Retold from Ovid, Metamorphosis II
Phaethon was the son of Helios, the Sun God, and a mortal woman, Clymene. Clymene loved her son and always spoke truth to him about the ways of the worlds. He had known of his parentage at a young age, but, as children are wont to do, the others laughed at him and called him a liar when he spoke of his father in the sky.
“Phaethon,” Clymene asked one day when he looked particularly melancholy. “Why do you look so sad?”
“Mother, the other boys laugh when I speak of my father. They do not believe me when I say he is the Sun God!” cried Phaethon. “Are you sure he is really my father?”
“Perhaps, my son,” she said, kindly, “It is time for you to go up to the Palace and ask him for yourself.”
Phaethon knew of the Palace. It was a spectacular place of bright gold and ivory and a myriad of glittering jewels. The relentless radiance of the palace was so great that few ever dared lay eyes upon it in fear of blindness, for mortal eyes can not bear much that is of the gods. Still, determined in his quest, he began the weary climb to the Palace of the Sun.
Up and up he went, pausing more often than he would have liked to shield his eyes and restore his vision. Finally, he came upon the palace and bumbled through the gleaming doors. He had made it but a few paces when he was forced to cease from the brilliance and unerring luminosity of the Sun God upon his throne.
Seeing the lad cowering in the light, for never has there been either darkness or shadow in the palace of the Sun., the Sun God was first to speak.
“Welcome, my boy!” he said, merrily. “Why have you come?”
Mustering up his strength, Phaethon replied as boldly as he could, “I am Phaethon, son of Clymene. My Mother has told me that you are my father, and at her behest, I come seeking the truth so the other children will not laugh at me and think me a fraud.”
With a smile, the Sun God removed his Crown of Magnificent Light so the boy might look upon his face.
“Come to me, Phaethon,” he said. “You are, indeed, my son. Clymene has always told you the truth. I hope you will not doubt my words either. In any case, I will give you the proof you need that you may live a happier and more confident life.”
At the words of the Sun God, Phaethon’s heart filled with pride and joy.
“Phaethon,” said the Sun God. “I will give you anything you want as proof, and I shall swear this as Oath by the River Styx.” For no one can break an oath sworn with Styx as witness. “Name it, Phaethon, and it is yours.”
Phaethon thought back to all those moments when, as a child watching the Sun God make his way through the sky, he longed for his father’s presence and imagined himself high up in the heavens, free from the world below, guiding those majestic steeds across the sky in the fury of flight. His dream unfurled before him as the words of his father resonated in his ears. The choice was clear.
“Father,” said Phaethon. “I wish to drive your chariot across the sky. Just for one day. It is the only thing I have ever truly desired. Let me guide your steeds and bring the light to the world.”
For the first time, the face of the Sun God darkened slightly, though perhaps by an imperceptible amount to the human eye. He realized the boy was too young to be given such responsibility, but was bound by rules not even the Sun God could break. Thus he spoke, “Ah, Phaethon, I know that I am bound to give you whatever your heart desires, for I have sworn by the River of Oaths, but I must warn you before you make up your mind completely against the perils you will face and disperse the fancies that are most likely built up in your head.
“Had I not sworn to yield to your desire, I would have refused you in this alone, for I know the rumors that mortals hold dear. They believe there to be magnificent Kingdoms more brilliant than anything ever seen on Earth and hosts of wonders that could live no where else but in the mortal imagination. I tell you this is false.
“There is no glory in the sky. There is only darkness and dangerous, ferocious beasts who do not like the light. The Bull, The Lion and The Crab are all up there, preying on all that passes them by, and they will try to harm you.
“I tell you now that no mortal could ever drive my chariot and live. No god save me is even capable, including Zeus himself. The road begins in the sea and rises up so steeply that it takes the horses all their strength to climb it. The Midheaven is so high that not even I have the courage to look down upon Gaia from such a height! You will not be able to spend a moment looking toward the Mother Earth, because the great Star Monsters, the Crab, the Bear and the Scorpion are waiting to feast upon you. But the most perilous part of your journey is the deadly descent into the sea. The way down is so steep that even the gods of the Sea wonder at my ability to make it down without falling headfirst into the depths. All this and the horses themselves will fight you most of the way. They are a fierce breed whose spirits grow fiery as they climb causing them to breathe out red-hot flames, and all the more they will struggle against you.
“Please, Phaethon, take a look around you. See you not the wonders that are to behold in the mere throne room? Be persuaded to take a portion from the riches and splendor about you. If none of these words persuades you, think, then, of the fatherly way in which I caution you and fear for your safety while trying to maintain your happiness. Is that not proof enough that I am your father?”
But Phaethon would not be swayed. His heart and his pride were set upon the great chariot, for who would ever doubt him after seeing him control the very course of the Sun!
“Father,” Phaethon strongly replied. “I have chosen, and I believe I have chosen well. I shall take your chariot into the sky at dawn when Eos summons us.”
