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Greek mythology is filled with horrors.  There are poisonous monsters with super regeneration/multiplication powers.  There are child-eating cannibal gods (in charge of everything, no less).  There are gods of pure fear and anguish.  And this is to say nothing of giant dragons, impenetrable lions, three headed demon dogs, and haughty musically-inclined deities. Yet the scary Greek antagonist that I find most alarming (as an adult) was merely a renegade blacksmith and petty bandit.   According to classical myth, Procrustes was a bastard son of Poseidon who lived in Attica.  He had a hideout on the sacred road running from Athens to Eleusis and he would rob and murder unlucky pilgrims.

Yet it was the imaginatively metaphorical way which Procrustes utilized to dispatch his victims which makes him so dreadful.  Procrustes had an iron bed which he would force his victims to lie on.  If they were longer than the bed, he would lop off all of the surplus bits until they fit perfectly.  If they were shorter, he would take his hammer and tongs and stretch them and pound them until they fit.

This all seems like standard horror fare which would make for a fine Cary Elwes movie, except for the fact that Procrustes’ OCD methodology became such a profound  inspiration for bureaucracies and institutions everywhere.  I suspect this story is the underlying motivation for half the management classes in business school, and anybody who has ever filled out an art show application will be shuddering with recognition. Everyone has had to deal with a one-size-fits-all situation which did not fit them at all: it seems like industrialized society takes its greatest inspiration from Procrustes.

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Of course the story is redeemed by its satisfying conclusion.  Theseus, the thinking man’s Greek hero, cleaned up Attica (before making his way to the throne, via Crete and the labyrinth).  When Procrustes tried to mug Theseus, the young hero was ready and he violently defeated the smith.  Then Theseus bound the giant to the infamous murder bed and rectified the situation by giving Procrustes a taste of his own medicine.  The story takes on a certain tragic aspect though if you believe that Theseus was also a demi-god who was born of Poseidon (the wine-soaked conception of Theseus makes his parentage unclear….and yet, come on, his father was clearly Poseidon).

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Anyway, this is where we get the word “Procrustean” which is extremely useful for describing numerous unhappy situations where the protagonist (i.e. you) are made to fit into the wrong sort of station, position, or circumstances.  Thanks for the concept, Greek mythology!  This will give us something to think about while falling asleep.