Ovid in the Time of Covid: Careless Consumption

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.

Careless Consumption

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

The ruin…

Ganges warmed,

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

Phaeton by Gustave Moreau (1878) part of the Louvre Museum collection; Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.     

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