An excerpt from The Metamorphoses by Ovid, as translated by A.E. Watts.

University of California Press, 1954

The Sun-god Phoebus is speaking to Phaethon:

Five zones there are: your course, confined to three,

The farthest north and south must never see.

Next, share your heat between the earth and sky;

Press not too low, nor set your course too high.

Heaven's halls will kindle, if too high you stray;

Too low, the earth: your safety lies midway.

Nor swerve, where on the right the Snake is seen,

Nor left to the Altar: steer your course between.

The rest is Fortune's: be her favor shown,

And better wit to guide you than your own.

But see: dank night upon the western shore

Has touched the waymark: we can stay no more.

Dawn breaks; and while I speak, the shades disband.

We are awaited: take the reins in hand.

Or can you still, unbending as you are,

Relent, and take my counsel, not my car;

While yet your feet a firm support can feel,

Not what you blindly wish, the treacherous wheel?

Why ask for danger? Be content to see,

And leave the lighting of the world to me."--

But Phaethon, with words of thanks that jar

Upon his father's ears, has climbed the car;

Consumed with joy, the reins within his hands,

The slender boy in proud possession stands.

Meanwhile the team, Dawn, Blaze, and Fire, and Flame,

Whose scorching breath in fretful whinnyings came,

Beat on the barriers. Tethys little knows

On what predestined path her grandson goes.

She draws the bolts, and lets the barriers fly,

And gives the steeds the freedom of the sky.

Then, tearing up the trail, wing-borne, they beat

The air, and cleave the clouds with flying feet;

Outrun the winds; and, feeling not their freight,

Wonder to miss the yoke's accustomed weight;

And as a ship, unladen, lurching rides,

And all too light, goes tottering o'er the tides,

The car, that lacked its customary load,

Bounced up, as if unridered, from the road;

And sensing this, the steeds run wild, and stray

Clean from the course, and throw restraint away.

Fear on the driver fell; too quick to gain,

Too slow to learn the handling of the rein,

He lacks besides all knowledge of the way,

And if he knew, the team would not obey.

Then first the Bears felt heat, and tried in vain

To pass their bounds, and plunge beneath the main;

And near the pole the numbed innocuous Snake

Felt, with the warmth, his wicked passions wake.

Bootes too, they say, made off in dread,

Though with slow steps his lagging wain he led.

Now when the luckless boy with downcast eye

Beheld the lands deep, deep, beneath him lie,

His color fled; his knees with sudden fright

Shook, and his eyes went dark with too much light.

He wished his father's team well left alone,

His prayer unanswered, and his birth unknown;

Wished Merops for his sire (ambition new)

As like a ship before a storm he flew,

Whose helmsman, pressed too hard, resigns his care,

And leaves the craft to providence and prayer.

What now? He scans the sky with measuring mind;

Much heaven before him lies, no less behind;

Now to the west (the goal that fate denies),

Now backward to the east he turns his eyes.

Palsied with doubt he stands, and turned to stone:

How rule the steeds, their very names unknown;

How hold, how drop the reins? Now too appear

Strange shapes that strew the skies afar and near,

Huge beasts of prey: he sees and shakes with fear.

There is a region, where the Scorpion draws

The pincer pattern of his curving claws;

With curling tail, and jointed legs each side,

He spreads his limbs two constellations wide;

And sweating with black venom, does not fail

To threat the tortures of his twisted tail.

The driver saw: the vision chilled his veins;

And as his senses swam, he dropped the reins.

When on their backs the sagging leathers lay,

The horses broke all bounds, and romped away;

And where their lawless headlong motion led,

Through unknown realms of air unchecked they sped;

And rammed the unswerving stars
, and at their heels

Through trackless wastes they dragged the rocking wheels;

And now they soar aloft, and now they stoop

By steep declines, and make an earthward swoop.

The wondering moon beheld her brother's team

Beneath her own, saw clouds go up in steam.

From peak to loftiest peak the earth takes fire,

And cracks and splits, as all its saps suspire.

Grass wilts; and with their leaves the tree trunks flare;

And cornfields feed the flame that leaves them bare.

Small matters these--walled cities melt away;

Whole tribes and peoples turn to ashes gray;

The mountain masses with their forests burn:

Athos and Oete; Tmolus in his turn;

And Taurus smokes upon Cilicia's shore;

And Ida's many fountains gush no more;

Cynthus and Othrys, Haemus, yet unknown,

And Eryx burns, and virgin Helicon;

Parnassus lifts his two candescent spires;

And Etna streams with duplicated fires;

Dindyma, Mycale, and Mimas glow;

And Rhodope must shed her ancient snow;

Not Scythia's native frosts can keep her free;

Cithaeron, not his native sanctity;

And Pindus burns with Ossa, mighty names,

And mightier yet than both, Olympus flames;

Cold Caucasus with conflagration shines,

Air-piercing Alps, and cloud-capped Apennines.

Thus Phaethon, where'er he turns his gaze,

On every side beholds the world ablaze;

And faint, and breathing air at furnace heat,

He feels the car red-hot beneath his feet.

Wrapped in a pitchy pall of blinding smoke,

While cast-up ash and cinders sear and choke,

He knows not where he is, nor whither bound,

Dragged by the horses where they choose the ground.

