Now let us turn to the mythology of the Latins, as preserved in the pages of Ovid, one of the greatest of the poets of ancient Rome.
Here we have the burning of the world involved in the myth of Phaëton, son of Phœbus--Apollo--the Sun--who drives the chariot of his father; he can not control the horses of the Sun, they run away with him; they come so near the earth as to set it on fire, and Phaëton is at last killed by Jove, as he killed Typhon in the Greek legends, to save heaven and earth from complete and common ruin.
This is the story of the conflagration as treated by a civilized mind, explained by a myth, and decorated with the flowers and foliage of poetry.
We shall see many things in the narrative of Ovid which strikingly confirm our theory.
Phaëton, to prove that he is really the son of Phœbus, the Sun, demands of his parent the right to drive his chariot for one day. The sun-god reluctantly consents, not without many pleadings that the infatuated and rash boy would give up his inconsiderate ambition. Phaëton persists. The old man says:
"Even the ruler of vast Olympus, who hurls the ruthless bolts with his terrific right hand, can not guide
[1. "The Metamorphoses," book xi, fable 1.]
this chariot; and yet, what have we greater than Jupiter? The first part of the road is steep, and such as the horses, though fresh in the morning, can hardly climb. In the middle of the heaven it is high aloft, whence it is often a source of fear, even to myself, to look down upon the sea and the earth, and my breast trembles with fearful apprehensions. The last stage is a steep descent, and requires a sure command of the horses. . . . Besides, the heavens are carried round with a constant rotation, and carrying with them the lofty stars, and whirl them with rapid revolution. Against this I have to contend; and that force which overcomes all other things does not overcome me, and I am carried in a contrary direction to the rapid world."
Here we seem to have a glimpse of some higher and older learning, mixed with the astronomical errors of the day: Ovid supposes the rapid world to move, revolve, one way, while the sun appears to move another.
But Phaëton insists on undertaking the dread task. The doors of Aurora are opened, "her halls filled with roses"; the stars disappear; the Hours yoke the horses, "filled with the juice of ambrosia," the father anoints the face of his son with a hallowed drug that he may the better endure the great heat; the reins are handed him, and the fatal race begins. Phœbus has advised him not to drive too high, or "thou wilt set on fire the signs of the heavens"--the constellations;--nor too low, or he will consume the earth.
"In the mean time the swift Pyroeis, and Eoüs and Æthon, the horses of the sun, and Phlegon, the fourth, fill the air with neighings, sending forth flames, and beat the barriers with their feet. . . . They take the road . . . they cleave the resisting clouds, and, raised aloft by their wings, they pass by the east winds that had arisen from the same parts. But the weight" (of Phaëton) "was light, and such as the horses of the sun could not feel; and the yoke was deficient of its wonted weight. . . . Soon as
the steeds had perceived this they rush on and leave the beaten track, and run not in the order in which they did before. He himself becomes alarmed, and knows not which way to turn the reins intrusted to him; nor does he know where the way is, nor, if he did know, could he control them. Then, for the first time, did the cold Triones grow warm with sunbeams, and attempt, in vain, to be dipped in the sea that was forbidden to them. And the Serpent, which is situate next to the icy pole, being before torpid with cold, and formidable to no one, grew warm, and regained new rage for the heat. And they say that thou, Boötes, scoured off in a mighty bustle, although thou wert but slow, and thy cart hindered thee. But when from the height of the skies the unhappy Phaëton looked down upon the earth lying far, very far beneath, he grew pale, and his knees shook with a sudden terror; and, in a light so great, darkness overspread his eyes. And now he could wish that he had never touched the horses of his father; and now he is sorry that he knew his descent, and prevailed in his request; now desiring to be called the son of Merops."
"What can he do? . . . He is stupefied; he neither lets go the reins, nor is able to control them. In his fright, too, he sees strange objects scattered everywhere in various parts of the heavens, and the forms of huge wild beasts. There is a spot where the Scorpion bends his arms into two curves, and, with his tail and claws bending on either side, he extends his limbs through the space of two signs of the zodiac. As soon as the youth beheld him, wet with the sweat of black venom, and threatening wounds with the barbed point of his tail, bereft of sense he let go the reins in a chill of horror."
