Interlude; “Atlas”


As I’ve explained elsewhere The City, otherwise known as Atlantis, was named for my mother Atlanta, mistress to my father, King Atlas and wife to my uncle, King Eumelus. However before the name Atlantis came into vogue, The City was known as The Citadel Of Clieto, Clieto being one of the mistresses of the Olympean Poseidon, or so the story went. Grandfather Poseidon had broken the ground enclosing the hill on which Clieto dwelt all around, making alternate zones of sea and land, larger and smaller, encircling one another; so that there were two of land, and three of water, which he turned as with a lathe out of the center. Later a channel had been built leading from the Outer Circular Sea to the nearest natural ocean to allow the approach of both ships and voyagers. The central hill of Atlantis - now an island - contained a strange device, the Omphalos, through which it was said that Clieto could visit her lover at will and through which one day she disappeared never to be seen again. The Omphalos or “Navel” was given as the centre of the known world in all Atlantean maps, and our circular time zones revolved around this point.

My father, Atlas, was alive throughout my time in Atlantis, but like the other nine Kings of Atlantis was strangely distant and shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Qualopec went on campaign with armies nominally commanded by my father, but Atlas was rarely at the scene himself, issuing instructions from afar.

Similarly the five sets of twins had divided the Atlantean Empire up between them, but it was far from clear in practice what this actually meant. The day to day “ruling” was left to Qualopec, Tihocan, Astarte and myself and I cannot remember a single occasion when one of our decisions was questioned by the silent Kings.

So most of the time they in their thrones in the Temple of Poseidon, facing each other in a circle, saying little, contemplating the next world. They all had Palaces dotted around the shore of the Inner Circular Sea which they didn’t use and which doubled as offices for state business. Not that having the offspring of an Olympean God as nominal Heads of State didn’t suit the Empire of Atlantis just fine. It gave us, quite literally, the Divine Right to rule.

Naturally I was intensely curious about the Ten Kings. Who or what were they? What did they do? Did they eat? And what of my father? I can’t say that I loved him, for he had destroyed my mother, but I calmed my guilt by telling myself that my siblings Tihocan and Astarte seemed equally disinterested in their own sire, King Eumelus. It was as if we all had comedy stunt-double parents.

“I’m off to see Father,” I announced airily to Qualopec one day.

“Are you?” said Qualopec, pausing in his sword practice. He had attempted, with Tihocan, to create a sword blade that was heavy and sharp enough to remove a man’s head at one swipe and he was practicing on the slaves. “What on heaven and earth for? Stand still man! I want to test your neck, not your face!”

A head went flying through the air, spiraling blood, and thumped in the sand.

“Wonderful!” shouted Qualopec cheerfully. “Again! Yes, you, girl.”

“Do you have to kill them all?”

“I have to learn somehow,” he said. “I tried propping dead bodies up but it’s just not the same.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Anyhow, I’m off to the Temple of Poseidon.”

“I doubt you’ll get in if they’re in session.”

I snorted. “What’s not to get in?” I said.

I took a boat around the Inner Circular Sea and then disembarked at the Central Island.

“Anybody in?” I asked a gardener who was raking the lawn, gesturing up at the portico of the Temple.

The gardener blinked rapidly several times. “Your Majesty,” he said, somewhat overcome, falling to his knees. “The Sons of Poseidon are nearly always in residence.”

“Raise yourself,” I said. “I have some questions that you may be able to answer. Come sit at this bench with me.”

“Whatever Your Magnificence requires.”

His name was Eskamelios and he had been tending this same patch of garden all of his life. The same was true of his father, Melios.

“So … what do the Ten Kings generally have for their tea?” I said, using the simplified and gesture free dialect of the Atlantean language one usually uses with servants.

“I’m not entirely sure, Your Majesty,” said Eskamelios. “I’m seen nectar and ambrosia being delivered. And the occasional crateful of pomegranates labeled ‘A Gift From The Underworld’.”

“The Underworld?”

“Not that Your Magnificence doesn’t already not know this,” said the gardener, almost tying himself in knots with his double negatives, “but the Lord of the Sea is said to be brother to the Lord of the Underworld.”

