Just as modern society turns to the news, the Bible, and science for explanations, the Greeks and Romans turned to mythology. Ovid s Metamorphoses is a collection of explanatory myths. The myths, Phaethon, Narcissus, Arachne, and Icarus, are used to explain general scientific phenomenon as well as teach ethics. The myth, Phaethon, explains the occurrence of an eclipse, and it teaches children to be humble and obedient. Phaethon grew up with his mother, Clymene. When he discovered that his father was the sun, Phaethon journeyed to his father s palace.
Upon entering the palace, Phaethon was greeted by his father. Phaethon was still unsure as to whether his mother had told him the truth, so he asked the sun to prove that the sun was indeed his father. The sun promised to grant Phaethon a wish. Phaethon immediately asked to drive the sun s chariot. The sun was saddened by this request because the sun knew that it would cause his son s death: What you want to do is dangerous You are but a mortal, whereas the thing you desire is not one that a mortal can attempt (51).
This did not dissuade Phaethon, for Phaethon was full of confidence in himself (53). When the brazenfaced Phaethon began his flight, he soon discovered that he was unable to control the horses. Death was soon a welcomed wish for Phaethon as the sky burned and the earth was set on fire. Finally, Jupiter sent a thunderbolt to kill Phaethon and stop the destruction that he was causing. Meanwhile, even Atlas himself is in difficulties, and can scarcely hold up the flowing sky on his shoulders. If earth and sea and the citadel of heaven perish, we shall be thrown into primeval chaos.
Save anything that still survives from the flames (58). All of this destruction caused simply because a son was too egotistical to obey his father. After Phaethon was given his burial rites, his father grieved. His father was so devastated that he was clad in sordid mourning, his usual brightness gone (60), and he was angry too, and refused to perform his duty to the world (60). Thus, the earth was covered in darkness and the sun suffered an eclipse. A flower with a circle of white petals round a yellow center was so created by a young man who fell in love with himself.
The myth, Narcissus, teachers the evil of vanity and explains the existence of a new flower. Narcissus was a young man who was loved by all the nymphs and women. He was especially cherished by Echo. Yet, the boy never found love for any, and he played with her affections, treating her as he had previously treated other spirits of water and the wood, and his male admirers too (84). Finally, one of his scorned admirers prayed the he wold fall in love with someone he could not have. The gods heard and granted his prayers. Narcissus soon fell in love with himself.
He loved his beauty and admired himself in the water s reflection. Finally, he became emotionally overwhelmed and beat himself to death. As his blood spilled on to the grass, his body was transformed into a flower. His vanity caused his heart to reject his lovers, it caused him to fall in love with himself, and it caused his death. During the process in which Pallas teaches Arachne to be humble, the beautiful weave of a spider s web is explained. Originally, Pallas had taught Arachne to weave beautiful tapestries. Yet, the girl herself denied this (134), so she challenged Pallas to a weave-off.
Pallas attempted to warn Arachne of her fatal error, for a mere mortal cannot be better than a god. Arachne, however, persisted in going on with her plan and, in her eagerness for a victory which she foolishly though she could win, rushed upon her fate (135). The competition began. Pallas wove the rock of Mars with twelve gods and four scenes depicting various contests. Arachne s tapestry was a picture of Europa. Both tapestries were exquisite, and neither Pallas nor even Jealousy personified could find any flaw in the work (137).
Pallas became angry and tore the tapestry to pieces, and then she punished Arachne. Arachne was unable to endure her punishment, so she hung herself. Pallas took pity on Arachne, and she turned her into a spider: from that belly, she yet spins her thread, and as a spider is busy with her web as of old (138). Hence, Arachne was punished for her conceited behavior, but the beautiful web that a spider relentless spins was thusly explained. Finally, the story about Icarus teaches how an insolent, disobedient son gives rise to a new land-bound bird.
Daedalus and his son, Icarus, were trapped on the island of Crete by King Minos. Daedalus grew weary of being on the island, and he longed to be home. Since he was surrounded by the sea without a boat, it was necessary to invent a new means of escape. Daedalus fastened the feathers together in the middle with thread, and at the bottom with wax; when he had arranged them in this way, he bent them round into a gentle curve, to look like real birds wings (184). Then, Daedalus and Icarus fastened the wings to their arms, and they took flight.
Daedalus continually warned his son not to fly too close to the sun so that wings would not melt. He also warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sea so that the feathers would not get wet. But, Icarus was audacious and soon forgot his father s warnings. He flew in great swoops gliding from the sea to the sun. Finally, he got to close to the sun, and his wings began to melt. As he fell from the sky, he screamed his father s name, but he soon drowned in the sea. When Daedalus went to bury the body of his ill-fated son (185), a bird appeared from a ditch.
The bird was Daedalus s nephew; the same nephew that Daedalus was jealous of and flung headlong down from Minerva s sacred citadel (186). Therefore, Icarus earned the death of a presumptuous soul, and a bird that have feathers and wings but never leaves the ground was introduced into the world. While the accounts of Phaethon, Narcissus, Arachne, and Icarus explain the phenomenon of an eclipse, the development of a new flower, the intricate weave of a spider s web, and the creation of a new bird, the lessons of obedience, respect, modesty, and humility are taught.