The Myth of Phaethon
Ovid's Metamorphoses
Child of the Light. To Drive the Sun. He Knows Not Their Names. Cry of Creation. Fell, But Tried.


Glowing with gold, flaming with carbuncles
on stately columns raised, refulgent shone
the palace of the Sun, with polished dome
of ivory gleaming, and with portals twain
of burnished silver. And the workmanship
exceeded all the wealth of gems and gold;
for there had Mulciber engraved the seas
encircling middle earth; the round of earth,
and heaven impending over the land.

And there
amid the waves were azure deities:
melodious Triton and elusive Proteus; there
Aegeaan pressing with his arms the backs.
Of monstrous whales; and Doris in the sea
and all her daughters; some amid the waves
and others sitting on the bank to dry
their sea-green hair, and others borne about
by fishes. Each was made to show a fair
resemblance to her sisters--yet not one
appearance was assigned to all--they seemed
as near alike as sisters should in truth.
And men and cities, woods and savage beasts,
and streams and nymphs, and sylvan deities
were carved upon the land; and over these
an image of the glittering sky was fixed;--
six signs were on the right, six on the left.

Here when audacious Phaethon arrived
by steep ascending paths, without delay
he entered in the shining palace-gates
of his reputed parent, making haste
to stand in his paternal presence. There,
unable to endure the dazzling light,
he waited at a distance.

Phoebus sat,
arrayed in royal purple, on a throne
that glittered with the purest emeralds.--
there to the left and right, Day, Month and Year,
time and the Hours, at equal distance stood;
and vernal Spring stood crowned with wreathed flowers;
and naked Summer stood with sheaves of wheat;
and Autumn stood besmeared with trodden grapes;
and icy Winter rough with hoary hair.

And from the midst, with orbs that view the world,
Phoebus beheld the trembling youth, fear-struck,
in mute amazement, and he said; "Declare
the reason of thy journey. What wilt thou
in this my palace, Phaethon my child
beloved?"

And to him replied the youth;
"O universal light of all the world,
my father Phoebus, if thy name be mine,
if Clymene has not concealed her sin
beneath some pretext, give to me, my sire,
a token to declare thy fatherhood
which may establish my assured descent,
and leave no dark suspicions in our minds."--

then Phoebus from his shining brows cast down
his circling rays; called Phaethon to him,
and as he held him to his breast replied;
"O child most worthy of thy sire, the truth
was told thee by thy mother; wherefore doubts
to dissipate, consider thy desire,
and ask of me that I may freely give:
yea, let the Nether Lake, beyond our view,
(which is the oath of Gods inviolate)
be witness to my word."

When this was said
the happy youth at once began to plead
command and guidance of his father's steeds,
wing-footed, and his chariot for a day.

But Phoebus much repented that he sware,
and thrice and four times shook his radiant head;
"Ah, would I might refuse my plighted word;
and oh, that it were lawful to deny
the promised boon.--For I confess, O son,
this only I should keep from thee--and yet
'Tis lawful to dissuade. It is unsafe
to satisfy thy will. It is a great
request, O Phaethon, which neither suits
thy utmost strength nor tender years; for thou
art mortal, and thou hast aspired to things
immortal. Ignorance has made thy thought
transcend the province of the Gods. I vaunt
no vain exploits; but only I can stand
securely on the flame-fraught axle-tree:
even the Ruler of Olympian Gods,
who hurls fierce lightnings with his great right hand,
may never dare to drive this chariot,
and what art thou to equal mighty Jove?

"The opening path is steep and difficult,
for scarcely can the steeds, refreshed at dawn,
climb up the steeps: and when is reached the height,
extreme of midmost Heaven, and sea and earth
are viewed below, my trembling breast is filled
with fearful apprehensions: and requires
the last precipitous descent a sure
command. Then, also, Tethys, who receives
me in her subject waves, is wont to fear
lest I should fall disastrous. And around
the hastening sky revolves in constant whirl,
drawing the lofty stars with rapid twist.

"I struggle on. The force that overcomes
the heavenly bodies overwhelms me not,
and I am borne against that rapid globe.
Suppose the chariot thine: what canst thou do?
Canst thou drive straight against the twisted pole
and not be carried from the lofty path
by the swift car? Art thou deceived to think
there may be groves and cities of the Gods,
and costly temples wondrously endowed?

"The journey is beset with dreadful snares
and shapes of savage animals. If thou
shouldst hold upon thy way without mistake
yet must thy journey be through Taurus' horns,
and through the Bow Haemonian, and the jaws
of the fierce Lion, and the cruel arms
of Scorpion, bent throughout a vast expanse,--
and Cancer's curving arms reversely bent.

"It is no easy task for thee to rule
the mettled four-foot steeds, enflamed in fires
that kindle in their breasts, forth issuing
in breathings from their mouths and nostrils hot;--
I scarce restrain them, as their struggling necks
pull on the harness, when their heated fires
are thus aroused.

"And, O my son, lest I
may be the author of a baneful gift,
beware, and as the time permits recall
thy rash request. Forsooth thou hast besought
undoubted signs of thy descent from me?
My fears for thee are certain signs that thou
art of my race--by my paternal fears
'Tis manifest I am thy father. Lo!
Behold my countenance! and oh, that thou
couldst even pierce my bosom with thine eyes,
and so discover my paternal cares!

"Look round thee on the treasured world's delights
and ask the greatest blessing of the sky,
or sea or land, and thou shalt suffer no
repulse: but only this I must deplore,
which rightly named would be a penalty
and not an honour. -- Thou hast made request
of punishment and not a gift indeed.
O witless boy! why dost thou hold my neck
with thy caressing arms? For, doubt it not,
as I have sworn it by the Stygian Waves,
whatever thou shalt wish, it shall be given--
but thou shouldst wish more wisely."

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