A Tale from Greece
As retold by Mary Oak O’Kane
Editor’s Note: Mary Oak O’Kane offers an original interpretation of the Greek myth of Erysichthon, the tale of an arrogant young king who dares to cut down a sacred grove and meets the consequences of this deed. Using the classical myth as source, she tells the story from the viewpoint of his daughter. “Part II “continues the story with envisioning a more redemptive outcome.
Mary’s powerful retelling is a testimony to the relevance of ancient mythic themes for our present time. Her follow-up commentary describes how she has worked with this tale in groups.
I am Metra, the daughter of Erysichthon, “Earth-tearer.” I tell you this because it is his tearing I wish to mend, his greed and avarice I must redeem. Do you know the story of where his greed led him, and thus led me ? – of how it bore within it a signature of things to come? LISTEN….
Countless generations ago there was a time when Demeter was still known and revered. Demeter, Earth mother: she whose golden touch nourishes all that grows; she who gave the gift of grain to humankind and taught us how to cultivate it, harvest it and grind it to make bread. Abundant mother generatrix, granddaughter of Gaia herself! Demeter revealed herself in the first sprouting of barley, in the bounty of harvest. Deep in a lush valley, there grew from early on a grove of her presence. This circling of majestic trees stood as her temple, her place of belonging and epiphany. It was here that the hamadryads – the beings-of-the-trees – danced around a great central Oak tree; here that her priestesses sang her praises; here that folk came to leave her offerings and were fed by her grace. From time before time she abided here and all was harmonious, and so it was for generations.
I never saw it as such, sheltered as I was as a princess then. Our temple was of marble, our god the thunderer. My father, the king of Thessaly, had little regard for Demeter, considering her to be a rural goddess, and he was passionate for the polis. His rule had taken him far from those places where she was served. I first heard of the grove as a resource, a place of timber to provide supply for the new royal palace. You see, my father was prosperous then. He wished to make a grand palace to demonstrate his wealth. He was set on building it to surpass all he had seen in his wide travels. He designed it himself, and it included a grand dining hall that spanned the length of the entire palace with enormous pillars to hold up the high roof. It was for this upholding that he dearly paid.
Later, I heard of what happened – how Erysichthon took twenty of his men and invaded the grove… How the breeze rustled warning in the leaves… How all the men held back… How my father insisted that they come… How they refused to trespass with their axes on sacred ground and how, then, my father’s wrath erupted and in a frenzy he seized an ax from one of them… How yelling curses at their cowardice, he ran to the greatest Oak of all and struck it… And then blood flowed from where the ax thwacked and a scream so piercing rang out that all the men stepped back, bowing their heads in shame. All, save my father, who took the scream to be the victory of his own ax and struck again. And then an old priestess came forward out of the shadows of the glade and called out to him,
“HALT! You must desist! Restrain yourself! Do not strike again! You offend the Goddess of this place, in whose grace these trees have flourished.”
But Erysichthon did not heed her, and heaved his ax even deeper into the body of the tree. “I am king here, I take orders from no one! Out of the way!” he shouted.
She stood regally before him, and spoke evenly, “Foolish man, we are all children in Her hand. Without Her sustenance, what can your power bring? There are kingdoms more fundamental than your own that will suffer if you continue. You risk the wrath of Demeter if you do not stop now.” But he only spat at her, hurling insults and resumed hacking at the tree.
All this time the workers trembled on the edge of the grove. Some say that it was Demeter herself that warned him, and these ones fled, choosing her honor above what comforts the king’s service could bring. But others were gripped with fear of Erysichthon himself upon whom they depended for their keep. So, day after day the trees were slashed, cut and felled, and in the end, the entire grove was savaged.
My father had his way, and his elegant palace was built with great timbers, and he was proud in its splendor, as if magnificence could confer royalty. But even as a child, I was not impressed, sensing an unseen cost, a price that proved irreversible. Indeed, it was not long until Demeter’s servant paid my father a visit. From her desolate land, Famine came and stole one night into his bedroom. As he slept, she wrapped her scrawny arms about him and in her frail and foul embrace, she filled him with herself, planting hunger within him.
He awoke with a raging desire for food. I heard him demanding dish after dish, and wondered at the change in him, for where he used to sit politely at table, he now groveled. Though I was disgusted at first by the sheer force of his appetite, I grew accustomed to it over time. The worst of it was that no matter what he was given, it was never enough. The more he ate, the more he demanded, until all the stores were emptied. But still he was not satisfied. His life was reduced to the act of consuming, and eventually all our wealth was spent upon food for him. His servants were dismissed, but I stayed beside him. You may have heard that when I was all he had left, he sold me into slavery, exchanging me for a hoard of food.
Yes, I left with the slave trader and waited to be boarded upon a ship, for where, I did not even know. As it happened, at the shores edge, in desperation, I called out for Poseidon, Sea Father, to hear my prayer, to help save me from this fate. Not far from me, the water shimmered and rippled, dolphins leapt and the waves rolled and roiled with foam. Astonished, I understood their language. The waves cresting told me that I was given a gift to change forms by directing my will upon the form I chose to become. I immediately tried it and, to my surprise, felt my body as I knew it dissolve, and a new flesh was upon me – gnarled hands holding a fishing net. It was none too soon, for the slave master was walking towards me, asking if I had seen a young girl in bindings. I swore I had not, and that much was true. Then puzzled, he continued to search, never suspecting me.
With my new art of shape shifting, I returned to my father, who had grown emaciated and frail but was still gorging himself as best he could. It wasn’t long until he had eaten his way through his hoard of food, and once again, he arranged to sell me in exchange for more provisions. Always this first gesture towards becoming slave, yet I was freer than he whose hand sold me! I returned to him to be sold again and again, until I realized I was more enslaved by him than by any slave trader I had encountered. I returned to the palace precincts unrecognized, enjoying my anonymity. There I found him wasted away almost beyond recognition, lying dead from eating the filth in the street, and when I bent down closer, I found that he had begun to gnaw his very own hand, his devouring turned upon himself. It was the first I had ever witnessed him still.
I saw to it that he was buried with some dignity, though he had lost the throne and respect of his people. I keened the lamentations, and when I was through with the ones for him, I sang round after round of lamentation for what he had done, the endless suffering he had induced and brought upon himself. All the riches of the world seemed as doll’s play to me and I was compelled to find something more. I felt relief to no longer have to fulfill the function of princess; freed from the puppet life and the prescribed marriage for state that had been arranged for me to some older king I had never met. I took to wandering.
I was world weary and the wild grace of the forest called to me. Since I still had the gift of shape shifting, I became a doe. I learned the way of the deer people who took me in. Life was simple in instinct and necessity. I took joy in running swift of foot, in the pungent smells that opened to me, in drinking from fresh springs, of beds of moss and nibblings of leaves. It wasn’t long until the herd came upon Artemis, wild protectress, she of the streaming green, Queen of this place, but also sister. Eventually she noticed me and at once realized there was more or less about me than simply deer. When she asked me where I had come from, I shifted to my maiden form and told her my whole story. She listened intently and told me, “It’s a heavy burden that you bear, and you are welcome to stay with me in the purity of the forest for as long as need be. But eventually, you must return to the world of humans and reconcile your father’s deed.”
This rang true for me and I was honored to stay in the sisterhood of her companions. I marveled at the harmony of their ways, akin to all living beings within the forest, the dance of life intertwined, and out part too, in service to the whole. I lived within the breath of seasons, and came to know the places and natures of each creature, their tracks and habits and calls. I dreamed with the dryads, the beings-of-the -trees, their spirit streaming into and informing the life of the trees, each with its own song and grace pulsing through. I envied them their station, but try as I might, I found my shapeshifting could not extend into the spirit world.
Time passed and soon I began to realize that, as much as the forest was my home, I knew I must make peace with my own kin. It was the sound of an ax ringing through the forest that called me back to the world of humans. Artemis had told me that my father wasn’t alone in his arrogance, that it wasn’t the ax that was the danger as much as the blindness that drove it, the manner in which it was used: taking without giving anything in return.
