Phaethon's father was the Sun. Once, when he was talking big and boasting of his father Phoebus, a friend of his could endure it no longer and told him: 'You're a fool who believes everything your mother tells you. You are swollen-headed because you imagine Phoebus is your father, when really he isn't your father at all.'
Phaethon's face grew red with anger, but a feeling of shame prevented him from doing anything. He went to his mother Clymene and told her how he had been insulted. 'What will grieve you all the more, mother,' he said, 'is that I, with my fierce noble nature, had to hold my tongue. What a shame it is that such things could be said and yet could not be proved wrong. But you, if I really am sprung from the blood of the gods, give me a sign of my great birth, give me my place in heaven.' Then he threw his arms around his mother's neck and begged her for his sake and for the sake of Merops, her husband, and of the future happiness of his sisters, to give him a proof that Phoebus really was their father. As for Clymene, it would be hard to say whether she was moved more by Phaethon's appeal or by the anger she felt at the insult to herself. She raised up her arms to the sky and, looking towards the light of the sun, said: 'By that star that flames there with quivering rays, the sun that hears us now and looks down on us, I swear to you, my child, that he, the lord of the world, the Sun, is your father. If what I say is false, then let him withdraw himself from my sight, and let this be the last time that my eyes behold him. But it is not difficult for you to find your father's house. His dwelling place is on the fringes of our land, at the sunrise. If you are brave enough, go there and he will own you to be his.'
As soon as his mother had said this, Phaethon leapt gladly to his feet, his mind brimful of heaven. He went through the country of the Ethiopians, whom he regarded as belonging to him, and the Indians who dwell beneath fiery constellations. Resolutely he approached the land from which his father arose.
There stood the palace of the Sun, lofty, with its soaring columns, bright with dazzling gold and metal work that shone as though it were on fire. Its high roof was overlaid with gleaming ivory and the light of silver radiated from its wide-flung double doors. More wonderful than all this was what art had done; for here Vulcan had made reliefs of the waters girdling the earth, of the whole world and of heaven above. In the water were the sea-blue gods, vocal Triton and Proteus, who changes his shape, and Aegaeon rising from the waves, pressing down with his elbows the enormous backs of whales. There too were Doris and her daughters. Some seemed to be swimming; others, sitting on a breakwater, were drying their sea-green hair; others were riding on fishes. Their faces were not all alike, nor yet entirely different, but just as sisters should look. On the earth were men and cities, forests and wild beasts, rivers and nymphs and all the other country gods. And above all this was a model of the shining sky. Six signs of the zodiac were on the right-hand door, and six on the left.
Now when Clymene's son had come up the steep path and entered the dwelling of the Sun, he turned his steps straight towards his father's face, but halted while still far off, for he could not bear to approach the light any nearer. Wearing a purple robe, Phoebus was sitting on a throne that shone bright with emeralds. To his left and right were the gods of the Day, the Month and the Year, and the Centuries; and the Hours were there too, standing side by side with the same interval between each of them. Spring was there with a crown of flowers, and naked Summer, with ears of corn twined into garlands; Autumn too, all stained with the trodden grapes, and icy Winter with bristly white hair. In the centre the Sun himself with those eyes that see everything saw the young man standing abashed by the wonder of it all, and said: 'Phaethon, my son whom I am glad to own, why have you made this journey? What have you come to seek from this my citadel?
And Phaethon replied: 'O general light of all the world, Phoebus, my father, if you permit me to call you father and if Clymene is guiltless when she calls you her husband then, sir, give me some sure sign so that I may be recognised as truly your son, and that I may no longer feel any misgivings over it.'
He spoke and his father laid aside the fiery rays that shone dazzling round his head. He bade Phaethon approach nearer and kissed him. 'It was a true son of mine,' he said, 'that Clymene bore, and you yourself deserve to be aknowledged by me. And to remove all your doubt, ask for any gift you like. I will give it to you, and you shall take it. This I swear by the lake below, the lake of Styx that our eyes have never seen, an oath binding amongst our gods.'
Hardly had he finished speaking when Phaethon demanded his father's chariot, and that he might be allowed for one day to drive his winged horses.
