P. Ovidius Naso (Ovid)



In his longest and most peculiar poem, the Metamorphoses, Ovid toys with the limits of the epic and didactic forms of poetry. The result is an elaborate poem that wanders restlessly and apparently aimlessly from topic to topic, its only continuous theme being change from one form to another. Here we have the story, taken from Books I and II, of the ill-fated Phaëton, whose insistence on driving the chariot of his father the Sun was to cause untold damage and result in his death. Note here some of the various techniques Ovid employs in the service of his project.

To her, at length, Epaphus is believed to have been born from the seed of great Jove, and throughout the cities he possesses temples joined to those of his parent. Phaëton, sprung from the Sun, was equal to him in spirit and in years; whom formerly, as he uttered great boasts, and yielded not at all to him, and proud of his father, Phoebus, the grandson of Inachus could not endure; and said, "Thou, like a madman, believest thy mother in all things, and art puffed up with the conceit of an imaginary father."

Phaëton blushed, and in shame repressed his resentment; and he reported to his mother, Clymene, the reproaches of Epaphus; and said, "Mother, to grieve thee still more, I, the free, the bold youth, was silent; I am ashamed both that these reproaches can be uttered against us, and that they cannot be refuted; but do thou, if only I am born of a divine race, give me some proof of so great a descent, and claim me for heaven." Thus he spoke, and threw his arms around the neck of his mother; and besought her, by his own head and by that of Merops, and by the nuptial torches of his sisters, that she would give him some token of his real father.

It is a matter of doubt whether Clymene was more moved by the entreaties of Phaëton, or by resentment at the charge made against her; and she raised both her arms to heaven, and, looking up to the light of the Sun, she said, "Son, I swear to thee, by this beam, bright with shining rays, which both hears and sees us, that thou, that thou, I say, wast begotten by this Sun, which though beholdest; by this Sun, which governs the world. If I utter an untruth, let him deny himself to be seen by me, and let this light prove the last for my eyes. Nor will it be any prolonged trouble for thee to visit thy father's dwelling; the abode where he arises is contiguous to our regions. If only thy inclination disposes thee, go forth, and thou shalt inquire of himself."

Phaëton immediately springs forth, overjoyed, upon these words of his mother, and reaches the skies in imagination; and he passes by his own Aethiopians, and the Indians situate beneath the rays of the Sun, and briskly wends his way to the rising of his sire.

[Book II]

The palace of the Sun was raised high, on stately columns, bright with radiant gold, and carbuncle that rivals the flames; polished ivory covered its highest top, and double folding doors shone with the brightness of silver. The workmanship even exceeded the material; for there Mulciber had carved the sea circling round the encompassed Earth; and the orb of the Earth, and the Heavens which hang over that orb. There the waves have in them the azure Deities, both Triton, sounding with his shell, and the changing Proteus, and Aegeon, pressing the huge backs of whales with his arms; Doris, too, and her daughters, part of whom appear to be swimming, part, sitting on the bank, to be drying their green hair; some are seen borne upon fishes. The features in all are not the same, nor, however, remarkably different; they are such as those of sisters ought to be. The Earth has upon it men and cities, and woods, and wild beasts, and rivers, and Nymphs, and other Deities of the country. Over these is placed the figure of the shining Heaven, and there are six Signs of the Zodiac on the right door, and as many on the left.

Soon as the son of Clymene had arrived thither by an ascending path, and entered the house of his parent, thus doubted of; he immediately turned his steps to the presence of his father, and stood at a distance, for he could not bear the refulgence nearer. Arrayed in a purple garment, Phoebus was seated on a throne sparkling with brilliant emeralds. On his right hand, and on his left, the Days, the Months, the Years, the Ages, and the Hours were arranged, at corresponding distances, and the fresh Spring was standing, crowned with a chaplet of blossoms; Summer was standing naked, and wearing garlands made of ears of corn; Autumn, too, was standing besmeared with the trodden-out grapes; and icy Winter, rough with his hoary hair.

Then the Sun, from the midst of this place, with those eyes with which he beholds all things, sees the young man struck with fear at the novelty of these things, and says, "What is the occasion of they journey hither? What does thou seek, Phaëton, in this my palace, a son not to be denied by his parent?"

He answers, "O thou universal light of the unbounded World, Phoebus, my father, if thou grantest me the use of that name; and if Clumene is not concealing an error under a false pretext, give me, my parent, some token, by which I may be believed to be really thy progeny; and remove this uncertainty from my mind." Thus he spoke; but his parent took off the rays shining all around his head, and commanded him to come nearer; and, having embraced him, he says, "And neither art thou deserving to be denied to be mind, and Clymene has told thee thy true origin; and that thou mayest have the less doubt, ask any gift thou mayst please, that thou mayst receive it from me bestowing it. Let the lake, by which the Gods are wont to swear, and which is unseen, even by my eyes, be as a witness of my promise."

Hardly had he well finished, when he asks for his father's chariot, and for the command and guidance of the wing-footed horses for one day. His father repented that he had so sworn, and shaking his splendid head three or four times, he said, "By thine have my words been made rash. I wish I were allowed not to grant what I have promised! I confess, my son, that this alone I would deny thee. Still, I may dissuade thee: thy desire is not attended with safety. Thou desirest, Phaëton, a gift too great, and one which is suited neither to thy strength, nor to such youthful years. Thy lot is that of a mortal; that which thou desirest, belongs not to mortals. Nay, thou aimest, in thy ignorance, at even more than it is allowed the Gods above to obtain. Let every one be self-satisfied, if he likes; still, with the exception of myself, no on is able to take his stand upon the fire-bearing axle-tree. Even the Ruler of vast Olympus, who hurls the ruthless bolts with his terrific right hand, cannot guide this chariot; and yet, what have we greater than Jupiter? The first part of the road is steep, and such as the horses, though fresh in the morning, can hardly climb. In the middle of the heavens it is high aloft, from whence it is often a source of fear, even to myself, to look down upon the sea and the earth, and my breast trembles with fearful apprehensions. The last stage is a steep descent, and requires a sure command of the horses. Then, too, Tethys herself, who receives me in her waves, extended below, is often wont to fear, lest I should be borne headlong from above. Besides, the heavens are carried round with a constant rotation, and carry with them the lofty stars, and whirl them with rapid revolution. Against this I have to contend; and that force which overcomes all other things, does not overcome me; and I am carried in a contrary direction to the rapid world. Suppose the chariot given to thee: what couldst thou do? Couldst thou proceed, opposed to the whirling poles, so that the rapid heavens should not carry thee away? Perhaps, too, thou dost fancy in thy mind that there are groves, and cities of the Gods, and temples enriched with gifts; whereas, the way is through dangers, and the forms of wild beasts; and though thou shouldst keep on thy road, and be drawn aside by no wanderings, still thou must pass amid the horns of the threatening Bull, and the Haemonian bow, and before the visage of the raging Lion, and the Scorpion, bending his cruel claws with a wide compass, and the Crab, that bends his claws in a different manner; nor is it easy for thee to govern the steeds spirited by those first which they have in their breasts, and which they breathe forth from their mouths and their nostrils. Hardly are they restrained by me, when their high-mettled spirit is once heated, and their necks struggle against the reins. But do thou have a care, my son, that I be not the occasion of a gift fatal to thee, and while the matter still permits, alter thy intentions. Thou askest, forsooth, a sure proof that thou mayest believe thyself sprung from my blood? I give the a sure proof in thus being alarmed for thee; and by my paternal apprehensions, I am shown to be thy father. Lo, behold my countenance! I wish, too, that thou couldst direct thy eyes into my breast, and discover my fatherly concern within! Finally, look around thee, upon whatever the rich world contains, and ask for anything out of the blessings, so many and so great, of heaven, of earth, and of sea; and thou shalt suffer no denial. In this one thing alone I beg to be excused, which, called by its right name, is a penalty, and not an honor; thou art asking, Phaëton, a punishment instead of a gift. Why, in thy ignorance, art thou embracing my neck with caressing arms? Doubt not; whatever thou shalt desire shall be granted thee (by the Stygian waves I have sworn it); but do thou make thy desire more considerately."

He had finished his admonitions; and yet Phaëton resists his advice, and presses his point, and urns with eagerness for the chariot. Wherefore, his parent having delayed as long as he could, leads the young man to the lofty chariot, the gift of Vulcan. The axle-tree was of gold, the poles were of gold; the circumference of the exterior of the wheel was of gold; the range of the spokes was of silver. Chrysolites and gems placed along the yoke in order, gave a bright light from the reflected sun. And while the aspiring Phaëton is admiring these things, and is examining the workmanship, behold! the watchful Aurora opened her purple doors in the ruddy east, and her halls filled with roses. the stars disappear, the troops whereof Lucifer gathers, and moves the last from his station in the heavens. But the father Titan, when he beheld the earth and the universe growing red, and the horns of the far-distant Moon, as if about to vanish, orders the swift Hours to yoke the horses. The Goddesses speedily perform his commands, and lead forth the steeds from the lofty stall, snorting forth flames, and filled with the juice of Ambrosia, and then they put on the sounding bits.

Then the father touched the face of his son with a hallowed drug, and made it able to endure the burning flames, and placed the rays upon his locks, and fetching from his troubled heart signs presaging his sorrow, he said: "If thou canst here at least, my boy, obey the advice of thy father, be sparing of the whip, and use the bridle with nerve. Of their own accord they are wont to hasten on; the difficulty is to check them in their full career. And let not the way attract the through the five direct circles. There is a track cut obliquely, with a broad curvature, and bounded by the extremities of three zones, and so it shuns the South pole, and the Bear united to the North. Let thy way be here; thou wilt perceive distinct traces of the wheels. And that heaven and earth may endure equal heat, neither drive to low, nor urge the chariot along the summit of the sky. going forth too high, though wilt set on fire the signs of the heavens; too low, the earth; in the middle course thou wilt go most safely. Neither let the right wheel bear thee off towards the twisted Serpent, nor let the left lead thee to the low Altar; hold thy course between them. The rest, I leave to Fortune, who, I pray, may aid thee, and take more care of thee, than thou didst of thyself. Whilst I am speaking, the moist Night has touched the goals placed on the Western shores; delay is not allowed me. I am required; the Morning is shining forth, the darkness being dispersed. Seize the reins with thy hands; of if thou has a mind capable of change, make use of my advice, and not my chariot, while thou are still able, and art even yet standing upon solid ground; and while thou are not yet in thy ignorance filling the chariot that thou didst so unfortunately covet."

The other leaps into the light chariot with his youthful body, and stands aloft, and rejoices to take in his hand the reins presented to him, and then gives thanks to his reluctant parent. In the meantime the swift Pyroeia, and Eoüs and Aethon, the horses of the sun, and Phlegon, making the fourth, fill the air with neighings, sending forth flames, and beat the barriers with their feet. After Tethys, ignorant of the destiny of her grandson, had removed these, and the scope of the boundless universe was given them, they take the road, and moving their feet through the air, they cleave the resisting clouds, and raised aloft by their wings, they pass by the East winds that had arisen from the same parts. But the weight was light; and such as the horses of the sun could not feel; and the yoke was deficient of its wonted weight. And as the curving ships, without proper ballast, are tossed about, and unsteady, through their too great lightness, are borne through the sea, so does the chariot give bounds in the air, unimpeded by its usual burden, and is tossed on high, and is just like an empty one.

Soon as the steeds have perceived this, they rush on, and leave the beaten track, and run not in the order in which they did before. He himself becomes alarmed, and knows not which way to turn the reins entrusted to him, nor does he know where the way is, nor, if he did know, could he control them. Then, for the first time, did the cold Triones grow warm with sunbeams, and attempt, in vain, to be dipped in the sea that was forbidden to them. And the Serpent which is situate next to the icy pole, being before torpid with cold, and formidable to no one, grew warm, and regained new rage from the heat. They say, too, that thou, Boötes, being disturbed, took to flight; although thou was but slow, and thy wain impeded thee. But when, from the height of the skies, the unhappy Phaëton looked down upon the earth, lying far, very far beneath, he grew pale, and his knees shook with a sudden terror; and in a light so great, darkness overspread his eyes. An now he could wish that he had never touched the horses of his father; and now he is sorry that he knew his descent, and that he prevailed in his request; now desiring to be called the son of Merops. He is borne along, just as a ship driven by the furious Boreas, to which its pilot has given up the overpowered helm, and which he has resigned to the Gods and the effect of his supplications. What can he do? much of heaven is left behind his back; still more is before his eyes. Either space he measures in his mind; and at one moment he is looking forward to the West, which it is not allowed him by fate to reach; and sometimes he looks back upon the East. Ignorant what to do, he is stupefied; and he neither lets go the reins, nor is he able to retain them; nor does he know the names of the horses. In his fright, too, he sees strange objects scattered everywhere in various parts of the heavens, and the forms of huge wild beasts. There is a spot where the Scorpion bends his arms into two curves, and with his tail and claws bending on either side, he extends his limbs through the space of two signs of the zodiac. As soon as the youth beheld him wet with the swat of black venom, and threatening wounds with the barbed point of his tail, bereft of sense, he let go the reins in a chill of horror. Soon as they, falling down, have touched the top of their backs, the horses range at large; and no one restraining them, they go through the air of an unknown region; and where their fury drives them thither, without check, do they hurry along, and they rush on to the stars fixed in the sky, and drag the chariot through pathless places. One while they are mounting aloft, and now they are borne through steep places, and along headlong paths in a tract nearer to the earth.

The Moon, too, wonders that her brother's horses run lower than her own, and the scorched clouds send for smoke. As each region is most elevated, it is caught by the flames, and cleft, it makes vast chasms, and becomes dry, its moisture being carried away. The grass grows pale; the trees, with their foliage, are burnt up; and the dry standing corn affords fuel for its own destruction. But I am complaining of trifling ills. Great cities perish, together with their fortifications, and the flames turn whole nations, with their populations, into ashes; woods, together with mountains, are on fire. Athos burns, and the Cilician Taurus, and Tmolus, and Oeta, and Ida, now dry, but once most famed for its springs; and Helicon, the resort of the Virgin Muses, and Hoemus, not yet called Oeagrian. Aetna burns intensely with redoubled flames, and Parnassus, with its two summits, and Eryx, and Cynthus, and Othrys, and Rhodope, at length to be despoiled of its snows, and Mimas, and Dindyma, and Mycale, and Cithaeron, created for the performance of sacred rites. Nor does its cold avail even Scythia; Caucasus is on fire, and Ossa with Pindus, and Olympus, greater than them both, and the lofty Alps, and the cloud-bearing Apennines.

Then, indeed, Phaëton beholds the world set on fire on all sides, and he cannot endure heat so great, and he inhales with his mouth scorching air, as though from a deep furnace, and perceives his own chariot to be on fire. And neither is he able now to bear the ashes and the emitted embers; and, on every side, in is involved in heated smoke. covered with a pitchy darkness, he knows not whither he is going, nor where he is, and is hurried away at the pleasure of the winged steeds. They believe that it was then that the nations of the Aethiopians contracted their black hue, the blood being attracted into the surface of the body. Then was Libya made dry by the heat, the moisture being carried off; then, with disheveled hair, the Nymphs lamented the springs and the lakes. Boeotia bewails Dirce, Argos Amymone, and Ephyre the waters of Pierene. Nor do rivers that have got banks distant in situation, remain secure; Tanais smokes in the midst of the waters, and the aged Peneus, and Teuthrantian Cäicus, and rapid Ismenus, with Phocean Erymanthus, and Xanthus again to burn, and yellow Lycormas, and Maeander, which sports with winding streams, and the Mygdonian Melas, and the Taenarian Eurotas. The Babylonian Euphrates, too, was on fire, Orontes was in flames, and the swift Thermodon and Ganges, and Phasis, and Ister. Alpheus boils; the banks of Spercheus burn; and the gold which Tagus carries with its stream, melts in the flames. The river birds too, which made famous the Maeonian banks of the river with their song, grew hot in the middle of Cayster. The Nile, affrighted, fled to the remotest parts of the earth, and concealed his head, which still lies hid; his seven last mouths are empty, become seven mere channels, without any stream. The same fate dries up the Ismarian rivers, Hebrus together with Strymon, and the Hesperian streams, the Rhine, and the Rhone, and the Po, and the Tiber, to which was promised the sovereignty of the world.

All the ground bursts asunder; and through the chinks, the light penetrates into Tartarus, and startles the Infernal King with his spouse. The Ocean too, is contracted, and that which lately was sea, is a surface of parched sand; and the mountains which the deep sea had covered, start up and increase the number of the scattered Cyclades. the fishes sink to the bottom, and the crooked Dolphins do not care to raise themselves on the surface into the air, as usual. The bodies of the sea calves float lifeless on their backs, on the top of the water. The story, too, is that even Nereus himself, and Doris and their daughters, lay hid in the heated caverns. Three time had Neptune ventured, with a stern countenance, to thrust his arms out of the water; three times he was unable to endure the scorching heat of the air. However, the genial Earth, as she was surrounded with sea, amid the waters of the main, and the springs, dried up on every side, which had hidden themselves in the bowels of their cavernous parent, burnt-up, lifted up her all-productive face, as far as her neck, and placed her hands to her forehead, and shaking all things with a vast trembling, she sank down a little, and retired below the spot where she is wont to be, and thus she spoke, with a parched voice: "O sovereign of the Gods, if thou approvest of this, if I have deserved it, why do thy lightnings linger? Let me, if doomed to perish by the force of fire, perish by thy flames; and alleviate my misfortune, by being the author of it. With difficulty, indeed, do I open my mouth for these very words;" (the vapor had oppressed her utterance.) "Behold my scorched hair, and such a quantity of ashes over my eyes, so much, too, over my features. And dost thou give this as my recompense? this as the reward of my fertility and of my duty, in that I endure wounds from the crooked plough and harrows, and am harassed all the year through? In that I supply green leaves for the cattle, and corn, a wholesome food for mankind, and frankincense for yourselves? But still, suppose that I am deserving of destruction, why have the waves deserved this? Why has thy brother deserved it? Why do the seas, delivered to him by lot, decrease, and why do they recede still further from the sky? But if regard for neither thy brother nor for myself influences thee, still have consideration for thy own skies; look around, on either side, how each pole is smoking; if the fire shall injure them, thy palace will fall in ruins. See! Atlas himself is struggling, and hardly can he bear the glowing heavens on his shoulders. If the sea, if the earth perishes, if the palace of heaven, we are thrown into the confused state of ancient chaos. Save it from the flames, if aught still survives, and provide for the preservations of the universe."

Thus spoke the Earth; nor, indeed, could she any longer endure the vapour, nor say more; and she withdrew her face within herself, and the caverns neighboring to the shades below.

But the omnipotent father, having called the Gods above to witness, and him, too, who had given the chariot to Phaëton, that unless he gives assistance, all things will perish in direful ruin, mounts aloft to the highest eminence, from which he is wont to spread the clouds over the spacious earth; from which he moves his thunders, and hurls the brandished lightnings. but then, he had neither clouds that he could draw over the earth, nor showers that he could pour down from the sky. He thundered aloud, and darted the poised lightning from his right ear against the charioteer, and at the same moment deprived him both of his life and his seat, and by his ruthless fires restrained the flames. The horses are affrighted, and, making bound in an opposite direction, they shake the yoke from off their necks, and disengage themselves from the torn harness. In one place lie the reins; in another, the axle-tree wrenched away from the pole; in another part are the spokes of the broken wheels; and the fragments of the chariot torn in pieces are scattered far and wide. But Phaëyton, the flames consuming his yellow hair, is hurled headlong, and is borne in a long tract through the air; as sometimes a star from the serene sky may appear to fall, although it really has not fallen. Him the great Eridanus receives, in a part of the world far distant from his country, and bathes his foaming face.

The Hesperian Naiads commit his body, smoking form the three-forked flames, to the tomb, and inscribe these verses on the stone: -"Here is Phaëton buried, the driver of his father's chariot, which if he did not manage, still he miscarried in a great attempt." But his wretched father had hidden his face, overcast with bitter sorrow, and, if only we can believe it, they say that one day passed without the sun. The flames afforded light; and so far, there was some advantage in that disaster. But Clymene, after she had said whatever things were to be said amid misfortunes so great, traversed the whole earth, full of woe, and distracted, and tearing her bosom. And first seeking his lifeless limbs, and then his bones, she found his bones, however, buried on a foreign bank. She laid herself down on the spot; and bathed with tears the name she read on the marble, and warmed it with her open breast. The daughters of the Sun mourn no less, and give tears, an unavailing gift, to his death; and beating their breasts with their hands, they call Phaëton both night and day, who is doomed not to hear their sad complaints; and they lie scattered about the tomb. The Moon had four times filled her disk, by joining her horns; they, according to their custom (for use had made custom) uttered lamentations; among whom Phaëthusa, the eldest of the sisters, when she was desirous to lie on the ground, complained that her feet had grown stiff; to whom the fair Lampetie attempting to come, was detained by a root suddenly formed. A third, when she is endeavoring to tear her hair with her hands, tears off leaves; on complains that her legs are held fast by the trunk of a tree, another that her arms are become long branches. And while they are wondering at these things, bark closes upon their loins; and by degrees, it encompasses their stomachs, their breasts, their shoulders, and their hands; and only their mouths are left uncovered, calling upon their mother. What is their mother to do? but run here and there, whither frenzy leads her, and join her lips with theirs, while yet she may? That is not enough; she tries to pull their bodies out of the trunks of the trees, and with her hands to tear away the tender branches; but from thence drops of blood flow as from a wound. Whichever of them is wounded, cries out, "Spare me, mother, O spare me, I pray; in the tree my body is being torn. And now farewell." The bark came over the last words.

Thence tears flow forth; and amber distilling from the newformed branches, hardens in the sun; which the clear river receives and sends to be worn by the Latian matrons.