Let me introduce myself briefly before I begin my story and then I’ll step aside and get out of the way so you can foist all your attention on the two stars of this account. My name is Thoth, and since I have been appointed Lord of Divine Words from the beginning of time by the Creator, any time there is a conflict or argument between the gods, I am beholden to record the battle and bear witness for all to hear. With that out of the way, I shall proceed with a traditional segue, “Once Upon a Time…”
The year is 79 A.D., as we reckon time today, and the month is August by the Gregorian method we use in the modern day. Back at this point in time the world did not yet base their calendars and historical records on presumed date of the birth of Christ, though He was fast gaining popularity in the ancient world of this era. No, rather, it is other gods which are the focus of this tale. The water-god Achelous and the fire-god Hephaestus are in the middle of an epic duel which threatens to shake the very foundations of the earth. But how did we get to this point? Let me backtrack some to provide much-needed context.
The weight from the burden of his duty would have driven a lesser god into madness, and that is a point of pride for Achelous. For centuries, he alone has borne the responsibility of determining which cities flourish and thrive from access to his rivers and water, and which civilizations will be fated to fall when he deprives them of the desperately-needed H2O he controls throughout the earth. He has been a serious-minded one, feeling that his obligations don’t allow time for joviality or amusement. The right people must have access to good water so they can continue working to accomplish the goals the gods have set out for them. Achelous is a god after all, and gods must maintain absolute control and order at all times.
The origin of this staunch and grave focus on his calling can be traced back to the last time he took a day off to enjoy himself. His cousin had come to visit for the first time in 50 years, and had kept urging him to “lighten up,” and “take a day off; what’s the worst that could happen by taking one measly day off?” That was when the Missoula Floods, along with several other floods, happened at the end of the last Ice Age, circa 13,000 B.C. His first thought was “I took one day off, and let a couple of glaciers melt, and now half the world is ruined. Ah, shit. There goes my quarterly bonus.” These are among the floods that inspired all the “Great Deluge” stories in all different parts of the globe, the most-famous version featuring a man named Noah. That story tells us what happened after Achelous’ superior officer had to step in fix his mess.
Achelous has vowed never to repeat that mistake again and has never forgiven his cousin for goading him into playing hooky. Immediately after this embarrassing fiasco, Achelous transmogrified himself into the form of a bull (which he occasionally did, since his magical god-powers included the ability to shape-shift into animals, the only two of which he mastered being the bull and the snake), and plucked one of his horns from off his head and used it to strike a terrible blow to his cousin’s right leg, rendering it lame and disfigured.
Prior to this, Hephaestus, in his long life, had come to the conclusion that there is nothing more important than for people to find joy and pleasure in entertainment, humor, sex, and fine food and drink. He was also given a weighty responsibility by the Olympian Council – the assignment of deciding which tools, weapons, energy, and technology to share or withhold from each civilization – but he got bored pretty quickly with that “solemn obligation” nonsense, and ended up making a game out of it, despite all the reprimands he’s received from upper godhood management for “lack of productivity,” “insubordination,” and “inappropriate workplace behavior.”
You’ve probably heard of the story of Cain and Abel, right? Well, guess who stepped out from behind a bush and handed the bloke we’ve come to refer to as Cain the large stone he used? And do you know who was the one that invented the sword and left one as a “gift” for people who lived in Turkey in 3300 B.C.? Yes, it was Hephaestus, the same one who shared the secret of the chariot with the Mesopotamians 300 years after that.
He would regret some of those inventions, if he ever took the time to do any deep reflection, that is, but he has more important things to do, like mock and sabotage the efforts of his way-too-serious distant cousin, Achelous. (It would take an entire book to catalog the family tree of these gods and show how they are related, so we should just stick to calling them “cousins.” Zeus slept around so much that pretty much any and every god would chart his lineage back to him if they had Ancestry.com back then)
Ever since they were young godlings, at family get-togethers and god-school reunions, these two have been at odds with one-another. Achelous can’t stand the flippant attitude of the younger Hephaestus, never taking anything seriously and at one time tried to take him under his wing and act as a mentor to lead the fiery Hephaestus onto to path of the straight-and-narrow. While at the same time, Hephaestus thinks of Achelous as dull, and he’s made it one of his life’s goals to convert this Gloomy-Gus over to the side of fun-filled pleasure and excitement.
