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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).

Procrustean-Solution

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.

Theseus Fiighting the Crommyon Sow and Phaea (Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci)

In Greek myth, the Crommyonian sow was a great she-pig which lived on the Isthmus of Corinth and tormented travelers until the Athenian hero Theseus came along and killed her.  In some tales the sow was a lone wild animal, but in other stories she had a human woman named Phaea associated with her: it is unclear whether this woman was young or old, lovely or haggard, a rude swineheard or a great sorceress.  A few sources indicate she herself might have been a shapeshifter who became the pig.  Whatever the case, Theseus slew her in addition to her sow.  The Borghese Gallery has a very strange relief sculpture by Vincenzo Pacetti which portrays Theseus handling Phaea’s nude (human) corpse and looking perplexed.

It’s kind of unclear what happened here. Of all the children of Echidna, the Crommyonian sow seems to get the shortest shrift in art and literature.  The sow vanishes from almost everything made after the fifth century BC.  There are numerous red and black vases depicting Theseus fighting the great pig and/or her associated sorceress, so it seems like the story was important to Athenians.  However the full version of this myth seems to have been lost in the mists of time and all we have are allusions and brief conflicting accounts [this sentence could apply to just about everything—ed].  Strabo asserts that the sow was the mother of the great Calydonian boar, whose mythical life and death engendered much strife, chauvinism, murder, and grief in the pantheon of Classical heroes. So perhaps, like Echidna, the sow found her greatest fame through her descendants.

A Wild Sow with her Shoats

I am going to go with Strabo and assume that the Calydonian Boar has a place in my musings about Echidna (being her grandson and all).  The boar was sent by Artemis to obtain revenge on King Oeneus the winemaker who forgot to honor the goddess with ritual sacrifices.  The monster destroyed the king’s vineyards and murdered his subjects, but it was only when Oeneus gathered the heroes of his age and sent them out (with his beloved son Meleager) to kill the boar that the virgin goddess obtained her true and terrible revenge.  The machinations behind the story are long and complicated (and sad), but the story of the hunt of the Calydonian boar suits my Halloween theme for an entirely different reason.  This was a favorite theme of sarcophagus makers who enjoyed sculpting beautiful armed nudes in the passion of the hunt.  Beneath is a gallery of Calydonian boar themed sarcophagi from the lost classical world.  The makers knew the story’s terrible fatalist tragedy (which I am not telling you) and they found it a most fitting subject for funerary art:

Roman marble sarcophagus from Vicovaro (municipality northeast of Rome), carved with the Calydonian Hunt (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome)

Attic sarcophagos. Pentelic marble. Found at Ayios Ioannis, Patras.

Greek Sarcophagus of the Calydonian Boar Hunt (Piraeus Archeological Museum, Athens)

Sculpted neo attic sarcophagus representing the Calydonian boar hunt with Atalanta and Meleager in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum (Second quarter of the 3rd c. AD)

A Sarcophagus with the Calydonian Boar Hunt (provenance unknown)

Etruscan cinerary urn with boar hunt, 2nd C BCE, Volterra Museo Guarnacci

 

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