Scholarly attention to the Erysichthon scene in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses has been rather limited, but the scene is notable for Zimmerman’s innovation on both Ovid and his translator David R. Slavitt. Zimmerman designs a full course for Erysichthon, who has been stricken with an eternal hunger, to eat; this course has precedent neither in Ovid nor Slavitt. This is a notable addition considering Zimmerman’s often faithful rendition of her source text. I argue that Erysichthon’s menu puts a lighthearted spin on what is usually read as a very serious story; moreover, this menu situates Zimmerman’s Erysichthon among the Ovidian episodes she adapts in her play, which maintains a humourous tone. Erysichthon’s meal has far-reaching implications not only for contemporary reception of Ovid’s Erysichthon but for Ovidian reception as a field.
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Ovid’s Erysichthon and Mestra (his unnamed daughter) episode is Metamorphoses VIII.738–878. Upon learning of my interest in Ovid’s Erysichthon, a senior scholar in the field once remarked ‘Callimachus is a tough act to follow’. Be that as it may, as evidenced by the enormously successful Nachleben of the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s Erysichthon has a greater notoriety than Callimachus’s, even if to contemporary ears he is by no means the epic’s most renowned figure. For resonances of Ovid’s Erysichthon in later Latin authors, see R. Degl’Innocenti Pierini, ‘Erisittone Prima e Dopo Ovidio’, Prometheus, 13.2, 1987, pp. 133–59, later reprinted and expanded as ‘La «Metamorfosi» di Erisittone’, in Tra Ovidio e Seneca, Bologna, 1990, pp. 37–102.
Ovid’s version of Erysichthon did manage to earn a place in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (1942), albeit towards the end of the book, in her section charitably dubbed ‘The Less Important Myths’. Much more recently, Ted Hughes chose to include Erysichthon in his Tales from Ovid (London, 1997).
T. Jenkins, Antiquity Now: The Classical World in the Contemporary American Imagination, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 207–11 discusses the ‘greening’ of antiquity, the modern allegorizing of ancient myth as a ‘cautionary tale of capitalistic excess’, remarking that ‘the tale of Erysichthon has always been ripe for such a greening’ (207) in his discussion of the poet James Lasdun’s modern reimagining of Erysichthon as a ruthless real estate developer (J. Lasdun, ‘Erysichthon’, in Woman Police Officer in Elevator, New York, 1998). Environmentalist prose has also taken an interest in Erysichthon, as evidenced in a Sierra Club newsletter from Racine, Wisconsin (T. Rutkowski, ‘Erysichthon’, in News of the Southeast Gateway Group of the Sierra Club, 36.3, Racine, June/July 2017, p. 1), a National Herald article (D. Kamarinou, ‘World Environment Day and the Myth of Erysichthon,’ The National Herald, 30 May 2016), and academic ecocriticism (J. Da Silva, ‘Ecocriticism and Myth: The Case of Erysichthon,’ Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 15.2, Summer 2008, pp. 103–16).
Metamorphoses was produced by Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago and premiered at Ivanhoe Theatre on 25 October 1998. Its Broadway premiere opened at Circle in the Square, New York, NY, 4 March 2002. For further early production information, see M. Zimmerman, Metamorphoses, Evanston, 2002, pp. xi–xii. Zimmerman’s adaptation of Erysichthon is pp. 32–40, after Midas and Alcyone and Ceyx.
Recent scholarship on Ovid’s Erysichthon tends to emphasize gender, whereas previous scholarship was more concerned with Quellenforschung, as is typical in the evolution of Ovidian studies. For some analyses of the feminine and masculine in the episode, see E. Fantham, ‘Sunt quibus in plures ius est transire figuras: Ovid’s Self-Transformers in the Metamorphoses’, Classical World, 87, 1993, pp. 21–36; I. Ziogas, Ovid and Hesiod: The Metamorphosis of the Catalogue of Women, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 136–47; R. S. Santucci, ‘Eating up Time in Ovid’s Erysichthon Episode (Metamorphoses 8.738–878)’, in Narratives of Time and Gender in Antiquity, ed. E. Eidinow and L. Maurizio, Abingdon-on-Thames, 2020, pp. 136–49. Among scholarship on Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, there is no place for Erysichthon in the historically contextualized (that is, post-September 11th) analysis of M. Chirico, ‘Zimmerman's Metamorphoses: Mythic Revision as a Ritual for Grief’, Comparative Drama, 42.2, Summer 2008, pp. 149–79; F. Cox, Ovid’s Presence in Contemporary Women’s Writing: Strange Monsters, Oxford, 2018, pp. 106–8 analyses Zimmerman’s Erysichthon in her summary of the play, with special attention to the appearance of Hunger and anorexia, but does not dwell on what Erysichthon eats; D. Garwood, ‘Myth as Public Dream: The Metamorphosis of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 25.1, Jan. 2003, pp. 69–78 (71) makes only one quick reference to Erysichthon; T. Ziolkowski, Ovid and the Moderns, Ithaca, 2005, pp. 203–6 (204) likewise gives Zimmerman’s Erysichthon just one sentence; T. Jenkins, Antiquity Now (n. 3, above), pp. 146–50 understands Zimmerman’s play, as Chirico does, in a post-September 11th context, with attention given to the audience’s lacrimose response to Alcyone and Ceyx, who became a vessel for its own shared grief.
