As [Odysseus] spoke he sat down, and Telemachus threw his arms about his father and wept. They were both so much moved that they cried aloud like eagles or vultures with crooked talons that have been robbed of their half fledged young by peasants. Thus piteously did they weep… —The Odyssey 16: 216-219
The whitened branch was cool in the morning sun, and the vulture spread her wings a little, adjusting to a comfortable position. The Kingdom of Pylos was beginning to come alive, people waking and wandering and working. The sea ran up against the beaches— sandy Pylos, Homer would call it someday, and so it was— but the waters kept their blustering largely to the area beyond the island of Sphacteria, which broke them before they could rush past. Sphacteria and Pylos together trapped the sea into a wide bay, and kept it there, blue and quiet, and every morning and evening passed quite the same.
Today was going to be different, though. Not just in the sea, but in the whole world. The vulture had gotten an early seat on this branch, waiting for what was to come.
The seers in Greece had discovered long ago that birds held secrets unknown to humans. Humans attempted to decipher them— facing North and watching to which side a bird would fly, (to the waking of the sun or its setting?), interpreting bird song as it came to them on the wind. Birds were consulted before battles, weddings, and journeys. But humankind held no universal key, no glossary, no true certainty of whether their interpretations were correct. Today, that was fated to change.
There was a pile of stone at the base of the vulture’s tree: broken, discarded pieces of a white wall. There had been, within the pile, a nest of sand vipers: a mother, black and white with eyes of gold and a horn standing proudly on her nose, with five little ones. These creatures were odd by snake standards, giving birth to live young rather than laying eggs like a proper snake— or vulture— but redeemed themselves by staying a while to raise their young, like an improper snake, but proper vulture.
(Vultures were known to be especially good mothers, attentive and self-sacrificing. The first taste of the outside world that a baby vulture would get was its mother’s beak, cracking at its egg, easing its passage into life.)
It saddened the vulture this morning to see that the happy home in the stone pile was in disarray. Five tiny vipers were tangled in anxiety at the entrance to the nest, and in a sandy patch beyond them lay their mother, cold and dead, by the hand of a man.
Humans were wary of snakes, even the ones who were good parents, although humans claimed to want to be good parents too. Snakes were reminders of things that humans did not like to think about— as messengers between the Land of the Dead and the land of the living, they bore with them who knew what painful secrets, what terrible numbers might be applied to a human’s allotted days.
It was the same reason that humans were suspicious of vultures. While all birds knew the secrets of the Fates, vultures had special talent at predicting battles, bloodshed, and violence. And humans did not like to know about death on the field of war any more than anywhere else. (One could make the point, of course, that humans seemed far more attracted to bloodshed than even vultures, but humans did not like to think of that either.)
Now, these vipers in their nest were venomous, of course, but this type of snake was not quick to bite. Still, humans didn’t tend to see things in such areas of gray, and so, during the night, a man had discovered the mother snake and had reacted violently. And while it normally was the case that a vulture would be attracted to a dead animal for purposes of feeding, that was not the draw this morning. And so the vulture sat in the tree and kept watch.
There was a man who lived in Pylos by the name of Melampus. He was tall and slender, with dark wavy hair and eyes brown like the sandy beaches. Melampus wasn’t terribly well known— not yet— but those who did know him were apt to remark not so much on his intelligence or courage or wit, but on his kindness. And so it was that this Melampus, on an early morning stroll, chanced by the tree and the stone nest and found the poor mother viper, and beyond her, the little ones she’d hoped to protect.
For a moment, the whole world seemed as still as the bay waters, as if it were listening for something, as if it knew that soon a part of the world— a man— would be able to listen far better than any other human ever had. And here is where it started, with a man who didn’t see boundaries as clearly as other men, who dug for the mother snake the kind of grave he would want for his own mother, deep in the earth and peaceful. A man who cared not so much about the danger of tiny fangs as for the pain of empty bellies. A man who gathered up the poor abandoned children of a viper and held them close against his chest, warmed by the sun and his exertion in digging the grave.
That morning, Melampus strode over a line that few would ever cross— showing kindness to an animal that most humans despised. And with that line erased, Melampus was able to bear the kind of blessing that no human had ever been given before. As he sat still by the stone nest, he let five baby snakes climb his shoulders, let them explore his hair, his clothing, and even his ears, flicking their tiny tongues inside, and thus the miracle was worked.
“You’ve been given a gift, Melampus,” the vulture said, when Melampus’s ears were fully cleaned and able to truly listen. She watched Melampus jump, startled. He looked around until he found the vulture in the tree, and his eyes widened. But he showed no more reticence to look on a vulture as he did a viper, and the vulture nodded approvingly.
