Greek and Roman Mythology > Phaeton


Epaphus was the son of Jupiter and Io. Phaeton, child of the
Sun, was one day boasting to him of his high descent and of his
father Phoebus. Epaphus could not bear it. "Foolish fellow,"
said he "you believe your mother in all things, and you are
puffed up by your pride in a false father." Phaeton went in rage
and shame and reported this to his mother, Clymene. "If," said
he, "I am indeed of heavenly birth, give me, mother, some proof
of it, and establish my claim to the honor." Clymene stretched
forth her hands towards the skies, and said, "I call to witness
the Sun which looks down upon us, that I have told you the truth.
If I speak falsely, let this be the last time I behold his light.
But it needs not much labor to go and inquire for yourself; the
land whence the sun rises lies next to ours. Go and demand of
him whether he will own you as a son" Phaeton heard with delight.
He travelled to India, which lies directly in the regions of
sunrise; and, full of hope and pride, approached the goal whence
the Sun begins his course.

The palace of the Sun stood reared aloft on columns, glittering
with gold and precious stones, while polished ivory formed the
ceilings, and silver the doors. The workmanship surpassed the
material; for upon the walls Vulcan had represented earth, sea
and skies, with their inhabitants. In the sea were the nymphs,
some sporting in the waves, some riding on the backs of fishes,
while others sat upon the rocks and dried their sea-green hair.
Their faces were not all alike, nor yet unlike, but such as
sisters' ought to be. The earth had its towns and forests and
rivers and rustic divinities. Over all was carved the likeness
of the glorious heaven; and on the silver doors the twelve signs
of the zodiac, six on each side.

Clymene's son advanced up the steep ascent, and entered the halls
of his disputed father. He approached the paternal presence, but
stopped at a distance, for the light was more than he could bear.
Phoebus, arrayed in a purple vesture, sat on a throne which
glittered as with diamonds. On his right hand and his left stood
the Day, the Month, and the Year, and, at regular intervals, the
Hours. Spring stood with her head crowned with flowers, and
Summer, with garment cast aside, and a garland formed of spears
of ripened grain, and Autumn, with his feet stained with grape
juice, and icy Winter, with his hair stiffened with hoar frost.
Surrounded by these attendants, the Sun, with the eye that sees
every thing, beheld the youth dazzled with the novelty and
splendor of the scene, and inquired the purpose of his errand.
The youth replied, "Oh, light of the boundless world, Phoebus, my
father, if you permit me to use that name, give me some
proof, I beseech you, by which I may be known as yours." He
ceased; and his father, laying aside the beams that shone all
around his head, bade him approach, and embracing him, said, "My
son, you deserve not to be disowned, and I confirm what your
mother has told you. To put an end to your doubts, ask what you
will, the gift shall be yours. I call to witness that dreadful
lake, which I never saw, but which we gods swear by in our most
solemn engagements." Phaeton immediately asked to be permitted
for one day to drive the chariot of the sun. The father repented
of his promise; thrice and four times he shook his radiant head
in warning. "I have spoken rashly," said he; "only this request
I would fain deny. I beg you to withdraw it. It is not a safe
boon, nor one, my Phaeton, suited to your youth and strength.
Your lot is mortal, and you ask what is beyond a mortal's power.
In your ignorance you aspire to do that which not even the gods
themselves may do. None but myself may drive the flaming car of
day; not even Jupiter, whose terrible right arm hurls the thunder
bolts. The first part of the way is steep, and such as the
horses when fresh in the morning can hardly climb; the middle is
high up in the heavens, whence I myself can scarcely, without
alarm, look down and behold the earth and sea stretched beneath
me. The last part of the road descends rapidly, and requires
most careful driving. Tethys, who is waiting to receive me,
often trembles for me lest I should fall headlong. Add to all
this, the heaven is all the time turning round and carrying the
stars with it. I have to be perpetually on my guard lest that
movement, which sweeps everything else along, should hurry me
also away. Suppose I should lend you the chariot, what would you
do? Could you keep your course while the sphere was revolving
under you? Perhaps you think that there are forests and cities,
the abodes of gods, and palaces and temples on the way. On the
contrary, the road is through the midst of frightful monsters.
You pass by the horns of the Bull, in front of the Archer, and
near the Lion's jaws, and where the Scorpion stretches its arms
in one direction and the Crab in another. Nor will you find it
easy to guide those horses, with their breasts full of fire which
they breathe forth from their mouths and nostrils. I can
scarcely govern them myself, when they are unruly and resist the
reins. Beware, my son, lest I should give you a fatal gift;
recall your request while yet you may. Do you ask me for proof
that you are sprung from my blood? I give you a proof in my
fears for you. Look at my face,-- I would that you could look
into my breast, you would there see all a father's anxiety.
Finally," he continued, "look round the world and choose whatever
you will of what earth or sea contains most precious, ask it
and fear no refusal. This only I pray you not to urge. It is
not honor, but destruction you seek. Why do you hang round my
neck and still entreat me? You shall have it if you persist,
the oath is sworn and must be kept, but I beg you to choose
more wisely."

