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October 4, 2022

Why we should spare that tree

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Erysichthon, son of King Triopas of Thessaly, was no respecter of the gods. The only thing he respected was money, and for money he had not just respect, but what seemed to his fellows to be an insatiable hunger.

One day, while out hunting, he came across a magnificent oak tree. It stood twice as tall and wide as the other trees in the forest and it was sacred to the goddess Demeter. Her dryads would dance, so it was said, in the clearing beside the oak, and her human devotees had hung garlands on its branches in honour of the wishes Demeter had fulfilled for them.

An English oak tree.

What Erysichthon saw, however, was a splendid place to build a banqueting hall. The clearing could be enlarged by cutting down the oak, and its timber could be used for the building. In his experience trees were often in the way of his plans, but they could be resources for them too, so Demeter’s oak would save him money twice over. The extra space would also give him room to house his horses and chariots.

When he brought a crew of axemen to the oak, people were so upset they formed a protective circle around the tree with their bodies. The axemen hesitated to start their work but Erysichthon grabbed an axe and swung it at Demeter’s supporters. When they gave way he took the blade to the trunk of the oak and ordered his workers to do the same.

When the tree fell with a great rending roar the forest became lighter for a moment as the canopy was broken. Then it became darker as the figure of Demeter collected in the air and towered over Erysichthon.

‘For this deed I condemn you to perpetual hunger,’ said the goddess, summoning the scrawny hag who sits in men’s bellies when the harvest fails, and who sucks the flesh from women and children in time of famine. Obeying her antithesis, the bounteous Demeter, Hunger crept down Erysichthon’s throat like a locust.

Immediately he felt ravenous and returned to his palace for a feast. But no matter how much Erysichthon ate he could not assuage his hunger. He went from three, to five, to nine meals a day but it didn’t help. Soon he was consuming food continuously from morning till night, and then throughout the night without sleep. He squandered all his wealth and used up all his credit, but still his need for food increased.

When there was no money left in the royal exchequer, Erysichthon took to the streets like a beggar and haunted the town’s middens and refuse tips, cramming all kinds of filth into his insatiable stomach. The last time the people of Thessaly saw him, he had gnawed off one of his arms and was squatting on a dung heap chewing at his feet.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great bed-time story but true enough for me. There’s a saying that ‘only
    God can make a tree’ so I guess there’s a goddess somewhere whispering
    ‘Get rid of 2020 political bludgers & friend-enemies.’

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