Phoebus repented of his oath. Thrice and four times he smote his gleaming forehead. 'Rash, indeed,' he said, 'were the words I sopke and which you have seized upon. I wish that we were not allowed to make such promises. Child, I admit to you that this was the one thing I should deny you. I may still try to dissuade you. What you desire is dangerous. You are asking for something big, Phaethon, something which is too much for the strength you have and for your tender years. Your fate is that of a mortal; yet you are begging for power that belongs to gods. Indeed you go further and are ignorantly aiming at something which is beyond the reach of the gods themselves. Much as others might like it, there is none but I who can ride that fiery car. Even the ruler of huge Olympus, he who rains thunderbolts from his right hand, even he will not guide this chariot. And what is mightier than Jove?
'The first part of the road is steep and the horses, though they are fresh in the early dawn can hardly make the ascent. The middle of the course is in the topmost height of heaven. I myself might well fear, my heart might well flutter in my breast as I look down from that height on sea and land. The last part of the way is down-hill, and demands a sure hand on the reins. There the goddess of the sea, Tethys herself, into whose outspread waves I sink, often fears lest I may be hurled into them headlong. Remember too, that the sky itself turns in a continual revolution, whirling the constellations with it round and round in its rapid course. I struggle against it and this force, which governs all else, does not govern me; my swift track cuts across. Now suppose I gave you the chariot. What would you do? Could you steer a course against the rolling poles to prevent the motion of the sky from carrying you off your proper way? Perhaps you imagine that in those parts there are sacred groves, cities of the gods, shrines rich in gifts. Actually the road is beset with traps and runs between the shapes of beasts. Even if you keep in the right path and are not led astray, you will now have to go straight between the horns of the Bull, past the Archer's bow and the Lion's savage jaws, past the Scorpian on the one side and the Crab on the other, each stretching wide the cruel pincers of his claws. And it is no easy matter to control those horses, spirited as they are with the flames that burn in their hearts and which they breathe from their mouths and nostrils. Even I can only just make them obey me when their fierce spirits have grown hot, and they toss back the reins from their necks. Child, let me not give you a gift that will bring ruin upon you. Be sensible, now that you have a chance, and ask me for something else. It is a sure sign that you want? I give you a sure sign by this fear that I feel for you, and I prove myself to be your father by showing a father's solicitude for his son. I wish that you could look into my heart and see there all the anxiety that your father feels. Now look round on all the riches that the world contains, and from all the good things of earth and sky and sea ask something for yourself. It will not be refused to you. It is only this one thing that I am unwilling to give, and it is a thing that is more likely to hurt than honour you. You are asking me to hurt you, Phaethon, not to help you. Poor innocent, why do you put your arms round my neck to coax me? Have no fear; whatever you desire will be granted (have I not sworn by the waters of Styx?). But, I beg you, be more sensible about what you want.'
He had said what he could to restrain the boy, but Phaethon refused to listen, and, burning with desire for the chariot, pressed on with his demands. So his father, when he had delayed as long as he might, led the young man to the lofty chariot, the work of the Vulcan. The axle was made of gold, and the pole was made of gold; the rims of the wheels were golden, and the spokes radiated out in silver. Chrysolites and jewels shone in rows along the yoke, and shimmered with the light they got from Phoebus.
With swelling heart Phaethon stood staring at it all and examining the workmanship. Then, while he was so occupied, suddenly in the glowing dawn Aurora woke, and threw wide the purple doors opening on to her halls that are full of roses. The stars scattered and Lucifer, who keeps his station longest, followed in the rear of their retreating ranks. When he saw Lucifer on his way to the earth and the world beginning to blush red, and the tips of the moon's horns as it were fading away, then the Titan ordered the swift Hours to yoke his horses to the chariot. Quickly the goddesses did as they were told. They brought out from their lofty stables the fire-breathing horses, fed on juices of ambrosia, and they laid over their necks the jingling reins. Then Phoebus put some magic ointment on his son's face, so that he could endure the rushing flame, and on his head he placed the crown of rays. He sighed, for he felt a foretasts of the sorrow that was coming, and it was with great anxiety that he spoke: 'My dear boy, try to listen at least to what I am going to say now. Keep a firm hand on the reins, and don't use the whip. The horses go fast enough of their own accord. The difficulty is to hold them in. And don't go straight through all the five zones of heaven. The track curves across, running only through three of them, avoiding both the south pole and the bitter winds of the north. This is you way, and you will see clearly the marks of my wheels in the sky. Then, so that both heaven and earth may have the right amount of heat, you must neither drive too low down, nor make the chariot climb to the top of the sky. If you go too high you will set the houses of the gods on fire, if too low, you will burn up the earth. The safest way is between the two. Don't go too far to the right in the direction of the writhing Snake, or too far to the left in the direction of the constellation Altar, but keep straight between them. The rest I must leave to Fortune, and I pray that she will look after you better than you have looked after yourself. But, while I have been speaking, damp night has reached her boundary on the western sky-line. We can wait no longer. My presence is required; darkness is scattered and the dawn is shining. Grasp the reins in your hand, or, if only you will change your mind, take my advice and not my chariot. While there is still time, and you are still standing on solid ground, not yet swept away by the chariot you have so foolishly begged for, allow me to give light to the earth, so that you can watch me and be safe.'
