Eating Yourself Empty: Erysichthon and the Environment

Robert S. Santucci

As climate change and environmental degradation are discussed with more urgency than ever before, one metaphor has become particularly conspicuous: consumption. The metaphor is effective because of its simplicity. We eat something; that thing is no longer there. We burn something; it is reduced to ashes, an ephemeral trace of its former self. The English word itself wears its Latin origin proudly, having not changed much from its root verb consumo, which ranges semantically from gobbling up to burning down to using up to squandering. Our contemporary notion of consumption is not so different from that of the Ancient Romans, then, at least insofar as consumption renders something from being to non-being. It is used: it is gone.

It should not come as much of a surprise that, appropriate to the metaphor of consumption, one of the most notorious consumers of ancient Mediterranean myth has received considerable attention in environmentalist circles lately. He is Erysichthon, a mythical Thessalian noble, who chops down a tree sacred to the goddess Demeter/Ceres, is cursed by the goddess with a never-ending hunger as revenge for his greed and arrogance, and comes to a miserable end.

There are a few surviving versions of the myth in Greek and Roman literature: the Hellenistic poet Callimachus (c. 305–240 BC) writes a sort of social comedy version in his Hymn to Demeter, wherein Erysichthon is a young prince whose ravenous hunger embarrasses his family, and the story ends with him begging for scraps at a crossroad after consuming all his family’s resources; in the more famous version by Ovid (43 BC – AD c. 18), found at Metamorphoses 8.738–878, Erysichthon is an adult king who, after consuming all the resources of his kingdom and making multiple attempts to sell his daughter to procure more food, is driven to commit autophagy — that is, he eats himself. (The earliest extant version we have of the Erysichthon story is in the Catalogue of Women, a poem of uncertain authorship written sometime in the sixth century BC, though the surviving fragment that mentions Erysichthon does not dwell much on his punishment.)

Ceres orders Hunger (Fames) to punish Erysichthon, Antonio Tempesta, 1606 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

There are a number of reasons why Ovid’s version of Erysichthon is the best known — not least of which is the enormously successful afterlife of the Metamorphoses, which, since it was first published in AD 8, has continuously been one of the most taught and read texts of Mediterranean antiquity — but the grisliness of his autophagy makes a compelling case for his permanence. The fascination with Erysichthon’s famous last meal is more of a product of modern imagination than Ovid’s own description, perhaps, since Ovid dedicates only two lines to the autophagy:

ipse suos artus lacero divellere morsu

coepit et infelix minuendo corpus alebat. (Met. 8.877–8)

The wretched man began to tear at his own limbs with his maiming bite and feed his body by making it smaller.

Ovid, master of the vivid bodily transformation, teases the reader with just a taste of Erysichthon’s final punishment. But the enduring power of the image ensures it sticks with us, and has provided environmentalists of different stripes, methods, and genres a figure with which to further their cause. Tom Rutkowski, chair of the Southeast Gateway Group of the Sierra Club, a long-running American environmental organization, sees in Erysichthon a warning against excessive American cultural consumption; Jill Da Silva examines the physical signs of the malnourishment of starving people as a symptomatic hybrid of Erysichthon and Fames, Ovid’s personification of Hunger; and the writer and poet James Lasdun reimagines Erysichthon as a ruthless real estate developer. From poetry to academic ecocriticism to local environmentalist newsletters, Erysichthon is the excessive consumer par excellence.

And why not? Consumption resonates; it’s a metaphor we all understand. A closer look at Ovid’s Erysichthon narrative seems to provide even more timber for an environmentalist reading, since he compares Erysichthon, in the throes of his feeding frenzy, to a forest fire:

utque rapax ignis non umquam alimenta recusat

innumerasque faces cremat et, quo copia maior

est data, plura petit turbaque voracior ipsa est,

sic epulas omnes Erysicthonis ora profani

accipiunt poscuntque simul. (8.837-41)

And just like a greedy fire never refuses food and burns up countless torches and, where a greater supply of fuel is available, seeks more and more, and grows only more voracious with abundance, thus the mouth of sacrilegious Erysichthon simultaneously eats and demands every meal.

Ovid later reminds us of the simile by referring to Erysichthon’s hunger as the flamma gulae, the “flame of his appetite” (8.846). The comparison is not original to Ovid, however; he here alludes to Erysichthon’s other name Aithōn (“Burning One”), given in the Catalogue of Women. Thus the connection of Erysichthon to blazing fire is well established: his hunger is burning; he burns with hunger; he is a metaphorical forest fire. At the end of Ovid’s version of the story, right before his autophagy, his Erysichthon had literally consumed all his resources (consumpserat omnem / materiam, “he had consumed all material,” 8.875–6). The word materia, too, hints at Erysichthon’s fiery hunger, since it connotes both matter generally and firewood specifically. Ovid, in typical fashion, plays on the various ways that Erysichthon consumes.

Although it is easy to seize on Erysichthon for lessons in overconsumption today (as the above receptions clearly indicate), the extent to which the Greeks and Romans used him in any kind of environmentalist agenda — or the ancient equivalent of one, at least — is hazy at best. While there are plenty of surviving texts with an agricultural or environmental theme, such as Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 BC), Cato’s De Agricultura (c. 160 BC), Vergil’s Georgics (29 BC), Columella’s De Re Rustica (AD c. 50), or Pliny’s Natural History (AD 77), it is usually difficult to read these as environmentalist texts, since, for the most part, their focus is on how the natural environment can benefit humankind, not the other way around. Ovid himself, hardly a moralist, does not seem concerned with environmental destruction, as he cites the sacredness of the tree as the reason for Ceres’ retribution. Not all trees and plants are sacred, after all.

Erysichthon tormented by Hunger in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (prem. 1996; photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

So what can we accomplish by bringing Erysichthon to bear on our contemporary plight? It is important to note that there are really two Erysichthons, which our reception tends to collapse into one: Erysichthon the arboricide and Erysichthon the autophage. The former is humanity as perpetrator of crimes against nature, the latter humankind’s slow punishment for these crimes. (Ovid might have written only two lines on Erysichthon’s autophagy, but his use of the imperfect tense verb alebat, “he was feeding,” implies a continued meal, one lasting well beyond the hexameter line containing it.) But which Erysichthon are we?

The answer, invariably, is both. Erysichthon as eater has subsumed Erysichthon as tree-killer – the supposed original reason for his reception as an environmentalist villain/icon – but his eating and his tree-chopping have come to stand for the same basic image of destruction. In the modern imagination Erysichthon’s punishment is his crime. This is only appropriate in an era when, for health, environmental, and humanitarian reasons, we are forced to reexamine our relationship with our food, lest we consume ourselves, our own future.

If conflating the natural world with our own bodies can help our understanding of both, so be it. Erysichthon must be the myth for the 21st century.

Robert S. Santucci is a PhD candidate in Classical Studies at University of Michigan.

Further reading:

In addition to the receptions linked within the article, you may find the following of interest: Thomas Jenkins, Antiquity Now: The Classical World in the Contemporary American Imagination (Cambridge UP, 2015) discusses what he terms “the greening of antiquity”, with Lasdun’s poem as a case study; Helen Morales, Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths (Bold Type Books, New York, 2020) connects Erysichthon’s environmental abuse with his abuse of his daughter; Anselm Jappe, La société autophage: Capitalisme, démesure et autodestruction (La Découverte, Paris, 2020) uses the myth of Erysichthon as a lens for a critique of consumer capitalism; and, for a completely different perspective, see my own take on a more lighthearted reception of Erysichthon’s hunger (“Erysichthon Gets Fed: A Menu in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 2021).