand, having been outplayed, departed. Then her true shape was restored. When her father realised that she could change her shape, he often surrendered Mestra to others, so that she, escaping in the form of a mare, or a bird, or again as a heifer or a hind, repeatedly obtained her price, dishonestly, for her gluttonous father.

In the end when the evil had consumed everything they had, and his grave disease needed ever more food, Erysichthon began to tear at his limbs and gnaw them with his teeth, and the unhappy man fed, little by little, on his own body.

Next: Achelous

(1200 words)

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