Phaethon swung his young limbs into the airy chariot, took his stance and felt a thrill of joy as he fingered the light reins. Then he thanked his father for the favour that he had granted so unwillingly. Meanwhile, the four winged horses of the Sun, Fire, Dawn, Brillian and Flamer were filling the air with their whinnying, fiery breath, and pawing impatiently against their barriers. Tethys, who knew nothing of her grandson's fate, swung back the gates, and gave them the freedom of the immeasurable sky, and they plunged out into the road and, cleaving the air with their feet, split through the clouds before them, passing by on their soaring wings the winds of the east that rose with them. But the weight of the chariot was light, too light for the horses of the sun to feel. The yoke did not have its usual weight on their backs; and, like curved ships that are underloaded roll and go unsteadily through the sea because of insufficient ballast, so the chariot without its usual freight swung about in the air, tossing up and down as though it were empty. The four horses, as soon as they realised this, got out of hand, left the well worn track and set off in a different course. Phaethon grew frightened. He did not know how to handle the reins which he held, nor where the proper road was, nor, even if he did know, could he steer the horses into it. Then the cold stars of the north felt for the first time the heat of the sun's rays and tried in vain to plunge into the forbidden sea. But when poor Phaethon looked down from the height of heaven on the lands lying far, far, beneath him, he grew pale and suddenly his knees began to tremble in panic. Through all that light a mist rose before his eyes. Now he would give anything never to have touched his father's horses. He wished that he had never known whose son he was, and never had his prayer answered. He is willing enough now to be called the son of Clymene's mortal husband, now that he is carried along like a ship in a hurricane, when the helmsman has dropped the rudder and can do nothing but pray. What is he to do? Much of the sky is behind him, but much more is in front. He measures both distances with his eyes, looking now towards the region of the dawn. Not knowing what to do, he stands there stupefied, without letting go of the reins, yet without the strength to hold them properly. He does not even know the horses' names. He sees too, scattered over the coloured heaven, strange wonders, and stares in terror at the shapes of huge beasts. There is one place where the Scorpion stretches out the pincers of his two claws; with crooked arms and tail his shape extends over two of the zodiac's signs. When the boy saw him covered with black poisonous sweat he thought he was going to sting him with his menacing curled tail. He grew cold with fear, lost all control, and dropped the reins. As soon as the horses felt them lying loose along their backs, they rushed off headlong. With no one to hold them in, they went through the unknown regions of the air, and wherever their fury carried them, there they rushed un-checked. In the height of heaven they run among the fixed stars, tearing the chariot along through trackless ways, now climbing high into the air, now hurtling headlong again towards the earth. The Moon saw with amazement her brother's horses running below her own. The clouds caught on fire and smoked. The mountain tops broke into flame, and the earth, with all the moisture dried out of it, split into great cracks. The grass turned white in the heat; trees with all their leaves burnt up, and the crops took fire all the more easily because they were ripe. Worse still, great walled cities were destroyed. The flames burnt whole nations to cinders. The forests and the mountains were on fire. Athos was blazing and Cicilian Taurus and Tmolus, and Oeta, and Ida with its many fountains dry at last. Helicon, where the maidan muses go, and Haemus was ablaze; the fires of Etna roared into the sky with twice their usual strength. The two peaks of Parnassus, Eryx, Cynthius and Othrys were blazing; now at last Rhodope must lose her snow; Mimas, Dyndyma, Mycale, and religious Cithaeron all burn. Arctic weather does not protect the Scythians. Caucasus blazes with Ossa and Pindus and Olympus, greater than both, the airy Alps and cloud-rolling Apennines.
