Sometimes in the middle of unpacking a myth’s metaphoric meanings, the story can seem pretty wild and ridiculous, and if I’m still looking like I think it’s cool, my students start to look at me like I’m slightly cracked. That’s when I try to make it relevant. Today’s handy lesson was “When you’re grappling a shapeshifter, just hang on until they run out of forms.”
We read the myth of Erysichthon, the sacrilegious cretin who chops down a giant oak sacred to Ceres (goddess of grain and fertility and motherhood). Inside the tree is a nymph, so it bleeds when he chops it down. Ovid’s treatment is wonderful: in response to this crime, Ceres seeks out her opposite, Famine, and sicks her on Erysichthon. Famine breathes want in to his bones, and he gets hungrier as he eats.
Just as the sea receives
the rivers of the earth, but then can drink
still other streams that flow from distant parts;
and just as a devouring fire will not
reject more fuel, but feeds on countless logs,
becoming ever more voracious with each gift:
so for the sinner Erysichthon’s lips,
each banquet only adds to what he’s missed.
For him food calls for food, glut calls for glut;
his being full amounts to emptiness.
(Metamorphoses 8; Allen Mandelbaum, translator)
When it gets very bad (which doesn’t take long), Erysichthon tries to sell his daughter for food. However, in an offscreen back story, she had been previously raped by Neptune, and in compensation he had granted her the ability to shape-shift. So every time Erysichthon sells her, she transforms in to a different animal and escapes her new master. Eventually he eats away at his own flesh.
That message seems clear. Don’t willfully challenge the gods, or they will respond in kind. Erysichthon’s greed is magnified until it consumes him. It’s not even reciprocal justice; it’s just turning up the volume.
But we were talking about shapeshifters. Erysichthon’s daughter sparks comparison with other shapeshifters: Proteus, who is name-dropped in this same book of the Metamorphoses and Thetis, mother of Achilles, who will come up later.
Both these shapeshifters are gods, so the boon to the mortal girl had been to make her godlike. Proteus and Thetis are both compelled to do something against their will, and their shapeshifting turns out to be a detriment. When Menelaus, the king of Sparta, is trying to get home from the Trojan War, he learns he needs to get directions from Proteus to do so. He must sneak up on Proteus as he’s sunbathing and hold on to him no matter what he turns in to. If he can keep his grip until Proteus grows tired and runs out of ideas and returns to his original form, Menelaus will have power over him.
The same thing happens to Thetis, the sea goddess whom Peleus overcomes. In her case she’s trying to avoid rape, so she turns into a literal hellcat (ok—tiger) and some other scary things in order to get away. She does get away the first time, but the second time, Peleus gets some coaching and learns he just needs to hold on. It’s still a rape narrative. If you don’t like that, and I don’t, it helps to think of Thetis bearing the child Achilles who will be the greatest warrior the Greeks ever produce. He is so great because he’s a goddess’s son, but no goddess would submit to being dominated by a mortal willingly (except Venus), so she needs to be “won.” Still not awesome by 21st century standards, but if we read it mythically and remember that she is the sea, we see Peleus wrangling the ever-changing sea and that power is channeled in to Achilles.
This is what happens for Menelaus too; he conquers Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, so metaphorically the sea itself. What he gains from that conquest is power over the sea—the ability to navigate it safely and get his crew home. And it reveals our life hack for the day: hang on.
No matter what crazy things happen, no matter how fast things change and how overwhelming or even terrifying they seem, don’t let go. Don’t give up. Every fight teaches you something, so if you fight ten things in quick succession, you learn ten times as fast. Grappling a shapeshifter is like taking a two-week winter session course instead of the whole semester–not for the faint of heart.