Zeus sits on his throne. He rules the sky and the world. His sister-wife Hera rules him. Duties and domains in the mortal sphere are parcelled out to his family, the other ten Olympian gods. In the early days of gods and men, the divine trod the earth with mortals, befriended them, ravished them, coupled with them, punished them, tormented them, transformed them into flowers, trees, birds and bugs and in all ways interacted, intersected, intertwined, interbred, interpenetrated and interfered with us. But over time, as age has succeeded age and humankind has grown and prospered, the intensity of these interrelations has slowly diminished.
In the age we have entered now, the gods are still very much around, favouring, disfavouring, directing and disturbing, but Prometheus’s gift of fire has given humankind the ability to run its own affairs, build up its distinct city states, kingdoms and dynasties. The fire is real and hot in the world and has given mankind the power to smelt, forge, fabricate and make, but it is an inner fire too; thanks to Prometheus we are now endowed with the divine spark, the creative fire, the consciousness that once belonged only to gods.
The Golden Age has become an Age of Heroes – men and women who grasp their destinies, use their human qualities of courage, cunning, ambition, speed and strength to perform astonishing deeds, vanquish terrible monsters and establish great cultures and lineages that change the world. The divine fire stolen from heaven by their champion Prometheus burns within them. They fear, respect and worship their parental gods, but somewhere inside they know they are a match for them. Humanity has entered its teenage years.
Prometheus himself – the Titan who made us, befriended us and championed us – continues to endure his terrible punishment: shackled to the side of a mountain he is visited each day by a bird of prey that soars down out of the sun to tear open his side, pull out his liver and eat it before his very eyes. Since he is immortal the liver regenerates overnight, only for the torment to repeat the next day. And the next.
Prometheus, whose name means Forethought, has prophesied that now fire is in the world of man, the days of the gods are numbered. Zeus’s rage at his friend’s disobedience derives as much from a deep-buried but persistent fear that man will outgrow the gods as from his deep sense of hurt and betrayal.
Prometheus has also seen that the time will come when he will be released. A mortal human hero will arrive at the mountain, shatter his manacles and set the Titan free. Together they will save the Olympians.
But why should the gods need saving?
For hundreds of generations a deep resentment has smouldered beneath the earth. When Kronos the Titan castrated his father, the primordial sky god Ouranos, and hurled his genitals across Greece, a race of giants sprang from where the drops of blood and seed fell. These ‘chthonic’ beings, these creatures sprung from the earth, believe that the time will come when they can wrest power from the arrogant upstart children of Kronos, the Olympian gods. The giants await the day when they can rise up to conquer Olympus and begin their own rule.
Prometheus squints into the sun and awaits his moment too.
Mankind, meanwhile, gets on with the mortal business of striving, toiling, living, loving and dying in a world still populated with more or less benevolent nymphs, fauns, satyrs and other spirits of the seas, rivers, mountains, meadows, forests and fields, but bristling too with its share of serpents and dragons – many of them the descendants of the primordial Gaia, the earth goddess and Tartarus, god of the depths beneath the earth. Their offspring, the monstrous Echidna and Typhon, have spawned a multitude of venomous and mutant creatures that ravage the countryside and oceans that humans are trying to tame.
To survive in such a world, mortals have felt the need to supplicate and submit themselves to the gods, to sacrifice to them and flatter them with praise and prayer. But some men and women are beginning to rely on their own resources of fortitude and wit. These are the men and women who – either with or without the help of the gods – will dare to make the world safe for humans to flourish. These are the heroes.
Breakfast on Mount Olympus. Zeus sits at one end of a long stone table, sipping his nectar and considering the day ahead. One by one the other Olympian gods and goddesses drift in to take their seats. At last Hera enters and takes her place at the opposite end from her husband. Her face is flushed, her hair discomposed. Zeus glances up in some surprise.
‘In all the years I have known you, you have never once been late for breakfast. Not once.’
‘No, indeed,’ says Hera. ‘Accept my apologies, but I slept badly and feel unsettled. I had a disturbing dream last night. Most disturbing. Would you like to hear it?’
‘Absolutely,’ lies Zeus, who has, in common with us all, a horror of hearing the details of anyone else’s dreams.
‘I dreamt that we were under attack,’ Hera says. ‘Here on Olympus. The giants rose up, climbed the mountain and they assaulted us.’
‘My, my . . .’
‘But it was serious, Zeus. The whole race of them streamed up and attacked us. And your thunderbolts glanced as harmlessly off them as if they were pine needles. The giants’ leader, the largest and strongest, came for me personally and tried to . . . to . . . impose himself.’
‘Dear me, how very upsetting,’ says. ‘But it was after all only a dream.’
‘Was it though? Was it? It was all so clear. It had more the feeling of a vision. A prophecy, perhaps. I have had them before. You know I have.’
This was true. Hera’s role as goddess of matrimony, family, decorum and good order made it easy to forget that she was also powerfully endowed with insight.
‘How did it all end?’
‘Strangely. We were saved by your friend Prometheus and . . .’
‘He is not my friend,’ snaps Zeus. Any mention of Prometheus is barred on Olympus. To Zeus the sound of his once dear friend’s name is like lemon juice on a cut.
‘If you say so, my dear, I am merely telling you what I dreamed, what I saw. You know, the strange thing is that Prometheus had with him a mortal man. And it was this human that pulled the giant off me, threw him down from Olympus and saved us all.’
‘A man, you say?’
‘Yes. A human. A mortal hero. And in my dream it was clear to me, I am not sure how or why, but it was clear, so clear, that this man was descended from the line of Perseus.’
‘Perseus, you say?’
‘Perseus. There could be no doubt about it. The nectar is at your elbow, my dear . . .’
Zeus passes the jar down the table.
There’s a name he hasn’t heard for a while.
Perseus . . .