“Of course, my good man,” I said, with what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “How true. So … in the Temple … what are there in the way of bathroom facilities?”

“Oh! Your Terribleness should have said earlier. We have an aide-de-baigner next to the greenhouses in the form of a wicker fence surrounding a deep hole.” (I use French to illustrate that he threw in a few nonsensical phrases, possibly in Athenian Greek.)

“It’s not for me,” I said. “I was wondering about the Kings.”

Eskamelios leaned forward conspiratorially. “They say that the Kings never have to take a … you know.” he said.

“How very odd.”

“They are half god, Your Majesty.”

“I’ll freely admit that I’ve never heard of an Olympean feeling the need to excrete,” I said.

“They don’t know what they’re missing,” said Eskamelios with a broad and somewhat coarse guffaw. The principle source of amusement for the lower classes revolved around bodily functions, or so I’d been told. They must find death by dysentery hysterical, I reflected.

“Quite,” I said. “Now. How are they transported about the place? Chariot? Divan? Shank’s pony?”

“You know what, Your Opalescence? I don’t think I’ve even seen them leave. Or arrive. There’s a silly rumour that they pass through the Navel, but that sounds a bit fanciful to me.”

That seemed to set the cap on it for me. The Five Royal Twins might well be human, but they were rather odd humans. The fact that they were Royal didn’t seem enough of an excuse to account for their eccentricities.

I threw Eskamelios a few obols – I can’t say that I ever saw him again – and proceeded up the road to the Temple of Poseidon. If I was expecting some sort of guard or security arrangement, I was disappointed. However on reflection, why bother attacking the Ten Kings? Firstly, they weren’t in charge of anything, and secondly they were the sons of Poseidon and no plan that I could think of to harm them seemed important enough to risk the wrath of the Lord of the Sea.

As I drew near I could hear chanting, rather tuneless and inexpert, but chanting nonetheless. Thinking back it resembled a rendition of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” sung by Hare Krishnas, only, of course, with different words.

“Hello?” I said, approaching the portico of the temple entrance. The temple itself was a sort of cylinder of columns with square buildings bolted onto the circumference. The entrance was moderately impressive, and just inside stood a rather primitive statue of a portly gentleman crowned with kelp and bearing a trident, whose bathing towel had slipped somewhat to reveal his pubes, no doubt intended to represent the great Lord of the Sea. I wasn’t sure if it was artful, artless or plain blasphemous, but if Poseidon’s sons liked it, whose was I to argue? The floor was scattered with fish bones, half burned candles and seagull effluent, and it certainly smelt like the sea.

The central circle of pillars appeared to have had the spaces between then mostly filled with mud bricks, and I was wondering who the architect had been so that I could have him tortured, when I suddenly realised … this was the entire point. This was “authentic”. This was “ancient”. This was something that had existed from before the modern ‘effete’ Atlantis, from before The City. It was supposed to look a bit … the politest word I can think of is “primativistic”. Maybe my grandmother Clieto had arranged for it to be built from local materials to show her love for her man. Maybe she had laid the bricks herself.

I knocked on the wooden door and the chant abruptly ceased. After an age, I could hear a bolt on the inside of the door being drawn aside. I pushed the door open a crack and peered through.

As expected there, seated in a large circle of thrones facing each other, were the Ten Kings.

“All together now …” one of the Kings whose throne was labelled ‘Mestor’ was saying, and he began to try to restart the chanting in a tremulous falsetto“… Old Uranus had no balls, E-i-e-i-o, And from those balls Cytherea sprang, E-i-e-i-o.

One of the Kings, Autochthon, resembled a sort of shaved orangutan, with heavy eyebrow ridges, a sloped forehead and long muscled arms. He didn’t seem to know the words and was bashing the armrests of his throne whilst emitting grunts and roars. “There’s one in every family,” I thought. Mneseus, his twin brother, who was occupied in patting his apelike brother on the hand and nodding encouragement, looked nothing like Autochthon – which I guess was biologically possible – and I should say for my modern readers the former looked like George W. Bush just after he had kicked addiction, the model of preppy respectability and intelligence. Maybe Autochthon had been dropped on his head or had his skull crushed during birth, but despite the fact that he looked like a retarded yeti he had the Royal Blood and that was all that mattered. I felt nothing but reverence as he scooped up what looked like a dried fecal pellet and threw it at his fellow sovereign.

