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Heracles and the Caucasian Eagle in Greek Mythology

The Caucasian Eagle, or Aetos Kaukasios, was one of the mythical beasts said to inhabit the world of the Ancient Greeks. The eagle was a popular bird in Greek mythology, indeed, it was one of the symbols of the Greek god Zeus, but the Caucasian Eagle was a special bird, both long lived and gigantic in size.

Prometheus Bound

Ancient Sources and the Caucasian Eagle

Many writers in antiquity would write of the Caucasian Eagle, and references to the bird can be found in such work as Theogony (Hesiod), the Bibilotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus), Argonautica (Apollonius Rhodius), and Prometheus Bound (Aeschylus).

The general consensus amongst the ancient writers was that the Caucasian Eagle was one of the monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna; making the eagle sibling to the likes of the Lernaean Hydra, the Sphinx, the Chimera and Cerberus.

Occasionally, an alternate origin for the Caucasian Eagle is put forward, and the gigantic bird is described not in terms of flesh and bird, but is instead named as one of the automatons constructed by the metalworking god Hephaestus.

If the Caucasian Eagle is taken to be an offspring of Typhon and Echidna though, it is natural to link the monstrous offspring to one place, just as the Sphinx was linked to Thebes and the Hydra with Lerna, and as the name of the bird suggests, the eagle was linked with the Caucasus Mountains.

The giant eagle was being made use of by Zeus as part of the punishment of Prometheus.

Prometheus

Prometheus - Theodoor Rombouts (1597–1637) -PD-art-100

Prometheus - Theodoor Rombouts (1597–1637) -PD-art-100

Prometheus and the Caucasian Eagle

Prometheus was a second generation Titan who had over time angered Zeus to such an extent that the god decided to the immortal son of Iapetus.

Firstly, Prometheus had gone amongst the workshops and palaces of the gods to steal knowledge and skills of mankind; then the Titan had shown man, at Mecone, how to make sacrifices to the gods in such a way that man gained the best meat; and then lastly, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the workshop of Hephaestus, when Zeus forbade man to have it.

The actions of Prometheus would see him regarded as the benefactor of man, but it also meant that Zeus would provide him with eternal punishment, similarly to how Prometheus’ brother Atlas was facing everlasting punishment.

The punishment of Prometheus saw the Titan bound by unbreakable chains crafted by Hephaestus, and the Titan was then chained to the unmovable mountains of the Caucasuses. Simply being bound though was not fitting punishment for the indiscretions of Prometheus, and so Zeus ordered the Caucasian Eagle to attack the Titan, and to peck out, and eat, Prometheus’ liver each day.

Prometheus though was immortal, and each night the wound left by the Caucasian Eagle would heal itself, and the liver would regenerate, ready for the eagle to repeat the attack the next day.

The daily punishment of Prometheus was said to have gone on for many years, and in the Fabulae (Hyginus), some 30,000 years were said to have passed, although the Roman writer is the only writer to put such a long time span on the punishment.

Certainly though, a good few years of punishment occurred, from before the Deluge through to the time of the Argonauts. During their adventures, the Argonauts were said to have seen the Caucasian Eagle fly overhead and also to have heard the screams of agony from Prometheus, when they stopped in the region.

The Caucasian Eagle

The Caucasian Eagle - CC-Zero

The Caucasian Eagle - CC-Zero

Heracles and the Caucasian Eagle

The punishment of Prometheus and the life of the Caucasian Eagle would eventually end, and as was the case with most of the offspring of Echidna and Typhon, the demise of the Caucasian Eagle came at the hands of a Greek hero.

The Greek hero in this instance was Heracles, the demi-god son of Zeus. Heracles did not simply kill the Caucasian Eagle though, and instead sought permission from his father to both kill the bird and release Prometheus from his chains.

Heracles offered Zeus the immortality of the centaur Chiron in exchange (the centaur being wracked with pain at the time), and despite not requiring the immortality, Zeus accepted the exchange. Zeus of course had always favoured Heracles, and the supreme god saw that the freeing of Prometheus and the killing of the Caucasian Eagle would increase the standing of his son amongst man and also the gods.

With permission for his actions received from Zeus, Heracles would set out for the Caucasus Mountains, and there he waited for the gigantic eagle to fly overhead. When the bird was in range, the Greek hero would unleash a quiver full of arrows, bringing the eagle crashing to earth, dead. The combined strength of Heracles and Prometheus were then sufficient to break the chains that bound the Titan, freeing Prometheus from his punishment.

Prometheus and the Caucasian Eagle

Prometheus and the Caucasian Eagle - Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) - PD-art-100

Prometheus and the Caucasian Eagle - Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) - PD-art-100