Home » Horizons » Classical texts » Ovid's Metamorphoses: The tale of Phaethon


This is the tragic story of Phaethon, son of the sun god, and his fateful journey across the heavens as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, translated by Brookes More.


747And since that time, the linen wearing throng of Egypt have adored her as a God; for they believe the seed of Jove prevailed; and when her time was due she bore to him a son called Epaphus; who also dwells in temples with his mother in that land. Now Phaethon, whose father was the Sun, was equal to his rival, Epaphus, in mind and years; and he was glad to boast of wonders, nor would yield to Epaphus for pride of Phoebus, his reputed sire. Unable to endure it, Io's son thus mocked him; "Poor, demented fellow, what will you not credit if your mother speaks, you are so puffed up with the fond conceit of your imagined sire, the Lord of Day."

755Shame crimsoned in his cheeks, but Phaethon withholding rage, reported all the taunts of Epaphus to Clymene his mother: "'Twill grieve you, mother, I, the bold and free, was silent; and it shames me to report this dark reproach remains unchallenged. Oh, if I am born of race divine, give proof of that illustrious descent and claim my right to Heaven." Around his mother's neck he drew his arms, and by the head of Merops, and by his own, and by the nuptial torch of his beloved sisters, he implored for some true token of his origin.

765Or moved by Phaethon's importuned words, or by the grievous charge, who might declare? She raised her arms to Heaven, and gazing full upon the broad sun said; "I swear to you by yonder orb, so radiant and bright, which both beholds and hears us while we speak, that you are his begotten son. - You are the child of that great light which sways the world: and if I have not spoken what is true, let not mine eyes behold his countenance, and let this fatal moment be the last that I shall look upon the light of day! Nor will it weary you, my son, to reach your father's dwelling; for the very place where he appears at dawn is near our land. Go, if it please you, and the very truth learn from your father." Instantly sprang forth exultant Phaethon. Overjoyed with words so welcome, he imagined he could leap and touch the skies. And so he passed his land of Ethiopia, and the Indies, hot beneath the tawny sun, and there he turned his footsteps to his father's Land of Dawn.


2.1Glowing 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.

19Here 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.

31And 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.


49But 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?

63"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.

90"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."


103So were all his admonitions said, availing naught; for Phaethon resisted his advice, and urged again his claim, and eagerly burned to use the chariot. Wherefore, Phoebus long delaying and reluctant, took the youth to view the spacious chariot, gift of Vulcan. - gold was the axle and the beam was gold, the great Wheel had a golden tire and spokes of silver; chrysolites and diamonds reflected from the spangled yoke the light of Phoebus.

111While aspiring Phaethon admired the glittering chariot and its workmanship, the vigilant Aurora opened forth her purple portals from the ruddy east, disclosing halls replete with roses. All the stars took flight, while Lucifer, the last to quit his vigil, gathered that great host and disappeared from his celestial watch.

116And when his father, Phoebus (Titan), saw the earth and the wide universe in glowing tints arrayed, as waned the Moon's diminished horns, far-distant, then he bade the nimble Hours to yoke the steeds. - At once the Deities accomplished his commands, and led the steeds, ambrosia-fed and snorting flames, from out their spacious stalls; and fixed their sounding bits. Then with a hallowed drug the father touched the stripling's face, to make him proof against the rapid flame, and wrought around his hair the sun-rays. But, foreboding grief, he said, while many a sigh heaved from his anxious breast; "If thou canst only heed thy father's voice - be sparing of the whip and use with nerve the reins; for of their own accord the steeds will hasten. Difficult are they to check in full career. Thou must not drive the car directly through five circles, for the track takes a wide curve, obliquely, and is bound by the extreme edge of three zones. - It avoids the Southern Pole, and it avoids the Bear that roams around the north. The way is plain; the traces of the Wheel are manifest. Observe with care that both the earth and sky have their appropriate heat - Drive not too low, nor urge the chariot through the highest plane; for if thy course attain too great a height thou wilt consume the mansions of the sky, and if too low the land will scorch with heat. Take thou the middle plane, where all is safe; nor let the Wheel turn over to the right and bear thee to the twisted Snake! nor let it take thee to the Altar on the left - so close to earth - but steer the middle course. - to Fortune I commit thy fate, whose care for thee so reckless of thyself I pray. While I am speaking humid night has touched the margin of Hesperian shores. 'Tis not for us to idle; we are called away; - when bright Aurora shines the darkness flies. Take up the reins! But if thy stubborn breast be capable of change use not our car, but heed my counsel while the time permits, and while thy feet are on a solid base, but not, according to thy foolish wish, pressing the axle. Rather let me light the world beneath thy safe and wondering gaze."


150But Phaethon with youthful vigor leaped, and in the light-made chariot lightly stood: and he rejoiced, and with the reins in hand thanked his reluctant parent.


153Instantly Eous, Aethon, Pyrois and Phlegon, the winged horses of the Sun, gave vent to flame-like neighs that filled the shaking air; they pawed the barriers with their shining hoofs. Then Tethys, witless of her grandson's fate let back the barriers, - and the universe was theirs to traverse. Taking the well-known road, and moving through the air with winged feet, they pierced resisting clouds, and spreading wide their pinions soared upon the eastern wind, far-wafted from that realm. But Phaethon, so easy of their yoke, lost all control, and the great car was tossed, - as tapered ships when lightened of their ballast toss and heave unsteady in the surging seas: the car leaped lightly in the air, and in the heights was tossed unsteady as an empty shell.

167Soon as the steeds perceived it, with a rush impetuous, they left the beaten track; regardless of all order and control; and Phaethon filled with fear, knew not to guide with trusted reins, nor where the way might be - nor, if he knew, could he control their flight. Warmed in the sunshine, never felt before, the gelid Triones attempted vain to bathe in seas forbid: the Serpent cold and torpid by the frozen Pole, too cold for contest, warmed, and rage assumed from heat bootes, troubled by the heat, took flight, impeded by his wain.

178And as from skies of utmost height unhappy Phaethon beheld the earth receding from his view, a pallor spread his cheeks with sudden fear; his knees began to quake; and through the flare of vast effulgence darkness closed his eyes. Now vainy he regrets he ever touched his father's steeds, and he is stunned with grief that so entreating he prevailed to know his true descent. He rather would be called the son of Merops. As a ship is tossed by raging Boreas, when the conquered helm has been abandoned, and the pilot leaves the vessel to his vows and to the Gods; so, helpless, he is borne along the sky. What can he? Much of heaven remains behind; a longer distance is in front of him - each way is measured in his anxious mind. - at first his gaze is fixed upon the west, which fate has destined he shall never reach, and then his eyes turn backward to the east. - So, stupefied and dazed he neither dares to loose the bits, nor tighten on the reins, and he is ignorant of the horses' names. He sees horrific wonders scattered round, and images of hideous animals. - and there's a spot where Scorpion bends his claws in double circles, and with tail and arms on either side, stretches his limbs throughout the space of two Celestial Signs; and when the lad beheld him, steeped in oozing slime of venom, swart, and threatening to strike grim wounds with jagged spear-points, he was lost; and, fixed in chills of horror, dropped the reins.


201When these they felt upon their rising backs, the startled steeds sprang forthwith; and, unchecked, through atmospheres of regions unexplored, thence goaded by their unchecked violence, broke through the lawful bounds, and rushed upon the high fixed stars. They dragged the chariot through devious ways, and soared amid the heights; dashed down deep pathways, far, precipitous, and gained a level near the scorching earth. 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. Cilician Taurus, Athos and Tmolus, and Oeta are burning; and the far-famed Ida and all her cooling rills are dry and burning, and virgin Helicon, and Hoemos - later Oeagrius called - and Aetna with tremendous, redoubled flames, and double-peaked Parnassus, Sicilian Eryx, Cynthus - Othrys, pine-clad, and Rhodope, deprived his snowy mantle, and Dindyma and Mycale and Mimas, and Mount Cithaeron, famed for sacred rites: and Scythia, though a land of frost, is burning, and Caucasus, - and Ossa burns with Pindus, - and greater than those two Olympus burns – the lofty Alps, the cloud-topped Apennines.

