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Erysichthon. Fames.

PROTEUS

He ceased, and this miraculous event,
and he who told it, had astonished them.
But Theseus above all. The hero asked
to hear of other wonders wrought by Gods.
The Calydonian River-God replied,
and leaning on one elbow, said to him:

“There are, O valiant hero, other things
whose forms once-changed as these, have so remained,
but there are some who take on many shapes,
as you have, Proteus, dweller of the deep—
the deep whose arms embrace the earth. For some
have seen you as a youth, then as a lion,
a furious boar one time, a serpent next,
so dreadful to the touch—and sometimes horns
have made you seem a bull—or now a stone,
or now a tree, or now a slipping stream,
or even—the foe of water—next a fire.”

ERYSICHTHON AND MESTRA

Now Erysichthon's daughter, Mestra, had
that power of Proteus—she was called the wife
of deft Autolycus.—Her father spurned
the majesty of all the Gods, and gave
no honor to their altars. It is said
he violated with an impious axe
the sacred grove of Ceres, and he cut
her trees with iron. Long-standing in her grove
there grew an ancient oak tree, spread so wide,
alone it seemed a standing forest; and
its trunk and branches held memorials,
as, fillets, tablets, garlands, witnessing
how many prayers the goddess Ceres granted.
And underneath it laughing Dryads loved
to whirl in festal dances, hand in hand,
encircling its enormous trunk, that thrice
five ells might measure; and to such a height
it towered over all the trees around,
as they were higher than the grass beneath.

But Erysichthon, heedless of all things,
ordered his slaves to fell the sacred oak,
and as they hesitated, in a rage
the wretch snatched from the hand of one an axe,
and said, “If this should be the only oak
loved by the goddess of this very grove,
or even were the goddess in this tree,
I'll level to the ground its leafy head.”
So boasted he, and while he swung on high
his axe to strike a slanting blow, the oak
beloved of Ceres, uttered a deep groan
and shuddered. Instantly its dark green leaves
turned pale, and all its acorns lost their green,
and even its long branches drooped their arms.
But when his impious hand had struck the trunk,
and cut its bark, red blood poured from the wound,—
as when a weighty sacrificial bull
has fallen at the altar, streaming blood
spouts from his stricken neck. All were amazed.
And one of his attendants boldly tried
to stay his cruel axe, and hindered him;
but Erysichthon, fixing his stern eyes
upon him, said, “Let this, then, be the price
of all your pious worship!” So he turned
the poised axe from the tree, and clove his head
sheer from his body, and again began
to chop the hard oak. From the heart of it
these words were uttered; “Covered by the bark
of this oak tree I long have dwelt a Nymph,
beloved of Ceres, and before my death
it has been granted me to prophesy,
that I may die contented. Punishment
for this vile deed stands waiting at your side.”

No warning could avert his wicked arm.
Much weakened by his countless blows, the tree,
pulled down by straining ropes, gave way at last
and leveled with its weight uncounted trees
that grew around it. Terrified and shocked,
the sister-dryads, grieving for the grove
and what they lost, put on their sable robes
and hastened unto Ceres, whom they prayed,
might rightly punish Erysichthon's crime;—
the lovely goddess granted their request,
and by the gracious movement of her head
she shook the fruitful, cultivated fields,
then heavy with the harvest; and she planned
an unexampled punishment deserved,
and not beyond his miserable crimes—
the grisly bane of famine; but because
it is not in the scope of Destiny,
that two such deities should ever meet
as Ceres and gaunt Famine,—calling forth
from mountain-wilds a rustic Oread,
the goddess Ceres, said to her, “There is
an ice-bound wilderness of barren soil
in utmost Scythia, desolate and bare
of trees and corn, where Torpid-Frost, White-Death
and Palsy and Gaunt-Famine, hold their haunts;
go there now, and command that Famine flit
from there; and let her gnawing-essence pierce
the entrails of this sacrilegious wretch,
and there be hidden—Let her vanquish me
and overcome the utmost power of food.
Heed not misgivings of the journey's length,
for you will guide my dragon-bridled car
through lofty ether.”

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