Metamorphoses Book 2, lines 178 - 216

Phaethon, continued

by Ovid

You can see the first instalment of Phaethon’s story here and the final instalment here.

Phaethon has been way out of his depth in his attempt to drive the chariot of his father, the Sun-God Phoebus Apollo, and in this second extract he loses any semblance of control. The fire of the sun comes disastrously close to the Earth, and Ovid embarks on an extended description of the searing results.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Ut vero summo despexit ab aethere terras
infelix Phaethon penitus penitusque iacentes,
palluit et subito genua intremuere timore
suntque oculis tenebrae per tantum lumen obortae,
et iam mallet equos numquam tetigisse paternos,
iam cognosse genus piget et valuisse rogando,
iam Meropis dici cupiens ita fertur, ut acta
praecipiti pinus borea, cui victa remisit
frena suus rector, quam dis votisque reliquit.
quid faciat? multum caeli post terga relictum,
ante oculos plus est: animo metitur utrumque
et modo, quos illi fatum contingere non est,
prospicit occasus, interdum respicit ortus,
quidque agat ignarus stupet et nec frena remittit
nec retinere valet nec nomina novit equorum.
sparsa quoque in vario passim miracula caelo
vastarumque videt trepidus simulacra ferarum.
est locus, in geminos ubi bracchia concavat arcus
Scorpius et cauda flexisque utrimque lacertis
porrigit in spatium signorum membra duorum:
hunc puer ut nigri madidum sudore veneni
vulnera curvata minitantem cuspide vidit,
mentis inops gelida formidine lora remisit.
Quae postquam summum tetigere iacentia tergum,
exspatiantur equi nulloque inhibente per auras
ignotae regionis eunt, quaque inpetus egit,
hac sine lege ruunt altoque sub aethere fixis
incursant stellis rapiuntque per avia currum
et modo summa petunt, modo per declive viasque
praecipites spatio terrae propiore feruntur,
inferiusque suis fraternos currere Luna
admiratur equos, ambustaque nubila fumant.
corripitur flammis, ut quaeque altissima, tellus
fissaque agit rimas et sucis aret ademptis;
pabula canescunt, cum frondibus uritur arbor,
materiamque suo praebet seges arida damno.
parva queror: magnae pereunt cum moenibus urbes,
cumque suis totas populis incendia gentis
in cinerem vertunt.

When poor Phaethon looked down from the heavens at the earth, spreading far and wide, he paled, his knees shook with sudden fear, and a darkness rose before his eyes through the brightness. Now he would rather never have laid hands on his father’s horses. Now, knowing his parentage and his quest to find it out distress him; now, wishing he was just called Merope’s son, he is borne along like a ship driven by the headlong north wind to which the pilot has surrendered his useless attempt to steer, leaving it to the gods and his vows. What to do? He has left a great tract of heavens behind, but still more lies in front! He weighs up each direction in his fearful mind, now looks to where the sun sets in the west, which he is not fated to reach, now back to where it rises in the east. In his ignorance he is at a loss what to try: he can’t summon the strength to slacken the reins or shorten them, and doesn’t know his horses’ names. And wherever he looks, spread across the heavens he is terrified to see wonders and the semblances of vast wild beasts, and in one place Scorpio bends its claws in a double arc and, with its tail and its arms on both sides, spreads its limbs across the space of two constellations. Seeing the Scorpion dripping with its black, poisonous sweat, threatening to strike with its curved sting, his mind paralysed with cold fear, the boy dropped the reins. Once they barely touch the horses’ backs, they go off course and, with nothing to stop them, traverse an unfamiliar sky, charge in whatever direction their impetus takes them, crash into the stars fixed under the high heavens and go tearing the chariot out of its proper path. Now they seek the highest heights; Now they are borne steeply downward closer to the ground. The Moon is amazed to see her brother’s horses racing below her own, and the scorched clouds smoke. Every height is snatched into flame, the cracked earth opens into chasms and burns, deprived of its moisture. Pastures glow white, trees are burnt up leaves and all, and parched crops provide fuel for their own destruction. But these are small complaints: great cities perish with their walls, and the inferno turns entire nations with their peoples into ashes.