Stone - Chapter 1

Before the fall

 

Poseidon’s laughter peeled off the marble walls of Athena’s temple as he ran like a coward from the destruction he had just caused. In a few moments he had taken a young life and ripped it to shreds, discarding his victim like she was nothing. His motivation was simple. Power. In his mind he had taught Athena a lesson in subjugation. Defiling her temple and one of her priestesses in one vile act of violence. His behaviour essentially the equivalent of a dog marking his territory. The God’s were known to be cruel with good reason.

Athena’s temple was a marvel of stone and marble, created with a love that only mortal devotion can yield. In the dark of the night the moon shone down white and pure, casting its glowing light on the world below. It was almost as if the Earth’s satellite were creating a deliberate contrast to the act of evil that had just taken place within the temple. Flying down the stone stairs, Poseidon paused briefly to look up in the moonlight and smile towards the heavens. To Olympus, where Athena would be watching. In the pale light his handsome, boyish face appeared distorted and frightening. On he continued into the night, towards the sea, his muscular frame casting long shadows as he passed the other buildings in the citadel.

The rivalry between Poseidon, God of the oceans and Athena, Goddess of war, wisdom and justice was well known throughout Olympus and the other Gods and Goddesses who resided there often chided them and encouraged their feud for their own entertainment. Unfortunately for the mortals who dwelled below them, their world was often the chosen forum for their clashes. Yet still the people worshipped them without question, even though they were often the victims of their whims and wickedness. So much depended on their benevolence, so much would be at stake should they arouse their displeasure. Human beings, so tiny in their immortal eyes, simply had to accept it or feel the sting of their displeasure.

The girl, like so many others before her, was simply a pawn in the Gods ongoing battle for power. Power that was distilled from the emotions of the very mortals who worshipped them, and so Olympus was a constant battle ground. Gods and Goddesses’ alike competed for the love of the small creatures they ultimately saw as ineffectual and worthless. It was essentially a popularity contest, as well as a test of wills. In short, it was complicated.

As the ocean God Poseidon made good his exit from Athena’s hallowed ground, behind him the girl sat on the cold marble floor, bruised and bloody. Slowly reaching for her torn clothing she pulled it to her, trying to cover her nakedness. The tears rolled down her young cheeks as she looked up to the ceiling, her face a mask of despair. Silently she prayed for help. Why had her Goddess forsaken her in her hour of need? Why had she let this happen, in her own temple? Had she not served her diligently, pledging a life of chastity in devotion of Athena? She had been about to take her final vows; she would not be allowed to do that now. Damn Poseidon! She had been avoiding his advances and his trickery for months, finally taking refuge in the one place where she thought she would be safe. The temple of Athena. Goddess of wisdom, war and justice. How hollow that concept felt now. Nowhere was safe from the Gods. Yet the girl’s humiliation was not over. Insult was to be added to injury, and in a few moments the situation, which the girl didn’t think could get any worse, would delve into such depths of cruelty as no other human had yet known at the hands of the Gods.

As the girl continued to weep, the temple began to shake as though it was filled with rage at what had just occurred under it’s high-vaulted roof. Stone cracked and tributes fell to the ground. The girl curled into a ball to protect herself from the falling stone, covering her head and face with her arms. Then Athena appeared before her. Beautiful and full of wrath, her blue eyes shone with anger, while her body seethed with a power that was malevolent and terrible.  Her delicate face was a storm of hideous rage beneath its crown of golden curls as she stood before the girl, towering over her draped in a chiton, a dress of light linen, her wrists and neck adorned by simple gold bands above her sandaled feet.

‘Medusa!’ she roared in fury, ‘you have defiled my temple, and allowed yourself to be ruined by Poseidon, you can no longer be welcome as a priestess in my temple!’

‘Goddess Athena,’ cried the girl getting to her knees and clutching the remains of her clothing around her, ‘why did you not stop him? Why would you let Poseidon do this to me?’

‘You dare blame me for this blasphemy!’ Athena raged on, unwilling to see the truth of what had occurred in her temple.

‘Of course not Goddess, I live only to serve you, but you must know this is not my fault, I could not stop Poseidon.’

