The Sanctity of Trees
A story retold by Myth Woodling

Erisichthon was an irreligious scoundrel who had no respect for the Gods. Those visiting his dwelling declared they had never seen so much as a patella of fruit set out, nor any stone annointed with oil, nor some place adorned with a garland of flowers. On one occasion, he wanted wood to build a large banqueting hall, and he wanted to build it on the site of a certain growth of trees that he might have a splendid view of the river. This mortal presumed to violate with an axe a sacred grove, which some say was dedicated to the Goddess of the grain, Magna Dea, reverently known as the Barley Mother among the Greeks. His daughter, Mestra, counciled him against building at this particular site. Mestra tried to dissuade him from his plan to cut wood from a sacred grove, speaking soothingly, "Father, why bring axes to a Lucius and cut down the trees, which are consecrated to the Gods? There are forested areas with wood enough."

In spite of her council, he gathered 20 stout slaves, armed with hatchets and cutting tools. He seemed even more determined to destroy the whole grove and the ancient oak.

The grove contained mighty elms, apples and pear trees, pines, and in this grove stood a venerable oak, its ancient trunk towering aloft. Votive offerings and garlands hung from its branches. Small pictures, with words of gratitude, were also hung by supplicants, honoring the nymph dwelling within this tree.

On festival days, children danced around the tree, singing, hand-in-hand. Birds and animals lived among its leaves. Its vast trunk measured fifteen cubits. It was said that nymphs danced around it at high noon.

Erisichthon did not see any reason to spare this tree, or any of the grove this tree grew in. He ordered his slaves to cut that tree down first. These foreign slaves shrank from the task, for even they recognized this tree as sacred. Erisichthon snatched the axe from one, exclaiming: "I care not whether it be a tree beloved of a Goddess or not; were it the Goddess herself, it should come down if it stood in my way."

So saying, he swung the axe. As the first blow fell, a man, whose name is not recorded, but possibly a priest who cared for the grove, ran up and tried to grab the axe from the violator. Erisichthon said to him with scorn, "Receive the reward of your piety." He swung the axe on the man. To the horror of Erisichthon's slaves, as well as any bystander, he gashed the man's body with many wounds and cut off his head.

Then from out of the midst of the oak came a voice, "I, who am beloved of a powerful Goddess, am one of the Querquenulanae Virae, and dying by your hands, forewarn you that punishment awaits you for these deeds."

In a rage, Erisichthon continued chopping the tree while all others drew away in fear at his nefarious actions. His crime took the rest of the day. At last, through repeated blows and drawn by ropes, the tree fell with a crash.

Weary and worn out by his wicked labor, Erisichthon headed home to his dwelling. He was too tired to eat and went straight to sleep, but his slumber was not peaceful.

When he awoke, his hunger was ravaging. He ordered food brought before him. He ate rapidly and ordered more. He ate and complained of hunger even as he ate. What might have filled all the bellies in Rome was not enough for him. The more he ate, the more he craved. The more he craved, the more he ate. He reclined at his table all that day and the next, ever eating and never full. His hunger was like fire, which consumes every bit of fuel fed into it, but remains voracious for more.

This curse was clearly the punishment of the Goddess, to be struck with eternal famine.

His properties and holdings rapidly diminished. He sold horses, tapestries, slaves, heirlooms, etc. Having neglected all the Gods, he had recourse to nor protection from none. He sold his estates and home by the sea, and finally sold his only child, Mestra.

Mestra had often made offerings and prayers--without her father's knowledge--to the sea God. Upon learning what her father had done, she tearfully invoked Neptune by the water's edge. The God rescued her from her plight by changing her form, so she escaped the one who purchased her. Some say Neptune changed her into a white horse, others say a sea bird.

There is one version of the story that because of Neptune's favor, Mestra was able to transform herself severaly times. By this ruse, her father repeatedly sold her as a slave so that he might feed himself. Eventually, though, his daughter seems to have not returned to her father's household.

Erisichthon procured food with the last money from the sale of his daughter, but it was not enough--of course--to fill the bottomless pit of his stomach. At last hunger compelled him to devour his own limbs. He ate himself to feed himself, until death relieved him from divine vengence.

There's an Italian legend that said he did not die and Fames (the numen or daimon of hunger and starvation) forced him to eat his whole body until nothing was left but a disembodied mouth.

copyright 2003, 2015 Myth Woodling

Myth's notes: (revised Spring 2006, revised again 2015)

The Querquenulanae Virae was the Roman name for the prophetic nymphs indwelling in green oak trees. The name, Magna Dea, means "Great Goddess," and was a Latin title for Ceres and Demeter.

This story was originally a Greek moral anecdote, though the Romans retold it with their own additions. For that matter, I have retold it with my own additions as well. Originally, Erisichthon was a king of Thesaly. Robert Graves, in his Greek Myths (1955, 1960), wrote, "among the Greeks, as among the Latins and the early Irish, the felling of a sacred growth carried the death penalty." (p. 93) The Greek name, Erysichthon, meant "earth-tearer," seems to have referred to his intention to "rape" and pillage this grove for his own comforts without thought of the rules of men or Gods. It's a sobering lesson, even for today.

In his article, Beyond Gaia, the rebirth of eco-paganism, published in PanGaia, #43, January-March, 2006, p 26, John Michael Greer wrote:

Consider Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture. She had sacred groves all over Greece in Pagan times, given over to native vegetation and wild animals; hunting, logging, and livestock were forbidden there. The sacred space, or temenos, surrounding her temples fell under the same restrictions. These temples and groves were not placed randomly on the landscape. Most of Demeter's temples rested on sloping grounds overlooking grain fields, close to running water; most groves stood toward the edges of farmed teritories on hills and mountains.

Why should a goddess of grain be concerned about a grove of trees? Any organic farmer knows the answer: Greece's dry and rocky soil suffers from erosion if not handled carefully, and patches of woodland in vulnerable areas form a crucial defense against soil loss.

Greek legends tell of Erysichthon, who cut down a sacred grove, fell under Demeter's curse of hunger, and ended up devouring his own body. The people who told this story weren't repeating fables. They were passing on crucial ecological knowledge which the people of the Greek peninsula had learned the hard way centuries earlier.

Sacred groves also bordered rivers. Any conservationist will tell you that trees are vital along waterways. Tree roots anchor the soil, preventing runoff; leafy tree branches provide shade for the water, lowering its temperature so that aquatic life may more easily survive in it. The presence of trees improves the quality of water significantly.

In Italy, Dea Dia had her sacred grove on the Tiber River. Diana, the goddess of wilderness, had several sacred groves. One notably was at Nemi and surrounded a sacred lake. It was from the spring which fed this lake that the Vestal Virgins gathered pure water for their rites. The presence of the trees in Diana's grove no doubt kept the stream potable and the lake healthy.

This ancient story reminded me of the circa 1990's news story in the Baltimore Sun about somewhere in Baltimore County. A man build a splendid home overlooking the river, one of the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. This river wound through Baltimore County or Maryland State property. His magnificent view of the river was obstructed by several large trees, which were located on the government-owned property between him and the river. This man first contacted the appropriate offices to request permission to cut down the trees. Permission was denied. The trees served as a buffer for the river, inhibiting erosion and filtering the rain water which washed into the river and then down into the Bay.

None of these reasons were as important to the man as his magnificent view. Thus, he cut down the trees he wanted removed and dwelt in bliss until his actions were discovered. The government promptly sued him and won the cost of replacing the trees, as well as punitive damages. Considering the story of Erisichthon, the modern violator got off easy.

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