Creatures of Prometheus
Prometheus the Titan had more cause then anyone on earth to hate the Olympians.
Once, when world rule had newly fallen into Olympian hands, and Zeus was shaping it to his own liking – a forest here, a river there – he took up modelling. He fashioned camels out of sand, cows from brown earth, sheep from thistledown and mud, and a variety of ferrety-weasely-martin-stoaty things that no one could tell apart. Some said Zeus got bored, others that he lacked the skill (though no one said that out loud). But when it came to making Mankind, Zeus gave over the job to Prometheus. A Titan, yes, but an artist first and foremost.
How delicately he had worked! Experimenting with the ears and hands and which way the knees should bend. Squatting on the ground, head between his knees, he worked so carefully, with such intensity, a little smile on his lips whenever he thought of some new feature – opposing finger and thumb, a uvula for yodelling, underarm hair…
Prometheus grew so fond of Mankind that when he saw them shivering with cold, or chewing on uncooked turnips, or stumbling about in the dark, fire seemed the least he could give them to ease their little lives. So, despite Zeus’s edict that Humankind should live without fire, Prometheus stole some from the rim of the sun’s chariot wheel.
Now, for this crime, he hung from a cliff, crucified, his clever hands pierced through with admantine nails, his stomach torn open by vultures. His titanic beauty was gouged and daubed with red, and to come upon him was like finding a fawn mawled by wolves and left to die.
But Prometheus did not die, would never die, could never die. The theft of fire was given out to be his crime, but it probably had more to do with jealousy. It was whispered that whereas Zeus could command fear, Prometheus inspired love in the mortals he had made – something that set the King of the Olymps writhing with resentment. So the Titan’s sentence was to hang from this cliff, eviscerated by everlastingly hungry birds, forever in torment.
Thoősa’s first reaction was to cover Hylas’s eyes. She would have done it at home, if she had been minding neighbour’s children and had chanced on carrion in the wood. Hylas pushed her hands away, but said nothing. Deucalion and Pyrrha, though they had visited Prometheus ten thousand times, felt the horror afresh every time, felt a grief beneath their antique ribs, sharp as birds’ beaks. He was, after all, their father.
Thoősa’s second reaction was to start climbing – up and up – finding handholds as she had found them outside the Scylla’s cave. This time, though, she was making her way towards the horror rather than away from it.
“Stop, child. It is futile!” called Pyrrha, but Thoősa could not be stopped. She did not know how to stop. Her little split-skin shoes dislodged rosebay willow from the cliff face but there were no bird nests here. Birds do not nest where vultures are.
“People have tried before! We tried!” called the old man. “It cannot be done!”
But Thoősa was a good climber. She did not look at Prometheus, could not bring herself to look at him. Myth said that Zeus was too gloriously bright for any mortal to look at and live. In Thoősa’s eyes, Zeus’s brightness dimmed with every passing day. But this Prometheus would never lose his splendour.
“Child! Child, come down! You will fall!” called the old people.
But Prometheus was the Father of Mankind! Why should he be impaled against a wall for the crime of loving them too much: those people he had made out of clay and patient artistry?
“Thoősa, don’t be stupid! What can you do?”
She had known the story for years. ‘The mountains of the Caucasus, near the world’s end,’ the stories had said. But no, of course, stories get things wrong. Zeus had not nailed up Prometheus anything like as far away: he enjoyed too much watching his enemies suffer. This place, a short, steep climb up from the base of Mount Ossa, was within reach of Olympus – a pleasant day’s outing.
Thoosa’s palms were sweating with anger; she lost her grip and, for a moment, hung by one hand from an embedded tree root. Quite how she would free adamantine nails from granite rock she did not know, but there was no room for common sense in her head: only the dizzying ecstasy of awe. Though she had never considered it before, never given it a moment’s thought, she realised in an instant that this was the god she worshipped.
The griffin vultures came out of the corner of her vision, weightless on the updraught of wind hitting the cliff, oily black wings bent upward at the tip. The beaks were too big for their heads, their claws too big for their bony ankles. They did not attack Thoősa – simply knocked against her in their haste to be feeding – but it was enough to dislodge her grip.
It was Talos who caught her. Xyno had fetched all of Monstro along, to discover the father of Deucalion and Pyrrha.
