Death and All His Friends- Part Three: Famine

And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.

– Saint John the Evangelist Book of the Revelation Chapter 6 Verses 5-6

Author’s Note: This is the third installment of a four-part series. The first installment is Death, and the second installment is War.

In my second installment of this series, I complained about how difficult it was to find an anthropomorphic personification of War. I had similar difficulties with this third installment, so once again I must consult with my old friends the Greeks and Romans (Hesiod, Ovid, and Virgil, respectively). I’ll also take a look at the character of Want in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and re-examine the inspiration for this series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. And so, without further ado, I present the third installment of Death and All His Friends: Famine.

The only Greek source for a personification of Famine that I could find is a small section of Hesiod’s Works and Days. In it, Hesiod says to “Work on, so that Limos (Famine) will avoid you and august and garlanded Demeter will be you friend, and fill your barn with substance of living; Limos (Famine) is the unworking man’s most constant companion.” In other words, work hard now so that you will be blessed by bountiful crops and full barns and not starve to death come winter. Not much personification there from the Greeks, so on to the Romans.

Once again I can find solace in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book 8, Ovid recounts the tale of Erysichthon and his daughter Mestra. For those of you unwilling to read through Ovid (and shame on you if you don’t), I offer a brief summary: Erysichthon desecrated a tree sacred to Ceres (goddess of the harvest). In revenge, Ceres made a deal with Famine to make Erysichthon eternally insatiable. He ate everything in his storehouses, and even sold all his possessions to get more food. He eventually had nothing left to sell, and resorted to selling Mestra in exchange for food. Mestra prayed to Neptune, who turned her into a shapeshifter. Erysichthon used this ability to swindle men out of money to buy even more food. However, Erysichthon was still unsatisfied, and he ultimately ate himself.

Here is Ovid’s description of Famine:

She…clutch[ed] at scant herbs with nails and teeth. Beneath her shaggy hair her hollow eyes glared in her ghastly face, her lips were filthy and her throat was rough and blotched, and all her entrails could be seen, enclosed in nothing but her shriveled skin; her crooked loins were dry uncovered bones, and where her belly should be was a void; her flabby breast was flat against her spine; her lean, emaciated body made her joints appear so large, her knobbled knees seemed large knots, and her swollen ankle-bones protruded.

Ovid here describes the classic symptoms of starvation: a willingness to eat anything available, even weeds; a hollowing of the face so that the eyes appear to have sunk into the skull; the blotchy, stretched skin drawn tightly around the chest, and, perversely, a swelling of the joints – perhaps reminiscent of the protruding bellies endured by the victims of starvation. Obviously, Ovid’s Famine looks like one would expect: little more than skin and bones held together by nothing but a strong will. This Famine does not just cause famine, she is famine in all its gory detail.

However, Ovid is not the only Roman writer to describe Famine, Virgil also gives us a glimpse of this ghoul in his epic work, The Aeneid. In Book 6, Aeneas makes a journey through Dis (the Underworld) in order to hear a prophecy from his deceased father. On the way, Aeneas views a variety of Roman deities, among them Fames [Famine], called  a “temptress to sin.” Virgil’s Famine serves as a reminder of the lengths a man will go to in order to survive (remember our friend Erysichthon?). Dear Reader, you may wonder why I mention Virgil at all, given his scant description of our subject. I must admit a personal bias: I greatly admire the works of Dante Alighieri, and since Virgil was a prime influence on Dante, I couldn’t leave Virgil out of this discussion.

And now, on to more modern literature, in this case Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol. When Ebenezer draws to the close of his visit with the Second Spirit (Ghost of Christmas Present), the Spirit warns him to beware of Ignorance and Want. I believe that Want is, in this case a form of Famine. Just look at Dickens’ description of the girl:

Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in [her] humility. Where graceful youth should have filled [her] features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Does this description sound familiar? It should; it is remarkably similar to Ovid’s description of the sallow, sunken hag of the underworld. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, however, Dickens’ does not see Famine as a goddess to be placated. According to the Second Spirit, Want [Famine] belongs to man; she is a creation of man and man’s problem to solve.

Finally, we return to my source of inspiration: Terry Pratchett and the Discworld. Famine makes a minor appearance in The Colour of Magic, but is also briefly featured in Sourcery. In Sourcery, Famine and two other Horsemen of the Apocralypse have their horses stolen while stopping for a bite at a tavern. However, since Famine was there, the quartet end up eating the innkeeper out of everything he has (except, perhaps, for a small jar of gherkins). Unlike the other authors on this list, Pratchett makes the unique choice of featuring Famine as a male figure rather than a female figure.

And there we have it: a brief survey of the anthropomorphic personification of Famine in five works of literature readily accessible to English readers. I hope you have enjoyed this journey as much as I have, and I look forward to presenting the fourth and final installment: Death and All His Friends – Part 4: Pestilence and Conquest. Two posts for the price of one!


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