227And Phaethon, as he inhaled the air, burning and scorching as a furnace blast, and saw destruction on the flaming world, and his great chariot wreathed in quenchless fires, was suddenly unable to endure the heat, the smoke and cinders, and he swooned away. - if he had known the way, those winged steeds would rush as wild unguided.

235Then the skin of Ethiopians took a swarthy hue, the hot blood tingling to the surface: then the heat dried up the land of Libya; dishevelled, the lorn Nymphs, lamenting, sought for all their emptied springs and lakes in vain; Boeotia wailed for Dirce's cooling wave, and Argos wailed for Amymone's stream - and even Corinth for the clear Pyrene. Not safer from the flames were distant streams; - the Tanais in middle stream was steaming and old Peneus and Teuthrantian Caicus, Ismenus, rapid and Arcadian Erymanthus; and even Xanthus destined for a second burning, and tawny-waved Lycormas, and Meander, turning and twisting, and Thracian Melas burns, and the Laconian Eurotas burns, the mighty Babylonian Euphrates, Orontes and the Ganges, swift Thermodon, Ister and Phasis and Alpheus boil. The banks of Spercheus burn, the gold of Tagus is melting in the flames. The swans whose songs enhanced the beauties of Maeonian banks are scalded in the Cayster's middle wave. The Nile affrighted fled to parts remote, and hid his head forever from the world: now empty are his seven mouths, and dry without or wave or stream; and also dry Ismenian Hebrus, Strymon and the streams of Hesper-Land, the rivers Rhine and Rhone, and Po, and Tiber, ruler of the world.

260And even as the ground asunder burst, the light amazed in gloomy Tartarus the King Infernal and his Spouse. The sea contracted and his level waste became a sandy desert. The huge mountain tops, once covered by the ocean's waves, reared up, by which the scattered Cyclades increased. Even the fishes sought for deeper pools; - the crooked dolphins dared not skip the waves; the lifeless sea-calves floated on the top; and it is even famed that Nereus hid with Doris and her daughters, deep below in seething caverns. With a dauntless mien thrice Neptune tried to thrust his arms above the waters; - thrice the heated air overcame his courage.


272Then the genial Earth, although surrounded by the waters of the sea, was parched and dry; for all her streams had hid deep in the darkness of her winding caves. - she lifted her productive countenance, up to her rounded neck, and held her palms on her sad brows; and as the mountains huge trembled and tottered, beneath her wonted plane declined she for a space - and thus began, with parched voice; "If this is thy decree, O, Highest of the Gods, - if I have sinned why do thy lightnings linger? For if doomed by fires consuming I to perish must, let me now die in thy celestial flames - hurled by thine arm - and thus alleviate, by thine omnipotence, this agony. "How difficult to open my parched mouth, and speak these words! (the vapours choking her), behold my scorching hair, and see the clouds of ashes falling on my blinded eyes, and on my features! What a recompense for my fertility! How often I have suffered from the wounds of crooked plows and rending harrows - tortured year by year! For this I give to cattle juicy leaves and fruits to man and frankincense to thee! Suppose destruction is my just award what have the waters and thy brother done? Why should thy brother's cooling waves decrease and thus recede so distant from the skies? If not thy brother's good nor mine may touch thy mercy, let the pity of thy Heaven, for lo, the smoking poles on either side attest, if flames consume them or destroy, the ruin of thy palace. Atlas, huge, with restive shoulders hardly can support the burning heavens. If the seas and lands together perish and thy palace fall, the universe confused will plunge once more to ancient Chaos. Save it from this wreck - if anything survive the fury of the flames."


301So made the tortured Earth an end of speech; and she was fain to hide her countenance in caves that border on the nether night. But now the Almighty Father, having called to witness all the Gods of Heaven, and him who gave the car, that, else his power be shown, must perish all in dire confusion, high he mounted to the altitude from which he spreads the mantling clouds, and fulminates his dreadful thunders and swift lightning-bolts terrific. - Clouds were none to find on the earth, and the surrounding skies were void of rain. - Jove, having reached that summit, stood and poised in his almighty hand a flashing dart, and, hurling it, deprived of life and seat the youthful charioteer, and struck with fire the raging flames - and by the same great force those flames enveloping the earth were quenched, and he who caused their fury lost his life. Frantic in their affright the horses sprang across the bounded way and cast their yokes, and through the tangled harness lightly leaped. And here the scattered harness lay, and there the shattered axle, wrenched from off the pole, and various portions of the broken car; spokes of the broken Wheel were scattered round.


