The myth of Phaëthon is one of the longest stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Cunningly, it is introduced in the last lines of Book 1, but told in full at the start of Book 2. It balances the account of the Flood with that of the earth laid waste by fire, a myth which is much less common across different cultures, and may have its roots in one of the catastrophic volcanic events which occurred in the Mediterranean in ancient times.
Ovid’s lead in to this story is through Io, who at the end of Book 1 is driven to Egypt, where she is transformed from being a cow back into human form. She is then supposed to have become Osiris, the Egyptian goddess, whose son following Jupiter’s rape of her is Epaphus.
Epaphus has a friend and rival who, like him, is the child of a single-parent family, with a god as the absent father. In Phaëthon’s case, his father is reputed to be Phoebus, the god of the sun, and his mother is Clymene. Epaphus mocks Phaëthon, who in turn reports this to his mother, who despatches Phaëthon to visit his father in the Land of Dawn.
Book 2 opens with a description of the Palace of the Sun. Phaëthon then asks his presumed father Phoebus to give him a token to prove his paternity. Phoebus promises Phaëthon anything which he desires, so the youth asks to take charge of his father’s chariot of the sun for a day.
The mythical model of the sun portrays it as being drawn across the heavens by Phoebus’ chariot, with four horses (named by Ovid as Eous, Aethon, Pyrois, and Phlegon) in harness. In trying to dissuade Phaëthon from his wish, his father explains the great challenges which lie in controlling the chariot, as it crosses the constellations, and how difficult it is to restrain the team of horses.
Despite Phoebus repeatedly telling his son how dangerous and disastrous his wish would prove, Phaëthon is insistent, and his father is bound by his oath. Phaëthon then leaps into the chariot, and departs on its course. He immediately loses control, and the sun runs off track. The chariot comes too close to the earth, and starts melting the polar regions, and scorching its surface:
Phoebe is wondering that her brother’s steeds
run lower than her own, and sees the smoke
of scorching clouds. The highest altitudes
are caught in flames, and as their moistures dry
they crack in chasms. The grass is blighted; trees
are burnt up with their leaves; the ripe brown crops
give fuel for self destruction—Oh what small
complaints! Great cities perish with their walls,
and peopled nations are consumed to dust—
the forests and the mountains are destroyed.
The Ethiopian people have their skin darkened as a result, and all the rivers of the earth are turned to vapour in the heat. The goddess of the Earth appeals to the gods, and Jupiter responds by throwing one of his thunderbolts at Phaëthon, who is killed instantly and falls to earth in flames. The chariot lies broken, its horses scattered.
The scorched remains of Phaëthon are buried by Naiads in a distant tomb, and his mother Clymene is left to mourn his death. Phaëthon’s lamenting sisters are then transformed into poplar trees, and their tears into amber (electrum). Phaëthon’s beloved friend Cycnus is transformed into a swan:
There, as he made complaint, his manly voice
began to pipe a treble, shrill; and long
gray plumes concealed his hair. A slender neck
extended from his breast, and reddening toes
were joined together by a membrane. Wings
grew from his sides, and from his mouth was made
a blunted beak. Now Cycnus is a swan,
and yet he fears to trust the skies and Jove,
for he remembers fires, unjustly sent,
and therefore shuns the heat that he abhors,
and haunts the spacious lakes and pools and streams
that quench the fires.
Phoebus then recovers his horses, and vents his rage on them.
One of Ovid’s most dramatic and vivid stories, the myth of Phaëthon has resulted in several superb paintings, but in recent times has been surprisingly unpopular with narrative painters. JMW Turner, for example, appears to have made a sketch of Phaëthon’s sisters being transformed, but I have been unable to trace any work of his showing the fall of Phaëthon.
Poussin’s Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons (c 1635) is an early exploration of the scene in the Palace of the Sun. At first, this may seem puzzling, as Poussin does not actually show a palace as such, although Phaëthon is on his knees in front of Phoebus (Greek Helios), pleading with him to be allowed to take charge of the chariot of the sun, shown behind and to the left.
The artist does, though, use this as an opportunity to depict the four seasons in detailed personifications. Spring is Flora-like in front of Phaëthon, wearing a crown of flowers. Summer sits to the left, next to some ripe corn. Autumn is the older man slumbering in the right foreground, with fruits. Winter is opposite him, frosty and shivering in front of a small brazier.
Poussin also unintentionally highlights an issue which pervades these relatively modern depictions of the myth: the god Phoebus, or Helios, has become transformed into Phoebus Apollo, a fusion which seems to have occurred after about 200 CE.
This may have provided some motivation for later depictions of the house of the rising sun and similar motifs.
Phaëthon’s death and fall from the chariot have been depicted in a series of works from classical times. This superb marble panel from a sarcophagus made in about 250 CE is very atmospheric, for example.
Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton, which was started in about 1604, is undoubtedly the best of several superb paintings of Ovid’s story. He seems to have reworked this over the following three or four years. Rubens has elaborated the scene to augment the chaos: accompanying Phaëthon in the chariot are the Hours (Horae, some shown with butterfly wings), who are thrown into turmoil, and time falls out of joint as Phaëthon tumbles out of the chariot.
The painting’s only slight weakness is in the distant image of fires raging above the surface of the earth, which does not really do justice to Ovid’s lines or the overall theme of the Great Fire.
In Gustave Moreau’s brilliant watercolour The Fall of Phaeton (1878) everything is searing orange. The sun chariot is just about to crash to the ground, Phaëthon stands in distress within the chariot, and the horses are in total disarray. Phoebus Apollo, shown in one of his representations as a lion, pursues the chariot in alarm, and a huge serpentine basilisk or dragon rises up from the earth. At the left the moon is shown just peeping over the horizon, and the thunderbolt from Jupiter is flying down to kill Phaëthon.
This is probably the most action-packed narrative painting in the whole of Moreau’s works, and initiated a short series of paintings which examined classical myths about the sun.
Unusually for the Metamorphoses, this myth doesn’t contain any real transformation as such, but results in two which have been painted very infrequently. Santi di Tito’s fresco of The Sisters of Phaethon Transformed into Poplars, from about 1570, shows the four young women with leaves sprouting from their hands and heads, as they lament the death of their brother. A swan makes a cameo appearance in the foreground, referring to the transformation of Cycnus.
Paul Barolsky has explained why this painting should appear where it does, on the wall of a small windowless study used by Francesco de’ Medici in his Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Francesco would retreat to this little room to study his collection of precious stones, which would have included specimens of the resin amber, believed by the Greeks to have been petrified sunlight. The myth of the creation of amber from the tears of Phaëthon’s sisters would there have been highly appropriate.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.