For the text of the Metamorphoses, I use R. J. Tarrant, P. Ovidi Nasonis: Metamorphoses, Oxford, 2004. All translations into English, with the exception of those by Slavitt, are my own.
Several scholars have remarked that this dinner, for all its humility, has all the standbys of a traditional Roman meal, humourously transposed by Ovid to the never-never-land of the mythological couple: see K. Galinsky, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects, Berkeley, 1975, pp. 201–2; J. P. Hallett, ‘Mortal and Immortal; Animal, Vegetable and Mineral: Equality and Change in Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon Episode (Met. 8.616–724)’, in Rome and Her Monuments: Essays on the City and Literature of Rome in Honor of Katherine A. Geffcken, ed. Sheila K. Dickison and Judith P. Hallett, Wauconda, 2000, pp. 545–61 (553); E. Gowers, ‘Talking Trees: Philemon and Baucis Revisited’, Arethusa, 38.3, Fall 2005, pp. 331–65 (334). A. S. Hollis, in his commentary on Book VIII (Ovid: Metamorphoses Book VIII, Oxford, 1970, ad loc.), notes this meal’s debt to an important Ovidian forebear, Callimachus’s Hecale, and prefers to read it as a rustic Italian countryside dinner.
Gowers, ‘Baucis and Philemon Revisited’ (n. 7, above), pp. 340–41 notes that Baucis and Philemon’s bacon is a metaliterary leftover of the Calydonian Boar, whose hunt takes up much of Book VIII and precedes this episode.
For structural explorations of Book VIII, see, e.g., A. Crabbe, ‘Structure and Content in Ovid’s Metamorphoses’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 2.31, 1981, pp. 2274–327; B. W. Boyd, ‘Two Rivers and the Reader in Ovid, Metamorphoses 8’, TAPA, 136, 2006, pp. 171–206.
D. R. Slavitt, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Baltimore, 1994, p. 171.
Zimmerman, Metamorphoses (n. 4, above), pp. 36–7.
Zimmerman, Metamorphoses (n. 4, above), p. 35.
Slavitt, Metamorphoses (n. 10, above), p. 170.
Zimmerman transitions to Erysichthon from Alcyone and Ceyx by expressing disbelief that anyone could deny the divine miracle of their transformation into seabirds.
Zimmerman, Metamorphoses (n. 4, above), pp. 80–81.
Slavitt, Metamorphoses (n. 10, above), p. 166.
For Callimachus’s Hymn to Demeter as a social comedy starring Erysichthon, see K. J. McKay, Erysichthon: A Callimachean Comedy, Leiden, 1962.
Zimmerman, Metamorphoses (n. 4, above), p. 40.
For an argument for Ceres’s continued presence in the Ovidian episode see Santucci, ‘Eating up Time in Ovid’s Erysichthon Episode’ (n. 5, above), pp. 144–45.
J. Farrell, ‘Metamorphoses: A Play by Mary Zimmerman’, American Journal of Philology, 123.4, Winter 2002, pp. 623–27 (625, n. 4) relates an anecdote about his friend’s shocked response to Zimmerman’s lighthearted take on the Metamorphoses, which seems telling in light of the ongoing transformations of—and within—Ovidian reception.
Many thanks are due to Ian Fielding, for his enthusiasm for discussing Ovidian reception, Judith Hallett, for introducing me to Zimmerman’s play, Shira Pilarski, for reading an early draft of this article and offering comments, an audience at Rutgers University in 2019, for entertaining my ideas about Ovidian metatextual food, and the anonymous reviewers, for their careful attention and helpful feedback.
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Santucci, R.S. Erysichthon Gets Fed: A Menu in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. Int class trad (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12138-020-00585-w