‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
So asks salt-kissed Metra, princess of Thessaly.
They are the first words to sound in the palace hall for some time. Only Metra and her father, King Erysichthon, remain, and the king struggles to speak anymore. Words are hard for him to form with shattered teeth and splintered gums.
His palace in Thessaly is a plate picked clean. There is no food in the pantries, nor fruit in the orchards, nor fodder in the stables – they were the first places Erysichthon ransacked. There is no bird song in the palace gardens – Erysichthon stalked the birds with bow and arrow and devoured them feather, beak and fluted bone. There isn’t even the sound of termites; Erysichthon sucked them from the palace timbers like marrow from a cracked bone.
His appetite is unnatural. Insatiable. It has all but destroyed him.
That is why Metra calls upon the Muses. For explanation. For aid.
The company of sisters oblige, but they do not descend to the palace hall alone. An older woman stands among them. Golden ears of corn are woven into greying hair, a circlet bright as any torch. About her neck, the seedpods of poppies are strung like beads. They punctuate her every movement with a whispering rattle.
‘This is the source of your father’s curse,’ sing the Muses. ‘This is the source of his hunger: Demeter of the good grain, goddess of abundance.’
The Muses’s song opens in forte: the crack of an axe and the branches of a great oak creaking in pain.
The palace of Thessaly is to be expanded. Not even a sacred grove to Demeter is to stand in its way. But while King Erysichthon’s woodsmen have felled the lesser trees, they dare not touch the great oak: they have seen the eyes of a dryad – a tree nymph – peeping from the knots in its bark.
The dryad’s residence gives the king no pause; when he hears of the woodsmen’s reticence, he heads to the tree with an axe of his own, a blade fresh from the whetstone’s kiss.
One bite. Two. Now three, now four. The hatchet’s hunger splits the trunk in half.
It is a death sentence to the dryad; without an oaken shell, her only fate is to fade. But not before she has her revenge. Bleeding resin from mortal wounds, she flees to Demeter’s feet and recounts the desecration of her grove.
The goddess’s fury is a rasping, threshing sound. She can think of only one punishment worthy of Erysichthon’s transgression: Limos.
Demeter’s boon to the world is abundance, fertility, fecundity. Limos then is her shadow, her absence. A thing of paucity, poverty, famine.
It is the dryad that must parlay on Demeter’s behalf; after all, for the goddess of the good grain to face Limos would be for the head of a coin to face the tail.
The dryad searches all of hunger’s haunts – the grain husks in an empty silo; the last drop in a waterskin; the gristle in the bowels of a cauldron – and when at last she finds Limos, it is in the form of a locust at the heart of a swarm.
Limos’s speech is the click of hind legs against wings. She will discharge Demeter’s dire sentence: Erysichthon will crave without end. His hunger will consume everything he owns.
The king notices it immediately. He wakes from dreams of feasting to an ache in his belly. Platters of food can no more sate it than the thirst of a shipwrecked sailor could drain an ocean.
Thessaly’s riches begin to vanish down his gullet. First the royal finery, then the gold, then the jewels. Then he must turn to his daughter, salt-kissed Metra.
He sells her hand to a nearby princeling for a bride-dowry that should stock his larders for years.
But Metra is already the beloved of another: Poseidon, Lord of the Deep. Whenever she lifts a conch to her ear, she hears him whisper sweet nothings. Whenever she walks the beach, he directs the waves to scrawl her name in the sand. And so when Metra begs to return to her father – for is she not the most dutiful of daughters? – Poseidon gives her the ability to shift, to bend, to warp her form like quicksilver.
From the highest tower of her princeling’s hall, she takes to the wing as a gull.
It is a turn of the moon before Metra can shed beak and feather back in Thessaly. By then, Erysichthon is alone. He has eaten himself out of house and home entirely.
His darling daughter’s return is nothing to him but another mouth to feed.
For Erysichthon’s hunger has not only bred disregard but a desperate cunning. When he learns of Metra’s god-gift, he sees a way to keep his belly full. He will sell her hand in marriage to another princeling. She will twist her form. She will return home. And the ruse will repeat. Again and again and again.
Metra does not protest. Her devotion is a depthless as her father’s appetite.
But before long, there are no princes left to fool, so Erysichthon must sell her to the merchants. Then to the craftsmen. Then to the soldiers. Then to the poorest farmer, a payment of pittance and a heel of bread.
And then to no one at all.
And his hunger continues unabated.
‘Now there is only one thing left to you to consume,’ sings Demeter, bringing the Muses’s story to a close.
And salt-kissed Metra shudders, the same prickle at the neck she feels every time she returns to the palace in animal form. It is her father’s hungering gaze.
She does not flee though. No, she offers herself willingly – for is she not the most dutiful of daughters?
Erysichthon licks his lips.
He leans forward in his throne ready to pounce.
Then Demeter steps between Metra and her father.
‘Not your daughter, King. She is not yours, remember? You have sold her. No, the only thing left to you is this.’
And Demeter takes Erysichthon’s wrist, twisting it till one finger hangs between his shattered teeth and splintered gums.
He takes one bite. Just one.
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse