OUR ERYSICHTHONIAN PLIGHT
It requires no great effort for someone to
act like his ancestors, whether he is a cretin or the epitome of righteousness, for it comes to one naturally.
Many Greeks have been accused of being obsessed with their glorious ancestors in that their pride rests solely in their regurgitation of the deeds and creations of their forebears without creating much themselves. Of course, there are the exceptions of those who convert this pride creatively, perpetuating the merits of the glorious past. However, there are more than a few who, due to a deeply rooted complex, polemically dismiss the idea of having anything to do with the ancients fearing the effort one must apply to prove worthy of a Socrates or a Leonidas. However, one can easily strip them of the arguments they produce to excuse their developmental inertia. The favourite quibble of these modern Greeks is the attribution of all the plights that form their catastasis to the Turkish yoke of old.
"Those Turks are to blame for everything..." reverberates the commonly heard anathema. It is as enervating as the relentless moaning of those in the Middle East over their persecutions in times past to justify their violence towards their neighbours.
Every nation has had its dark moments of
history while its members can boast of a voluminous list of historical figures
to choose from if it is identity they seek (for better or for worse). In the
case of the Greeks, one simply needs to understand that in the midst of men
like Leonidas (the Spartan King who stood to the death against an overwhelming
Persian force at Thermopylae) there has always lurked an Ephialtes (traitor who
revealed to the Persians the trail to outflank Leonidas and his men); for every
Socrates there have always been crowds who would unjustly condemn him for his
convictions and for every Diogenes (cynic philosopher who decried consumption
and materialism) there have always been innumerable gluttonous Erysichthons.
Therefore, if someone feels he must attribute his 'cretinism' or cultural inadequacies to those foreign 'others', let him at least feel some national pride in that there is a surplus of local references for one to relate to. In the case of many modern Greeks, what good are imported eastern models when the range within their 'ancestry' caters for every taste?
Keeping all this in mind, it seems that
Erysichthon would be the most likely model for an ever increasing number of
people in the developed countries of the West, many
modern Greeks being no exception.
Erysichthon, son of Triops, was king of Pelion in Thessaly. He liked the consumption of food so much, that he overindulged to the point of ignoring all else; including the respect he ought to have shown towards the gods. His oblivion was filled with the banquets his subjects held for him. However, he considered his palace inadequate in size to accommodate his symposiums, and so decided to extend it by building a huge dining hall.
In the vicinity there was a thicket of trees dedicated to the goddess Demeter, which had been planted in her honour by the Pelasgians. Erysichthon did not hesitate to take twenty servants with him to this shrine to acquire the timber required for his project. In vain did Demeter appear before him in the form of a priestess to remind him that the trees were sacred. For in fact, he threatened to kill her with the axe he wielded if she attempted to obstruct him.
In the end, the gluttonous monarch had his dining hall built, but the cost was tragic. Demeter cursed him to always have an insatiable appetite. The more he ate, the more ravenous he became. The cooks could hardly keep up with his demands, nor could the wine bearers pour him enough to quench his thirst. He led his kingdom to ruin having fed on all the domesticated herds and ended up devouring his daughter, before turning to his own hands.
Hasn't modern man perhaps fallen into the same state of oblivion regarding the true values in life? Is it perhaps that we too are trying to fulfill this void with unbridled consumption? Demeter may have already put her curse on us as well for the forests we have laid to waste whether by axe or fire to build country homes or erect shopping malls.
Such thoughts visited me one day on my visit to an area where once stood majestic cypresses, devastated after a forest fire was set to turn the area into a grazing ground. What ensued was the following verse:
Reduced to ashes mountainside, lets contemplate our plight:
As desolate you lie of trees, so desolate is my soul,
and just as poor my lungs subsist in their sustaining role.
Oh, cremated to ashes mountainside, oh how you look forlorn!
Where once the chirps and songs of birds, like mating ruffs and reeves,
to God encomiums sent among the fluttering of leaves,
now deadly silence dominates where once your flora grew.
How horridly unwelcoming your barren, ashen hue!
If you have any memory left, the forests bring to mind!
I shudder at your nudity, your emptiness and blight,
as I no longer harbour mirth at your depressing sight,
for just as poor I find myself in memory of my past
and search for forested terrain lest I recall the myths.
Your pure beginnings I invoke - a reference wreathed in green,
to wet my lips and quench my thirst beside a mountain spring.
How can I the sacred elms of Demeter replant,
so that my wish to lift her curse of hunger she may grant.
If you have any memory left, the roots bring back to mind!
The roots of elms and cypresses, the roots of fragrant pine.
Are there any dormant seeds survived below your ash?
And if they lie in lethargy may Helios give them life,
so that your slopes and gorges bloom anon to host your joy.
May vowels of birds be heard again amid the leafy boughs
and such chaotic harmony of nature's orgy thrive
to reinstate what's beautiful and inspiration drive.
If memory serves you, mountains, the roots bring back to mind!
Give alms to Erysichthon's breed, Demeter's curse unbind.
-Panagiotis Terpandrou Zachariou-