“The Myth of Phaethon,” and the Weird Parts of Scripture

This post is the second in a series about the Weird Parts of Scripture. However, we haven’t gotten to the Bible yet. That will come soon. Instead, we are still exploring ancient Greek writings and “myths” to see what they really are.

This post explores a very strange phenomena that we can tell by reading the Timaeus, that same Socratic dialogue we first discussed in the last post. The strange thing we learn is that when the ancient Greeks gave us “myths,” they had a very complicated relationship with “the truth.” The Greeks knew that myths were “myths.” But regardless, they also knew that there was something NON-mythical behind the myth.

We’re going to explore this with what the Timaeus says about the Myth of Phaeton.

The Myth of Phaethon

The Myth of Phaethon is a widely known myth of Greek mythology, appearing everywhere from Hyginus’s FABULAE to Ovid’s Metamorphosis to your local sixth grade Greek Mythology curriculum. Here are two versions of the myth from Hyginus:

Phaethon, son of Sol and Clymene, who had secretly mounted his father’s car, and had been borne too high above the earth, from fear fell into the river Eridanus. When Jupiter struck him with a thunderbolt, everything started to burn. In order to have a reason for destroying the whole race of mortals, Jove pretended he wanted to put out the fire; he let loose the rivers everywhere, and all the human race perished Deucalion and Pyrrha. But the sisters of Phaethon, because they had yoked the horses without the orders of their father, were changed into poplar trees.

. . .

Phaethon, son of Clymenus, son of Sol, and the nymph Merope, who, as we have heard was and Oceanid, upon being told by his father that his grandfather was Sol, put to bad use the chariot he asked for. For when he was carried too near the earth, everything burned in the fire that came near, and, struck by a thunderbolt, he fell into the river Po. This river is called Eridanus by the Greeks; Pherecydes was the first to name it. The Indians became black, because their blood was turned to a dark color from the heat that came near. The sister of Phaethon, too, in grieving for their brother, were changed into poplar trees. Their tears, as Hesiod tells, hardened into amber; [in spite of the change] they are called Heliades [daughters of Helios]. They are, then, Merope, Helie, Aegle, Lampetia, Phoebe, Aetherie, Dioxippe. Moreover, Cygnus, King of Liguria, who was related to Phaethon, while mourning for his relative was changed into a swan; it, too, when it dies sings a mournful song.

That account comes from Gaius Julius Hyginus. He was the superintendent of the Palantine Library (which is the library on the “capital hill” of Rome – the Palantine Hill). His tales are quite short, almost like abbreviated stories of Greek myths. But there are a couple of things to notice. In a longer version, that of Publius Ovidius Naso, or “Ovid,” the Roman Poet who took old Greek Myths and compiled them in a work called Metamorphoses, we get the following detail:

Twas then, they say, the swarthy Moor begun
To change his hue, and blacken in the sun.
Then Libya first, of all her moisture drain’d,
Became a barren waste, a wild of sand.

What We Learn About Myths From the Myth of Phaethon

First, the lineage of Phaethon does not seem to be important. Right after we are told that Phaethon is the son of Clymene (a human female) and Sol (a male Titan god). Immediately thereafter, we are then told that Phaethon is the son of Clymenus (a male son of Sol) and Merope (a female nymph – a spirit of a river).

Second, we see that the myth of Phaethon is somehow related to the “Deucalion” and “Pyrra.” More on that later.

Third, we see that the event of Phaethon’s sun-chariot is (in one story) what causes the Indians to have dark skin and in another story what causes the Africans (the Moors) to have dark skin.

Finally, we see that this event made Africa (Libya) with “all her moisture drain’d” to become “a barren waste, a wild of sand.”

So we see some differences in all of these accounts, but there are some things that stay the same. This is how myths in general seem to work. Details don’t really matter. But the general framework stays the same.

It’s a lot like comic books. Imagine three different people in “real life,” each of which are named “Peter.” Each of them have an Aunt. The first’s aunt looks like Rosemary Harris. The second Peter’s aunt looks like Sally Field. The third Peter’s aunt looks like Marisa Tomei. Each of these aunts has a different personality, voice, and attitude. Also, the first “Peter” can shoot web from his wrists, but the other two Peters are scientific wiz-kids who just create a web-shooting contraption. These differences are significant changes and would have huge problems in “real life,” but not in the realm of comics. It’s the same with “myths.” The details don’t matter. You don’t even have to keep the names straight. What’s important is the general thrust of the story.