319And far fell Phaethon with flaming hair; as haply from the summer sky appears a falling star, although it never drops to startled earth. - Far distant from his home the deep Eridanus received the lad and bathed his foaming face. His body charred by triple flames Hesperian Naiads bore, still smoking, to a tomb, and this engraved upon the stone; "Here Phaethon's remains lie buried. He who drove his father's car and fell, although he made a great attempt."


329Filled with consuming woe, his father hid his countenance which grief had overcast. And now, surpassing our belief, they say a day passed over with no glowing sun; - but light-affording flames appeared to change disaster to the cause of good. Amazed, the woeful Clymene, when she had moaned in grief, amid her lamentations tore her bosom, as across the world she roamed, at first to seek his lifeless corpse, and then his bones. She wandered to that distant land and found at last his bones ensepulchred. There, clinging to the grave she fell and bathed with many tears his name on marble carved, and with her bosom warmed the freezing stone.


340And all the daughters of the Sun went there giving their tears, alas a useless gift; - they wept and beat their breasts, and day and night called, "Phaethon," who heard not any sound of their complaint: - and there they lay foredone, all scattered round the tomb. The silent moon had four times joined her horns and filled her disk, while they, according to an ancient rite, made lamentation. Prone upon the ground, the eldest, Phaethusa, would arise from there, but found her feet were growing stiff; and uttered moan. Lampetia wished to aid her sister but was hindered by new roots; a third when she would tear her hair, plucked forth but leaves: another wailed to find her legs were fastened in a tree; another moaned to find her arms to branches had been changed. And while they wondered, bark enclosed their thighs, and covered their smooth bellies, and their breasts, and shoulders and their hands, but left untouched their lips that called upon their mother's name. What can she do for them? Hither she runs and thither runs, wherever frenzy leads. She kisses them, alas, while yet she may! But not content with this, she tried to hale their bodies from the trees; and she would tear the tender branches with her hands, but lo! The blood oozed out as from a bleeding wound; and as she wounded them they shrieked aloud, "Spare me! O mother spare me; in the tree my flesh is torn! farewell! farewell! farewell!" And as they spoke the bark enclosed their lips. Their tears flow forth, and from the new-formed boughs amber distils and slowly hardens in the sun; and far from there upon the waves is borne to deck the Latin women.


367Cycnus, son of Sthenelus, by his maternal house akin to Phaethon, and thrice by love allied, beheld this wonderful event. - he left his kingdom of Liguria, and all its peopled cities, to lament where the sad sisters had increased the woods, beside the green banks of Eridanus. 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.


381In squalid garb, meanwhile, and destitute of all his rays, the sire of Phaethon, as dark as when eclipse bedims his Wheel, abhors himself and hates the light, shuns the bright day, gives up his mind to grief, adds passion to his woe, denies the earth his countenance, and thus laments; "My lot was ever restless from the dawn of time, and I am weary of this labour, void and endless. Therefore, let who will urge forth my car, light-bearing, and if none may dare, when all the Gods of Heaven acknowledge it, let Jove himself essay the task. Perchance, when he takes up the reins, he may forget his dreadful lightning that bereaves of child a father's love; and as he tries the strength of those flame-footed steeds will know, in truth, the lad who failed to guide my chariot deserved not death."

394But all the Deities encircle Phoebus as he makes complaint, and with their supplications they entreat him not to plunge the world in darkness. Jove would find excuses for the lightning-bolt, hurled from his hand, and adds imperious threats to his entreaties. Phoebus calls his steeds, frenzied with their maddening fires, and breaks their fury, as he vents with stinging lash his rage upon them, and in passion lays on them the death of Phaethon his son.

Sir Graham