Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses

by

Ovid

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Metamorphoses: Book 8: Erysichthon Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Lelex finishes his story, Theseus asks for more stories of the gods’ wonders. The river god Achelous tells Theseus that the gods have the power to assume all kinds of shapes. Achelous then tells the story of a man named Erysichthon who tried to chop down a sacred oak which grew in Ceres’s ancient woodland. Erysichthon instructs his slave to chop down the oak. The slave chops at it, and the tree moans and lets out a spurt of blood. Shocked, the slave lays down his ax. Erysichthon chops off the slave’s head. Ceres’s voice issues from the oak, threatening vengeance, but Erysichthon ignores her and cuts down the oak.
Erysichthon’s abuse of nature amounts to the abuse of a god. When Erysichthon cuts down the ancient oaks, he ignores the moans that indicate that they are not simply trees but beings. These moans are evidence of the transitory nature of the gods in that they can inhabit inanimate things in nature. Erysichthon cuts down the trees anyway, abusing both nature and the gods, and therefore showing how the refusal to respect nature and the refusal to respect the gods amount to one and the same thing.
Themes
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Humanity vs. Nature  Theme Icon
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The dryads in Ceres’s wood mourn the loss of the sacred oak. They beg Ceres to punish Erysichthon, and she agrees. Ceres sends one of her dryads to the land where the goddess Hunger lives to tell Hunger to plague Erysichthon. The dryad takes Ceres’s chariot and finds Hunger in a barren field. Hunger’s skin sags over her shrunken bones. The dryad passes along Ceres’s message. Hunger travels to where Erysichthon lives and breathes inside his mouth. She then leaves and returns to her barren wasteland.
Ceres chooses Hunger to plague Erysichthon because his actions stem from greed. Instead of going elsewhere to cut down trees that aren’t sacred, Erysichthon wants every tree he can fell, showing that nothing—not even the gods’ warnings—can stop him from seizing everything he wants. Hunger will show Erysichthon what it feels like to be unable to satisfy a need.
Themes
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Erysichthon starts to dream of food. He awakes starving and demands food. Banquets are laid before him, but no amount of food can satisfy his hunger. The more he eats, the hungrier he is. Erysichthon soon spends all his money on food, and so sells his daughter Mestra to slavery.
Instead of repenting or asking the gods for forgiveness, Erysichthon just tries to acquire as much food as he can, even selling his daughter. In this way, his vice—greed—makes his punishment worse.
Themes
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Mestra runs to the sea and begs Neptune, who once raped her, to save her from the life of a slave. As Mestra’s enslaver pursues her, Neptune disguises Mestra into a fisherman. Mestra thus deceives her enslaver, and he walks away. Mestra then resumes her normal shape. When Erysichthon sees that Mestra can change form, he sells her to enslaver after enslaver, but she escapes each time with a new disguise. Finally, Erysichthon gnaws at his own body in his hunger, eating himself to death.
Erysichthon has had plenty of evidence that things can change shape and that gods and creatures can inhabit many forms. He heard voices from inside Ceres’ ancient trees, and he sees Mestra change form before his eyes. Despite this evidence, Erysichthon continues to believe that he can force the power of transformation into submission.
Themes
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Achelous ends his story by wondering why he is telling of others who can change shape when he, too, has this power. However, he then laments that he has lost part of his power.
Despite the fact that the gods seems indomitable, Achelous’s comment that he’s lost part of his power shows that the gods, too, can have weaknesses.
Themes
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