Compare the course which Ovid tells us Phaëton pursued through the constellations, past the Great Serpent and Boötes, and close to the venomous Scorpion, with the orbit of Donati's comet in 1858, as given in Schellen's great work.
[1. "Spectrum Analysis," p. 391.]
The path described by Ovid shows that the comet came from the north part of the heavens; and this agrees with what we know of the Drift; the markings indicate that it came from the north.
The horses now range at large; "they go through
the air of an unknown region; . . . they rush on the stars fixed in the sky"; they approach the earth.
"The moon, too, wonders that her brother's horses run lower than her own, and the scorched clouds send forth smoke, As each region is most elevated it is caught by the flames, and cleft, it makes vast chasms, its moisture being carried away. The grass grows pale; the trees, with their foliage, are burned up, and the dry, standing corn affords fuel for its own destruction. But I am complaining of trifling ills. Great cities perish, together with their fortifications, and the flames turn whole nations into ashes; woods, together with mountains, are on fire. Athos burns, and the Cilician Taurus, and Tmolus, and Œta, and Ida, now dry but once most famed for its springs, and Helicon, the resort of the virgin Muses, and Hæmus, not yet called Œagrian. Ætna burns intensely with redoubled flames, and Parnassus, with its two summits, and Eryx, and Cynthus, and Orthrys, and Rhodope, at length to be despoiled of its snows, and Mimas, and Dindyma, and Mycale, and Cithæron, created for the sacred rites. Nor does its cold avail even Scythia; Caucasus is on fire, and Ossa with Pindus, and Olympus, greater than them both, and the lofty Alps, and the cloud-bearing Apennines.
"Then, indeed, Phaëton beholds the world see on fire on all sides, and he can not endure heat so great, and he inhales with his mouth scorching air, as though from a deep furnace, and perceives his own chariot to be on fire. And neither is he able now to bear the ashes and the emitted embers; and on every side he is involved in a heated smoke. Covered with a pitchy darkness, he knows not whither he is going, nor where he is, and is hurried away at the pleasure of the winged steeds. They believe that it was then that the nations of the Æthiopians contracted their black hue, the blood being attracted. into the surface of the body. Then was Libya" (Sahara?) "made dry by the heat, the moisture being carried off; then with disheveled hair the Nymphs lamented the springs and the lakes. Bœotia bewails Dirce, Argos Amymone, and Ephyre the waters of Pirene. Nor do rivers that
have banks distant remain secure. Tanais smokes in the midst of its waters, and the aged Peneus and Teuthrantian Caïcus and rapid Ismenus. . . . The Babylonian Euphrates, too, was on fire, Orontes was in flames, and the swift Thermodon and Ganges and Phasis and Ister. Alpheus boils; the banks of Spercheus burn; and the gold which Tagus carries with its stream melts in the flames. The river-birds, too, which made famous the Mæonian banks with song, grew hot in the middle of Caÿster. The Nile, affrighted, fled to the remotest parts of the earth and concealed his head, which still lies hid; his seven last mouths are empty, seven channels without any streams. The same fate dries up the Ismarian rivers, Hebeus together with Strymon, and the Hesperian streams, the Rhine, the Rhone, and the Po, and the Tiber, to which was promised the sovereignty of the world."
In other words, according to these Roman traditions here poetized, the heat dried up the rivers of Europe, Asia, and Africa; in short, of all the known world.
"All the ground bursts asunder, and through the chinks the light penetrates into Tartarus, and startles the infernal king with his spouse."
We have seen that during the Drift age the great clefts in the earth, the fiords of the north of Europe and America, occurred, and we shall see hereafter that, according to a Central American legend, the red rocks boiled up through the earth at this time.
"The ocean, too, is contracted," says Ovid, "and that which lately was sea is a surface of parched sand, and the mountains which the deep sea has covered, start up and increase the number of the scattered Cyclades" (a cluster of islands in the Ægean Sea, surrounding Delos as though with a circle, whence their name); "the fishes sink to the bottom, and the crooked dolphins do not care to raise themselves on the surface into the air as usual. The bodies of sea-calves float lifeless on their backs on
the top of the water. The story, too, is that even Nereus himself and Doris and their daughters lay hid in the heated caverns."
