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Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.

Allow me to backtrack…

The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.

Der gefesselte Prometheus (Jacob Jordaens, circa 1640)

Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).

Prometheus Being Rescued by Hercules (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1912)

Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.

The Constellation Aquila

Hercules Strangling the Nemean lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639, Fogg Art Museum)

Classical mythology ascribes no particular order of birth to the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.  I’m going to just jump in and start big with the Nemean Lion. This immense mythical lion possessed an invulnerable hide and claws sharp enough to cut through any substance. He seemed happiest when terrorizing the hills around Nemea, a lovely village in Corinth.

At the same time, elsewhere, the greatest of classical heroes, Heracles was living contentedly with his wife Megara and their children.  Alas, it was not to be: Hera, the ever-envious queen of the gods, afflicted Heracles with madness and, in benighted fury, the strongman dashed his wife and children to death.  Awaking from his lunacy, Heracles desperately petitioned the gods for help.  His half-brother, the god Apollo intervened and sent Heracles to perform penance by serving the weak and venal King Eurystheus of Mycenae.  Afraid for his throne and person, Eurystheus chose a task he was sure Heracles would not return from and set the hero out to kill the Nemean Lion.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1615, private collection, Brussels)

Heracles was unable to pierce the lion’s skin with his great bow, but he trapped the beast in a cave, stunned it with his club and strangled it with brute force.  Thus did Heracles accomplish the first of his twelve labors and he wore the lion’s impenetrable hide thereafter (somewhat pathetically, he was at first unable to skin the beast with his knives or swords, and he made no headway until Athena reminded him that the lion’s claws could cut through anything). Above is my favorite painting of the fight, by Peter Paul Ruben. In addition to liking big robust figures, Rubens had a zest for hunting.  In Rubens’ painting, Heracles has apparently killed a leopard bystander in order to warm up for the great lion. 

I always rather pitied the Nemean Lion, who seemed like a victim of circumstance more than anyone else in the story (except for Megara and her children and maybe the leopard up there in the Rubens’ painting).  Apparently others have felt the same way, because the lion takes an important position in the summer sky whereas Heracles is rather hard to find.

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