“Metamorphoses” by Ovid

Aristotle writes in his treatise On the Soul that the cause of movement is desire–not will, not reason, but desire, and that desire and movement (after the object of desire) are the characteristics of animate life. In other words, the one thing that differentiates animate from inanimate beings is the presence of desire. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a beautifully written poem with one unifying theme: desire, articulated and immortalized. It’s a collection of myths, stories not of Ovid’s own invention, but of many cultures and civilizations, and captures all types of desires of human existence, ranging from the sublime to the bestial.

Phaeton: Seeking Proof of Parentage

Taunted by his companion Epaphus, Phaeton asked his father, the sun god Phoebus, for permission to drive his sun chariot as a proof of his divine parentage, and was struck down by a thunderbolt from the sky god Jove, when he failed to control the chariot, and was on the verge of destroying the earth.

There are at least three ways to interpret this myth.

First, as Plato writes in Timaeus, the myth of Phaeton is an anthropomorphic representation of a solar event in the distant past, a declination of the solar system that caused the earth to move too close to the sun for life to be sustained on earth.

Second, it’s a parable against the hubris of man, who always attempts to gain more power than what his wisdom can judiciously wield.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, when reflecting on the detonation of the first atomic bomb, remembered the lines from Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” and later “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” He was hailed as American Prometheus, perhaps he was really American Phaeton.

Third, it’s a lesson on relationship, that is, what not to do in a relationship. Metamorphoses is filled with such lessons.

Phaeton represents all the children born out of wedlock. They are bullied and taunted by their peers, and their mothers are insulted before their face. Naturally he had a desperate desire to prove himself and his divine parentage. Besides, it’s only natural and reasonable that a son should desire to do in like manner whatever his father does.

Some parents (legitimate or not) have a tendency to prove their love by spoiling their children with gifts. But gifts are not a sure pledge of love or parentage, since it could be a bribe or a lazy counterfeit of the sustained labor of love. The father of Phaeton made the same mistake, and realized it a little too late.

“Dost thou in sooth seek sure pledges that thou art son of mine? Behold, I give sure pledges by my very fear.; I show myself thy father by my fatherly anxiety. See! look upon my face. And oh, that thou couldst look into my heart as well, and understand a father’s cares therein!”

There are two aspects to a relationship between parent and child, nature and nurture.

Biologically speaking, our parents give us something unique of themselves, i.e., their DNA which uniquely identify them. The joining of two lives become one, like two rivers merging together into one that carry along both. Our parents live on through us, and we live because of their gift of life.

DNA test might be a reliable proof of parentage, and some might say that a diamond ring is a proof of love, but there is much more to a relationship than a DNA test or diamond ring. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, a relationship cannot be proven objectively. We seek objective certainty to the detriment of the relationship itself.

The relationship between Phaeton and his father failed the test of fire, literally and figuratively speaking, due to a lack of equality between the two, one being mortal, the other a god. IOW, they would fail the DNA test, since there is nothing of Phoebus in Phaeton. Phaeton was raised by his mother alone, and his father contributed nothing to his upbringing, which led in no small part to his fall. There was neither nature nor nurture in the relationship.

Phoebus’ grieved for Phaeton’s death, and went through “the anger phase”, blaming Jove, the horses and the whole world for his loss, nay, the mess he himself had made. There is a theory that when people grieve, they actually grieve for themselves more than the departed. Phoebus seems to be a proof of that, who took Jove’s action as a slight on his own person and his office, “my endless and unrequited toils”. His grief was selfish, not fatherly love.

I see a parallel, or rather a contrast, between the myth of Phaeton and the Gospels, because Jesus was also tempted with regard to his Sonship, as it is written, “Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’”

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3 thoughts on ““Metamorphoses” by Ovid

  1. I lean more towards, at least in the Ovidian context, the theme of relationship for Phaeton. Ovid was a manc learlly interested in the world of religion and myth, but I’m not sold on the first, Platonic, option — it seems more like a way to explain away a myth. Certainly, the theme of hubris is not lacking. But Ovid is so much a poet of relationship and desire, the pulse running through the Metamorphoses as well as Amores, Ars Amatoria, and, in a different way, Tristia and Letters from Pontus. A son driven by the desire to prove his parentage who tries to step beyond the boundaries assigned him by fate because of this driving desire to know and emulate his unknown father and thus almost consumes the world — this could be many sons and many distant or unknown fathers, no?

    1. A poet of relationship and desire indeed. Shakespeare is very much like Ovid in that respect. I haven’t read Amores or Ars Amatoria. What do you think of them?

      1. The Ars is clever and full of wit, albeit not exactly portraying ‘Augustan’ morals. I’ve only yet read selections from the Amores (same Latin class in undergrad as the Ars), but it’s good poetry, pulling out so many themes of relationship and desire, including unwanted desire and all the usual themes of Latin love elegy.

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