‘If you truly loved me you would have run from this sacred place,’ Athena said coolly, ‘you would not have let the God sneak up on you, you would have done everything in your power to keep your purity but no, instead you have stained the temple floor with your foul blood, and betrayed me!’

The tears rolled down Medusa’s pretty face leaving salty tracks behind them as they dropped to the stone floor. She could not believe that the Goddess she had worshipped her whole life had turned on her with such vehemence. Surely she had seen what had happened? Surely she knew there was nothing she could have done? But instead of seeking revenge on the real demon here, Athena was laying fault at the feet of his victim.

‘Athena, I beg of you, please forgive me, you have to …’

‘I have to do nothing! I am a God of Olympus, we waste no time on mere mortals, you have no right to ask this of me. No! You shall be punished for this insult. Never again will you be able to look upon another without turning them to stone, never again shall you know kindness or tenderness, love or intimacy. You are a snake by nature, and so a snake you shall be! Snakes for hair, the tail of a snake and the wings of a water dragon, like your sisters, the Gorgons. Yes, you shall have the ability of flight, but I curse you to exile, an exile from which you will never be able to flee!’

As Athena spoke her voice rose to a scream, and all around them the temple shook. The sky outside turned black and all was chaos. Lightning struck the temple roof, cracking the stone. The wind howled past the outer walls and columns, the building sounded as though it were in pain. Thunder broke the sky in two as the words of Athena took effect. The wind picked up Medusa, circling her and raising her up. Suspending her above the floor. As the tears continued to flow down her beautiful face, her transformation began as the curse of the Goddess became a reality. Medusa’s legs fused together, as her skin became rough and scale-like. The lower half of her body morphing into the reptilian body promised to her. Her long, dark silken hair vanished, replaced by a writhing mass of small snakes, sprouting like vines from small incisions in her scalp. Two sharp wounds opened down her back, one either side of her spine, and from them leathery wings emerged, beating a slow breeze about her. Closing her gemstone green eyes in pain, Medusa felt them burning into her skull as they absorbed their new power. Only her face and the upper half of her torso remained relatively untouched. There her skin would remain soft and beautiful. A constant reminder of who she once was, and a stark contrast against her punishment. Her transformation finished Medusa fell heavily to the ground. Her eyes still firmly shut as though she slept. A small moan escaped her lips, but then nothing more. It was done.

Now placated, Athena breathed in deeply. A Goddess of victory, she felt her triumph wash over her in an ecstasy of superiority. How she did love teaching mortals a lesson. Bending down she picked up the unconscious Medusa, and turning on her heel walked slowly across the temple floor and out of the temple doors. Outside the storm had now vanished, and the cool of the night refreshed her. The moon shone down, full of contentment or so it seemed to the conquering Athena. Looking up to the stars, the Universe wheeled around them as Athena’s feet left the ground. Weightless in the dark, she rose up and drifted away from the city, picking up speed. It was time to return to Olympus before the other Gods noticed she was missing. There were some who would not approve of what had happened here tonight, and Athena had no wish for a confrontation over the moral justice of her behaviour right now. Before she returned to the home of the Gods however, she would first need to see Medusa safely delivered to her new home. A life of exile in the remote Hydra Caverns.

The Hydra Caverns existed on a small island, far from the domain of man, at the ends of the Earth as it was then known to human kind. Part of what is now known as the Saronic Islands, located in the region of Attica within the Aegean Sea. The caverns themselves faced the Isle of Hydra, from which they took their name, but the name of the Island itself has since been lost to time. Some believe it might have been Agios, others Nisida. Long ago Medusa’s sisters, Stheno and Euryale, otherwise known as the Gorgons, had been sent there as a punishment. In their immortal form the sisters looked like the daughters of a dragon, which is essentially what they were. With scaly skin and sharp faces, though not ugly by any standards, they were no great beauties. Their hands and feet were more like claws than fingers or toes, and they moved with a serpentine grace that was not becoming of the human form. Their dark eyes were a bit too big for their faces, their noses a little too pointy, and their mouths turned down as though they were dismayed by everything they saw, which they were as it was often only each other.