I found my way to the barren place where the grove of Demeter had once been. Though years had passed, it was a place fallen, deserted and forlorn, torn open and savaged. My heart ached to see the stumps so brutally hacked away, and to know it was the hand of my own father that had made it so. I sang kneeling down and my heart prayed to the Goddess of this place that I might find a way to mend the destruction here, that my intention might make a difference, that the grove might be restored. I knelt there for a long time, desolation seeping through me. Chilled. When I stood, a wizened old woman walked towards me. Her keen eyes blazed in her ancient face. She trembled as she reached out her hand and told me her name: Nicippe, priestess of Demeter. Although I had intoned my prayer silently, she spoke to it directly. “It was I who tried to warn your father, the Earth-tearer, when he invaded our grove with his axe-men. As you must know, he did not listen. Never has Demeter acted so harshly. She amplified his transgression and it became his demise.” She was not angry, though this was her home. She spoke the words in a clear tone and with more nobility than ever I had witnessed in court.
There was something in her that showed me there was no place for shame or disgrace, that it was simply time to get to work. I stayed by the devastated grove in a modest hut and learned the ways of Demeter, Mother goddess, nurturer of humankind, linked more closely to us through her gifts than undomesticated Artemis. Nicippe taught me the praises of the mother, and over time I was initiated into her deep mysteries. I gathered seedlings of Oak and with Demeter’s art of cultivation, I transplanted them in a grand encircling grove and cared for them through the seasons. Nicippe lived long enough to see them established, and then when she journeyed to the other world, I took her place as guardian. Year by year the oaks grew and once again, Demeter inhabited her sacred grove.
That was long ago. I have changed shape through the generations, leaping ever onwards always to a new life, and still I hold her sacred trust above all else. I have seen estrangement grow and complexities emerge. Many are the changes and the devastations. Take for instance, the place of her mysteries for over 3,000 years, Eleusis: This holiest of ground is now the site, not of her remembrance, but of an oil refinery to feed further ravaging of the earth. Eriysichthon’s act was only the first among many far worse, an indication of what was to become quite ordinary. Now it is not one greedy king but all of civilization that tears the earth, devouring and consuming without end.
Listen: My name, Metra, not far from Demeter’s own, means boundary and has to do with rhythm and measure. To know what our limits are and to live within them, to honor the boundary and not overstep it, to live within the balance, knowing when to back off; to know the cost of progress and proceed only when taking all beings into account, to honor all realms and with our human inventiveness and creativity provide for them rather than vanquish them.
I have come again and again to try to stem the tide of blind greed, to keep the praises of Demeter alive, and I will continue to serve the way of true sustaining. For as torn as the earth has become, it is through our caring that restoration will take place, and it must, from our hearts and through our hands for the generations yet to come. So may it be!
In my work with environmentally oriented story, I frequently use the myth of Erysichthon to show the roots of the ecological devastation that we face today. After telling the portion of the myth up to Part II, I then invite the participants to find a “happy ending” that will redeem the story, expressing this in writing or a drawing. We then share these different solutions within the group.
There have been many versions of healing that come to the grove and the land and sometimes even to the king himself. Each person responds out of their own imaginative forces. It is interesting to note that in the majority of these stories, it is the figure of the daughter who brings restoration.
The adaptation I offer here is my own rendering of how the story becomes whole. I believe that such collective re-envisioning is a step towards needed cultural transformation that goes hand in hand with restoring the earth.
Gersie, Alida. “The King and the Oak” in Earthtales, London: Green Print, 1992.
Kane, Sean. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994.
Avery, Catherine B. Editor. The New Century Classical Handbook. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, Inc. 1962.
About the contributor:
Mary Oak O’Kane holds a degree in Mythopoetics and Sacred Ecology, of which the above story is an example: using story to heal our separation from the living earth. She is a former co-director of Children of the Green Earth, a tree planting organization for children and is a writer, teacher and storyteller. Mary lives in Seattle, Washington, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.