Procrustean Bed

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesDefinition: forcing an idea into a predetermined arbitrary scheme, pattern, or standard; a rigid form of thinking that does not fully grasp the totality of someone or something.

Variations: Procrustean solution (or approach), Procrustean way of thinking, bed of Procrustes

Origin: In Greek mythology, Procrustes was one of Poseidon’s son who ruled over Mount Korydallos, between Eleusis and Athens. He is described as a giant who was a thief and a blacksmith.

Procrustes was not your typical gracious Greek host. He would attack travelers and try to make them fit exactly in an iron bed — by stretching them or amputating their feet, à la Jeffrey Dahmer or Kathy Bates’ character in Misery (remember the terrifying hobbling scene?). In either case, the victims died a very horrific and painful death. Needless to say, Procrustes “the Stretcher” did not get high ratings on Yelp for his accommodations.

In his famous short story, “The Purloined Letter,” Edgar Allan Poe refers to the Procrustean bed when C. Auguste Dupin, a brilliant private detective, criticizes the rigid investigative techniques of the Parisian police:
“The measures, then,” [Dupin] continued, “were good in their kind, and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case, and to the man. A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he.”

Fortunately for unsuspecting travelers, Procrustes eventually got his comeuppance. You’ve heard the phrase “if you’ve made your bed, then you’ll have to lie in it”? Well that’s exactly what the young hero, Theseus (who later became king of Athens), did when he captured the barbarous blacksmith, as the last of his Six Labors, and “fitted” Procrustes to his own iron bed by cutting off his head and legs. No one mourned that Procrustes’s life — ahem — was cut short.

Read related posts: Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard
To Cut the Gordion Knot

For further reading: The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology by Edward Tripp (1974)
The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology by Robin Hard (2003)
Gods, Demigods and Demons: A Handbook of Greek Mythology by Bernard Evelin (2007)

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