Tales of Phaethon


In later versions of this story Helios was replaced with the god Apollo

HeliosHigh above the eastern skies, veiled in a mantle of pink and white clouds stood a palace of golden splendor. It is there, behind those glorious gilded walls that the sun god Helios made his home. Early each morning as the earth lay sleeping under the thick canopy of night, Helios yoked his magical steeds of white to the sun chariot and set off to wake the world from its slumber.

One day as Helios made his way across the heavens he caught a glimpse of Clymene, the daughter of Oceanus walking along the shore. So lovely was she that the god found himself instantly captivated by her beauty.

Though Clymene was already the wife of King Merops of Ethiopia she could not resist the god's affections and before long found herself to be with child.

Clymene and Helios had many children together; a varying number of daughters known as the Heliades and one son whose name was Phaethon. Although Phaethon was raised by his stepfather Merops, he made it a point to tell everyone that his true father was a god.

One day as Phaethon was boasting of his divine lineage to a group of his peers, Epaphus, the son of Zeus and Io questioned the validity of his claims. Angry and humiliated, Phaethon confronted his mother and accused her of filling his mind with fantastic stories. Clymene shook her head and told him that if he doubted her word he should go ask Helios himself.

So Phaethon began his long journey to the east. He traveled over the lands of Ethiopia and India, farther and farther until he finally reached the palace of the sun. Swiftly he climbed the winding stairs and entered into an ornate foyer. Once over the threshold Phaethon could not believe his eyes.

The floors were tiled with squares of gold and precious gems of every shape and size adorned the walls. The radiance of the room was almost to much for the youth to bear. Feeling the need for a breath of fresh air, Phaethon turned to leave but before he could move a powerful voice called out and beckoned him to come forward.

Helios and PhaethonSlowly the reverent youth entered into the main hall where he found Helios sitting upon a magnificent throne elaborately decorated with jewels. Immediately recognizing the boy as his son, the god welcomed Phaethon whole heartedly to his abode. After making sure he was refreshed and comfortable Helios then inquired as to the meaning of his visit. Phaethon explained that because no one believed he was truly the sun god's child, he had come seeking proof of his paternity.

Helios laughed and swore an oath to the River Styx that in order to put an end to the speculation he would grant Phaethon any wish that he desired. Without a moment of hesitation Phaethon declared that he wanted to drive the sun chariot. Helios was astounded at the request! He knew it was impossible for anyone but himself to survive the long and dangerous path through the heavens.

There were countless obstacles and fearsome monsters to encounter along the way and the steeds were strong and wild at heart. The god pleaded with Phaethon to change his mind and choose something else but the stubborn youth would not hear of it. Bound to the sacred oath that he had sworn, Helios was regretfully forced to keep his promise. He had no other choice but to grant Phaethon his wish.

The Heliades led the regal horses from their shelter and carefully hitched them to the chariot. After Phaethon climbed aboard Helios placed his hand upon his son's shoulder and reminded him to keep a firm grasp on the reins and most importantly never to leave the path. Being ever so eager to get started Phaethon hardly gave his father's words a second thought and anxiously took to the sky.

Falling PhaethonPhaethon took charge of the chariot and carefully started to follow his father's route. Unfortunately for him it was not long before the high-spirited steeds felt the unsteadiness of his hands and knew it was someone other than the god who was guiding them. In a wild frenzy they soared high above the earth causing all that lived upon it to shiver in the bitter cold.

The sun rocked so violently in its chamber that flames spilled over the side and singed the face of the Milky Way. Phaethon tried to steady the reins but the horses abruptly changed their course and frantically pulled the chariot down towards the earth. Faster and faster the chariot descended from the heavens, burning everything in its wake.

The once cool and flowing streams were left dry and barren. Mother Earth's green fields were all set ablaze and the fertile lands of Africa were transformed into desert sands. Gaia pleaded with Zeus to step in before all living things were lost in the carnage.

Swiftly the god pulled one of his mighty thunderbolts from its pouch and hurled it directly at Phaethon. Instantly the youth was killed and his flaming body plunged head first into the Eridanus River.

The Heliades were so filled with sorrow that they wept uncontrollably at the river's edge until the gods mercifully transformed them into a line of poplar trees and their tears into bits of amber. It is said that when Jason and the Argonauts sailed up the Eridanus in search of the golden fleece, they found the steam rising from the river to be so toxic that it brought death to the birds flying overhead.


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