Before the Eagle

Here's something I wrote for creative writing class last year but never got around to posting. It's a retelling of the story of Promethus, from Greek mythology, intending to explore his motivations in stealing fire for mankind.

 

Before the Eagle

A Story of Prometheus

Lachlan Marnoch, 2016

Mount Othrys struck through the eye of a hurricane, swirling with the violence of the gods’ war. Cracks of thunder and splintered stone rolled down the  mountain. Kronos and Zeus battled at the peak in a deafening roar.  Kronos’ desperate rage echoed through the aether, battering Zeus in roiling waves. But Zeus stood calm as the mountain, his defiance striking as lightning from his fists.
         Far below, Prometheus faced his brother Atlas across the mountain path. The battle raged around them. Smoke and ozone stung the air, carried against the two siblings by the whipping wind. Shock and anger burned in Atlas's eyes. And there was something else there.
          Ah, right, Prometheus thought glumly. Betrayal.
          Curiously detached from his own peril, Prometheus took note of the conflict’s progress. Flames, Zeus’ newest ally, were licking up the wooded mountainside. Enormous boulders, tossed by the many-handed giants from the foothills, smashed with shattering booms into Titan positions above. They were covering the advance of the Cyclopes, whose wondrous inventions had played no small role in the recent chain of Olympian victories. From his perch, Hyperion was casting beams of vengeful sunlight onto the Olympians climbing the western faces. Soon, if all went to the plan Prometheus had helped draw, shadow-clad Hades would eliminate him, allowing Demeter to press their advance. Meanwhile, on the eastern slopes, Poseidon’s earthquakes rocked the cliffs and opened cracks to swallow Titans whole.
          Olympian victory was assured, but the Titans were in no mood to surrender the power they had clung to for an age. For Zeus and his siblings, this battle was the culmination of a ten-year campaign to avenge the sins of their tyrant father. For Prometheus it was the end of a decade of lies and sabotage.
          “You are a traitor.”
          Atlas's rumbling words were quiet, yet they carried easily through the seething air. Prometheus flinched at the judgment they bore.
          “To your brothers. To your kind.”
          To you, maybe. But I have betrayed no part of myself.
          A rush of anguish through Prometheus’ chest betrayed this assertion. His usual wit was dry in his throat. Explanations flashed through his mind: how for millennia the Titans had abused mortal life. How Menoetius - their own brother! - had slaughtered herds of mammoth and left them to rot. How only months ago Kronos had led a Titan war party through an innocent tribe of higher apes, sparing only his favourite delicacy: live children.
          But the words never made it past his lips. All he could do was swallow them, caught in that gaze.
          “Your sharp words have abandoned you, have they, brother?” Atlas spat that last word with derision, and began advancing across the path. Prometheus’ instinct was to flee. But he stood firm.
          Ah, the courage of the damned.
          Atlas seized him by the throat, raising him above the scarred ground.
          As ever you demonstrate your supreme intellect, Atlas, Prometheus might have jibed had he not been dangling by his vocal chords. Atlas threw him to the ground. Prometheus’ skin scraped against ragged stone before he skidded to a halt, just short of a cliff-drop. Atlas advanced on him again, footsteps clapping ominously. Prometheus gazed up at his brother with sorrow, but not fear. Even at the height of fury, Atlas was not one for rash violence. Well, not the permanent kind. Not like -
          Menoetius burst suddenly into their little clearing, roaring in bloodlust, an unfortunate Cyclops in his grip. With a sickening rip, he tore all four limbs from the unfortunate master builder. Smearing gore over his bare chest, Menoetius’ fevered eyes fell on his pair of brothers by the cliff-side.
          “YOU!” he bellowed, pointing a dismembered leg at his treacherous sibling.
          “Who?” Prometheus pointed at himself in feigned surprise.
          “Me?”
          Meno, brandishing the ripped leg like a club, roared as he leapt towards prone Prometheus, who closed his eyes, resigned.
          About time.
          “No!”
          Atlas’s voice boomed. Prometheus’ eyes flew open. His eldest sibling threw himself between Menoetius and Prometheus, catching the aggressor on the shoulder and plunging him to the ground with a crack. Menoetius’ eyes were wide with shock as Atlas pinned him.
          “What are you doing!?” Meno screamed, struggling with the ferocity of a spider. Atlas didn’t appear to have any adequate answer to Meno’s question, which only made him struggle harder.
          “He betrayed us! For his squirming apes, his hairy savages!"
          Atlas wrestled Meno into submission, as he had so many times in playful bouts. Atlas always won, when he tried, but occasionally he had let his weaker sibs overpower him. Not today.
          Meno subsided, chest heaving.
          “They aren't the overgrown rats they once were, brothers,” Prometheus said quietly, having gathered his words.
          “They are much more. They see the world like we do, they ask questions, they wonder. I couldn’t... allow them to keep suffering.” He climbed to his feet.
          Menoetius was not convinced by his brother’s eloquence.
          “I will kill every one of them, for this, I swear! I will dash their brains across Olympus, redden the Mediterranean with their blood. Their viscera will rain from the sky, their genitals... will...”
          Meno, having depleted his store of murderous imagery, trailed into wordless growls.
          “Oh, yes, clearly they are the savages,” said Prometheus in mock thoughtfulness.
          “Thank you for pointing that out.”
          Atlas stared at him from between Meno’s flailing limbs. Rage had cooled, but deep, profound hurt had swelled to replace it.
          “I will not forgive you for this, brother.”
          Prometheus turned his back before he allowed the tears to well. They glinted in the firelight.

