The story of Phaethon is one of the more notable tales within Greek mythology, a collection of myths and teachings that were integral to the ancient Greeks. Fantastic legends that encompassed their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origin and significance of their culture and rituals.
Phaethon’s tale is believed to have first been told around 700 BC, as part of the oral storytelling tradition of the Greeks, well before the advent of written literature. The two most important surviving texts which give the fullest account of the Phaethon myth, compiled much later, are as follows:
The story revolves around the central character Phaethon, the son of the sun god Helios, and his tragic attempt to drive his father's ‘chariot of light’ for a single day. On its face a dramatic story of hubris and ambition, but correctly decoded, an explanation for various natural phenomena – especially of the destructive variety e.g. the scorching heat of the sun and the creation of deserts.
It is a story that has been retold and referenced in various forms of art and literature throughout history, highlighting its enduring appeal and cultural significance.
The tale of Phaethon commences with the young man questioning his mother Clymene about the identity of his father. Upon learning that his father is Helios, the god of the sun, Phaethon embarks on a journey to the far east, where the palace of the sun god resides. An overwhelming desire to meet his father, and even gain acceptance of his status.
Upon reaching the magnificent palace and entering within, Phaethon immediately finds himself in the presence of the sun god, along with his array of attendants:
Initially dazzled by the brilliant scene before him, only after gathering his courage is Phaethon able to approach Helios. Surprised by his son's boldness but pleased by it too, Helios welcomes Phaethon, acknowledging him as his son. To prove his love and paternal linkage, Helios swears a solemn oath by the River Styx - an unbreakable vow according to the customs of the gods. A promise to grant Phaethon whatever he wishes.
Seizing the opportunity, Phaethon requests to be allowed to drive his father's sun chariot for a day. Immediately realising the danger inherent to his son's wish – which he had not anticipated – Helios tries to dissuade Phaethon, telling him of the immense difficulties and perils involved in controlling the powerful horses tethered to his chariot. Despite his father's warnings however, Phaethon is adamant about his wish. An overriding desire to prove his prowess and heroism; he insists on driving the sun chariot.
Bound by his oath despite his grave concerns, Helios finally gives in to his son's unwavering demand, reluctantly agreeing to let Phaethon drive the chariot of light for a single day.
As the day begins at the break of dawn, Phaethon’s initial skyward ascent in the sun chariot is all excitement and triumph. Soon sensing that their driver is not their regular master however, the four fiery horses drawing the chariot become restless and uncontrollable. Inexperienced and unable to command them as they become agitated, Phaethon struggles to keep his grip on the reins and prevent the chariot from veering off course.
As he progresses in his journey whilst fighting to steer a steady path, yet further troubles beset him, adding to his fears:
It was at this point that Phaethon lost all control over the sun chariot. The horses then running rampant without a master, the chariot began to deviate wildly from its proper course, causing all manner of chaos.
At first it soared too high, heating up the stars in the high heavens. And then dangerously low, scorching the earth’s fields and forests, creating deserts and drying up rivers. The people around the world also suffered under the extreme burning heat of the sun. With Phaethon no longer master of the chariot but merely a passenger along for the ride, both the heavens and the earth were thrown into upheaval.
Seeing the devastation, the earth goddess Gaia cried out to Zeus – the father of all the gods – for his assistance. Recognizing the need to intervene to prevent further disaster, Zeus took up his mighty thunderbolt, and with careful aim hurled it directly at Phaethon, knocking him from the chariot with a lethal deathblow. A devastating impact which broke the chariot apart and released the horses from the yoke:
With Phaethon's ill-fated journey brought to an end, the world was spared further destruction.
Buried by the river nymphs of Eridanus, Phaethon’s death was deeply mourned by his sisters, the Heliades, who were transformed into poplar trees as they shed amber tears at his passing. Even Helios too was struck by immense grief. The loss of his son having quite an effect upon him:
Deeply disturbed by the death of Phaethon and furious at Zeus for his part in it, Helios was quite intransigent about resuming his regular duty of giving light to the world. Only after much cajoling from the other gods did he finally relent and resume his task, rounding up the horses once more to command the chariot of light.