I taught the story of Phaethon in my Myth as Lit class last week. In some ways, it’s become trite: Young Phaethon gets caught up in his desire to drive his father’s car, to step in to his shoes too soon, and ends up literally going down in flames. Phaethon’s dad happens to drive the sun, not just a Camaro, so when he goes too high he scorches the heavens, and when he drops too low he sets the world on fire.
Jove, his grandfather, has to shoot him out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Apollo, his father, mourns so that the world is sunk in to darkness, for he is too distraught to go to work. The only light comes from the burning wreckage of the earth. This sounds pretty dramatic as I write, but still the story of Phaethon taking on his dad’s role before he’s ready is pretty well known, and can feel obvious.
I classify it in class as one of the 18-year-old-itis tales—one where the only “tragic flaw” is youth. He is in that period of life when boys (girls too, but statistics bear out mostly boys) start taking big risks without realizing the consequences. When they feel bullet proof. But they’re not. And they die. Icarus falls here too, of course, and for similar reasons—flying too high, too fast.
So that’s why it feels overused, I suppose, because it is. There are lots of stories of young men dying because they underestimate laws of physics and overestimate their own abilities. But reading it this time, I was struck not so much by that lesson, but more by the grieving family he left behind.
In Ovid’s tale, Apollo mourns his son with a depth and a humaneness that staggers me. When he refuses to show up to work, he cries, “Let someone else/ now guide the chariot that bears the light!/ If none will do that, and the gods confess/ they can’t, let Jove himself take on that task!/ And when he plies my reins, at least for once/ he’ll have to set aside the thunderbolts/ he uses to strip others of their sons.” He is devastated, and he is a god. What chance, then, have the mortals who love Phaethon?
His mother mourns. She wanders the world looking for a sign of him, any trace of his lost body. When she finds the grave that nymphs have made for him, she throws herself on it and bathes it in tears. His sisters follow, and in their grief, they transform in to poplar trees. The mother loses more children, as she tries to tug at the branches to free them, only to be told the branches are their arms, and she’s hurting them more by holding on.
A cousin, too, transforms in his sorrow, this time to a swan. (His name is Cycnus, which means ‘swan,’ and we still have ‘cygnet’ in English, meaning a baby swan.) Ovid uses this and other opportunities to show that we have an underlying nature that can be revealed by transformation. Cycnus wails for Phaethon as a swan, while his sisters are rendered immobile by their grief. Paralyzed. They are able only to cry tears of sap, which, beautifully, transform in to amber. Those who could not abide the pain of grief gave themselves over completely.
This message seems clear to me: grief is transfiguring. If we let it, it can undo us. It always changes us. In the context of Apollo and his creed–Know thyself; and Nothing in excess—we can come to see even grief can be excessive, but the gods also grieve, so there must be something noble in feeling loss so profoundly.
In the larger context of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it anticipates the story of Proserpina’s (Persephone) marriage to Pluto, which bonds life to death in an unbreakable union, promising that death will never just be death; there will always be life attending—following in sequence as the seasons follow one another, and living together with death, so we can bear death more easily.
This scene struck me last week when I taught it. It resonates even more today, in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in recent American history. I hope we let this grief transform us too, and resolve to take action to prevent it happening again. Young men do lots of crazy things that put their lives at risk, but going to a concert shouldn’t be one of them.
[image from touristorama.com]