He ended; but the youth rejected all admonition, and held to his
demand. So, having resisted as long as he could, Phoebus at last
led the way to where stood the lofty chariot.

It was of gold, the gift of Vulcan; the axle was of gold, the
pole and wheels of gold, the spokes of silver. Along the seat
were rows of chrysolites and diamonds, which reflected all around
the brightness of the sun. While the daring youth gazed in
admiration, the early Dawn threw open the purple doors of the
east, and showed the pathway strewn with roses. The stars
withdrew, marshalled by the Daystar, which last of all retired
also. The father, when he saw the earth beginning to glow, and
the Moon preparing to retire, ordered the Hours to harness up the
horses. They obeyed, and led forth from the lofty stalls the
steeds full fed with ambrosia, and attached the reins. Then the
father bathed the face of his son with a powerful unguent, and
made him capable of enduring the brightness of the flame. He set
the rays on his head, and, with a foreboding sigh, said, "If, my
son, you will in this at least heed my advice, spare the whip and
hold tight the reins. They go fast enough of their own accord;
the labor is to hold them in. You are not to take the straight
road directly between the five circles, but turn off to the left.
Keep within the limit of the middle zone, and avoid the northern
and the southern alike. You will see the marks of the wheels,
and they will serve to guide you. And, that the skies and the
earth may each receive their due share of heat, go not too high,
or you will burn the heavenly dwellings, nor too low, or you will
set the earth on fire; the middle course is safest and best. And
now I leave you to your chance, which I hope will plan better for
you than you have done for yourself. Night is passing out of the
western gates and we can delay no longer. Take the reins; but if
at last your heart fails you, and you will benefit by my advice,
stay where you are in safety, and suffer me to light and warm the
earth." The agile youth sprang into the chariot, stood erect and
grasped the reins with delight, pouring out thanks to his
reluctant parent.

Meanwhile the horses fill the air with their snortings and fiery
breath, and stamp the ground impatient. Now the bars are let
down, and the boundless plain of the universe lies open before
them. They dart forward and cleave the opposing clouds, and
outrun the morning breezes which started from the same eastern
goal. The steeds soon perceived that the load they drew was
lighter than usual; and as a ship without ballast is tossed
hither and thither on the sea, so the chariot, without its
accustomed weight, was dashed about as if empty. They rush
headlong and leave the travelled road. He is alarmed, and knows
not how to guide them; nor, if he knew, has he the power. Then,
for the first time, the Great and Little Bear were scorched with
heat, and would fain, if it were possible, have plunged into the
water; and the Serpent which lies coiled up round the north pole,
torpid and harmless, grew warm, and with warmth felt its rage
revive. Bootes, they say, fled away, though encumbered with his
plough, and all unused to rapid motion.

When hapless Phaeton looked down upon the earth, now spreading in
vast extent beneath him, he grew pale and his knees shook with
terror. In spite of the glare all around him, the sight of his
eyes grew dim. He wished he had never touched his father's
horses, never learned his parentage, never prevailed in his
request. He is borne along like a vessel that flies before a
tempest, when the pilot can do no more and betakes himself to his
prayers. What shall he do? Much of the heavenly road is left
behind, but more remains before. He turns his eyes from one
direction to the other; now to the goal whence he began his
course, now to the realms of sunset which he is not destined to
reach. He loses his self-command, and knows not what to do,
whether to draw tight the reins or throw them loose; he forgets
the names of the horses. He sees with terror the monstrous forms
scattered over the surface of heaven. Here the Scorpion extended
his two great arms, with his tail and crooked claws stretching
over two signs of the zodiac. When the boy beheld him, reeking
with poison and menacing with his fangs, his courage failed, and
the reins fell from his hands. The horses, feeling the reins
loose on their backs, dashed headlong, and unrestrained went off
into unknown regions of the sky, in among the stars, hurling the
chariot over pathless places, now up in high heaven, now down
almost to the earth. The moon saw with astonishment her
brother's chariot running beneath her own. The clouds begin to
smoke, and the mountain tops take fire; the fields are parched
with heat, the plants wither, the trees with their leafy branches
burn, the harvest is ablaze! But these are small things. Great
cities perished, with their walls and towers; whole nations with
their people were consumed to ashes! The forest-clad mountains
burned, Athos and Taurus and Tmolus and OEte; Ida, once
celebrated for fountains, but now all dry; the Muses' mountain
Helicon, and Haemus; AEtna, with fires within and without, and
Parnassus, with his two peaks, and Rhodope, forced at last to
part with his snowy crown. Her cold climate was no protection to
Scythia, Caucasus burned, and Ossa and Pindus, and, greater than
both, Olympus; the Alps high in air, and the Apennines crowned
with clouds.

