And the most ancient of the ancient world, the nation that stood farthest back in historical time, the Egyptians, believed that this legend of Phaëton really represented the contact of the earth with a comet.
When Solon, the Greek lawgiver, visited Egypt, six hundred years before the Christian era, he talked with the priests of Sais about the Deluge of Deucalion. I quote the following from Plato ("Dialogues,” xi, 517, Timæus):
“Thereupon, one of the priests, who was of very great age, said, ’O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are but children, and there is never an old man who is an Hellene.’ Solon, hearing this, said, ’What do you mean?’ ‘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 the reason of this: there have been, and there will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes. There is a story which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Phaëthon, 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 thunder-bolt. Now, this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving around the earth and in the heavens, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth recurring at long intervals of time: when this happens, those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the sea-shore."’
OTHER LEGENDS OF THE CONFLAGRATION.
THE first of these, and the most remarkable of all, is the legend of one of the Central American nations, preserved not by tradition alone, but committed to writing at some time in the remote past.
In the “Codex Chimalpopoca,” one of the sacred books of the Toltecs, the author, speaking of the destruction which took place by fire, says:
“The third sun” (or era) “is called Quia-Tonatiuh, sun of rain, because there fell a rain of fire; all which existed burned; and there fell a rain of gravel.”
“They also narrate that while the sandstone, which we now see scattered about, and the tetzontli (amygdaloide poreuse—trap or basaltic rocks), ’boiled with great tumult, there also rose the rocks of vermilion color.’”
That is to say, the basaltic and red trap-rocks burst through the great cracks made, at that time, in the surface of the disturbed earth.
“Now, this was in the year Ce Tecpatl, One Flint, it was the day Nahui-Quiahuitl, Fourth Rain. Now, in this day, in which men were lost and destroyed in a rain of fire, they were transformed into goslings; the sun itself was on fire, and everything, together with the houses, was consumed."