After all, it’s not like all the inventions and games of Hephaestus have been bad. There was fire, which has helped humans survive and thrive for millennia, and the wheel, which greatly assisted them in traveling and bringing food and supplies home. Granted, he probably would have been wise to have followed his cousin’s advice and been much more selective on which groups of tribes and towns he shared these new tools with. But that’s simply not his style. He lives or dies by spontaneity and the urges of the five main senses.
Now, however, returning to the Olympian Council on his next scheduled workday, hobbling into the Monday morning god-conference-call, ends up being called into the office and his employment terminated. This seems harsh and bigoted from your perspective, but look at it from the viewpoint of Mount Olympus: How would it look to send out a representative of the divine all-powerful gods who is hopping around on crutches or being pushed around in a wheelchair? Well, in my book, this still makes them assholes, but you can almost see where they are coming from.
As you can imagine, the normally happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care Hephaestus has now been wounded in more than one way, and he’s experiencing emotions brand-new to him: Vengeance and hatred. He attempts to bottle this up as he pushes himself to find a new employer who doesn’t discriminate based on disabilities or health issues, and one that also doesn’t check past references too closely. Well, after two years a fruitless job-searching, he had no choice but to go crawling back to his mother, Hera, and working for her, building tools and assisting the nations Hera was trying to establish. He knew this was unsustainable, though, because his father, Zeus, couldn’t stand the sight of him now that he had brought shame on the family by losing a battle to a “weak water god.”
Meanwhile, after Achelous pleaded with his divine superiors for forgiveness, and agreeing to work overtime for free for two years, he was allowed to remain in his current position, yet still adding one more official reprimand to his file. He realizes he has to do something major to get back into the good graces of his bosses after the whole “accidentally-flooding-the-world-Noah’s-Ark-thing.”
So, he uses his control of the oceans and rivers to protect and guide a new island city, Santorini, and his brilliant god-intellect to teach this new civilization how to live in harmony and peace, helping them develop advanced technological wonders, even achieving electronic and scientific breakthroughs the modern 21st-Century has yet to rediscover. You may have heard of this island by its more common name: Atlantis.
Hera views this up-and-coming island as a threat to the Olympian Order, since they have risen to prominence so rapidly and without getting any approval from the Olympian Council. She urges her husband Zeus to act and take this new nation down a peg or two, but he fails to do anything since he’s busy trying to philander around with any goddess that has two legs. And it has become more of a challenge for him in recent years to find new paramours, after word spread throughout the known lands that Zeus is a two-timing manslut and a misogynistic asshole, not to mention, he has murdered just a few gods and people. He gets tired of his wife’s prodding, and finally snaps at her, “Why don’t you go tell your worthless loser son to go handle this situation and leave me the hell alone?”
Hera doesn’t usually find her brutish husband Zeus’ advice to be worth listening to, however, in this particular case, she likes the sound of sending her son Hephaestus on a new mission to redeem himself and restore his self-confidence, and accomplish her goal of nipping this new threat of Atlantis in the bud before it takes over the world. Hephaestus eagerly accepts because he knows his cousin Achelous is the one in control of Atlantis. At last! His chance at revenge has arrived.
Hephaestus knew of a band of Egyptian warriors who were on a scouting mission to bring back a report on Atlantis to the Pharaoh. So he shared the secrets of “fire arrows” (gunpowder-fueled arrows) with this small regiment. Instead of returning to Egypt to give their report of how dangerous this new island nation was, they chose to use their newfound weapons and raze the island of Santorini, utterly obliterating it and the people who lived there, depriving the world of a potential age of peace with incredible technology and scientific wonders.