Then Phaeton beheld the world on fire, and felt the heat
intolerable. The air he breathed was like the air of a furnace
and full of burning ashes, and the smoke was of a pitchy
darkness. He dashed forward he knew not whither. Then, it is
believed, the people of AEthiopia became black by the blood being
forced so suddenly to the surface, and the Libyan desert was
dried up to the condition in which it remains to this day. The
Nymphs of the fountains, with dishevelled hair, mourned their
waters, nor were the rivers safe beneath their banks; Tanais
smoked, and Caicus, Xanthus and Meander. Babylonian Euphrates
and Ganges, Tagus with golden sands, and Caijster where the swans
resort. Nile fled away and hid his head in the desert, and there
it still remains concealed. Where he used to discharge his
waters through seven mouths into the sea, there seven dry
channels alone remained. The earth cracked open, and through the
chinks light broke into Tartarus, and frightened the king of
shadows and his queen. The sea shrank up. Where before was
water, it became a dry plain; and the mountains that lie beneath
the waves lifted up their heads and became islands. The fishes
sought the lowest depths, and the dolphins no longer ventured as
usual to sport on the surface. Even Nereus, and his wife Doris,
with the Nereids, their daughters, sought the deepest caves for
refuge. Thrice Neptune essayed to raise his head above the
surface and thrice was driven back by the heat. Earth,
surrounded as she was by waters, yet with head and shoulders
bare, screening her face with her hand, looked up to heaven, and
with a husky voice called on Jupiter.

"O ruler of the gods, if I have deserved this treatment, and it
is your will that I perish with fire, why withhold your
thunderbolts? Let me at least fall by your hand. Is this the
reward of my fertility, of my obedient service? Is it for this
that I have supplied herbage for cattle, and fruits for men, and
frankincense for your altars? But if I am unworthy of regard,
what has my brother Ocean done to deserve such a fate? If
neither of us can excite your pity, think, I pray you, of your
own heaven, and behold how both the poles are smoking which
sustain your palace, which must fall if they be destroyed. Atlas
faints, and scarce holds up his burden. If sea, earth, and
heaven perish, we fall into ancient Chaos. Save what yet remains
to us from the devouring flame. Oh, take thought for our
deliverance in this awful moment!"

Thus spoke Earth, and overcome with heat and thirst, could say no
more. Then Jupiter Omnipotent, calling to witness all the gods,
including him who had lent the chariot, and showing them that all
was lost unless some speedy remedy were applied, mounted the
lofty tower from whence he diffuses clouds over the earth, and
hurls the forked lightnings. But at that time not a cloud was to
be found to interpose for a screen to earth, nor was a shower
remaining unexhausted. He thundered, and brandishing a
lightning-bolt in his right hand launched it against the
charioteer, and struck him at the same moment from his seat and
from existence! Phaeton, with his hair on fire, fell headlong,
like a shooting star which marks the heavens with its brightness
as it falls, and Eridanus, the great river, received him and
cooled his burning frame. The Italian Naiads reared a tomb for
him, and inscribed these words upon the stone:

"Driver of Phoebus' chariot, Phaeton,
Struck by Jove's thunder, rests beneath this stone.
He could not rule his father's car of fire,
Yet was it much so nobly to aspire."

His sisters, the Heliades, as they lamented his fate were turned
into poplar trees, on the banks of the river, and their tears,
which continued to flow, became amber as they dropped into the

One of Prior's best remembered poems is that on the Female
Phaeton, from which we quote the last verse.

Kitty has been imploring her mother to allow her to go out into
the world as her friends have done, if only for once.

"Fondness prevailed, mamma gave way;
Kitty, at heart's desire,
Obtained the chariot for a day,
And set the world on fire."

Milman, in his poem of Samor, makes the following allusion to
Phaeton's story:--

"As when the palsied universe aghast
Lay .... mute and still,
When drove, so poets sing, the sun-born youth
Devious through Heaven's affrighted signs his sire's
Ill-granted chariot. Him the Thunderer hurled
>From th'empyrean headlong to the gulf
Of the half-parched Eridanus, where weep
Even now the sister trees their amber tears
O'er Phaeton untimely dead."

In the beautiful lines of Walter Savage Lando describing the sea-
shell, there is an allusion to the sun's palace and chariot. The
water-nymph says,

" I have sinuous shells of pearly hue
Within, and things that lustre have imbibed
In the sun's palace porch, where when unyoked
His chariot-wheel stands midway in the wave.
Shake one and it awakens; then apply
Its polished lip to your attentive car,
And it remembers its August abodes,
And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there."
Gebir, Book 1

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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