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Story summary

King Erysichthon cuts down a tree sacred to Demeter in order to show that the gods do not exist. In revenge the gods send Hunger to visit Erysichthon. Permanently hungry Erysichthon eats his way through his fortune and even sells his daughter into slavery to feed his habit. Demeter takes pity on Erysichthon’s daughter. She enables her to escape slavery by giving her the power to vanish and the power to take on any shape. The daughter uses these powers to make money so that she can buy food for her father, but his hunger is insatiable and he ends up eating himself.

Teaching activities

  • Starting points
  • Follow-up
  • Further activities

Discuss with the students the different functions of myths: some provide explanations of natural phenomena (e.g. the story of Echo and Narcissus on the origin of echoes, Arachne on the origin of spiders), while others are cautionary tales. The story of Erysichthon clearly comes in the latter category. His fate is a warning of the dangers of hubris. This is an interesting discussion on hubris in The Oxford Classical Dictionary:

Hubris, intentionally dishonouring behaviour, was a powerful term of moral condemnation in ancient Greece; and in Athens, and perhaps elsewhere, it was also treated as a serious crime. The common use of hubris in English to suggest pride, over-confidence, or any behaviour which may offend divine powers, rests, it is now generally held, on misunderstanding of ancient texts, and concomitant and over-simplified views of Greek attitudes to the gods have lent support to many doubtful, and often over-Christianising, interpretations, above all of Greek tragedy…

While it primarily denotes gratuitous dishonouring by those who are, or think they are, powerful and superior, it can also at times denote the insolence of accepted ‘inferiors’, such as women, children, or slaves, who disobey or claim independence…

Hubris is most often the insulting infliction of physical force or violence… [It] is not essentially a religious term; yet the gods naturally were often supposed to punish instances of it, either because they may feel themselves directly dishonoured, or, more frequently, because they were held to uphold general Greek moral and social values.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary (third edition), p.732

Questions to consider while listening:

  • What exactly does Erysichthon do that upsets the gods?
  • Why does he do it?

Performance. This story lends itself to the development of speaking skills. Identify the difference between reading a story and telling a story. Pupils may be allocated sections or the whole story to work on. With a partner or in small groups develop a storyboard of the plot to assist with retelling. Visualising is preferable to memorising a script. Remind pupils the story can be different each time it is told, unlike written stories it can be simplified or embellished as long as the story line is held. Listen again to Daniel and consider the use of voice for emphasis and control. Discuss effectiveness of opening and ending. Identify his use of volume, pitch, pause points and repetition [he stuffed his mouth, he stuffed his mouth, he stuffed his mouth until his belly bulged.] Discuss how they will engage with their audience; eye contact, gestures, props, music. Is it possible to involve audience participation? Identify and avoid any bad habits e.g. nervous twitches, ‘ums’ or use of ‘like’. Discuss and identify criteria to be used in evaluating/grading. Practise, perform and evaluate each other’s performance. [Video recording would be useful]

Discussion 1. Does Erysichthon’s punishment fit his crime?

Discussion 2. Should children suffer for the crimes of their parents?

Writing activity 1. The personification of hunger is particularly striking and worth looking at in detail. Give out a copy of the transcript and discuss the word picture it creates. What is their opinion of the description? Can they identify language techniques used [personification, similes and adjectives]? What is it that makes the description so powerful? Underline and discuss the effectiveness of the adjectives used by the storyteller. Using the text as a model, pupils write their own description personifying gluttony, jealousy, wrath [anger] sloth [laziness], pride, loneliness or fear.

Writing activity 2. Write a sequence of diary entries by Erysichthon’s daughter, starting with an entry two weeks before the cutting down of the tree (with, perhaps, an example of the daughter saving the king from his own folly) and ending with the ‘disappearance’ of the king.

Writing activity 3. Write your own myth to convey the message, ‘pride comes before a fall’.

Compare the ‘crime’ and punishment of Erysichthon with those of Actaeon, Arachne, Daedalus, Midas, Narcissus (depending on which stories the students have listened to). Who most deserved to be punished? Who do you pity most?

Look at advertisements for food outlets. Do they encourage greed? How persuasive are they? What language techniques do they use? What message do they convey about the society we live in?