Upon learning of this Atlantean disaster while he was on a small detour in the Middle East involving the Red Sea, Achelous flew into a rage, abruptly left his new student Moses in the desert (whom his superiors had told him he was supposed to be babysitting), and began an ever-escalating feud with his cousin Hephaestus; each side committing terror attacks on the other, alternating back-and-forth, while causing irreparable harm to people and nations during their childish fighting (Achelous did remember to check in on Moses in the wilderness about 40 years later). Gods don’t measure time the same way mere mortals do. That’s why they sometimes plan out their strategies over decades or centuries instead of weeks or months.
Now we have arrived at the year we started at in the beginning of this story: 79 A.D. Things were reaching a boiling point and Achelous, after sitting a while and meditating on things, and then seeking the advice of some of his elder gods, realized that the continued escalation of their feud could only end in a disaster of cataclysmic proportions, and destroy the whole earth and upset all the order and control he had worked his entire life to maintain. He made a vow to himself that he would hold a summit with Hephaestus, and, in a gesture of goodwill, would meet at the place of Hephaestus’ choosing.
Hephaestus, not at all convinced that his cousin truly wanted to make a peace treaty, and not sure that he himself actually desired peace with Achelous, hesitantly agreed to the reconciliation meeting, and the location chosen was his current base of operations, the Campania region of Italy, southeast of Naples, better known to most as the island city of Pompeii. Each side was to present an action plan on how they would deescalate the hostilities and put an end to the attacks and the schemes.
Achelous brought an elaborately-thought-out parchment, with bullet-points, paintings, colored ink and leaves stitched in for design, listing in step-by-step chronological order, 27 different things explaining precisely what actions he would take to diffuse the violence between them. The habitually hotheaded Hephaestus, on the other hand, still fuming over the perceived injustices perpetrated against him, brought a single scroll of paper, when unrolled, has the lone word “Sorry,” handwritten with ink in small letters. Achelous, getting increasingly angry at this slight from Hephaestus, starts to issue a barrage of verbal abuse toward his snarky cousin. That’s when someone steps in between them, pushing them apart, ordering them to respect the agreed-upon rules of maintaining 6-feet of separation at all times.
That “someone” was me. After months of negotiation, they had finally come to an agreement on who to accompany the two of them to this meeting as an impartial arbitrator: none other than myself, the all-wise and all-humble Thoth. At first I attempted to reason with them, appealing to their better angels. When that failed, I warned them that I would file a nasty report with the Department of God-Resources, and they would both be in big trouble with the head of the Heavenly HR Dept., the angel Lailah, reminding them of how much they both hate having to sit through her required Safety and Harassment videos and attend her mandatory anger-management classes.
Normally that threat has always worked in the past, but not this time. The two of them were about to come to blows again, imperiling the lives of all the humans and animals who lived in this area, for one false step here on this island, and it would trigger an immense eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the deadly active volcano in the vicinity. When they had a moment to regain their composure and think about the fact that they might accidentally trigger a literal Armageddon by fighting under the shadow of this fiery mountain, they calmed down for a little bit.
But it wasn’t long before they were going right back at each other’s throats, blaming one another for all of their ills and issues in their lives. Their incessant cursing and whining got to be so loud that it was shaking the walls of the shack where we were holding this grand conference. My warnings went unheeded and I had a seething migraine by this point. I’ve never shared this part with anyone before, and please don’t share this with anyone else, but you have to understand, a person, even a god, can only take so much. I couldn’t bear the thought of this “peace summit” dragging on for days or weeks, with my head already throbbing in agony, and, in my defense, Tylenol had not yet been invented.
It was evening-time now, and I stood straight up from my seat in the middle of the table as they continued their petty bickering, and I walked right outside the door of the shack and knelt down on one knee, then looked up to the bright moon above. I chanted a spell I had learned years before but never dared to use until now.
The waters began to recede away from the island, then they began to return as an enormous tsunami headed straight for the active volcano. The incredible seismic activity involved with this magic incantation triggered the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and that was that.
What? Don’t judge me. You sit through 7 hours of listening to two gods whining at each other and tell me you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing!