Mything Words - Procrustean

by Erin on May 16, 2012

Have you ever heard the phrase “a Procrustean bed”? According to the definition in my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, it is “a scheme or pattern into which someone or something is arbitrarily forced.” This phrase was inspired by the legend of Procrustes.

Procrustes is a character from Greek mythology. The story goes that the old fellow was particularly fond of guests. So much so that according some sources he tended to abduct people who happened to wander through his neck of the woods. Instead of offering them hospitality - you know, a warm meal or some charming conversation - Procrustes offered his visitors one of two beds. And these were not just any beds. Oh no, they were special. The beds were said to be made from iron and were crafted specifically to suit the exacting standards of Procrustes.

It seemed that Procrustes took grim pleasure in selecting a bed that he knew would not suit the size of his guest. The shorter guests were assigned to the longer bed, while the taller guests were relegated to the smaller bed. But this disparity just wouldn’t do. So Procrustes then made sure that his guest fit the bed. He stretched the shorter people, contorting their bodies, so that they would encompass the full length of the bed. The larger people had a rough go of it too, as Procrustes simply lopped off their feet to accommodate the smaller bed.

It was the hero Theseus who put and end to all this mayhem. According to the legend, Theseus punished Procrustes for his crimes by giving him a dose of his own medicine. As you can imagine, things did not end well for Procrustes. And so the Procrustean bed was used one final time in mythology. The phrase however lives on.

Some of the alternate names by which Procrustes was known are Damastes, Polypemon, and Procoptas. Apparently, the Greek names reveal the violent tendencies of this legendary scoundrel.

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