Start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses

“Every interpretation of a myth impoverishes and suffocates it; with myths, it’s better not to rush things, better to let them settle in memory, pausing to consider their details, to ponder them without moving beyond the language of their images. ” – Italo Calvino

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I find a lot of people are very interested in the idea of Greco-Roman mythology but don’t know where to start in their exploration. With all due respect to academic introductions to mythology—I am thinking of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for example—I believe the best way to learn about mythology is to jump right in and get your hands dirty with the original source material. Hesiod’s Works and Days is a popular option or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. You certainly can’t go wrong with either of those choices but there is another option that I think may be more accessible to the average reader, and no less substantive.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is my choice. It’s an incredible book with more in it than I could possibly describe in one or one hundred blog posts. Written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, Metamorphoses is a poetic re-telling of 250 various Greek and Roman myths, reinterpreted through Ovid’s indelible vision of Greek literature and of life.

My personal favorite story from the Metamorphoses, a good place to start for the would-be mythology geek, is Ovid’s version of the story of Phaëthon. An underrated one, in my opinion.

Phaëthon, an otherwise pretty regular kid, learns that he is the son of Phoebus (who is confusingly both Apollo and not Apollo) god of the sun. This knowledge of his parentage turns Phaëthon into a pompous turd. One day one of his friends gets fed up and challenges him. So Phaëthon travels east to the sun palace to get proof from Pheobus himself:

There stood the regal palace of the Sun, soaring upon its many lofty columns, with roof of gold and fire-breathing bronze, and ceilings intricate with ivory, and double-folding doors that shone with silver… [Phaëthon] had climbed the steep path leading to the dwelling place of his reputed parent, he went in and turned at once to meet his father’s gaze–though at some distance, for he could not bear such brightness any closer.

Phoebus sat in robes of purple high upon a throne that glittered brilliantly with emeralds; and in attendance on his left and right stood Day and Month and Year and Century, and all the Hours, evenly divided; fresh Spring was there, adorned with floral crown, and Summer, naked, bearing ripened grain, and Autumn, strained from treading out her grapes, and Winter with his gray and frosty locks.

Surprisingly Pheobus is happy to oblige Phaëthon’s request. In fact he permits him to ask for anything as a proof of their relation. Phaëthon asks if he may drive his father’s sun chariot through the sky for one day. Pheobus responds:

Your deed reveals the rashness of my speech! Would that I were permitted to rescind the promise I have given! I confess that this alone I would deny you, son!

Pheobus describes as a warning his daily routine. Far from being a stroll through the sky, it is a treacherous journey:

“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?”

Phaëthon completely ignores his father’s pleading, missing not only the dangers that lie ahead which he is completely unprepared for, but also his father’s own respect for his daily task. The ordering of the cosmos and the passage of time. Obviously Pheobus takes his job very seriously and is even reverent and humble towards it. But still poor dull Phaëthon insists that he drive his father’s chariot:

The boy has already taken possession of the fleet chariot, and stands proudly, and joyfully, takes the light reins in his hands, and thanks his unwilling father.

Once morning comes the outcome is what you might expect:

When the unlucky Phaethon looked down from the heights of the sky at the earth far, far below he grew pale and his knees quaked with sudden fear, and his eyes were robbed of shadow by the excess light. Now he would rather he had never touched his father’s horses, and regrets knowing his true parentage and possessing what he asked for. Now he wants only to be called Merops’s son, as he is driven along like a ship in a northern gale, whose master lets go the ropes, and leaves her to prayer and the gods. What can he do? Much of the sky is now behind his back, but more is before his eyes. Measuring both in his mind, he looks ahead to the west he is not fated to reach and at times back to the east. Dazed he is ignorant how to act…

But Phaëthon is far from the only person effected by his actions. What follows from his inability to control the chariot is an apocalyptic earth-destroying fire:

Great cities are destroyed with all their walls, and the flames reduce whole nations with all their peoples to ashes. The woodlands burn, with the hills. Mount Athos is on fire… Then, truly, Phaethon sees the whole earth on fire. He cannot bear the violent heat, and he breathes the air as if from a deep furnace. He feels his chariot glowing white. He can no longer stand the ash and sparks flung out, and is enveloped in dense, hot smoke. He does not know where he is, or where he is going, swept along by the will of the winged horses.

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