What We Learn About Myths from The Timaeus and the Myth of Phaethon

What follows next is another except from The Timaeus, where Criterias is relaying the conversation between Solon and the Egyptian Priest.

O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why. There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals;

. . .

if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples. Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves. As for those genealogies of yours which you just now recounted to us, Solon, they are no better than the tales of children.

There is a good bit packed into this declaration, but let’s notice the important thing. The Egyptian priest makes it clear that the story of Phaethon IS A MYTH. In other words, it is a “not true story.” As with all not-true stories — whether they be Greek myths or comics — the “details” don’t matter. What matters is the general thrust of the story.

But notice what he also says. It has THE FORM of a myth, but it REALLY signifies something else:

a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals

The word “declination” means “a bending downward” or “a swerving.” The “bodies moving in the heavens around the earth” are just that. But we would call them asteroids, meteors, or comets. The word “conflagration” means “a large, disastrous fire.”

Putting this together, we see the astonishing interpretation of the “myth” of Phaethon in the Timaeus: It is REALLY about the impact of a asteroid/meteor/comet on the Earth. This Egyptian priest speaking 2,600 years ago is smart enough to know that this happens only every once in a very, very long time. Or as the text says, “which recurs after long intervals.”

We should also note the manner in which this Egyptian priest says that these records are kept:

if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples.

In other words, the ancient “religious” records contain “any actions that are “noble” or “great” or “in any other way remarkable.”

This is an explanation of what “myths” ARE. Are myths “untrue stories”? Yes, but they aren’t MERELY untrue stories. They are untrue stories which point to something else which IS true. In a very similar way, have you ever seen this model of the atom shown in a classroom?

By BruceBlaus – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33041232

It is a very useful teaching tool to get some of the basic facts about chemistry and nuclear physics. It also happens to be A COMPLETELY INACCURATE way to demonstrate what an atom is like. Much like an ancient myth, the general thrust of the thing is true, and it does communicate SOMETHING, but it is a terribly inaccurate way to describe “the atom.” See this long but somewhat simplified YouTube video explanation to see what I mean.

This “totally not accurate” but “good enough to communicate the truth” is what this Egyptian priest in the Timaeus is describing as the story-based memory-machine of the ancient world: MYTHS.

The Weird Thing About the Myth of Phaethon

Now, in the Myth of Phaethon, we know that it indicates a “declination of the heavenly bodies” around the Earth. In other words, it is an asteroid strike.

Asteroid strikes sound “more realistic” than a Sun chariot piloted by Phaethon, but things get even weirder. Remember what we noticed about the myth of Phaethon:

Then Libya first, of all her moisture drain’d,
Became a barren waste, a wild of sand.

Lybia — or “Africa” — was drained of all its moisture. That might seem like something that people made up in order to explain why the Sahara is the Sahara, but it gets weird. Here’s the weird thing from very boring and non-mythological geology: The Sahara Desert wasn’t always a desert.

This article explains how between 11,000 to 5,000 years ago, the Sahara Desert was actually quite humid, and nothing like what we see today. It was more of a savannah, supporting giraffes, rhinos, and elephants, not the barren wasteland that it is today. This article blames it on

One abrupt event that appears to be synchronous across much of North and East Africa is the occurrence of dry conditions during the Younger Dryas period (12,700–11,500 years ago), when cool conditions prevailed over much of the northern hemisphere and particularly over the North Atlantic Ocean. Climate models have confirmed that reduced North Atlantic temperatures weaken African monsoonal circulation and reduce regional rainfall.

Here’s a random YouTube Video from PBS explaining the exact same thing:

And these geologists are saying this stuff happened rather suddenly during the Younger Dryas period, which is 12,700 – 11,500 years ago. Since todays is 2020 AD, this means that 11,500 years ago is basically 9,500 BC.

I wonder if we get anything about that date from the Timaeus or the other dialogue, the Critias. Well…. let me show you.

Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe. Of the combatants on the one side, the city of Athens was reported to have been the leader and to have fought out the war; the combatants on the other side were commanded by the kings of Atlantis, which, as was saying, was an island greater in extent than Libya and Asia, and when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean. (Plato, Critias)

Um….. well….. That’s weird. Especially since this dialogue was written down in the 300s BC, and it is reflecting a conversation in 600 BC. And it says that it was 9,000 years ago, which is pretty much the exact same time that boring geologists (who do not cite to ancient Greek myths about Atlantis) say that the Sahara desert was turned from a fertile plain into the dry desert wasteland that it is today.

But it gets weirder.

Remember that we said that the myth of Phaethon was REALLY when about an asteroid or comet strike or something? Well, now we should talk about the Younger Dryas Impact Theory.

The Younger Dryas Impact Theory

The following paragraph comes from a NOAA article on the Younger Dryas period, which is a widely accepted phenomena in the past for climatologists:

The Younger Dryas is one of the most well known examples of abrupt change. About 14,500 years ago, Earth’s climate began to shift from a cold glacial world to a warmer interglacial state. Partway through this transition, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere suddenly returned to near-glacial conditions. This near-glacial period is called the Younger Dryas, named after a flower (Dryas octopetala) that grows in cold conditions and that became common in Europe during this time.

The following graph is used to show temperature changes during this time:

The article goes on:

The end of the Younger Dryas, about 11,500 years ago, was particularly abrupt. In Greenland, temperatures rose 10°C (18°F) in a decade (Alley 2000). Other proxy records, including varved lake sediments in Europe, also display these abrupt shifts (Brauer et al. 2008).

But wait…. …did you catch that? It says 11,500 years ago. That’s when climatologists have identified a SIGNIFICANT increase in global temperatures. That is…. 9,500 BC, the same time that the ancient Egyptian priest told us was the end of Atlantis, the myth of Phaethon, and all that.

But it gets weirder. We can also notice that the Egyptian priest 2,600 years ago mentioned that the myth of Phaethon was really about a “declination of heavenly bodies” and the “great conflagration” that came afterwards. The word “conflagration” means “really, really destructive fire.”

Well, guess what? It seems there is evidence that just such a thing happened. The following is the abstract of a peer-reviewed journal in the Journal of Geology, published in 2018, which I bought so you don’t have to. In it, it explains that an explanation for this rapid period of warming is an impact of a “large extra-terrestrial body”:

Abstract: The Younger Dryas boundary (YDB) cosmic-impact hypothesis is based on considerable evidence that Earth collided with fragments of a disintegrating ≥100-km-diameter comet, the remnants of which persist within the inner solar system ∼12,800 y later. Evidence suggests that the YDB cosmic impact triggered an “impact winter” and the subsequent Younger Dryas (YD) climate episode, biomass burning, late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions, and human cultural shifts and population declines. The cosmic impact deposited anomalously high concentrations of platinum over much of the Northern Hemisphere, as recorded at 26 YDB sites at the YD onset, including the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 ice core, in which platinum deposition spans ∼21 y (∼12,836–12,815 cal BP). The YD onset also exhibits increased dust concentrations, synchronous with the onset of a remarkably high peak in ammonium, a biomass-burning aerosol. In four ice-core sequences from Greenland, Antarctica, and Russia, similar anomalous peaks in other combustion aerosols occur, including nitrate, oxalate, acetate, and formate, reflecting one of the largest biomass-burning episodes in more than 120,000 y. In support of widespread wildfires, the perturbations in CO2 records from Taylor Glacier, Antarctica, suggest that biomass burning at the YD onset may have consumed ∼10 million km2, or ∼9% of Earth’s terrestrial biomass. The ice record is consistent with YDB impact theory that extensive impact-related biomass burning triggered the abrupt onset of an impact winter, which led, through climatic feedbacks, to the anomalous YD climate episode. (The Journal of Geology, 2018, volume 126, p. 165–184)

The way we can describe this in ordinary modern-English is that a big comet broke apart in space and hit the Earth. It had ridiculous effects on the climate. One of those effects was ridiculous wildfires which burned up about a tenth of all life on earth. We can see the remnants of this massive burning in the ice of glaciers.

Not only that, but geologists believe they found THE ACTUAL CRATER in Greenland which was the site of such an impact. Here’s a random YouTube from the Science Magazine account on the subject:

That paper was published in the Journal of Geology in 2018. And I might as well note the obvious, that neither The Timaeus nor The Critias were cited in the article. But look what the Egyptian priest told Solon in 2,600 BC:

Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals

Is there a more plain-spoken way of explaining what went on than that?

