Metamorphoses Book 2, lines 150 - 177


by Ovid

Phaethon is the son of Phoebus Apollo, the Sun-God. Irked by the scepticism of society, he asks his mother, Clymene, for proof, and is sent by her to Phoebus himself. Delighted with his son, the God promises him anything he asks for. Phaethon asks to drive the chariot of the Sun. Horrified, Phoebus asks him to reconsider, as that is a hard enough job even for a God, but he cannot refuse as he has sworn an unbreakable oath. Phaethon insists, and, as this extract opens, prepares to begin his drive, which is one of Ovid’s great tours-de-force and at first takes Phaethon high into the region of the stars and constellations. To be continued …

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Occupat ille levem iuvenali corpore currum
statque super manibusque leves contingere habenas
gaudet et invito grates agit inde parenti.
Interea volucres Pyrois et Eous et Aethon,
Solis equi, quartusque Phlegon hinnitibus auras
flammiferis inplent pedibusque repagula pulsant.
quae postquam Tethys, fatorum ignara nepotis,
reppulit, et facta est inmensi copia caeli,
corripuere viam pedibusque per aera motis
obstantes scindunt nebulas pennisque levati
praetereunt ortos isdem de partibus Euros.
sed leve pondus erat nec quod cognoscere possent
Solis equi, solitaque iugum gravitate carebat;
utque labant curvae iusto sine pondere naves
perque mare instabiles nimia levitate feruntur,
sic onere adsueto vacuus dat in aera saltus
succutiturque alte similisque est currus inani.
Quod simulac sensere, ruunt tritumque relinquunt
quadriiugi spatium nec quo prius ordine currunt.
ipse pavet nec qua commissas flectat habenas
nec scit qua sit iter, nec, si sciat, imperet illis.
tum primum radiis gelidi caluere Triones
et vetito frustra temptarunt aequore tingui,
quaeque polo posita est glaciali proxima Serpens,
frigore pigra prius nec formidabilis ulli,
incaluit sumpsitque novas fervoribus iras;
te quoque turbatum memorant fugisse, Boote,
quamvis tardus eras et te tua plaustra tenebant.

Boyish in build, Phaethon takes the chariot and stands aloft in it, thanking his reluctant father and joying at the feel of the reins trusted to his hands. Meanwhile, Pyrois, Eous, Aethon and Phlegon, the winged horses of the Sun, fill the air with whinnying fire and kick at the bars of their stalls. Then Tethys, ignorant of her grandson’s fate, thrust back the bars and the way was open to the wide and measureless heavens. They leapt onto their course; hooves flashing through the aether, they tear apart the clouds before them and, soaring, outstrip the southeast winds, rising from the same quarter. But the burden was slight, not one that the Sun’s horses could recognise: the chariot lacked its usual load, and, as ships that are insufficiently laden wallow, and are carried on an unstable course across the waters because they are too light, so, lacking its accustomed weight, it leaps up and is jolted aloft as though empty. As soon as they have felt this, the team bolt, abandoning their usual dressing, and no longer run with their former discipline. Fear strikes Phaethon: now the reins have been entrusted to him, he does not know where to steer, nor his way; nor, if he had, could he have controlled the horses. For the first time, the chilly Great Bear felt the heat of the chariot and unsuccessfully tried to cool itself with an illicit dip in the ocean, and the Serpent, closest to the icy pole, sluggish with cold before and no danger to anyone, warmed, and was kindled into new anger by the searing heat; they say that you too were startled and ran away, Boötes, though slow and hampered by your wagon.