All this could scarcely have been imagined, and yet it agrees precisely with what we can not but believe to have been the facts. Here we have an explanation of how that vast body of vapor which afterward constituted great snow-banks and ice-sheets and river-torrents rose into the air. Science tells us that to make a world-wrapping ice-sheet two miles thick, all the waters of the ocean must have been evaporated; to make one a mile thick would take one half the waters of the globe; and here we find this Roman poet, who is repeating the legends of his race, and who knew nothing about a Drift age or an Ice age, telling us that the water boiled in the streams; that the bottom of the Mediterranean lay exposed, a bed of dry sand; that the fish floated dead on the surface, or fled away to the great depths of the ocean; and that even the sea-gods "hid in the heated caverns."
"Three times had Neptune ventured with stern countenance to thrust his arms out of the water; three times he was unable to endure the scorching heat of the air."
This is no doubt a reminiscence of those human beings who sought safety in the water, retreating downward into the deep as the heat reduced its level, occasionally lifting up their heads to breathe the torrid and tainted air.
"However, the genial Earth, as she was surrounded by the sea, amid the waters of the main" (the ocean); "the springs dried up on every side which had hidden themselves in the bowels of their cavernous parent, burnt up, lifted up her all-productive face as far as her neck, and
[1. "Science and Genesis," p. 125.]
placed her hand to her forehead, and, shaking all things with a vast trembling, she sank down a little and retired below the spot where she is wont to be."
Here we are reminded of the bridge Bifrost, spoken of in the last chapter, which, as I have shown, was probably a prolongation of land reaching from Atlantis to Europe, and which the Norse legends tell us sank down under the feet of the forces of Muspelheim, in the day of Ragnarok:
"And thus she spoke with a parched voice: 'O sovereign of the gods, if thou approvest of this, if I have deserved it, why do thy lightnings linger? Let me, if doomed to perish by the force of fire, perish by thy flames; and alleviate my misfortune by being the author of it. With difficulty, indeed, do I open my mouth for these very words. Behold my scorched hair, and such a quantity of ashes over my eyes' (the Drift-deposits), 'so much, too, over my features. And dost thou give this as my recompense? This as the reward of my fertility and my duty, in that I endure wounds from the crooked plow and harrows, and am harassed all the year through, in that I supply green leaves for the cattle, and corn, a wholesome food, for mankind, and frankincense for yourselves.
"'But still, suppose I am deserving of destruction, why have the waves deserved this? Why has thy brother' (Neptune) 'deserved it? Why do the seas delivered to him by lot decrease, and why do they recede still farther from the sky? But if regard neither for thy brother nor myself influences thee, still have consideration for thy own skies; look around on either side, see how each pole is smoking; if the fire shall injure them, thy palace will fall in ruins. See! Atlas himself is struggling, and hardly can he bear the glowing heavens on his shoulders.
"'If the sea, if the earth, if the palace of heaven, perish, we are then jumbled into the old chaos again. Save it from the flames, if aught still survives, and provide for the preservation of the universe.'
"Thus spoke the Earth; nor, indeed, could she any longer endure the vapor, nor say more, and she withdrew her face within herself, and the caverns neighboring to the shades below.
"But the omnipotent father, having called the gods above to witness, and him, too, who had given the chariot to Phaëton, that unless he gives assistance all things will perish in direful ruin, mounts aloft to the highest eminence, from which he is wont to spread the clouds over the spacious earth; and from which he moves his thunders, and burls the brandished lightnings. But then he had neither clouds that he could draw over the earth, nor showers that he could pour down from the sky."
That is to say, so long as the great meteor shone in the air, and for some time after, the heat was too intense to permit the formation of either clouds or rain; these could only come with coolness and condensation.
He thundered aloud, and darted the poised lightning from his right ear, against the charioteer, and at the same moment deprived him both of life and his seat, and by his ruthless fires restrained the flames. The horses are affrighted, and, making a bound in the opposite direction, they shake the yoke from their necks, and disengage themselves from the torn harness. In one place lie the reins, in another the axle-tree wrenched from the pole, in another part are the spokes of the broken wheels, and the fragments of the chariot torn in pieces are scattered far and wide. But Phaëton, the flames consuming his yellow hair, is hurled headlong, and is borne in a long track through the air, as sometimes a star is seen to fall from the serene sky, although it really has not fallen. Him the great Eridanus receives in a part of the world far distant from his country, and bathes his foaming face. The Hesperian Naiads commit his body, smoking from the three-forked flames, to the tomb, and inscribe these verses on the stone: 'Here is Phaëton buried, the driver of his father's chariot, which, if he did not manage, still he miscarried in a great attempt.'
