The Story of Adamastor, the Untamed Titan
Fall of the Titans
Once upon a time, so long ago that not even the Greek gods had been born – or so the sages tell us – the Earth and the Sky gave birth to twelve Titans.
These were fierce and violent creatures, with bodies as big as mountains and monstrous features. They could demolish forests by shaking the Earth and drown islands with gargantuan waves. And out of sheer cruelty they laid waste to the planet for sport.
One of the Titans, Cronos (Time) had several children with his wife Rhea. These were the Greek gods – among them, Zeus, Hades, Demeter and Poseidon. For ten years, Zeus and his siblings fought against the Titans and in the end, with the help of the one-eyed Cyclops, the Titans were defeated.
Most of the Titans were sent to Tartarus, a fiery underground prison, but some met different fates. Atlas was sent to North Africa, where he would hold up the sky on his shoulders. Helios, who had not participated in the war, drove the chariot that pulled the Sun around the Earth.
One of the Titans was called Adamastor. He had fallen in love with a nymph, Thetis, but was deceived by her mother Doris (who deceived the Titan Adamastor by presenting him with a rock instead of her daughter at their wedding).
As punishment for coveting the nymph and for his rebellion against the gods, Adamastor was turned into a jagged mountain at the southernmost tip of Africa.
In other words, Adamastor is the Cape Peninsula – and his hooked extremity is Cape Point.
Scourge of the Portuguese sailors
For millennia, Adamastor broods upon his fate beneath the earth, embittered by his exile. His beard becomes the fynbos of the Cape, his skin as rough as the sandstone outcrops, his mouth like a granite cavern on the rugged coast.
One day, he sees a Portugese sailing ship rounding the Cape. This is non other than Vasco da Gama, the explorer who opened up a trade route to India around the tip of Africa (his predecessor Dias had not completed the journey).
In his epic poem The Lusiads, the Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz de Camoes writes that as Vasco da Gama rounds Cape Point:
“… an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.”
Punished by the Greek gods who defeated the Titans and jealous of the freedom and exploration of the Portuguese seafarers, Adamastor vows to torment every ship that sails past him. He claims responsibility for the deaths of Bartolomeu Dias (who sank off the coast of Table Bay on a return voyage) and other prominent Portuguese seafarers.
“I am that vast, secret promontory,” Adamastor tells Da Gama, “you Portuguese call the Cape of Storms.”
Today you only need to stand on the rugged cliffs of Cape Point to get a sense of Adamastor’s terrible majesty and feel a portent of his brooding wrath.
Luiz Vaz de Camoes
The story of Adamastor was not actually a Greek myth. It was told by Luis Vaz de Camoes, arguably the greatest Portuguese poet of all time, in his epic poem The Lusiads.
“In Adamastor,” says the website museum.org, “Camoes created a new mythological figure, the only great figure added to mythology since the classical period. By placing him at the Cape of Storms the poet brought southern Africa into the realm of the classical gods.”
The poem was written while Camoes was in exile in Macau – a Portuguese colony in China. Camoes had been sent to the East after he had injured a Portuguese royal cavalryman in a duel. One of his many adventures there included him being shipwrecked in Cambodia, and saving the manuscript of The Lusiads by swimming ashore while holding the pages above the water.
The Lusiads that the poem’s title refers to are the sons of Lusus – the Portuguese people – and the main narrator is none other than Vasco da Gama, the first person to sail from Europe to India around Cape Point.
Camoes could infuse the poem with a highly realistic description of sailing around Cape Point for the simple reason that his own ship had battled an extreme Southeaster as it attempted to round the Cape en route to Goa. Camoes was reportedly terrified by the sight of the clouds streaming over Table Mountain – a common sight in Cape Town during the summer months – and so the region inspired the myth of Adamastor in the poet.
The myth of Adamastor has been an inspiration for several modern South African writers and artists. The painter Cyril Coetzee used the story as his basis for the painting T’kama Adamastor at the Wit’s university’s Cullen library.
Coetzee got his inspiration from the South African novelist Andre Brink, who used the story of Adamastor in his short novel, The First Life of Adamastor, wherein a Khoi chief by the name of T’kama wages war on the colonists who try to pass.
A statue of Adamastor created by Julio Vaz Jr. in 1927, can be found in Lisbon, Portugal. The statue shows a ferocious Adamastor emerging from a rock while a smaller brass human looks on in terror.
You’ve read the story, now head to Cape point where you can:
- On a winter’s day you can feel the wrath of the mighty Titan!
- View the sight that inspired the greatest Portuguese poem of all time.
- Endure then howl of the Southeaster that causes the ‘tablecloth’ to form over Table Mountain.