it’s a complex story:

Erisichthon: a complex figure

Long before there was an Ebenezer Scrooge, the wicked and greedy Erisichthon made all kinds of mythic trouble. Like Scrooge, Erisichthon has much to tell us about our complexes.

It’s a Complex Story
Complex in Fairy Tale and Myth
Part 3 of a 4-part series
  1. Introduction
  2. The Monster at the End of this Book
  3. Erisichthon
  4. Pasiphae and the Minotaur

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The Greek myth of Erisichthon is not widely known, but many of us would recognize him as a predecessor to the more contemporary Ebenezer Scrooge. Like Scrooge, Erisichthon privileges power and money over spiritual and human concerns, and both are thoroughly and well ‘schooled’ by The Powers That Be.

You can find a beautifully told version of Erisichton’s tale in the link preceding this essay, but the essential details are these: Erisichthon enters a sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Ceres. Despite the sacrilege of the act, Erisichthon orders his servants to cut down one of the holy trees. As the axe strikes the trunk, the tree starts to bleed. Horrified, an onlooker tries to stop the cutting of the divine tree. Erisichthon resents the interference, however, and kills the bystander. The tree, of course, is also cut down.

The spirits of the sacred grove now turn to the goddess, Ceres, seeking justice. Ceres, in turn, arranges for Famine to inhabit Erisichthon’s body: he will consume but never feel nourished, gorge but never become sated. His hunger comes to dominate him and ultimately drives him to poverty and destruction.

the Erisichthon complex

As we begin considering the nature of any complex, it makes sense to look for the wound at its core. Complexes are often understood as being responses to some form of injury or trauma.[2]

In the case of Erisichthon, the nature of the complex seems to hinge on the essence of the victim, a tree sacred to the goddess. Erisichthon’s attack is targeted at the Divine Feminine. This speaks to some kind of mothering wound — the material mother, the mothering/nourishing nature of divinity, or both.

Both Perry[3] and Stone,[4] envision complexes as frequently arising in pairs. If we have a complex wrapped around a child archetype, there is surely a parent-centered complex within shouting distance. Similarly, if we have a complex engaged in victimizing behaviors, we will likely find a complex in the victim role nearby.

In terms of the Erisichthon myth, let’s envision a binary complex system consisting of a hungry/wounded child complex and a mother complex. (The action of the myth revolves around the behavior of the hungry child complex, but implies a related negative mother complex, off-stage.) The hungry child is the complex’s archetypal core. Its essence is: I want. Wrapped around this core, we observe the complex’s shell: the gluttonous businessman, someone who is powerful in the world and disdains the goddess and those devoted to her.

At the same time, it seems certain that someone who treats sacred things with so much vitriol feels wounded by the divine — betrayed by life at a fundamental level, perhaps driven by the power of death-anxiety.[5] Again, this betrayal likely connects to questions of mothering and nourishment, later confirmed when Ceres’s punishment focuses on hunger.

It is also worth noting that Erisichthon also seems to have developed the idea that power is cruel; this is evident in the way he wields his might.

the lessons of Erisichthon

With all this in mind, then, what does the Erisichthon myth teach us? First, it seems that early woundings around nourishment and mothering may give birth to complexes who feel perpetually hungry, or constantly in want. In the wrong context — unhealthy role models or further injury at the hands of cruel figures — such complexes, themselves, can become pathologically mean, and hungry for grown-up things like power and wealth. They issue their demands without concern for the needs of others, and may even go out of their way to tear down beautiful things, denying others the subtle nourishments of the sacred.

Of course, there are other, subtler ways an Erisichthon complex might behave in our inner world. We might hear ourselves making disdainful comments about other people’s religious beliefs. Or discover a certain subtle, inner zing of pleasure when we witness violence or acts of destruction, especially against women or the earth. We might binge on, or even waste food, doing so with a certain sneer. I pay for this food; I’ll do what I want with it, we may think — and then hate ourselves for it. Surely we can all imagine still other ways this monster of myth might manifest in our psyches.

But let’s recall: as much as the person with an Erisichthon complex may look like an adult monster, the wound at their heart is that of a child. When we suspect such a complex in ourselves, we might consider new ways of finding the nourishment that we truly seek — nourishment we may have missed out on, as children.

Few of us would be pleased to find an Erisichthon in our inner world. But understanding, and an attempt to redress and heal old wounds — in active imagination, for instance — is far likelier to resolve the our distress than denial, which only sets up the circumstances for later projection, and even acting out, down the road.

Inviting our inner Erisichthon into active imagination for dialogue may not be rewarding right away — it may be a frustrating, heart-rending exercise. But, over time, patience and kindness woos virtually every hurt child. The need for love and attention is at the heart of every young one’s seeking, after all. Discovering that we contain darkness, especially the forms of darkness most repulsive to us, is painful, confusing, and far from easy. But when we engage these inner figures and discover their traumatic roots, we can stop expending so much energy on pushing them away, and begin to embrace what has been a needy part of us, all along.

up next ...

Pasiphae and the Minotaur

A look at how the griefs and unlived longings of parents can get passed down to their children.   in Part 4

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