Robbed, by the heat, of moisture, Libya's plain

Turned then to desert, ne'er to bloom again;

And as the sun-burned blood boiled up, they say,

The Ethiopian changed his skin that day.

Then did the nymphs their loosened tresses fling,

And weep their fill o'er every lake and spring.

Thebes thirsts for Dirce, Corinth craves her cool

Pirene, Argos Amymone's pool;

And favored streams, 'twixt wide embankments pent,

(Not saved thereby) with seething waters went:

The steaming Tanais, wrapped in mists of heat;

And old Peneus, and Ismenus fleet;

Lycormas, rolling down his burning sand;

And Erymanthus, in Arcadian land;

And far Caicus, on the Mysian shore;

And Trojan Xanthus, doomed to burn once more;

Madcap Maeander, turning on his trail;

Eurotas, wandering through Laconia's vale;

Euphrates, big with Babylonia's fame;

And Melas, and Orontes, were aflame;

Thermodon, Ganges, Phasis, Hister showed

Their fires; Alpheus boiled, Spercheus glowed;

The ore that Tagus carried as he rolled,

Now flowed itself, a stream of liquid gold;

Cayster scalded, as they sailed along,

The swans that filled Maeonia's banks with song;

Old Nile in fear to earth's far corners fled,

And hid his never rediscovered head;

And where his sevenfold course should seaward stray,

Lacking their streams, seven dusty channels lay.

So the world o'er: Strymon in Thrace runs dry,

And Hebrus; and beneath the western sky

Rhine, Rhone, and Padus share the selfsame fate,

With Tiber, whom his promised realms await.

Earth gapes, and startling rifts of daylight show

To king and consort in the world below.

The sea contracts its bounds, and leaves a plain:

Dry wastes of sand, where lately rolled the main;

And hills break surface, that were sunk before,

And make the sprinkled isles so many more.

The fishes dive, and bow-backed dolphins dare

No longer leap, and take their wonted air;

And lifeless seals, upturned, go drifting there.

Nereus himself, deep in his rock retreat,

With Doris and her daughters, felt the heat;

And thrice did Neptune from the waters raise

His glowering face, and could not bear the blaze.

But Mother Earth, with ocean ringed about,

Her native springs within, the seas without

(Since all her rivers sank within her womb,

And sought again their antenatal gloom),

Raised her fire-ravaged head, and with her hands

Shielded her face; and as she shook the lands

With vast convulsions, settled down a space,

And held a lower than her wonted place;

And thus appealed to Jove: "By fire," said she,

"If 'tis my due to fall, and thy decree,

Why lag thy lightnings? Let me fall, most high,

By fire of thine, consoled, by whom I die."

She scarce could speak, so hot the vapor smote:

"These words," she sobbed, "are strangled in my throat.

Ah, see how thick the burning cinder lies

On my charred hair, how thick on face and eyes.

Is this my payment, this the wage you owe,

That scarred and wearied, racked by plow and hoe,

In fertile function through the year I go,

Providing food for beasts with herbs benign,

And grain for men, and incense for the shrine?

Or grant that ruin justly falls on me,

What of my brother and his realm, the sea?

What guilt is his, that this, his lawful share,

Shrinks, and extends the empire of the air?

Nay, if our claims to pity pass thee by,

Have feeling for thine own domain, the sky.

Look well! the poles, which smoke already show,

If sapped by fire, will lay your mansions low.

See, Atlas is distressed, and much I fear

His shoulders ill support the burning sphere.

If seas and lands are wrecked, and heaven's high throne,

We perish, back to primal chaos thrown.

Put forth your care; what still survives the fire,

Rescue, and save the sum of things entire."

The sacred accents faltered: Earth could bear

No more the stifling smoke and parching air.

She ceased, and sank within herself, and fled

To caverns near the shades, and hid her head.

Now Jove almighty made the gods attest

(Him that had lent the car among the rest)

What choice remained: to use his instant aid,

Or see the worlds in grievous ruin laid;

Then scaled the summit, whence his clouds are spread,

His thunders shaken, and his lightnings sped;

But found to hand ( all custom overthrown )

No clouds to spread, no rain to scatter down.

He thundered; and a lightning-bolt he drew,

And lancelike poised, with careful aim, and threw

At Phaethon, and made his lease expire

Of life and chariot, quenching fire with fire.

The horses leap apart in frantic fear,

Shake loose the reins, and wrench the traces clear;

and bridles, spokes, and wheels dismembered lie,

axle and shaft: the wreckage strews the sky;

And Phaethon, his ravaged hair aflame,

Down in a trail of radiant ruin came,

As oft, when summer nights unclouded are,

There falls from heaven, or seems to fall, a star;

And Po, far distant from his native place,

Received his fall, and cooled his burning face;

And nymphs, that in the western waters dwell,

Laid him to rest, and graved a verse as well:

"Here Phaethon is laid, who sought to guide

His father's steeds, and, greatly daring, died."

The sun-god, broken by the piteous blow,

Concealed his visage, sicklied o'er with woe;

And suffered one whole day its course to run,

If legend does not lie, without a sun.

The fires, still burning, gave what light they could,

And so from evil came some touch of good.

Phaethon article Bronze age article