***

When the smoke had cleared and the trials of the Titans began, Prometheus found that he couldn’t stomach facing his former kin. The fourth brother Epimetheus, his co-conspirator in treason, later relayed the news. Menoetius was to be cast into Tartarus, the deepest pit of the underworld. Their father Iapetus, who had been mortality’s sole champion in Kronos’ court, would share the same fate. Their grandfather Oceanus, neutral even in the great war, was to be shunted from his aquatic domain in favour of Poseidon. And in a fate worse even than Tartarus, Atlas was to stand forever between heaven and earth, separating them with his eternal strength.
          Prometheus left Greece to roam the southern continent with his beloved apes. But his fate was not eternal.

***

Prometheus pushed his way past the swaying grass, emerging into the patch of flattened earth the tribe had chosen this season. He paused. The butchered carcass of a zebra lay in the centre of a crouched circle of balding apes. One of the humans, bones woven through his hair, stood over the body, waving his stick and offering words of worship. The name “Zeus” featured prominently.
          Epimetheus lifted a hand in greeting from across the circle. Prometheus nodded back. Withdrawing silently, Epi sidled up to his brother.
          “Do you suppose Zeus understands what they say?” he murmured.
          Prometheus smiled wryly.
          “Zeus doesn’t care which words are spoken. It’s the submission that counts.”
          Epimetheus frowned.
          “What’s the news?”
          “Did you know that he sits on a throne now? A great marble thing, carved with swans.” Prometheus remembered the first time he had met Zeus, pledging his betrayal at Olympus’ peak. Then the king of the Olympians had sat on a bare wooden chair. Any pretence of modesty had been discarded the second Kronos was sentenced.
          Epi looked longways at his brother, who was apparently intent on the dancing human.
          “You didn’t go to Olympus to report on Zeus’s furniture.”
          One of the humans was chanting, not with religious zeal, but with fevered delirium. He lay on his back, tossing and turning as the ritual continued. His mate stroked his sweat-drenched hair, anxiety set deep in her forehead. Prometheus doubted the sick human would see the next morning.
          Prometheus shook his head.
          “Our lord is none too keen to follow through on his election promises, it seems. He still won’t lend me the fire.”
          Epi sighed in frustration.
          “Why?”
          “He’s afraid of losing the power he wrested from Kronos. Afraid that someone in turn will cast him aside.”
          “Even the mortals?”
          “Especially the mortals.”
          The shaman had carved the juiciest meat from the dead animal, arranging a cairn of flesh, and cast the fat and the bones aside. Now he planted the zebra’s head on his stick and  paraded it around the circle, allowing each tribe member to touch it in turn. Each stage of the act was conducted with the utmost conviction, as though of profound importance. Prometheus had seen a thousand versions of this ritual from tribe to tribe, not a single one identical.
          Across the circle was a child. Her ribs pressed against her skin. She stared hungrily at the meat. When she thought her mother wasn’t looking, she reached out surreptitiously for a scrap, but was rewarded with a smack from the shaman’s stick.
          “The Titans were just ignorant of mortal life. Criminally negligent, you could say, careless where they threw their power. The Olympians... they make demands of it, now. Sacrifices.”
          Prometheus cast his hand vaguely at the ceremony.
          “I hadn’t noticed.”
          Epi’s fists were clenched.
          “Damn it, we threw our people on Zeus’s mercy – for this! A better world for mortal life. And still they scrounge in the mud.”
          “Some mercy,” Prometheus muttered.
          “Atlas is going to have some incredible back problems if he’s ever freed.”
