Jerome Shea October 26, 2008 Weekend Wonk
If you tramp the gloomy and spectral byways of Greek lore, sooner or later you will run across the tale of Erysichthon, a tale which goes back to a time when Time itself was but a swaddled suckling.
Come back with me.
Erysichthon was a bad, bad, man, brutal and arrogant. He cared for no man (or woman or child). Neither, in fact, did he care for the gods. Utterly impious, he had a penchant for gratuitous evil.
In his wanderings he came to a grove dedicated to Ceres, goddess of agriculture, of the harvest. In the middle of this grove was her sacred oak, a tree which dwarfed all the other trees. For centuries it had grown and spread and canopied, and it was the special love and delight of the wood nymphs, the dryads, who inhabited the grove.
That mighty oak was an immediate affront to Erysichthon, and he determined to chop it down. Just because he was Erysichthon. Just—one might say—for the Hades of it. He ordered his servant to do the vile deed. The servant, a pious man, refused and was beheaded for his trouble. Then Erysichthon reared back with the double-bitted axe and took a mighty swing. Blood flowed from the gash and a voice from the tree warned that Ceres would surely punish him for this crime. This only fed Erysichthon’s fury. He flailed away like a man possessed (he would soon learn what possession really meant) until that magnificent tree fell to the dust and the dryads wept bitter tears.
The dryads called upon Ceres for redress. In terrible wrath, she sent her emissaries to fetch the demigod Famine in a barren, faraway land. Famine sped to Thessaly and Ceres revealed the doom she would levy upon Erysichthon: “Famine, you will possess this impious man, you will insinuate yourself into his very sinews so that he will always be ravenously hungry. And never—never—will his hunger be assuaged.” “Yes, my Lady,” replied Famine in a voice like a bad transmission.
And so she did. While Erysichthon slept, Famine drifted into his body like a foul smoke. He awoke with a maniacal hunger. He gorged himself and became only more desperately hungry. He quickly ran through his considerable fortune and became a tramp, a scavenger. His only companion—save his mad hunger—was his daughter Hermione, a virtuous young woman who loved her father well beyond his deserving. Desperate for money for food, he sold Hermione to a passing slave merchant. She prayed to Poseidon, who came to her rescue by changing her into a bird. And as a bird, she returned faithfully to her father’s side. The cruel father sold her again. Again she returned, in a different guise. Again and again Erysichthon and his sad daughter worked this scam until finally (by some accounts) Hermione was sold by a slaver to a kind and handsome young prince and they fell in love. Hermione did not return.
The mad Erysichthon was reduced to eating roots, bark, dirt. One day he skinned his knuckle on a sharp stone. It bled, so he sucked the knuckle instinctively and then realized—with a mixture of horror and joy—that his last meal would be his own body. With a horrible gnashing, he set upon his fingers, his hand, his arm…. Just before he sank into unconsciousness and death, he could be seen gnawing greedily on his own bloody haunch, his face a mask of resignation and strange peace.
Although famously successful on the lecture circuit, Mark Twain always loathed the work: the travel was incessant, the homesickness was acute, and the same questions over and over bored him beyond endurance. As a sort of revenge, he enjoyed having sport with the reporters the local paper would send out. Here, with great thanks to Hal Holbrook and his long-running one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight, is “Twain and the Local Interviewer”:
Local Interviewer: Now then, Mr. Twain, didn’t I read somewhere that you had a brother?
Twain, after a long, thoughtful pause: Why yes, yes I did. Did have a brother, I mean. William*. “Bill,” we used to call him. [Singing mournfully] Pooor oould Bill.
LI: Oh dear, something happened to him, then?
T: Why, yes, he disappeared.
T: Well, in a general sort of way. We buried him.
LI: You’re telling me you buried him without knowing whether he was dead or not?
T: Oh, no. He was dead all right. He was always pretty dead. Still, there was always a great mystery about that.
LI: And just what was this blasted mystery?
T: Well, we were twins, Bill and I—identical twins—and when we were little bitty babies we got mixed up in the bathtub one day. Then Mother got distracted for a minute and one of us drowned. [Pause] Some say it was Bill; [pause] some say it was me.
LI: What do YOU think?
T: Oh, I’d give worlds to know.
T: Oh, wait. There WAS a difference! One of those babies had a curious birthmark on his backside. That was me…and that was the baby that drowned.
Happy Halloween. See you next week.
*Twain did have a brother, Orion. But that’s another story, and true.
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