June 5, 2021, was World Environment Day and since the Covid pandemic is in many ways connected with the environment, I thought I’d base this month’s Ovid in the Time of Covid on the story of Phaeton from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Just last month, India was struck by two cyclones in the Arabian Sea as well as the Bay of Bengal. And across the world too, global warming, carbon emissions, forest fires, and more are ruining the planet we live on, the only one we have.
The story of Phaeton, similar to that of Icarus, is of Phaeton wanting to ride his father’s car, or chariot, across the sky and despite his mother’s warning, he is not able to keep to the path and speed his father had instructed him to, causing him and the chariot to explode apocalyptically and cause widespread devastation.
It is a tale of carelessness, of apathy, and of man’s greed for excitement with no regard for the consequences.
Now, as the coronavirus ravaged the land,
Another kind too was at sway
The kind that never warns us and
Only draws us towards the meteoric way
Driven by greed and gluttony
It makes us consume all we desire
With never a thought for the progeny
It is today, that we must climb higher.
Scarce uttered was the promise, when the youth
Demands his father’s car, and, for one day,
The rein and guidance of its winged steeds.
Then rued the God his oath, and thrice and once
Shaking his radiant head, ” Alas! thy speech
“Proves mine too rash!” he cried, “Would yet my boon “
I could deny, for thou the one sole thing “
Hast asked I would not grant thee. O my son, “
Let me dissuade, if not refuse.
Thy wish ” Is fraught with peril! ‘Tis no little thing”
Thou seek’st, my Phaeton! a trust for heads “
And years like thine unfitting. Mortal, thou “
Immortal function dar’st affect, and more “
Than all Heaven’s Gods may venture.
– The story of Phaeton from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book II, Lines 56-69
In the old days, man worked in factories
Producing goods that we all needed
Now, he tends to animals as an industry
Fattening them for the overly well-fed.
Our farms work for meat factories
Let there be no doubt
Wonder what people will do for stories
When this pandemic is out.
Little wonder, our rivers run dry
And our forests are aflame
Our land not to till for man, but why
Oh why, for animals to tame.
Earth scorching, ice caps melting
And seas that rise ever higher
Drown our cities unforgiving
Leaping on the other side, are forest fires.
Nor rivers, proud
Of widest bank and broadest flood, escaped
And Phasis, and Danubius. All thy waves
Alpheiis, boiled and bubbled, and thy banks,
Spercheius, glowed. Tagus his golden freight
Rolled melted to the sea…
To the world’s utmost end
Fled Nilus, burying deep in earth his head,
Ne’er since to light restored; his mouths remain,
Rivers no more, mere valleys, dry with dust.
– The Story of Phaeton from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book II, Lines 274-296
Perhaps they will tell them of how
Loudly the birds sang, when we
Were indoors for months on end, and now,
For fear of Covid and he, she, you and me.
Perhaps they will tell them about
Dolphins swimming in our waters
Skies so blue we only dreamed about
While cattle on our streets did saunter.
These roamed free, but not the ones on ranches
Fattened for the greed of man and slaughter
For them, entire forests are mowed down in tranches
What a drain they are on both land and water
And the air, oh it will fill with methane
And gases more poisonous than CO2
If we aren’t rightly weighing our losses and gain
More pandemics like Covid will be ours to rue.
He darkens Earth with storm-cloud, and bids roar
The thunder, and the brandished lightning flings:
Though now—so Fate would have it—was at hand
Nor cloud, nor shower, to darken or to drown.
But loud he thunders, and, with right hand high
Uplifted, on the hapless charioteer
Lets fly the bolt of fire, and hurls him down
Headlong at once from car and life, and quells
The fires with fire more potent. Terror strikes
The steeds, and backward hounding from their necks
The yoke they dash, and spurn the broken reins
… here what fragments else Strewed piecemeal of the car.
– The Story of Phaeton from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book II, Lines 355-369.
Bedtime tales are all very well
How the pandemic ends
Depends, though no one can quite tell
On who to whose will, bends.
Man and earth, they must
Have a new contract,
Else all will be dust;
There’s no better time to act.