          The ritual was nearing completion now. The shaman was burying the parcels of meat in a shallow pit. He smeared the dripping blood across his chest. The deed done, the tribe dispersed.
          The brothers walked together from the tribe’s clearing. Epi sighed.
          “As bad as Kronos was, Zeus is little better. He rapes at will. He’s developed something of a taste for human men and women. And Hera takes her vengeance on them rather than him.”
          “Divine justice at work,” Prometheus muttered. He had seen Zeus himself on his travels, in the guise of a great swan, swooping to abduct tribesmen and women on which to sate his appetites. At least Kronos had merely eaten them.
          “Zeus’ appetites make little sense to me.”
          Prometheus decided not to mention his own mortal trysts.
          “Are you quite sure, Epi? You rarely take your eyes off that one,”
          Epi gave a start in surprise. The woman Prometheus pointed out chanced to look up, and treated Epi with a smile that Aphrodite herself would have envied in its mournful beauty.
          “Hmm. Well, Pandora is an exception, she...” Epi clamped his mouth shut, but there was no chance of his brother missing that.
          “Hah!” he hooted, punching Epi on the shoulder.
          “You’ve even named her. As if she were a goddess herself.”
          “They do seem more like us with every generation.”
          Prometheus’ grin subsided.
          “Or do we grow more like them?” He picked up a rock and tossed it towards the horizon. He regretted it as soon as the cool stone left his fingers, hoping that it wouldn’t kill some unsuspecting bird in the dark.
          “I pleaded, Epi. Pleaded. Not my best look, not by a long shot. I’ve tried every angle. Zeus will not budge.”
          “Maybe there’s another way. It doesn’t have to be fire.”
          Prometheus shook his head.
          “Fire is the key to a new life for them. No longer will they shiver when the sun falls, or fear hyenas dragging their children off in the night. They can cook meat to kill disease. They can keep malarial mosquitoes away. They can craft new tools, fire bricks, melt birch glue, harden wood. Once the dark has lost its terror, who knows what they will do? You remember the Cyclopes, Epi, and the miracles they created. The humans can surpass even them, with time. But fire is the first step.”

They returned to the campsite, where the setting sun had summoned the humans to sleep, huddled together under shared animal skins. Iron still hung in the air. Casting around first to make sure none of the tribe was watching, Prometheus gathered the discarded fat and bones, wrapping them into a bundle. He dug into the soil with his toe, shunting it aside. He pulled the fresh meat from its pit, and replaced it with the bundle, burying it deeper to avoid attracting hyenas. Epi watched him, eyebrow cocked, as he wrapped the sacrifice in the zebra’s skin and placed it where the humans would find it. With one finger he sliced into the surface of the skin, carving a Π.
          “A gift from the gods,” he smiled, patting the skin. He stood, turning to each of the humans in turn. They were shivering in the winter darkness. Every now and then a pair of eyes burst open, alert for the glow of a predator’s gaze. Then it would return to uneasy rest.
          “If Zeus won’t give them the fire,” he whispered, “then I’ll just have to steal it.”
          Epimetheus gasped.
          “From the king of the gods? We betrayed our people for him! You would betray him in turn?”
          “Oh yes,” Prometheus replied, “That's who I am, you see.” I can’t let it all be for nothing. “I’m a traitor. It's what I do!”
          A smile stretched his face, but his eyes were as hard as flint.
          “Prometheus,” Epi said seriously.
          “If the humans have fire, if they master this world for themselves, a day will come when they don’t need gods.”
          Prometheus returned his stare. His easy smile was gone.
          “Good.”

 

 

Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre)

Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre)