in Metamorphoses by Ovid
compiled by Tracy Marks


Tells Phaethon story, emphasizing how he was initially motivated by an insult by another youth of noble lineage, Epaphos, who told him spitefully that he should not pride himself on his divine origin for his father was not Helius, but a mere mortal.

Phaethon in Bullfinch
Detailed retelling of Ovid's story with links to text and images. His sisters in mourning "turned into poplar trees, from which their tears flowed and hardened into drops of amber."

Phaethon story on Rennaissance Casson
Historical background: "Phaethon was probably based on older tales that explained eclipses or speculated about the disasters that would result if the sun ever veered from its regular path across the sky... It is a metaphor for the limitless desires, but finite powers, of human beings. ...During the Renaissance the story took on an entirely new significance in order to reconcile the classical past with Christian beliefs, Renaissance scholars looked for Christian morals in classical myths whose original meanings were no longer understood. For example, Phaethon's unsuccessful efforts were equated with Lucifer's attempts to get too close to god. Moralizers drew connections between Phaethon's demise and the Old Testament text of Isaiah 14:12 - "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning." Scenes of Phaethon falling from his chariot were thus very popular in Renaissance art."

Phaethon and the Chariot
Places Phaethon in Ethiopia. Phaethon meets his father, who is Apollo, east of India at the end of the world. Tells the aftermath: "The horses ran home while pieces of the wrecked chariot fell hissing into the sea. Quickly, Vulcan, made a new golden chariot for the sun. But Apollo was so sad over his son's death that he refused to drive it. So the next day passed without sunlight. Zeus and the other gods then came and pleaded with Apollo, begging him not to leave the world in darkness. The sun god spoke bitterly of his son's death ... Apollo was finally persuaded to return to his rightful duty. He bridled his fiery horses to the Sun chariot and the Sun once again traveled its correct course."

Phaethon and Cygnus
Presents two endings: 1)Cygnus plunged into the river and dove like a swan looking for Phaethon. Apollo took pity on him and placed Cygnus among the stars; 2) Cygnus wandered the riverbank, singing a sad song. The gods took pity on him and placed him among the stars as a swan.

Greek Mythology Link: Helios and Phaethon
Presents alternative versions: Explains how Milky Way was created. Phaethon may have secretly mounted the chariot rather than asked to use it. He fell into the river Eridanus or the river Po. He may have been borne too high above the earth and was afraid of heights. The burning of the earth may have been the excuse Zeus was seeking to send the Flood.

The Path of a Comet and Phaethon's Ride
Discussion of possible astronomical phenonemon giving rise to the myth of Phaethon's ride and the scorching of the earth - the fall of a large meteor or a close brush with a comet. Comparing other myths: "One tale, recounted by Mendieta, Tezcatlipoca, defeating Quetzalcoatl in ball-play (a game symbolic of the movements of the heavenly orbs), cast him out of the land into the east, where he encountered the sun and was burned." Also references to the ending of an age: "The Sun of Air, Ehcatonatiuh, closed with a furious wind, which destroyed edifices, uprooted trees, and even moved the rocks. Quetzalcoatl appeared in this third Sun, teaching the way of virtue and arts of life; but his doctrines failed to take root, so he departed toward the east, promising to return another day. With his departure "the Sun of Air" came to its end, and Tlatonatiuh, the Sun of Fire, began, so called because it was expected that the next destruction would be by fire." References to extremely dry conditions 1000-1200 B.C. and portraits of earth destruction in the Bible, dated to 1150 B.C., in Egyptian lore (Pharoah's time), and a conjunction of five planets recording in China in 1148-1122 as related to earth calamities. Comets as dreaded omens in ancient texts.

Phaethon, Nimrod and the Bible
The connection between Phaethon and Nimrod. Issues regarding Phaethon's parents - mother Aurora or Clymene, and father Merops, Orion or Phoebus. Relation to other stories of fire-worship or light-giving. Excerpt: "The story implies that that mother gave herself out to be Aurora, not in the physical sense of that term, but in its mystical sense; as "The woman pregnant with light;" and, consequently, her son was held up as the great "Light-bringer" who was to enlighten the world,--"Lucifer, the son of the morning," who was the pretended enlightener of the souls of men. The name Lucifer, in Isaiah, is the very word from which Eleleus, one of the names of Bacchus, evidently comes. It comes from "Helel," which signifies "to irradiate" or "to bring light," and is equivalent to the name Tithon. Now we have evidence that Lucifer, the son of Aurora, or the morning, was worshipped in the very same character as Nimrod...."

Other Phaethon Links


Above: Phoebus in command...

The Fall of Phaethon - painting by Peter Paul Rubens

The Fall of Phaethon - drawing by Gaspare Diziani

Phaethon by Odilon Redon (pastel)

Apollo and Phaethon by Giovanni

Phaethon Woodcut

Brooch: Phaethon 1880s (image atop page)


"Look to the luminous egg-moon other,
Where is the truth of impersonal sun?
How goes the chariot, bright Phaethon,
How goes the mania, searing-wild clarity?"
copyright 1997 by Sally Clay

"As when the palsied universe aghast
Lay... mute and still,
When drove, so poets sing, the Sun-born youth
Devious through Heaven's affrighted signs his sire's
Ill-granted chariot. Him the Thunderer hurled
From the empyrean headlong to the gulf
Of thee half-parched Eridanus, where weep
Even now the sister trees their amber tears
O'er Phaeton untimely dead."

from Samor by Milman
"...I have sinuous shells of pearly hue
Within, and things that lustre have imbibed
In the sun's palace porch, where when unyoked
His chariot wheel stands midway on the wave.
Shake one and it awakens...."
from Gebir, Book 1, by Walter Savage Landor

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