Wherever he looked Phaethon saw the world on fire. He could no longer support the heat. The air he breathed was like a blast from the depths of a furnace. He felt the chariot grow white-hot beneath his feet; he could not hold his head up against the cinders and flying sparks; hot smoke rolled all round him, and this pitchy shroud prevented him from knowing where he was or whither he was going, dragged along at the sweet will of the flying horses. It was at this time that Libya was drained of moisture and this was the origin of the Sahara desert. The nymphs let their hair flow loose and wept for thier fountains and their pools. Rivers are lucky enough to have banks wide apart, yet this did not preserve them. Stream rose from the middle of the Don's stream. Babylonian Euphrates is aflame and Orontes and rushing Thermodon; Ganges, Phasis and Danube; Alpeus boils; the banks of Sperchius are blazing; the gold that the river Tagus carries in its sand is liquefied by the flames. The swans that live in the Cayster, and used to sing in throngs along the banks, are scorched in mid-stream. The Nile fled in terror to the end of the world, and even now no one has discovered where it hid its source. Its seven mouths lay empty and filled with dust, seven channels and no water in any of them. The same thing happened to the rivers of Thrace, the Hebrus and the Strymon and to the streams of the west, the Rhine, the Rhone and the Po, and that river which was to have the mastery of the world, the Tiber.
The whole earth split into fissures and through the cracks light pierced down into Hades to frighten the king and queen of the dead. The sea shrivelled up so that what had once been an ocean became a plain of dry sand; and now th islands had their number enlarged by the appearance of mountains which previously had lain deep down beneath the water. Fish went for the bottom and the arched dolphins no longer dared to leap up into the air as they used to do. Dead bodies of seals, belly up, floated on the surface. The story goes that Nereus himself and Doris with her daughters, hiding in the caves of the deep sea could not even then keep cool. And Neptune, looking furious, three times raised his arms out of the ocean, and each time was unable to stand the friery atmosphere.
But Mother Earth, who was surrounded by sea, between the waters of ocean and her own streams, which had shrunk and run for hiding into the dark recesses of her body, raised her stifled face, scorched through she was. As she drew her hand across her forehead the earth quaked and settled down lower than it was before. Then the hold mother spoke: 'King of Heaven, if this is what you will and what I have deserved, then why is your lightning idle? If I must die by fire, then let it be by the fire you throw. Death would be more bearable if I knew that it was from you that it came. As it is I can scarcely open my mouth to say what I'm saying' (for the smoke was choking her). 'See how my hair is singed and how the sparks are pouring into my eyes and over my lips! Is it for this that I am fertile and hardworking, that I bear the furrowing of curved ploughs and the scraping of hoes, and am hacked about all the year round; that I provide good nourishing fodder for cattle, corn for the race of men, and frankincense for you? Even supposing that I deserve to be destroyed, what harm has the sea done, or your brother Neptune? Why are the waters that he won by lot shrinking away and sinking ever lower from the sky? And is you cannot feel for me or for your brother, then at least have pity on heaven, which belongs to you. Look around you. Smoke is pouring from each of the two poles. If once the fire eats well into them, your own palace will collapse. Look at Atlas and see what trouble he is in. He can only just carry on his shoulders the white-hot firmament. If sea and earth and the kingdom of heaven perish, we shall fall back again into original chaos. O snatch away what is still left from the flames, and save the universe!'
So the earth spoke, and then, since she could bear the heat no longer and could say no more, she sank into herself and into the caverns nearest to the ghosts below.
Then the Almighty Father called all the gods to witness, and particularly him who had given Phaethon the chariot, that, unless he acted, the whole world would perish miserably. He climbed up high to the top of heaven, to the place where he goes when he spreads clouds over the world, or stirs up the thunder, or shakes out lightning through the air. But then he had no clouds to spread and no rain to let fall from heaven. He thundered, and balanced a thunderbolt in his hand; then, letting it fly from beside his right ear, he shot it at Phaethon and hurled him out of the chariot and out of life as well, quenching with his own raging fire the fire that Phaethon had kindled. The horses panicked and sprang apart from each other, tearing their necks from beneath the yoke and leaving the reins snapped in mid-air. The harness, the axle with the pole torn from it, spokes of the broken wheels, and various fragments of the shattered chariot he scattered far and wide.
As for Phaethon, flame raged through his red hair. Over and over he fell headlong in his long descent from heaven, like a shooting star, which, though it never actually reaches the earth, looks as though it is going to do so. He fell into the river Eridanus far from his native land, in a completely different quarter of the globe, and the river water washed over his smoking face. The Nymphs of Hesperia took the body still smoking from the forked flame, and buried it. On the tombstone they wrote this verse:
Phaethon rode the sun, and here's his tomb.
His daring was the reason for his doom.