The principal translation we will use for Ovid's Metamorphoses is that of A. D. Melville in the 1986 Oxford World's Classics edition – use of the text without a translator credit can be assumed to be this version.
One way to approach themes in the Metamorphoses is to identify the four
personified abstractions we encounter, because one of them appears in
the Erysichthon story. The abstractions have their own four set-pieces
where they briefly become characters, which is a technique inspired by
the personification of Rumour in Virgils Aeneid - Ovid even makes
Rumour his own final personified abstraction (Met. 12.43). The first, that
of Envy (Invidia) (Met. 2.760) appears in the second book.
Envy, “Her cheeks are sallow, her whole body shrunk”
(Met. 2.775) does Minerva's bidding physically, by entering the sleeping
girl's room, where on her breast she “laid her withering hand and filled her
heart/ With thorny briars and breathed a baleful blight/ Deep down into
her bones and spread a stream/ Of poison, black as pitch, inside her
lungs” (Met. 2.798-801) and places images of Herse, happily married to
Mercury, in her head to incite wild jealousy (Met. 2.803-805).
In regard to the final demise of Aglauros, “distraught/ All night, all day, in utter misery,/ Wasting away in slow decline, like ice/ Marred by a fitful sun” (Met. 2.807-808), guarding her sister's door out of burning envy instead of the first-desired private enterprise, one wonders whether she would have been feeling a third motivating emotion – that of sisterly protection from this keen son of Jupiter, this personal Courier to the Underworld, known amongst other things for his swift thievery – had she not been wasting away with Envy inside. Perhaps her intentions would have become good ones: to make sure one of her own blood did not feel pressured to marry an eager immortal with wings on his ankles in a hurry, even if he were an exalted god who had spied her as he flew through the Athenian sky. Alas, the gods do not always allow mortals to put into practice the lessons they teach through their punishments. One cannot help but feel sorrow and terror for her (and wonder what her beautiful sister thought when she encountered the dark new statue in the house) when she tries to block the path of Mercury but feels “a numbing weight” which “Stiffened her muscles; as she strained to stand/ Upright her knees were stuck; an icy chill/ Seeped through her limbs, the blood paled in her veins” (Met. 2.821-824). Ovid‟s description of being turned to stone slowly enough for these horrifying details to be perceived individually is as disturbing as any science-fiction or fantasy horror film scene of imposed transformation on a living, feeling being. Mercury has done this to her now merely because she was blocking his path, in her own home.
Ovid gives a similar description to the Hunger (Fames) that enters
Erysichthon, in the second of the set-pieces: “her face sallow, her eyes/
Sunken” and “beneath her hollow loins/ Jutted her withered hips” (Met.
8.801-804). On reaching the sleeping Erysichthon, she performs the
same sort of body-filling action that is usually figurative, but with these
personifications of Ovid, becomes literal: Hunger “wrapped him in her
arms/ And breathed upon him, filling with herself/ His mouth and throat
and lungs, and channelled through/ His hollow veins her craving
emptiness” (Met. 8.818-820).
abstractions do not always follow ancient ideas of active and passive
gender roles in the most obvious ways. Besides, the set-pieces for Envy,
Hunger and Rumour all employ appropriate evil-female characteristics
(those of wasting away, the opposite of life-giving, an important female
role). These suggest witches of later times and cultures, such as Baba
Yaga of Russia, witches in Grimm's fairy tales and indeed the pan-European
and British Isles tradition, and the Wicked Witches of the
Wizard of Oz in popular culture.
It is night time, and Erisychthon, who has not yet shown in this section, is
now sleeping and vulnerable, snoring in his bed: he does not hear the
creak of his door as Hunger enters (3.63-65). Sitting on him, a little like a
succubus, she maneuvers her long spoon once into his open mouth and
has “Emptied him out” (3.66-70). Then, mouth-to-mouth (3.70), she
completes the physical transaction by breathing herself “into his blood/
Till famine blazed there” (3.71-72), similarly to the way Ovid's Hunger
physically fills Erysichthon with her breath upon his body (Met. 8.819-
820). In addition, although
Lasdun's Hunger is hardly explicitly seeking to return to the womb
whence she came, she is a “neglected” (3.48) child, lacking maternal
shelter, and she has a directable drive to become part of another body
(whilst magically not losing any of herself).
Next, Fames insinuates herself into Erysichthon via the breath (inspirat, 819), just
as Cupid at Venus' command breathes his occultum ignem into Dido unawares. The
echo of Virgil is especially apt. In both cases an otherwise necessary and natural desire
(for food or love) is given to a victim and acts as a terrible poison. In both cases the
'infection' is transferred via the breath to an unaware victim. Each victim is embraced as this happens, each scene happens at night, and each time the transfer of desire is
completed by a lesser deity (Fames or Cupid) by order of a greater deity. Finally, Fames places the hunger into his veins (peragit, 820) The verb is
used, in the same metrical position, at 815. This repetition, far from calling for a
replacement (such as spargit) is typical of the narrative. Ovid also adds to the
dramatic, action-packed feeling by making the final lines of this section (814 - 822) one
long sentence, with polysyndeton.