Ovid's Metamorphoses: Phaethon and the Sun

The story of Phaethon which you will now read is in some ways similar to the story of Daedalus and Icarus, but in this case, Phaethon has a divine father — the sun god Phoebus Apollo (Helios in some versions of the story) — and Phaethon does not just want to fly; he wants to drive the sun god's chariot across the sky. Because of this myth, the word "phaethon" became part of the English language, referring to a type of carriage.

The story picks up with Io, restored to human form, who bears a child, son of Zeus, named Epaphus. Ovid tells us that Phaethon, son of the Sun God, was a friend of Epaphus, and thus he transitions from the story of Io into the story of Phaethon.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

Phaethon’s parentage

Now Io is worshipped as a greatly honoured goddess by crowds of linen clad acolytes. In due time she bore a son, Epaphus, who shared the cities’ temples with his mother, and was believed to have been conceived from mighty Jupiter’s seed.

He had a friend, Phaethon, child of the Sun, equal to him in spirit and years, who once boasted proudly that Phoebus was his father and refused to concede the claim, which Inachus’s grandson could not accept. ‘You are mad to believe all your mother says, and you have an inflated image of your father.’

Phaethon reddened but, from shame, repressed his anger, and went to his mother Clymene with Inachus’s reproof. ‘To sadden you more, Mother, I the free, proud, spirit was silent! I am ashamed that such a reproach can be spoken and not answered. But if I am born at all of divine stock, give me some proof of my high birth, and let me claim my divinity!’

So saying he flung his arms round his mother’s neck, entreating her, by his own and her husband Merops’s life, and by his sisters’ marriages, to reveal to him some true sign of his parentage.

Phaethon sets out for the Palace of the Sun

Clymene, moved perhaps by Phaethon’s entreaties or more by anger at the words spoken, stretched both arms out to the sky and looking up at the sun’s glow said, ‘By that brightness marked out by glittering rays, that sees us and hears us, I swear to you, my son, that you are the child of the Sun; of that being you see; you are the child of he who governs the world; if I lie, may he himself decline to look on me again, and may this be the last light to reach our eyes!  It is no great effort for you yourself to find your father’s house. The place he rises from is near our land. If you have it in mind to do so, go and ask the sun himself!’

Immediately Phaethon, delighted at his mother’s words, imagining the heavens in his mind, darts off and crosses Ethiopia his people’s land, then India, land of those bathed in radiant fire, and with energy reaches the East.

The Palace of the Sun

The palace of the Sun towered up with raised columns, bright with glittering gold, and gleaming bronze like fire. Shining ivory crowned the roofs, and the twin doors radiated light from polished silver. The work of art was finer than the material: on the doors Mulciber (the god Vulcan) had engraved the waters that surround the earth’s centre, the earthly globe, and the overarching sky. The dark blue sea contains the gods, melodious Triton, shifting Proteus, Aegaeon crushing two huge whales together, his arms across their backs, and Doris with her daughters, some seen swimming, some sitting on rocks drying their sea-green hair, some riding the backs of fish. They are neither all alike, nor all different, just as sisters should be. The land shows men and towns, woods and creatures, rivers and nymphs and other rural gods. Above them was an image of the glowing sky, with six signs of the zodiac on the right hand door and the same number on the left.

As soon as Clymene’s son had climbed the steep path there, and entered the house of this parent of whose relationship to himself he was uncertain, he immediately made his way into his father’s presence, but stopped some way off, unable to bear his light too close.

Wearing a purple robe, Phoebus sat on a throne shining with bright emeralds. To right and left stood the Day, Month, and Year, the Century and the equally spaced Hours. Young Spring stood there circled with a crown of flowers, naked Summer wore a garland of ears of corn, Autumn was stained by the trodden grapes, and icy Winter had white, bristling hair.

Phaethon and his father

The Sun, seated in the middle of them, looked at the boy, who was fearful of the strangeness of it all, with eyes that see everything, and said, ‘What reason brings you here? What do you look for on these heights, Phaethon, son that no father need deny?’

Phaethon replied ‘Universal light of the great world, Phoebus, Father, if you let me use that name, if Clymene is not hiding some fault behind false pretence, give me proof, Father, so they will believe I am your true offspring, and take away this uncertainty from my mind!’

He spoke, and his father removed the crown of glittering rays from his head and ordered him to come nearer. Embracing him, he said, ‘It is not to be denied you are worthy to be mine, and Clymene has told you the truth of your birth. So that you can banish doubt, ask for any favour, so that I can grant it to you. May the Stygian lake, that my eyes have never seen, by which the gods swear, witness my promise.’

Hardly had he settled back properly in his seat when the boy asked for his father’s chariot and the right to control his wing-footed horses for a day.

The Sun’s admonitions

His father regretted his oath. Three times, and then a fourth, shaking his bright head, he said, ‘Your words show mine were rash; if only it were right to retract my promise! I confess, my boy, I would only refuse you this one thing. It is right to dissuade you. What you want is unsafe. Phaethon, you ask too great a favour, and one that is unfitting for your strength and boyish years. Your fate is mortal: it is not mortal what you ask. Unknowingly you aspire to more than the gods can share. Though each deity can please themselves, within what is allowed, no one except myself has the power to occupy the chariot of fire. Even the lord of mighty Olympus, who hurls terrifying lightning-bolts from his right hand, cannot drive this team, and who is greater than Jupiter?’

His further warnings

‘The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong. Moreover, the rushing sky is constantly turning, and drags along the remote stars, and whirls them in rapid orbits.  I move the opposite way, and its momentum does not overcome me as it does all other things, and I ride contrary to its swift rotation.

‘Suppose you are given the chariot. What will you do? Will you be able to counter the turning poles so that the swiftness of the skies does not carry you away? Perhaps you conceive in imagination that there are groves there and cities of the gods and temples with rich gifts. The way runs through ambush, and apparitions of wild beasts! Even if you keep your course, and do not steer awry, you must still avoid the horns of Taurus the Bull, Sagittarius the Haemonian Archer, raging Leo and the Lion’s jaw, Scorpio’s cruel pincers sweeping out to encircle you from one side, and Cancer’s crab-claws reaching out from the other.

‘You will not easily rule those proud horses, breathing out through mouth and nostrils the fires burning in their chests. They scarcely tolerate my control when their fierce spirits are hot, and their necks resist the reins. Beware, my boy, that I am not the source of a gift fatal to you, while something can still be done to set right your request!’

(1400 words)

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