Erysichthon was a King of Thessaly. He was the son of Triopas or Myrmidon. The Pelasgians had made a beautiful grove abounding in trees (pines, pear trees, elms, and sweet apples) and dedicated it to Demeter. They had planted the trees so close to each other that hardly could an arrow pass through them. The goddess loved the place to madness as much as Eleusis. One day, though, Erysichthon ordered the grove’s destruction. He sent a group of twenty men, each so strong that he could lift an entire city, armed with double axes and hatchets. The men fell upon the trees and began cutting them down. Among them grew a mighty poplar, a tree that reached to the sky and a favourite place for the nymphs who lived in the grove. The poplar was holy to Demeter, and as soon as the axes struck the trunk, a great cry was heard.
Erysichthon chops down an oak sacred to Ceres, Johann Wilhelm Baur, ca. 1639, engraving, Harvard Art Museums © President and Fellows of Harvard College
The priestess of Demeter rushed to the grove and attempted to dissuade the king from his fearful endeavour. The young man would not listen to her. He wanted the sacred trees to adorn his house so he could hold pleasing banquets for his companions. Erysichthon’s sacrilegious words angered Demeter. She appeared in her divine shape, with her feet touching the earth and her head reaching Mount Olympus. The men scattered in terror, leaving their bronze axes in the trees, but Erysichthon could not escape her wrath. She sent him a cruel hunger that could not be satisfied, no matter how much he ate. Twenty men brought him food, and twelve servants drew wine. The more he ate, the hungrier he got.
Ceres sends Hunger to torture Erysichthon, Johann Wilhelm Baur, ca. 1639, engraving, Harvard Art Museums © President and Fellows of Harvard College
He was forced to sell all his possessions to purchase food. Eventually, he even sold his daughter, Mestra, into slavery. Poseidon, her former lover, released her from bondage and gave her the gift of shape-shifting into any creature she wanted.
Erysichthon selling his daughter, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1650-1660, painting, Rijksmuseum © Rijksmuseum / Public domain
Desperate for more food, her father used the divine gift to sell her repeatedly, but it was all in vain. Unable to satisfy his hunger, he ate himself to oblivion.
Ceres punishes Erysichthon of Thessaly with perpetual hunger, Jean Matheus, 1619, engraving, Wellcome Collection © Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark