Born of a virgin in Ethiopia and taunted by his playmates to search the question of his father, he set off across Persia and India to find the palace of the Sun, for his mother had told him that his father was Phoebus, the god
who drove the solar chariot.
“The palace of the Sun stood high on lofty columns, bright with glittering gold and bronze that shone like fire. Gleaming ivory crowned the gables above; the double folding doors were radiant with burnished silver. And the workmanship was more beautiful than the materials.”
Climbing the steep path, Phaëthon arrived beneath the roof. And he discovered Phoebus sitting on an emerald throne, surrounded by the Hours and the Seasons, and by Day, Month, Year, and Century. The bold youngster had to halt at the threshold, his mortal eyes unable to bear the light; but the father gently spoke to him across the hall.
“Why have you come?” the father asked. “What do you seek, O Phaëthon, a son no father need deny?” The lad respectfully replied: “O my father (if thou grantest me the right to use that name)! Phoebus! Light of the entire world!
Grant me a proof, my father, by which all may know me for thy
The great god set his glittering crown aside and bade the boy approach. He gathered him into his arms. Then he promised, sealing the promise with a binding oath, that any proof the lad desired would be granted.
What Phaëthon desired was his father’s chariot, and the right to drive the winged horses for a day. “Such a request,” said the father, “proves my promise to have been rashly made.” He put the boy a little away from him and sought to dissuade him from the demand, “In your ignorance,”
said he, “you are asking for more than can be granted even to the gods. Each of the gods may do as he will, and yet none, save myself, has the power to take his place in my chariot of fire; no, not even Zeus.”
Phoebus reasoned. Phaëthon was adamant. Unable to retract the oath, the father delayed as long as time would allow, but was finally forced to conduct his stubborn son to the prodigious chariot: its axle of gold and the pole of gold, its wheels with golden tires and a ring of silver spokes. The yoke was set with chrysolites and jewels. The Hours were already leading the four horses from their lofty stalls, breathing fire and filled with ambrosial food. They put upon them the clanking bridles; the great animals pawed at the bars. Phoebus anointed Phaëthon’s face with an ointment to protect it against the flames and then placed on his head the radiant crown.
“If, at least, you can obey your father’s warnings,” the divinity advised, “spare the lash and hold tightly to the reins. The horses go fast enough of themselves. And do not follow the straight road directly through the five zones of heaven, but turn off at the fork to the left, the tracks of my wheels you will clearly see.
Furthermore, so that the sky and earth may have equal heat, be careful to go neither too high nor too low; for if you go too high you will burn up the skies, and if you go too low ignite the earth. In the middle is the safest path.
“But hurry! While I am speaking, dewy Night has reached her goal on the western shore. We are summoned. Behold, the dawn is glowing. Boy, may Fortune aid and conduct you better than you can guide yourself. Here, grasp the reins.”
Tethys, the goddess of the sea, had dropped the bars, and the horses, with a jolt, abruptly started; cleaving with their feet the clouds; beating the air with their wings; outrunning all the winds that were rising from the same eastern quarter. Immediately the chariot was so light without its accustomed weight, the car began to rock about like a ship tossing without ballast on the waves. The driver, panic-stricken, forgot the reins, and knew
nothing of the road. Wildly mounting, the team grazed the heights of the sky and startled the remotest constellations. The Great and Little Bear were scorched. The Serpent lying curled about the polar stars grew warm, and with the heat grew dangerously fierce. Bootes took flight, encumbered with his plough. The Scorpion struck with his tail. The chariot, having roared for some time through unknown regions of the air, knocking against the stars, next plunged down crazily to the clouds just above the ground; and the Moon beheld, in amazement, her brother’s horses running below her own. The clouds evaporated. The earth burst into flame. Mountains blazed; cities perished with their walls; nations were reduced to ashes. That was the time the peoples of Ethiopia became black; for the blood was drawn to the surface of their bodies by the heat. Libya became a desert. The Nile fled in terror to the ends of the earth and hid its head, and it is hidden yet.
Mother Earth, shielding her scorched brow with her hand, choking with hot smoke, lifted her great voice and called upon Jove, the father of all things, to save his world. “Look around!” she cried at him. “The heavens are asmoke from pole to pole.
Great Jove, if the sea perish, and the land, and all the realms of the sky, then we are back again in the chaos of the beginning!
Take thought! Take thought for the safety of our universe! Save
from the flames whatever yet remains!”
Jove, the Almighty Father, hastily summoned the gods to witness
that unless some measure were quickly taken all was lost.
Thereupon he hurried to the zenith, took a thunderbolt in his
right hand, and flung it from beside his ear. The car shattered;
the horses, terrified, broke loose; Phaëthon, fire raging in his
hair, descended like a falling star. And the river Po received his
The Naiads of that land consigned his body to a tomb, whereupon
Here Phaëthon lies: in Phoebus’ car he fared,
And though he greatly failed, more greatly dared.