According to Robert Graves, Erysichthon was the son of Triopas and the king of Thessaly. One day as he was leading a party of twenty companions through the forest he came across a sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Demeter.
Thinking the wood from the surrounding trees would make a lovely dining hall, the self-serving king gathered up his fellow travelers and began chopping his way through the woodlet.
Hearing the disturbance, Demeter disguised herself as Nicippe, the priestess of the grove and politely asked the band of intruders to stop their unlawful attack upon the land. Choosing to ignore the humble requests, Erysichthon pushed past the priestess and continued to callously cut his way through the hallowed thicket.
It was not until Erysichthon turned and swung his axe in the direction of the pleading maiden that Demeter shed her disguise and stood before the insolent king in all of her divine glory. To punish Erysichthon for his impertinent behavior, the goddess damned him to a life of insatiable hunger. The more he ate, the more food he desired.
Unable to afford the food needed to keep their son satisfied, Erysichthon’s parents had no other choice but to cast him out onto the streets. There he was forced to remain, living the life of a beggar and forever trying to fill his voracious hunger.
The Roman poet Ovid presents us with a slightly different version of the story. It seems that as King Erysichthon and his companions were felling trees to supplement the building of his new banquet hall, the group happened upon a massive oak tree ornately decorated with floral wreaths.
Knowing that the tree could only belong to a goddess, the band of woodsmen adamantly refused to cut it down. “I fear the wrath of no goddess” Erysichthon proclaimed and defiantly swung his axe into the side of the sacred tree.
As the blade pierced the thick layer of protective bark a groan of agony echoed from deeply within the belly of the trunk. For you see the oak tree housed a dryad nymph who had been mortally wounded by the thrust of Erysichthon’s axe. The other nymphs desperately prayed to Demeter to avenge their sister and punish Erysichthon for his ruthless deed.
The goddess swiftly took action and cursed the cruel king with the feeling of insatiable hunger. Erysichthon ravenously devoured everything he could get his hands on.
When it came to be that he had emptied both his cupboard and his treasure chest, the forlorn king resorted to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery. Realizing that his hunger pangs were never to be quenched, Erysichthon grimly took to devouring his own flesh until he finally ate himself to death.