I spotted my father. He looked familiar to me – the body builder’s body, the large white teeth, the bouffant hair, the tan – and he was sitting there in his loincloth with a golden medallion bouncing on his pecks as he conducted along with the music and sang with a beefy bass voice. Previously I had an image of him always wearing his armour but I guess it was a warm day and obviously none of our many “peacekeeping” efforts all over the known world required his personal attention right now.

I tapped on the arm of his throne.

“Hello!” said Atlas, causing my hair to move with the force of his voice. “Who’s this?”

I genuflected humbly.

“You Royal Highness, He Who Supports The Earth On His Shoulders, Son Of Titans, The Great Primordial, Father Of Qualopec it is I, your humble daughter,” I said, making the appropriate ceremonial hand gestures for ‘shock’ and ‘awe’.

“Ah, young Natla!” said Atlas. “My, you’ve blossomed! How old are you now?”

“If it pleases Your Highness, I have been alive roughly seventy years.”

“Come and sit on your father’s lap! Bounce those firm young buttocks up and down on my groin and make an old satyr very happy!”

Although incest between consenting adults is possible in the modern world and unremarkable in the ancient world, nobody has a good word to say for father-daughter intercourse. Even the Bible, that repository of weird sex, when recounting how Lot got his two daughters pregnant tells us that he was too drunk to know what he was doing, which sounds a bit like a weak excuse but at least indicates the storytellers’ disapproval of the practice. I wasn’t shocked but I did squirm somewhat at Atlas’ suggestive suggestion.

“With respect, My Lord, I am a virgin to men and a lesbian, so I’d rather not.”

“Fair enough!” said Atlas jovially. “Worth a try! Good to see that you prefer the ladies! Very respectable!”

“I was brought up to believe that sex between men and women was rather déclassé and best reserved for the breeding of sufficient numbers of the lower classes, Your Highness.”

“Quite right too! Which one was your mother again?” He had, during his life, more than thirty children by several women, and those were just the ones he got pregnant and which we knew about.

“Queen Atlanta, My Lord.”

“I remember! By the Lords of the Sea and the Sky, she was a fine filly! She could squeeze the juice out of a man!”

“You are most gracious, My Lord,” I said, relieved that he hadn’t chosen to bring up the fact that she’d been a slave girl at the time and that he’d taken her, as was his right, without her permission. With such a paragon of manhood for a father it surprises sometimes that I grew up gay.

There was a moment’s awkward silence, with Atlas humming along with the chant and waving his finger with the rhythm and me wondering what the hell I was doing there and whether that was it as far as the father-daughter bonding went.

“So,” I said, “where do you live then?”

“Good question, good question!” he boomed. “Well, apparently there’s a Palace of Atlas and Eumelus on the shores of the Inner Circular Sea! Can’t say I ever go there! I think I was there for the grand openin’!”

“And where else?”

“Well … I have a nice tent for when I’m on campaign.”

“A tent?”

“It’s got quite a nifty foldaway canvas bed that goes with it. I put the bed up in one of the side rooms here if I feel like it. That’s unless I have a quick snooze on my throne.”

“And what about the others?”

“Oh, they all have their own thing. Elasippus likes to sleep in one of the fountains, especially after he’s been drinkin’. Autochthon has a nice cage with a rope to swing on.”

“And what do you all do all day.”

Atlas waved his hand airily. “Oh, you know. Chantin’. Discussin’. Wagerin’. That sort of thing.”

“What sort of discussing?”

“So many questions!” he laughed. “Well, at the moment, Evaemon is wonderin’ if women can make effective priests or if their ‘natural inferiority’ to men, plus their uncontrollable sexual desires, makes them unworthy for such a holy position. An obviously ridiculous rhetoric, but an interestin’ topic to while away the years.”

