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What We Can Learn on Climate Change from Ancient Greek Mythology

We can learn a lot from the timeless wisdom of the ancient Greeks. This is very much the case with the myth of Erysichthon, transmitted by the Greek poet Callimachus in his Hymn to Demeter in the Greek world, and by the Roman poet Ovid in the lines 738-878 of the eight book of his Metamorphoses in the Latin world respectively.

Erysichthon (Ερυσίχϑων) was the king of Thessaly. He wanted to build a house to host his feats. One day, he went with his servants to a sacred grove of the goddess Demeter to cut wood for his house. As the wood was holy, it didn’t belong to Erysichthon nor to any other human but to Demeter. Indeed, Erysichthon committed one of the gravest sins for the ancient Greeks, that of ὕβρις or arrogance towards the gods. For this reason, Demeter punished him to suffer from hunger forever. While in Callimachus’ version Erysichthon was forced to beg for food for his entire life, in Ovid’s version he was even forced to eat himself, lacking any other source of food.

Let’s read Ovid’s version in more detail:

In the centre of the grove there was an ancient oak. ‘Chop it down.’ His servants looked at one another anxiously. The princess: ‘Father, this is madness. If you cut down this tree, the goddess will punish you for it.’ ‘Just my point. There are no gods, no goddesses. There’s only us. And you are all fools who shake at shadows. I will prove that every prayer is wasted air.’ He grabbed an axe. He swung it behind him. Everyone who dared to look then saw the tree trembling from its roots to the tips of its leaves. When the blade struck the bark dark blood came from the wound he’d made and there was a cry, shrill: ‘I am the spirit who lives in this tree. Cut it down and you slaughter me. If I die by your hand, I swear revenge will fall on you as heavy as a falling oak.’ The king, he laughed. He kept on cutting until, with a dreadful moan, the tree crashed to the ground. And the king had his servants fetch his subjects back to his palace. He held a feast that night. He stuffed his mouth, he stuffed his mouth, he stuffed his mouth until his belly bulged. That night nymphs in the grove wept around the tree stump. Then one of them flew up to Mount Olympus, the home of the immortals. She flew to the palace of Demeter and she asked for revenge. […] That night Hunger flew through the sky. She travelled to the palace of King Erysichthon. She crept through an open window. He was fast asleep in his bed on his back, snoring, his mouth open. She pressed her thin lips to his and blew a torrent of starvation into his open mouth. […] Next morning he was woken by a nagging pain in his belly. He sat up and found his jaws had a life of their own. They clacked together as if he was a cat staring at a bird out of reach. He called for food. He ate and ate but this hunger was like fire: the more he fed it the stronger it became. […] He ate his way through all his wealth. He sold all of his lands, his herds, his properties, until at last all he had left were the clothes he wore and his daughter. He sold her into slavery for the price of one meal. […] Erysichthon was cramming food into his mouth one day. In his eagerness to eat he bit too soon. He bit into his finger and it tasted good. He bit it off, and then the next finger, and then the next, and then the next, and then the thumb. He chewed. He swallowed. He chewed through his knuckles, through his palm, through his wrist. King Erysichthon devoured himself.[1]

Then what can we learn from this myth? Erysichthon made the grove cry, he made nature cry, although he was well aware he didn’t have to touch it. It didn’t belong to him; it was not his to take. He could have chosen other woods that were not sacred. But he didn’t care; he wanted everything for himself. He wanted to devour everything; however, he ended up being devoured.

Don’t modern humans currently resemble Erysichthon? The endless exploitation of nature doesn’t stem from a limitless desire, as with Erysichthon’s cutting of the sacred grove? From the ancient Greeks, we should learn that we can’t do whatever we want without taking care of other fellow humans, non-human beings, and the environment. We should learn to set limits on what we can do and what we cannot do. The planet can no longer bear our arrogance. If we don’t take action soon, the human race risks extinction. We risk ending up like Erysichthon, being devoured by ourselves.

Other sources:

Kallis, Giorgos. "4. A Culture of Limits". Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Sili, Davide. Quanto è nuovo l’antico? Il mito di Erisittone: etica ambientale e normazione nelle póleis greche, Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics, XXV, 2023, 3, pp. 99-108.


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