And I’m not the first person to make this connection, in fact. Here is a video from the Joe Rogan podcast where two guys talk about some of the geologic evidence for it all:

Now, I think these guys are a little off on some of their mythology and Graham Hancock is a little bit off the reservation on some other stuff, but regardless, the evidence that they have of “the flood” and a “declination of the heavenly bodies” is quite stunning.

What This Means for “Myths” and “The Bible.”

As we’ve already discussed, a “myth” according to the Timaeus is a “totally not accurate” story that is nevertheless good enough to communicate an underlying truth.” Strangely, the Myth of Phaethon seems to freakishly correspond to some definitely-not-mythical scientific things.

But here’s another thing that is worth noticing, which I touched on before. In Hyginus’s FABULAE, the Myth of Phaethon is listed in two different versions. But notice the myth that is in-between them:

PHAETHON Phaethon, son of Sol and Clymene, who had secretly mounted his father’s car . . .

DEUCALION AND PYRRHA: When the cataclysm which we call the flood or deluge occurred, all the human race perished except Deucalion and Pyrrha, who fled to Mount Etna, which is said to be the highest mountain in Sicily. When they could not live on account of loneliness, they begged Jove either to give men, or to afflict them with a similar disaster. Then Jove bade them cast stones behind them; those Deucalion threw he ordered to become men, and those Pyrrha threw, to be women. Because of this they are called laos, people, for stone in Greek is called las.

PHAETHON OF HESIOD: Phaethon, son of Clymenus, son of Sol, and the nymph Merope, who, as we have heard was and Oceanid, upon being told by his father that his grandfather was Sol. . .

Coincidentally, we see a grouping of “The Myth of Phaethon” which is really about the impact of a comet or asteroid with “the Deluge,” and “Deucalion.”

Additionally, I need to remind you about what we read in The Critias about the names of these people:

Yet, before proceeding further in the narrative, I ought to warn you, that you must not be surprised if you should perhaps hear Hellenic names given to foreigners. I will tell you the reason of this: Solon, who was intending to use the tale for his poem, enquired into the meaning of the names, and found that the early Egyptians in writing them down had translated them into their own language, and he recovered the meaning of the several names and when copying them out again translated them into our language. My great-grandfather, Dropides, had the original writing, which is still in my possession, and was carefully studied by me when I was a child. Therefore if you hear names such as are used in this country, you must not be surprised, for I have told how they came to be introduced.

And the “meaning” of the name “Deucalion” is probably something you will recognize. From the Wikipedia page for “Deucalion,” we read this:

Deucalion’s name comes from δεῦκος, deukos, a variant of γλεῦκος, gleucos, i.e. “sweet new wine, must, sweetness” and from ἁλιεύς, haliéus, i.e. “sailor, seaman, fisher”.

The person you’re thinking of is Noah:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. (Genesis 7:11-12)

. . .

The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. (Genesis 7:18-19)

. . .

Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.[c]21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. (Genesis 9:20-21)

Conclusion

The thing to notice about “Myths” and “the Strange Parts of the Bible” comes from what the Egyptian Priest says about important events:

if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples.

These “actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable” were turned into MYTHS.

As we’ve explored here, there seems to be CONSISTENT AGREEMENT between some very “mythical” things and some very ordinary geology and science. That’s because “myths” are not merely myths. Obviously, “myths” are not literally true. That’s a basic trait of a myth. But it is also basic that a “metaphor” is not literally true. That doesn’t mean there is no truth in metaphors.

In the previous post, we explored how a 2,600 year old story on the “myth of Atlantis” has some peculiar similarities to the submarine geography that was discovered only in 1957. Here, we explore how the “myth of Phaethon,” as described by that same 2,600 year old Egyptian priest seems to have some peculiar similarities with some very widely accepted ideas about comet impacts and gigantic floods. Not only does a 2,600 year old Egyptian priest share the same beliefs about the CAUSE of a gigantic flood, he also agrees with modern geologists on the actual date of 9,500 BC.

Therefore, we have noticed so far is that there is a strange, STRANGE correlation between “myths” and ACTUAL THINGS THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

If something as kooky as “the myth of Phaethon” is actually grounded in literal history, then who knows what we can do with the other Weird Parts of Scripture. That’s precisely what we’re going to do next with “Deucalion” and “the Flood.”

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