Ovid's Metamorphoses Book II

Ovid's Metamorphoses Book II

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Ovid's story of Erysichthon is told in the epic Metamorphoses at lines 738-878 in book 8. Erysichthon was a man who is guilty of a sacrilege involving the sacred grove of the goddess Ceres. The goddess punishes him by casting the dreadful Famine upon him, where she would hide and consume Erysichthon with a voracious hunger. This punishment for cutting down the sacred oak of Ceres is severe indeed, bringing misfortune not only to him, but upon his whole country. He even resorts to selling his own daughter for money to feed himself as a result of his ravenous desire for food. His daughter cries out to Neptune who enables her to be able change her form into a fisherman so that she could elude her masters. In the end, Erysichthon consumed by his hunger, tore at his own flesh in order to feed himself. The story can be broken down into three parts, which each individually defines a mood that adds to the atmosphere of the story. There is the initial introduction with Erysichthon defacing the sacred oak tree of Ceres, the journey to enlist the aid of Famine in punishing Erysichthon and finally the exploitation of Erysichthon's daughter and his ultimate demise. The story has an ominous mood throughout the development and unraveling of Erysichthon's punishment, although there are instances when the mood is lightened, if only for a few lines. The murky seriousness of the story is complimented with the depressing fate of Erysichthon and his daughter as he is driven to madness. This balance is appropriately built up as the plot is unfolded, in addition to a suitable mixture of the humour and seriousness. Details that describe the living environment and emotions of the characters are brought forth in a passive yet elegant manner. In union with the mood however, the details give a cruel and harsh reality that gives the reader a true feeling of the poem.
The seriousness of the story can be observed in many instances throughout the story. At the very beginning, Erysichthon demonstrates his ruthlessness and defiance to the gods in the lines, "…he bade his slaves cut down the sacred oak. But when he saw that they shrank back, the wretch snatched an axe from one of them…" (Ovid 459) as well as, "‘Take that to pay you for your pious thought!' and, turning the axe from the tree against the man, lopped off his head.

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" (Ovid 459) These two lines simply show that even before being punished, Erysichthon has already lost himself in madness and held so much zeal in his defiance against the gods, that he would turn an axe to his own slave. A gloomy, but equally serious tone is used again when the dryad sisters of the grove mourn the loss of the sacred oak and pray to the goddess Ceres, "All the dryad sisters were stupefied at their own and their forest's loss and, mourning, clad in black robes, they went to Ceres and prayed hero to punish Erysichthon." Although in truth, trees are cut down every day, the loss of the sacred oak impacts the reader in the same way as it has affected the characters in the story. This is an example of personification used in the text to give the oak human like qualities which aids in demonstrating the pain and damage it undergoes as it is being struck down. This allows the reader to feel sympathy towards the dryads of the grove, as well as hate and anguish towards Erysichthon. In the middle and end of the story, Famine plays a core role in plot development, as well as setting the tone of the story. As a result of Erysichthon's actions, Famine is sent by the goddess Ceres to punish him for his evil deeds. Famine shows no mercy when extracting revenge upon Erysichthon, and the vengeful feeling is not lifted from the story until Erysichthon meets his demise.

The details and descriptions that the author has integrated into the story give life and colour to the passage. It brings out the true severity of the crime that Erysichthon has committed as well as the seriousness of the punishment established upon him. When Erysichthon strikes the sacred oak with his axe, "But when that impious stroke cut into the trunk, blood came streaming forth from the severed bark, even as when a huge sacrificial bull has fallen at the altar, and from his smitten beck blood pours forth" (Ovid 459), the image of blood of the purest red splashes the readers mind engraving an image of carnage and butchery. The mood of the story at this given point has been elevated greatly to a level of anger directed towards Erysichthon. When Ceres summons a mountain deity to go to famine and request her assistance, she says that, "There is a place on the farthest border of icy Scythia, a gloomy and barren soil, a land without corn, without trees." (Ovid 461) The descriptive elements of the territory of Famine vividly portray her environment as desolate and barren, a lifeless place of darkness and obscurity. In addition to this, Famine herself is portrayed as a character that has a direct correlation with the atmosphere she resides in.
"Her hair hung in matted lock, her eyes were sunken, her face ghastly pale ; her lips were wan and foul, her throat rough with scurf ; her skin was hard and dry so that the entrails could be seen through it ; her skinny hip bones bulged out beneath her hollow loins, and her belly was but a belly's place ; her breast seemed to be hanging free and just to be held by the framework of the spine ; her thinness made her joints seem large, her knees were swollen and her ankles were great bulging lumps." (Ovid 461)

The amount of detail used to describe Famine tells the reader that the representation of Famine is a serious and concrete image that remains within the mind for the entirety of the story. Finally, the magnitude of Erysichthon's hunger is rendered by the immense exaggeration of which he can exhibit his eating habits. After Famine has confined Erysichthon with hunger, the extent of his desire is inconceivable by human standards. "…with loaded tables before him, he complains still of hunger, in the midst of feasts, seeks other feasts. What would be enough for whole cities, enough for a whole nation, is not enough for one." (Ovid 463). As depicted, his punishment is undeniably severe and serious and the reader can easily see the misfortune that has fallen upon Erysichthon.
There is an underlying satirical message in this story that points out the weakness in human obsession and greed. Erysichthon is depicted as a figure of human weakness and sin. His pride and greed drive him to madness and consumes him, eventually leading to his downfall. The strength of his defiance against the gods blinded him and caused him to resort to cutting down the sacred oak of the goddess Ceres. Thus as a result, he was punished by a being greater than him, and he suffered her wrath. This is a man that is so wrapped up in his pride that he demands to get what he wants, and will go to any end to meet that requirement. His punishment curses him to leave his desires unsatisfied, where hunger consumes him, never to relieve him of the gluttony that has driven him to the edges of insanity. As his obsession is described as, "All the food in him is but the cause of food, ever does he become empty by eating", which shows that the source of his hunger, is the food itself, and the only way to satisfy this, is by consuming and eating more food, thus leading to an endless cycle. This message adds to the ongoing serious tone of the story as the reader knows of the undeniable fate that awaits him. The humour behind this is simply based on the irony of Erysichthon's punishment, a twisted fate for a man whose sin blinds him from reason. His stubborn behaviour drives him to make stubborn decisions and so, in the end, he gets what he deserves.
Although the serious tone of the story greatly overshadows any glimpse of humour presented, the subtlety of the humour is a light balance to the overall mood. For the most part, the tone is dark and due to the nature of the plot, the reader is constantly feeling emotions of anger, or pity towards the characters. The cruel fate of Erysichthon is justified because of the actions presented in the early stages of plot development, and so, feelings towards his fate, are dull and understandable. However in his downfall, his fate is intertwined with the fate of his young daughter, and so again, pity overcomes the reader as his daughter doesn't deserve to be so heavily affected by the wrath of the gods. In closure, the story's tone and mood were set in the very beginning of the poem, and were held constant under these variable examples. The seriousness and depression were a result of the plot structure, descriptive details, and finally, the underlying moral.
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