Once, a thundering waterfall had plunged down this cliff, gouging a pit in solid rock a its base, throwing up around it a rampart of rocks and mud, creating a tank, a pit, a wide arena of rock-strewn ground where now a thousand kinds of ugly clambered down to stand, awe-struck, at the sight of the Prometheus the Titan.
Hylas, clumsily wriggling out of the bow he wore across his body, struggled to bend it over his thigh, to slide the string’s loops into place. His hands would not do as he told them. His arrows would not notch to the string. When, finally, he took aim on the vultures, they were already gorging themselves, heads deep in the open wound. Hylas could not fire without shooting Prometheus in the stomach.
It was a sight so horrific that he was almost glad when the Echidna snatched the bow away from him. “Don’t shoot my birdy children, dearie, there’s nice,” she said. “Got few enough left as it is. ‘Sides, they’s pretty much inpreggible to archery.”
The entire army of Monstro had by now arrived. They too watched, heads on one side, moaning and groaning and shuddering – some smiling - at the sight of vultures tearing the lights out of Prometheus. The birds did it every day. The noise was indescribable.
“Come here, children. Come to your mother,” said the Echidna sharply, and there was a cawing harshness in her voice which the vultures had inherited. The birds ignored her, even so. Not until they had finished their grisly meal, had torn away most of Prometheus’ liver and emerged, feathers pasted to their heads with blood, were they ready to fly to their mother and perch, one on each shoulder. She rapped each across the beak, roughly wiped them clean with her filthy skirts, called them vile beasts. But they were her children; what more was she going to do? “They can’t help it, bless ‘em. It’s their doom. Zeus marked them out for it, poor little chickadees.”
Talos continued to hold Thoősa cupped in his two giant hands, clasped to his chest where she could not see. When he set her down on the ground, she immediately began again to climb, although the gloom of evening was closing in and she could barely find the hand-holds.
“Riddle for you, riddle for you. What makes the O’s different from Humanity?”
“Tell us, ma,” said Pegasus dutifully.
“Humanity’s got humanity.”
“Humanity is also blessed with death,” said a voice from high above them. “They don’t seem to appreciate it. Perhaps their lives are more… dear to them than mine is to me. To me death would be a boon beyond price.” Prometheus’ voice was hoarse and cracked from centuries of screaming. But there was a calm musicality that steadied the nerves, slackened the tension.
Typhon was so tall that his crowned head rose to a level with Prometheus’. One malformed skull hung like a lantern close by, breathing out a glimmer of fire that lit both men’s features.
“When Zeus is dead and gone…” began the Prince of Darkness.
“…he will feel no pain either,” said Prometheus. His face, formed before misery or disease were loosed on earth, still possessed an ethereal, serene beauty. As centuries of rain hollow the smoothest rock, pain had hollowed out the cheeks, the eye sockets, the temples, the throat. His lips were pale for want of blood, but nothing could quite mar the heroic nobility of Prometheus the Titan.
Stheno plucked Thoősa from the cliff before she could climb beyond reach, and carried her away to a distance.
“We have to fetch him down!” the girl protested. “No one can… no one ought to…!”
Deucalion and Pyrrha had been thrown into a twittering panic by the sudden appearance of so many stinking, moiling, noisy beasts. Half apologetic, half eager, they tried to explain to their father about meeting Hylas at the Cave of Fates, about Monstro’s march on Olympus, about a war which, if won, would bring down the Olympian gods, so that Prometheus could be set free... It was a strange encounter to watch, for Prometheus had been young when Zeus decreed his hideous punishment, and his youth had lasted along with his torment. His children had been granted immortality (for services to animal conservation) when they were already old. Their youthful father looked down now and shook his head, disappointed in his aged offspring.
“How many times? I have told you how it must be. My freedom carries a very particular price. Why fritter away your time and happiness looking for another way? Leave me. Tend your animals. Cultivate patience.”
Typhon pushed his face so close to that of Prometheus that his coronet left an indent across the Titan’s forehead. “Typhon is back. Now Typhon says how things ‘must be’.”
Mosquitoes droned through the warm darkness, drawn by fresh blood.
Prometheus took a long breath and let it trickle away before saying softly. “Do not think I have not given the matter thought? As you might guess, I have had little else on my mind. From up here, I can see a great way, Typhon son of Tartarus. Into the Past… on a clear day, even as far as the Truth. Zeus put me here and only Zeus can free me. On the day that one willingly gives up immortality for my sake, I shall be set free. That is the price. The deal is struck. Whatever you do, do not do it in my name.”