“Very well,” Replied Helios. He knew that look of determination, for he had worn it himself many times in his youth. Yet Helios knew that he was fully a God, and his son, being a Demigod, did not have the same strength or capacity to heal. “As my final gift to you, Phaethon, my son, I will grant you this,” Helios spoke. He pulled a vial from a drawer in an ornate cabinet and gestured Phaethon to step forward. Helios anointed his son with a magical oil to keep the flames from the chariot and the breath of the horses from burning his mortal flesh.
When Eos came for them, it was a solemn nod she used to alert them to the time. She turned away without a word, but Helios, who knows his sister well, saw the shining tear slip unbidden from her eye as she turned away from her nephew. “Did Phaethon even know of their relation?” Helios pondered as they followed Eos to the stables. “Best to keep the lad focused and introduce them properly—if he made it to the other side.”
As they approached the chariot, Phaethon’s excitement was suddenly equally matched by his fear. The chariot was ornately done in gold and filigree, and it was larger than he had imagined, far larger. His head barely crested the wheel before him. And the horses! Terrible and beautiful, they were the most magnificent horses he had ever seen! The white steeds were already chomping at their bits, waiting a simple word to release the anticipation holding back their desire to run.
“This is your last chance to change your mind,” Helios remarked, though he had given up hope of swaying the boy. So small, his son. So, so small.
“Thank you for your concern, Father, but I must stand by my word, just as you have stood by yours,” and with that, Phaethon heaved himself up into the chariot and took the reigns.
Barely audible, Eos told Helios that the time had come. With a moment’s hesitation, he spoke the word of power that commanded the horses, and away they flew.
The initial jolt of the horses as they began to move nearly pulled Phaeton out of the chariot, but he managed to regain his footing. The horses were beginning to glow, first yellow, then orange and finally red like the fire that began to flare from their nostrils in their effort to run straight up into the sky. The heat from their breath was nothing, however, to the blaze of the sun behind him as it emerged from the watery storage pool.
Higher and higher they climbed; faster and faster, they ran. As they began to arc out over the land, Phaethon realized that he had made it past the ascent and his confidence returned. He was the Son of Helios, God of the Sun, and in that moment, his heart was full and complete. But his weak hand caused the horses to veer along their course. They traveled too low and turned much of Africa to dessert.
The horses were taking him higher still, too high to see the land below. At the peak of the climb, the Earth was but a speck below him. No man on Gaia’s vast plains could see it was he driving this chariot. So high had they traveled that much of the Earth became vastly cold and frozen in the North. But Phaethon could not focus on the ground. Before him loomed the starry monsters his father warned would be waiting to slash at him. He was slashed with Bear claws, nearly pierced by Scorpion stinger and lost his helmet to a Crab pincher. But still he lived, and still the horses flew through the sky.
As the descent began, the momentum became more than he could bear. With the weight of the chariot behind them, the horses surged forward taken wider strides and blowing more and more flames toward the singeing Phaethon. The magical oil was wearing off! In his pain, Phaethon loosed his grip upon the reigns and the chariot began to rock left to right, left to right, as a boat thrown on the waves. Soon they were zigzagging across the sky with the sun bouncing behind them, coming closer and closer to the land below. The people of Earth began to scream and cower as the sun threatened to fall on them. Their skin became darkened as the sun drew their blood to the surface. Poseidon waved his trident at the sun for the rivers and streams that fed the sea had dried up, but soon the heat was too much for him, and even Poseidon dove to the depths of the sea to escape the fiery death falling from the sky.
Zeus, alerted to the commotion, saw that the boy was giving the horse’s erratic directions as he pulled the reigns back and forth to maintain his balance causing the horses to run in a wild pattern across the sky. Knowing all things about the Order of the World, Zeus snapped a lighting bolt to life in his hand and cast it at the unsuspecting Phaethon. The bolt hit him square in the chest, and as he fell, he heard the gasps and cries of the Sea Nymphs who had been waiting in the West for their landing. He was dead before he hit the water. The horses, now free from the boy’s erratic directions, began to run a straight course to their usual destination, and Chaos was no more the ruler of that day. When the chariot hit the ground, the sun made a great splash into the sea, washing Phaethon’s body onto the shore.
The Sea Nymphs carefully surrounded him and sang, lamenting over his body. Eos gathered him to herself and placed him in his father’s vessel, which carried him home to Helios’ palace. For days, Helios refused his duties for three days as he mourned his son, and the world was plunged into darkness, further confusing the events that had taken place in the minds of the mortals. The Olympians visited Helios and begged him to return the light to the world. In anger, Helios blamed Zeus, “You killed my son! My son, Zeus!”
Zeus replied, “Helios, there was no other way. If I had not intervened, your son would have killed the Children of the Earth. As it is, nothing will ever be the same for them again. It was a sacrifice I had to make to save the fate of man. The Gods need man to believe in us. It is the Order of the World. Without man, the Gods are dead.”
Helios sighed as the words sank into his heart and he knew them for truth. Just before Eos came to greet him, Helios burned a headstone for his son:
Here lies Phaethon who drove the Sun-God’s Car
Greatly he failed, but greatly he dared.
There he sat until Eos, who had lost a son of her own in battle, came to greet him with the promise of a new day. With one final look upon the grave of his son, Helios, God of the Sun, took up the reigns of his Chariot and restored the light to the world.