Phaethon and the Chariot of the Sun

Chariot Sunset by edbrambley
Photo credit: Ed Brambley
Phaethon was the son of Helios the sun-god and the ocean-goddess Klymene. She later married Merops, King of Ethiopia, who raised the boy as his own son. One day Phaethon’s best friend Epaphos, a prince from a neighboring kingdom, began to taunt him about his parentage.

“Son of Helios?” Epaphos said. “A likely story. Your mother is ashamed to admit that she dallied with some commoner, and so she claims a lofty lover who’s too far away to deny it.”

Phaethon was beside himself, but there was nothing he could say to silence his friend’s jeers. At last he went to his mother seeking proof. “Your father is Helios,” she promised him. “I swear by the River Styx, the dread river of the underworld on which the Olympian gods swear binding oaths. If you doubt me, go to him yourself, for his halls are east of Ethiopia, a land blessed by the sun.”

Delighted, Phaethon set forth to seek his father’s house, following the directions Klymene had given him. Many were his adventures in the eastern lands, but they are no longer remembered. In those days there were not searing deserts in the east, but lush gardens, verdant forests, and shallow lakes. Still, he was wandering in wild lands where they say dwell creatures whose faces are in their stomachs, and giant furry ants that can devour a camel in a matter of minutes: that according to Herodotus, at least. So it was by feats of courage and caution that he reached at last the Mountain of the Sun.

He declared himself boldly at the gates, and servants led him up to his father’s great hall to await the chariot of Helios at day’s end.

Helios, when he descended the sky-track and found this fair youth taking ease in his halls, was pleased that Phaethon had sought him out. He embraced the boy and affirmed Klymene’s words, claiming Phaethon as his true son. Moreover, Helios swore by the Styx that he would grant Phaethon a boon: any one wish.

“Then let me drive your chariot, Father,” said Phaethon. “For then no king’s son will mock me as a bastard.”

“Not that,” said Helios, frowning. “It is not safe for you, my son. The horses that pull the Sun are fierce and wild. Only I may handle them. Ask me another boon.”

“That is my wish,” Phaethon insisted. “Father, you promised.”

At this Helios was much aggrieved, for even the gods dared not break an oath sworn upon the Styx. At last, he yielded to his son’s pleas, and led him to the stable shortly before dawn.

“Fly not too high,” Helios instructed him. “Nor too low. Keep to the zodiac. That is the middle way.”

Then he put the whip in Phaethon’s hand and helped him into the chariot, wrapping the traces around his waist.

The bronze doors of the east opened with a clang. Proudly, Phaethon stood tall as the horses leapt into the sky. They climbed swiftly, red sparks clattering from their harnesses. At first all seemed well.

But Phaethon feared his friend would not believe him unless he had some proof. So he tried to coax the horses to drop lower over Africa, so that Epaphos might see him. The steeds fretted and danced nervously. His weight was lighter than his father’s, and the chariot was already swinging from side to side. Abruptly, they bolted.

Down they plunged. The sun rattling behind them burned the lower air and set the forests ablaze. Rivers and lakes smoked and dried up. The lands were parched to deserts, and the people living there turned brown in the heat. Desperately Phaethon tried to jerk the reins back and turn the horses upwards. They reared and raced heavenwards, leaving the smoking earth behind. The lands beneath cracked under sheets of ice, and the sky itself began to burn, leaving a white scar in his wake now called the Milky Way.

The horses plunged up, then down, then up again, burning and freezing the earth and sky. Zeus heard the cries from suppliants praying at the temples and looked out from Mt. Olympus. Seeing a stranger in Helios’ chariot, he let fly a thunderbolt, striking Phaethon dead in an instant. The horses of the sun, now driverless, turned and headed back to their stables.

Phaethon dropped like a falling star a long, long way and plunged into the sea. There his mother’s sisters lamented him. In the voices of the gulls, you can hear their cries to this day.

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