The story of Stheno and Euryale was one that could be told without sorrow, but not a slight amount of malice. Before their banishment to the Island, the Gorgon sisters had taken up residence in a small, remote temple. Back then they had been able to switch between their mortal and monstrous forms, and so rather than fend for themselves they had been skipping from village to village, frightening the local inhabitants and demanding they bring offerings of food and wine to the pair. In exchange their human form would keep the ‘monsters’ at bay with ‘magic’. Of course the villagers didn’t know that the creatures that terrorised them were actually the sisters in their monstrous form. The sister’s thought it was a harmless enough deceit, but they also knew that the Gods would not take too kindly to it, and so to avoid the wrath of Olympus they had been moving on to a new town every few months. Eventually one village had refused to leaving offerings for them at the local temple. Instead they had called on Zeus to help them, and being in a benevolent mood that day Zeus had obliged. He had trapped the sisters in their monstrous form and sent them on their way. On and on the sisters had walked throughout the land, the sound of their constant miserable wailing carried on the winds. Zeus had finally sent them away to the Island to be free of their constant keening pleas for mercy. Finally, in their exile the sister’s had become obsessed with the fortunes of their beautiful sister Medusa. Regarding her with open jealousy they watched her through a small magic watch-pool the Gods had placed on the Island to torment the sisters. They could see the outside world but not take part in it. As they spied on their sister, they seethed at her freedom and a future they could never have hoped to have. Oh how they would rejoice when they saw what poor Medusa had been reduced to, smiled Athena to herself. 

Now there was to be a homecoming. A family reunion. However, as Athena knew, the Gorgon sisters had long since gone quite mad in their isolation. Left to fend for themselves on the small rocky island, turned barren after Zeus had poisoned the land to teach the sister’s a final lesson. Since then they had only each other to talk too. They were kept from starving only by the grace and kindness of some of the more sympathetic Gods, who threw them scraps from their table. This forsaken place was to be Medusa’s new home, though Athena doubted that it would be considered a happy family reunion. She smiled to herself as she flew on with Medusa cradled in her arms. The night was fading, she would have to hurry now.

Landing on the beach, Athena laid Medusa softly on the cold sand so as not to wake her. She then unwrapped a strip of cloth at her waist and tied it around Medusa’s head, covering her eyes, taking care not to disturb the snakes on her head, who slept as she did. Athena wasn’t taking any chances that the girl would wake before she had a chance to speak with the Gorgon sisters, who were now approaching them from across the sand.

‘What is the meaning of this Athena? Have we not been punished enough?’ they asked in unison, walking over to the Goddess and noticing the still form of the body on the beach.

‘This is not about you my dear sisters,’ Athena responded with quiet authority, ‘but I will recognise your undue punishment and grant you this. No longer will your island be a barren wasteland, and I hereby remove the curse Zeus has placed upon this land. In a few months it will flourish with all life’s bounty and you shall no longer live on the scraps from our tables. You shall feast on fresh fruits and drink the purest water.’

‘And in trade for this mercy?’

‘You will ensure your sister never leaves this place,’ Athena said simply.

‘Our sister?’ the Gorgon sisters pressed forward with interest.

‘Yes, your sister Medusa, she has betrayed me but I have seen to it that she has paid for her crime.’

‘Interesting…’ mused Stheno, smiling.

‘Yes I thought you might like that dear sisters, and to ensure she fully understands her betrayal I have made her immortal. Like you she shall spend her life on this Island, but I warn you, do not look at her nor let her look on you with eyes uncovered for you will turn to stone where you stand.’

‘Then how can we stop her from leaving?’ hissed Euryale, sensing a trap.

‘Oh she will not want to leave, once she understands what she has become, she will shy away from you and the company of others.’

‘Then it is a most just punishment I am sure,’ conceded Euryale.

‘Yes, yes I think it is,’ agreed Athena, ‘but now sisters I must leave you before Olympus wakes.’

With that Athena took to the sky and left the two sisters standing on the sand watching over Medusa. She did not care what happened to them next. As far as she was concerned her part was done, and whether or not the sisters survived, and for how long, was to be their own fortune.