“What about priestesses who use sex as part of the ceremony?”

“That’s what I said! Who else? Ampheres is considerin’ whether the class between slave and king can be persuaded to support the inevitable inequalities in society by offering them a sort of ersatz version of royalty. Gold-plated wood instead of gold. Cunningly painted rat fur instead of leopard fur. Houses decorated like tiny palaces. That sort of thing. Not sure what the point is, as one peep out of the so-called middle class and we’d chop all their heads off, but another interestin’ topic nonetheless.”

“And what about you?”

“Oh, I’m merely interested in the art of war, the portraiture of slaughter, the ballet of massacre. I’m more of a doer than a philosopher. War, war, war, not jaw, jaw, jaw, that’s what I say!”

“You’re just like my brother.”

“Excellent! You can’t have too many killers in the family.”

And so on. I’m sure that we had more to say – remember this is the longest conversation that I had with my father for his entire life – but I’m beginning to bore even myself straining to remember.

I can only remember two other things that we talked about – the “Navel” and his father, Poseidon.

“Did you ever meet him?”

“Don’t be silly,” he said, cheerfully. “Mother only met him in secret a few times. There was a wife I think, and believe me, you keep clear of Olympean spouses unless you want to be attacked by dolphins or have your legs tied in knots during child birth. Five pairs of twins is a bit of an effort, all from the same belly in the same day.”

I winced, and decided not to pursue that line of conversation. “Have you ever even seen Grandfather Poseidon?” I said after a moment.

“When she was very old Mother pointed out to sea and there was a huge and dark shape or shadow crashin’ and cruisin’ through the water and the waves, blowin’ and snortin’ jets and plumes of water from itself. She called it our father, but I fear she may have confused Dad with a large porpoise.”

I reflected that Atlas had had ever less to do with his father than I’d had to do with Atlas. An Olympean God was as distant and incomprehensible to him as a son of the Lord of the Sea was to me. We may as well have come from alien species. I vowed that in the unlikely event that I ever had children I wouldn’t be a stranger … although, I reflected, maybe ‘stranger’ wasn’t the right word. Maybe the right word was ‘foreigner’. I wouldn’t be a complete foreigner.

“And then Grandmother Clieto left?”

“Ah,” said Altas. “The Omphalos. You must see it before you have to get back to doing … whatever you chaps who really administer Atlantis do.”

“O.K. … Dad.”

He led me to the centre of the throne room – the other Kings barely acknowledged us for whatever reason – and there was a large stone with carved over its surface a stone net. I hadn’t really noticed it before as it was kind of … not very impressive.

However when Atlas placed his hand on the strands of the net they lit up, and the stone seemed to hover. He pushed it gently to one side and beneath it was a hole with a ladder. A strange smell wafted out of the hole – an aroma of wet earth – and I swore I heard a sigh.

“Down there?” I said, hesitantly.

“Down into the belly of Gaia,” he replied, “although there’s not much to see. If this stone is the navel, then the womb behind it stopped dried up and givin’ birth long ago.”

We descended, not very far, maybe thirty feet. At the base of the ladder was an ovoid and curved tunnel, coloured dark red, and at the end of this stone tube an elliptical chamber, its walls covered with stone veins.

“Once they say there was a heartbeat,” said Atlas.

Arranged around the chamber floor, lit by luminescent greens and scarlets were a number of megaliths. On the floor was a large engraved pattern enclosed in a circle and in the midst of all this was a stone with a slot.

“What goes here?” I said, running my fingers over the slot. It was moist and warm.

“Who knows?” said my father. “A sword? A phallus? None of us know.”

“And who made this place, and what for?”

“Again, who knows? But the legend is that Mother visited her lover from here any time she felt like it. And she took the secret with her when she went.”

Looking back I wish I could just step onto just such a device and visit Father again. I never knew him and yet I miss him much more than people that I did know and love. They say the past is another country, but I think I’m the only person for whom this is literally true. You have to laugh or you’ll weep.