Thursday, April 05, 2007


Rubens, 1636

Ovid's story of Phaethon—A summary

Phaethon, the son of Clymene, demands to know if his father is really Phoebus, the god of the sun. Some kid had been teasing him about it. She swears that he is indeed the son of Phoebus, but Phaethon must see for himself. The boy heads out to visit the Palace of the Sun God, entering and marveling at the magnificent palace. Phoebus greets him and affirms he is the boy’s father. Phoebus, to show his fatherly concerns, swears an oath--a rash promise--that he will grant his son anything he desires. Phaethon instantly says he wants to drive the chariot of the sun around the sky for one period. Phoebus instantly regrets his oath and describes the terrible hazards of the trip, should Phoebus insist. Phaethon does insist and takes the reins. As soon as the four winged horses start off, however, they can’t feel anyone in the chariot and start to run wild. The chariot is so light it starts to bounce around all over the place, and Phaethon can not hold the reins. Then a series of disasters starts all over the earth—mountains burning and rivers drying up—until Earth herself complains. Jove must intervene to save the earth from total destruction; he hurls a thunderbolt at the youth, who sails across the sky, trailing fire like a comet. The body lands far from his home and a carved stone is erected to mark the place. Clymene, his mother, seeks for his body and finds the buried bones. His sisters, the daughters of the sun, grieve for him, and in their grief turn into poplar trees. Clymene tries to prevent the transformation, tearing the bark. This hurts them, they start to bleed and ask her to stop, as their transformation becomes complete.

Some initial observations

This story starts with a kid teasing another kid about his Dad and ends with the origin of amber jewelry used by Roman brides at their weddings. These might seem minor, innocuous, innocent, and almost banal events; they frame the near destruction of the universe as the almost unimaginable comes to happen when the sun careens off course. This is a story with themes of near cataclysm—the world nearly burns up—linked to themes of ordinary family life and interaction between the generations. Phaethon’s story tells how the laws of a balanced creation are upset and then restored. This pattern can be found in other stories from Ovid’s collection—and elsewhere.

Phaethon seeks the answer to his own identity. At first it is a subject of public scorn and mockery. Then it becomes a personal quest for proof of parentage. Then it becomes taking over the father’s role when clearly unqualified and unempowered to do so. The only authority Phaethon wrests from the world derives from Phoebus’ rash and binding oath, a freely given paternal gift that becomes both punishment and death. Phoebus’ end, though, is more than death; it is destruction on a grand scale going out as a fiery comet over the entire earth. This is one blaze of glory.

Phaethon’s need to see tangible proof of his father’s identity—his own identity—is no sooner satisfied than his father’s rash promise leads to his own son’s destruction. The desire to know who you are—who your father really is—leads to Phaethon’s death. We see Phaethon with a kid his own age, with his mother, and with his father. From each he takes off to see the next, always seeking to learn and to know. Knowledge, the story suggests, may be dangerous.

The magnificent dawn palace of Phoebus is characterized by rich ornamentation and details of earth as “set in relief” by Vulcan, the god of craft and the forge. It is a model of the earth itself, and serves as a reminder that the earth, too, is a handiwork.

The father’s rash promise to the son is made out of absolute love—he wants his son to be happy and to recognize his father as such. The absolute nature of the promise, however, seals the boy’s fate (echoed in the story of Semele). Just as knowledge may be dangerous, so too may love. Out of love, then, may come destruction, and from grief, sometimes, new life arises, and new forms of being, as when the sisters become trees, the source of amber. The amber is associated with contemporary weddings and so, again, familial love.