“For your kindness, the language of birds has been unlocked for you,” the vulture told him. “You are the first human to be given the ability to hear our speech. For the rest of your life, my sisters and brothers will guide you along your path and answer your questions. And I myself shall see you in two years’ time.”
The tree around the vulture started filling with other birds, of all colors and sizes and temperaments, chattering loudly with a hundred voices at the man who sat on the ground and lent his warmth to vipers.
Melampus went on to perform great deeds of prophecy. The vulture would often hear news of him from other birds. And then when two years had elapsed, vulture and man found each other in the Kingdom of Phylace, in what would one day, the vulture knew, be called Thessaly.
Phylace, bordered by mountains, was a vast valley of growing things: of golden grains and trees of fruit, of cattle and horses who sheltered with their young. But the prince of Phylace, Iphiclus, had no issue himself. No amount of sacrifices and treatments could coax a child of Iphiclus and his wife Diomedeia into this world, and the whole kingdom mourned for it. Melampus’s fame as a seer had won him an invitation— a plea— from Iphiclus’s father, King Phylacus, to come and heal his son.
And so it was that on this warm and humid afternoon, amid buzzing insects, olive and oak trees, and fields of corn, that a vulture found a seat on a branch and watched Melampus working below. Being able to speak to birds was one thing, but Melampus had learned by now that it was polite to first invite birds to a conversation, and so he’d begun his task by sacrificing a boar to Zeus, and laying out the meat on the ground. The vulture and her flock descended to the lovely meal, and Melampus encouraged them to eat in peace. He sat beneath a tree in the shade, content to wait, this human who cared for the offspring of vipers, and even for those yet unborn of man.
The first vulture who had known him finished her meal and approached Melampus, walking on gnarled toes across the rich earth. Melampus smiled to see her. “Has it been two years already, Mother?” he asked.
“An eventful two years,” the vulture answered.
Melampus laughed, and as he did, a small serpentine head with a tiny horn on its nose pushed up from his shirt, and a body painted with black and white diamonds wound its way around his neck. “It has been so,” Melampus said. “Do you know, we spent part of it in jail, my daughter here and I, and part of it in a palace? On some days I was feted and on some days feared.”
“That is your lot,” the vulture agreed.
“And tell me, my lady, if you would be so kind, is it known what malady affects Prince Iphiclus, son of Phylacus?”
“It is not a malady,” she answered, “but a curse, and no one’s fault other than the king who’s suffered so for it. This field is a place of sacrifice. You are not the first to honor the Gods here. The king did so, many years past, when the prince was very young. Iphiclus came upon his father here, having killed a boar, as you have. The prince thought to surprise his father, but when he saw the bloody knife, he was terrified.”
The vulture raised a wing and indicated another tree a few yards away, an oak, large and twisted and nearly barren. “The poor doting father, ashamed of having frightened his son, flung the knife away, and there it stuck, in that sacred tree, wounding the nymph who dwells within.”
Melampus looked at the other tree with curiosity. “I see no knife, Mother Vulture.”
“The bark has grown over and hidden it from view. But the nymph feels the pain to this day.”
Melampus was on his feet at once, of course, approaching the sickly tree and running a hand over its bark.
The vulture lifted herself to take a seat in its withered branches. “The nymph wants the king to feel pain for his misdeed, and what better way to punish him than by ending his royal line?”
“What can I do to right the wrong, my lady?” asked Melampus.
“Cut the bark and find the knife. Remove it, and if forgiveness is given by the nymph— if the compassionate act of one man may be taken as an apology from another— then a drink mixed with the rust on the knife will heal the prince. If not, then there is no resolution to be found.”
Melampus gave the vulture words of thanks, and she looked at him a little wistfully. “Whether or not he sires sons, Iphiclus will find a place for himself on the ship Argo, and you, Melampus— you who have shown no such heroics but have never failed in kindness— if you can restore health to this prince, your fame as a healer will spread, and you will someday find yourself with a kingdom of your own to rule.”
Melampus took the news with a laugh. “My future still twists in the air like a bird on the wing. Shall I be a good king?”
The vulture ruffled her wings a little, getting ready to take up into the skies again. “It may be. You are so very different from other men, my child,” she said, with a note of teasing in her voice. “You make friends where others would find only enemies. You count a vulture as mother and a viper as daughter. You will be an interesting king, that is certain.”
Written for the Greek Myths Zine
Public domain photo by antonytrivet on Pexels