"But his wretched father" (the Sun) "had hidden his
face overcast with bitter sorrow, and, if only we can believe it, they say that one day passed without the sun. The flames" (of the fires on the earth) "afforded light, and there was some advantage in that disaster."
As there was no daily return of the sun to mark the time, that one day of darkness was probably of long duration; it may have endured for years.
Then follows Ovid's description of the mourning of Clymene and the daughters of the Sun and the Naiads for the dead Phaëton. Cycnus, king of Liguria, grieves for Phaëton until he is transformed into a swan; reminding one of the Central American legend, (which I shall give hereafter,) which states that in that day all men were turned into goslings or geese, a reminiscence, perhaps, of those who saved themselves from the fire by taking refuge in the waters of the seas:
"Cycnus becomes a new bird; but he trusts himself not to the heavens or the air, as being mindful of the fire unjustly sent from thence. He frequents the pools and the wide lakes, and, abhorring fire, he chooses the streams, the very contrary of flames.
"Meanwhile, the father of Phaëton" (the Sun), "in squalid garb and destitute of his comeliness, just as he is wont to be when he suffers an eclipse of his disk, abhors both the light, himself, and the day; and gives his mind up to grief, and adds resentment to his sorrow."
In other words, the poet is now describing the age of darkness, which, as we have seen, must have followed the conflagration, when the condensing vapor wrapped the world in a vast cloak of cloud.
The Sun refuses to go again on his daily journey; just as we shall see hereafter, in the American legends, he refuses to stir until threatened or coaxed into action.
"All the deities," says Ovid, "stand around the Sun as he says such things, and they entreat him, with suppliant voice, not to determine to bring darkness over the world." At length they induce the enraged and bereaved father to resume his task.
"But the omnipotent father" (Jupiter) "surveys the vast walls of heaven, and carefully searches that no part, impaired by the violence of the fire, may fall into ruin. After he has seen them to be secure and in their own strength, he examines the earth, and the works of man; yet a care for his own Arcadia is more particularly his object. He restores, too, the springs and the rivers, that had not yet dared to flow, he gives grass to the earth, green leaves to the trees; and orders the injured forests again to be green."
The work of renovation has begun; the condensing moisture renews the springs and rivers, the green mantle of verdure once more covers the earth, and from the waste places the beaten and burned trees put forth new sprouts.
The legend ends, like Ragnarok, in a beautiful picture of a regenerated world.
Divest this poem of the myth of Phaëton, and we have a very faithful tradition of the conflagration of the world caused by the comet.
The cause of the trouble is a something which takes place high in the heavens; it rushes through space; it threatens the stars; it traverses particular constellations; it is disastrous; it has yellow hair; it is associated with great heat; it sets the world on fire it dries up the seas; its remains are scattered over the earth; it covers the earth with ashes; the sun ceases to appear; there is a time when he is, as it were, in eclipse, darkened; after a while he returns; verdure comes again upon the earth, the springs and rivers reappear, the world is renewed. During this catastrophe man has hidden himself, swanlike,
in the waters; or the intelligent children of the earth betake themselves to deep caverns for protection from the conflagration.
How completely does all this accord, in chronological order and in its details, with the Scandinavian legend; and with what reason teaches us must have been the consequences to the earth if a comet had fallen upon it!
And the most ancient of the ancient world, the nation that stood farthest back in historical time, the Egyptians, believed that this legend of Phaëton really represented the contact of the earth with a comet.
When Solon, the Greek lawgiver, visited Egypt, six hundred years before the Christian era, he talked with the priests of Sais about the Deluge of Deucalion. I quote the following from Plato ("Dialogues," xi, 517, Timæus):
"Thereupon, one of the priests, who was of very great age, said, 'O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are but children, and there is never an old man who is an Hellene.' Solon, hearing this, said, 'What do you mean?' 'I mean to say,' he replied, 'that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you the reason of this: there have been, and there will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes. There is a story which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Phaëthon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunder-bolt. Now, this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving around the earth and in the heavens, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth recurring at long intervals of time: when this happens, those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the sea-shore."'