In Ovid’s „Metamorphoses“ there is he story of Phaeton, son of the solar god Helios and the Aithiopic queen Clymene, wife of the king Merops. Helios promises to his son to fulfill him one wish. Phaeton wishes to steer the solar chariot. His father knows that this will lead to a disaster, but he cannot take back his promise. Phaeton, driving the solar chariot carrying the sun, catastrophically crashes, and a large part of the earth is destroyed by fire.
In this myth, Phaeton’s mother Clymene, wife of the Aithiopic King Merops, is an African. The Greeks used the term “Aithiopia” for the countries south of Egypt that where inhabited by dark-skinned people. Did Ovid set up the story in Africa arbitrarily? Reading the Metamorphoses, I have noticed a small detail in Ovids book that might actually point to an African origin of this story. I don’t know if anybody has noticed this before (I guess this is nothing new, I am not an expert of the relevant literature). I cite the Latin text:
Clymene …utraque caelo
brachica porrexit spectansque ad lumina solis
‘per iubar hic’ inquit ”radiis insigne coruscis,
nate, tibi iuro, quod nos audique videtque,
hoc te, quem spectas, hoc te, qui temperat orbem,
Sole satum. …
(Clymene stretched both arms to the sky, looked to the bright sun and said: “Upon this light, gilded by shining beams, that is hearing and seeing us, I swear, my son, that you are fathered by this sun-god whom you are seeing and who is ordering the world…).
What I noticed here was the expression: “Qui temperat orbem”, “who is ordering the world”.
„Temperare“ means to order, to bring into the right proportions, to guide, to lead, or something like that. In Greek mythology, this is normally not the job of the solar god (who plays no rule in creation and is not the highest of the gods).
But in Egyptian mythology, giving order to the world actually is the job of the solar god. The solar god appears in the Egyptian religion as the creator god. He gives a divine law or world-order, called “Ma’at” in ancient Egyptian. The role of the Pharao is to execute or implement this divine law in the human world. The expression “Qui temperat orbem” therefor may be understood as an echo of this Egyptian concept of the Ma’at given by the solar god. I don’t know if Ovid was conscious of this connection or just took this phrase from some source he was using.
Actually, this complex of ideas probably predates the Egyptian religion and points to what is known as the “Sudanic religion”, the religion of most of the Nilo-Saharan peoples and probably the oldest monotheistic religion. This religion (that is still found, in some form, in some Nilo-Saharan groups like, for example, the Masai) was one of the historical sources of the Egyptian religion. The complex of ideas connected to the solar god as creator god, the divine law Ma’at, the sacral kingship and the customs of royal burial is clearly of Sudanic origin. In Sudanic religion, there is a single god, associated to the sky or to the sun, who is the creator of the world and who gives a divine law. This is connected with the idea of sacral kingship. It is the job of the king to implement the divine law in the world of the humans. This complex of ideas resurfaces in the Egyptian religion, as a heritage of the Nilo-Saharan people of southern Egypt (the people called “Seti” in Egyptian, who were the inhabitants of the country of Ta-Seti in southern Egypt).
So the story of Phaeton might be of Egyptian origin or it might have come from a myth of some Nilo-Saharan group south of Egypt. Maybe it has something to do with the drying out of the Sahara. One idea I have about it is that it might refer to the Egyptian king Akhenaten. This is, of course, totally speculative, but it would fit.
What is interesting about Akhenaten’s Aton-religion is that the belief system he etched out of the complex Egyptian religion consists quite exactly of those parts that originally came from the Sudanic religion. This might have happened under Sudanic influence, although there is no direct evidence for this. The Nilo-Saharan people who later founded the state of Meroe, and who obviously believed in one version of the Sudanic religion, were at that time living within the borders of the Egyptian empire, in what is now Nubia. They had previously inhabited the empire of Kerma that had been conquered by the Egyptians. It has been suspected that Akhenaten’s mother Teje was of Nubian origin.
The ancient Greeks would definitely have described her as “Aithiopic”. In that respect, she fits the mother of Phaeton in the story. Akhenaton might have known the religion of the Nubian people. In any case, one should note that the Aton religion was not the first Monotheism, as many people think, since the Sudanic religion is much older (and is itself probably not the only monotheistic belief system predating the Aton cult). However that might be, it is possible (although I am speculating here without any substantial evidence) that the Phaeton story started as some kind of political satire about Akhenaten after his fall, as the story of the alleged son of the solar god who wanted to become like a god himself and who catastrophically failed.
Since I am in speculative mood today, let me carry the speculations one step further (remember, this is a private blog, not a scientific journal): the Egyptian word for the kings’s palace, “Per Aa” (meaning big house) became the title of the Egyptian king and was adapted into Greek as “Pharao”. The big Aton temple in Amarna was called “Per Iten” (where the “e” might be any vowel, the Egyptologists use “e” wherever they are not sure about the vowel). “Per Iten” means “the house of Aton”. If you apply the same phonetic changes here, that would become “Phariten”or “Phariton” or something like that. From there to “Phaeton” is a small phonetic step. I admit that this is just a wild speculation and it is probably not true; however, the story fits (the phonetic similarity between “Meroe” and “Merops” would also fit but is probably just a coincidence).
Archeologists have found that people in Amarna where extremely badly fed. The gap between the self-image of Akhenaten as the son of the sun, as described in his hymns, and the reality in his city and empire was obviously very large. I feel reminded of totalitarian systems, where reality is terrible but in the official version everything is wonderful. If you try to match this to the Phaeton story, this might refer to the fires that where caused by Phaetons fall, the collateral damage of the kings rule.
I don’t know if there is actually any historical connection between Akhenaten and Phaeton. The connections I have been making here are pure speculation without much evidence and no way to check them. But one can use the Phaeton story as a parable about Akhenaton and, more generally, as a parable about totalitarian systems of all kinds.
The trend of such systems towards treating humans in inhumane ways appears already in the Sudanic religion, where Kings were, according to archaeological findings, buried together with their servants. It looks like the servants were killed when the King died. This custom was adapted by the first Egyptian dynasties, until the burying of servants was replaced by the burying of statues of servants. However, in Amarna, there seems to have been a very inhumane system of rule. The way the remains of Akhenaton’s rule where destroyed after his death speaks of hatred and this hatred probably had its reasons. Atrocities against humans later proved to be a recurring theme in societies based on monotheistic religions or in other totalitarian systems.
What these systems have in common is a claim to absolute truth. Such a claim can make people blind to reality and must be enforced by use of violence in case disbelief or criticism arises.. In contrast to pluralistic systems, there is a single god or principle that orders the world (“qui temperat orbem”). The Sudano-Egyptian “Ma’at”, the divine law of the Mosaic religions, the kingship by grace of god typical of medieval and absolutist monarchies, the laws of history in Stalinism, the ethno-centric and racial ideologies of Fascism and Nazism, all these systems claim to possess sources of absolute truth.
And the rulers following their doctrines catastrophically fall down from the sky, setting the world on fire.
(the pictures are from