The Phaethon Myth – Hubris & Catastrophe

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:

1. The "Metamorphoses." A narrative poem in 15 books by the Roman poet Ovid written in Latin around 8 AD.

2. The "Library." A compendium of myths and heroic legends arranged in three books by an unknown author known as Pseudo-Apollodorus.

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 Story of Phaethon

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:

The Sun, dressed in a purple robe, was sitting on a throne bright with shining emeralds. On his right hand and on his left stood Day, Month, Year, the Generations and the Hours, all ranged at equal intervals. Young Spring was there, his head encircled with a flowery garland, and Summer, lightly clad, crowned with a wreath of corn ears; Autumn too, stained purple with treading out the vintage, and icy Winter, with white and shaggy locks.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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.

Phaethon Helios Oath

Phaethon Commands the Sun Chariot

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:

He now perceived the monstrous beasts of huge size, which lay scattered over the spangled face of heaven. There is a certain place where the scorpion stretches out his pincers in two hollow arcs, and with his tail and curving claws outspread on either side sprawls over two signs of the zodiac. When the boy saw him, exuding his baneful poison, and menacing him with his curved sting, he was so completely unnerved and numb with fear that he dropped the reins. They fell from his hands, and lay loose on the horses’ backs. At once, the team galloped away, out of their course.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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.

Phaethon’s Fall

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:

The fragments of the wrecked car were scattered far and wide. But Phaethon, with flames searing his glowing locks, was flung headlong, and went hurtling down through the air, leaving a long trail behind: just as sometimes a star, though it does not really fall, could yet be thought to fall from the clear sky. Far from his native land, in a distant part of the world, the great river Eridanus received him, and bathed his charred features.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses

With Phaethon's ill-fated journey brought to an end, the world was spared further destruction.

Phaethon's Fall

Mourning Phaethon’s Death

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:

Phaethon’s unhappy Father, sick with sorrow, had veiled his face, and hidden it from sight. If we can believe it, they say that one day passed without the appearance of the Sun: the burning fires gave light, so that the disaster served some useful purpose.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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.

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