Metamorphoses Book 8, Lines 738 - 779

The sacrilege of Erysichthon

by Ovid

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the hero Theseus, his dear friend Pirithoüs and others have just hunted the fearsome Calydonian boar, a great exploit, but one which has had a dark outcome of conflict, death and disaster. Some of the survivors are travelling home, when their way is barred by the river Acheloüs in flood. The river God himself invites them to wait in his cavern, lined with moss and with shell-work on its walls. The company are exchanging stories.

Lelex has just told the story of Philemon and Baucis, who honoured the Gods, the duties of hospitality and their mutual love, and who were finally and permanently transformed into a pair of intertwined trees. Now the river-god speaks, pointing out that some are able to transform themselves, not just once, but many times, and to return to their original forms. The example he chooses is the daughter of Erysichthon, a Thessalian lord. The story begins, not with a transformation, but with Erysichthon’s outrageous offence against Ceres, the God of corn and of food in general.

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“Nec minus Autolyci coniunx, Erysichthone nata,
iuris habet. pater huius erat, qui numina divum
sperneret et nullos aris adoleret odores.
ille etiam Cereale nemus violasse securi
dicitur et lucos ferro temerasse vetustos.
stabat in his ingens annoso robore quercus,
una nemus; vittae mediam memoresque tabellae
sertaque cingebant, voti argumenta potentis.
saepe sub hac dryades festas duxere choreas,
saepe etiam manibus nexis ex ordine trunci
circuiere modum, mensuraque roboris ulnas
quinque ter implebat. nec non et cetera tantum
silva sub hac, silva quantum fuit herba sub omni.
non tamen idcirco ferrum Triopeius illa
abstinuit famulosque iubet succidere sacrum
robur; et ut iussos cunctari vidit, ab uno
edidit haec rapta sceleratus verba securi:
‘non dilecta deae solum, sed et ipsa licebit
sit dea, iam tanget frondente cacumine terram.’
dixit, et obliquos dum telum librat in ictus,
contremuit gemitumque dedit Deoia quercus:
et pariter frondes, pariter pallescere glandes
coepere ac longi pallorem ducere rami.
cuius ut in trunco fecit manus impia vulnus,
haud aliter fluxit discusso cortice sanguis,
quam solet, ante aras ingens ubi victima taurus
concidit, abrupta cruor e cervice profundi.
obstipuere omnes, aliquisque ex omnibus audet
deterrere nefas saevamque inhibere bipennem.
adspicit hunc ‘mentis’ que ‘piae cape praemia!’ dixit
Thessalus, inque virum convertit ab arbore ferrum
detruncatque caput repetitaque robora caedit,
redditus et medio sonus est de robore talis:
‘Nympha sub hoc ego sum Cereri gratissima ligno,
quae tibi factorum poenas instare tuorum
vaticinor moriens, nostri solacia leti.’
persequitur scelus ille suum, labefactaque tandem
ictibus innumeris adductaque funibus arbor
corruit et multam prostravit pondere silvam.”

“The wife of Autolycus, Erysichthon’s daughter, had this power to just the same degree. Her father was a man who flouted the sanctity of the Gods and burned no fragrant sacrifices on their altars. They say that he even profaned Ceres’s grove with the axe and desecrated her ancient woodlands with the blade. An oak used to stand there, a mass of ancient timber, so enormous that it was a grove in itself. Headbands, commemorative tablets and garlands were hung all about it, a testament to the power of the vows made there. It measured more than fifty feet around, and beneath it the Dryads would often dance on feast days, linking hands and tripping round it in a row, and its circumference measured more than fifty feet around. Compared to it, the other trees in the wood were as low as the grass was compared to them. Nonetheless, wicked Erysichthon did not spare the holy tree the axe, and ordered his slaves to cut it down. When he saw them hesitating, he grabbed an axe from one of them, and said: “Never mind if it’s the Goddess’s favourite, let it be the Goddess herself, that lofty crown will hit the ground!” Then, while he was hefting the weapon obliquely, ready to make cuts into it, Ceres’s oak shook and gave a groan, and its leaves and its acorns all began to turn pale, and its long branches too took up the pallor. And as his evil hands made wounds in the trunk, where the bark was cut blood flowed out, just exactly as the gore flows from the severed throat of a huge bull when it falls as a sacrificial victim in front of the altar. Everyone was aghast, and one man tried to prevent the sacrilege and block the savage blows of the axe. The Thessalian gave him a look, and saying ‘here’s what you get for your pious thoughts,’ lopped off his head and set to hewing at the tree again. Now a voice was heard from deep within saying: ‘I am the nymph within this tree, which is precious to Ceres, and with my last words I predict that punishment for your deeds hangs over you already – that is my consolation as I die!’ But he persisted in his crime until at last, undermined by countless blows and hauled by cables, the tree fell, crushing a wide tract of the forest.”


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