This painting, created by the French artist Odilon Redon (c. 1840–1916), was inspired by Greek and Roman mythology. Redon described his painting as The Chariot of Apollo, but the myth that he painted is most often associated with the god, Helios. To the artist’s credit, however, both Helios and Apollo were associated with the sun and they also shared the nickname, Phoebus, which often made the two deities interchangeable. Returning to the subject matter of the painting, Greco-Roman myth held that the sun was hauled across the sky by a chariot, pulled by four fire-breathing horses and driven by the god, Helios. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), imagined the ornate details of this celestial vehicle:
“The axel and pole were constructed of gold, and golden too
was the rim encircling the wheels, which were fitted with spokes of silver
Chrysolites, jewels arranged in a pattern along the yoke,
reflected their brilliant splendour on shining Phoebus himself”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.107-110).
Although Odilon Redon labeled the chariot in his painting as Phoebus’ vehicle, he did not explicitly state who is steering the horses. Perhaps the unruliness of the horses and the flailing, struggling arms of the driver suggest that the figure driving the chariot is not Apollo or Helios, but instead an unfortunate man named Phaëthon. As the story goes, Phaëthon was a presumptuous son of Helios who wanted to prove his worth by taking over the family business for a day. Helios futilely tried to talk Phaëthon out of the idea, but ultimately relented and let the young man try to drive the vehicle. Unfortunately, Phaëthon was far too light and far too weak to control the chariot. The aforementioned Ovid described the ill-fated ride:
“At once they were off; and galloping forward into the air,
they cut through the mists which stood in their way; then rose on their wings
and quickly outdistanced the winds which had sprung up too in the east.
But the load that they carried was light, not one that the Sun’s strong horses
could easily feel, and the yoke seemed far less heavy than usual.
As ships with inadequate ballast will toss and roll on the billows,
swept along through the ocean, too light to be firmly stable,
so Phoebus’ chariot, robbed of its normal weight, leapt high
in the air, tossed up from below, as though it were empty”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.158-166).
Just as Phaëthon could not control the fire-breathing horses and the chariot, so too was Phaëthon powerless to contain the heat of the sun. Under his watch, the earth began to burn, endangering the lives of mortals and deities, alike. As the story goes, Zeus eventually had to disable the chariot with a bolt of lightning, killing Phaëthon, in order to save the world.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.