The myth of Phaethon is much more than just the story of a foolhardy young man trying to win the respect of his peers.
According to mythologist Robert Graves, this tragic tale is just another way of explaining the archaic practice of sacrificing a royal prince on the day following the winter solstice.
To understand what this means and how it relates to the tale of Phaethon one must be familiar with the ancient custom of offering the life of the sacred king for the good of the community.
Have you ever heard the expression "The King is Dead, Long Live the King?" This personifies the primordial thought that through the ritualistic death of the old king, a new young replacement would be born. It would ensure both plentiful crops and prosperous living for the coming year.
Now, think of this in terms of the phases of the sun. The ancients divided the year into two parts; the light part of the year which began one day after the winter solstice and the dark part of the year which began one day after the summer solstice. Because the hours of daylight gradually increased after the winter solstice it was thought that the "old sun" had passed away and a fresh new sun had been born.
For six months this glorious new sun would journey through the heavens, growing stronger and stronger until midsummer when the earth would experience its longest day. With each passing day the sun would become weaker in strength and the hours of daylight would slowly become shorter and shorter, until finally once again at the winter solstice he would be reborn.
So how does this relate to the story of Helios, Phaethon and the Surrogate King? Mr. Graves tells us that Phaethon was really just another name for Helios himself, thus making the sun god and the headstrong youth one in the same. To appreciate why this is significant we once again have to turn our attention back to the sacred king and his need for a surrogate.
Like the sun, the reign of the sacred king began twenty four hours after the winter solstice and continued on for the next twelve months. Unfortunately, just as the earth's days grew shorter so did his own, for on the day after the solstice his life would be ceremonially taken by a royal prince chosen to become his successor. Hence the expression "The King is Dead, Long Live the King!"
Because the sacred king was in no hurry to climb aboard Charon's ferry, a plan was devised that would both appease the gods and allow him to live on for many years to come. All that was needed was a surrogate king, someone who would step in and take his place at the time of the sacrifice.
On the night of the winter solstice, just as the sun was about to set the sacred king would stage a mock death and go into hiding. At this time the prince was brought in and presented to the queen who he immediately took for his wife. He was then gifted with all of the sacred king's honors and noble titles and for one night the young man lived as the king himself.
Sadly for the prince, this moment of good fortune was only temporary, for on the morrow he would fulfill the destiny of the sacred king and be put to death.
Once the blood of the surrogate had been spilled, the old king would come out of hiding and in the guise of the new king reclaim his right to the throne. Like the sun up in the sky he too had been reborn.
In Thrace the surrogate was torn apart by a mob of crazed women dressed as horses. This practice was commonly attributed to the female attendants of Dionysus and was known as a Maenadic frenzy. You can learn more about this by reading my page dedicated to Dionysus .
In Corinth as well as many other places it was customary for the prince to be attached to the back of an imitation sun chariot and dragged through the streets until he was crushed to death.
The myth of Phaethon mirrors the sacrifice of the surrogate king very well. Helios represents both the old sacred king as well as his would be successor. Each had their time to reign, one giving way to the other and both working together to recreate the natural cycle of the universe.
As with most mythological stories, the tale of Phaethon contains quite a few conflicting details. Let us start with the Heliades and their transformation atop the river bank. It is generally believed that these daughters of Helios were changed into poplar trees, though it has also been written that they took on the shape of an alder thicket.
As trees, the grieving sisters were said to have stood along the Eridanus River weeping tears of amber into the water beneath them. Though it is true that poplar trees are usually found growing near ponds and river banks it is impossible for their sap to have been hardened into amber.
Though amber is actually a fossilized tree resin formed during prehistoric times, the fact that is was used to describe the tears of the Heliades illustrates the age-old connection between amber and tree sap.
You have to look a little further into the ancient world to see why amber would be chosen to represent the tears of the Heliades. At that time amber was associated with many of the things that make up the story of Phaethon.
The sun, Apollo (another form of Helios), funerals and mourning over the death of young people were all closely connected to amber. The god Apollo was said to have cried tears of amber over the death of his son Asclepius
The Eridanus River is shrouded in an aura of mystery. Even in ancient times it could not be agreed upon whether the river truly flowed upon the earth or existed only in the realm of myth. Eridanus was one of the many children of the goddess Tethys and her husband Oceanus, a tremendous river that wrapped itself around the entire world.
One account describes Eridanus as flowing around the circumference of the earth until finally joining into Oceanus at the point of the winter solstice. I believe at that time this point would have been located at the first degree of the constellation Capricorn. This position is subject to change due to the precession of the equinoxes, but that is a topic for another day.
References to the Eridanus River are quite common throughout the tales of the Greeks. As Jason sailed the Argos down the Eridanus on his quest for the golden fleece, he and the Argonauts encountered a malicious steam drifting up from the river's bottom. So toxic was this vapor that it brought instant death to any unlucky birds attempting to fly overhead.
It is also found in the famous story of Heracles and his twelve labours. It seems that while searching for the Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles became lost and stopped to ask directions of the cave nymphs found living along the Eridanus. These nymphs were the daughters of Zeus and Themis, the titan goddess of divine law and one of the god's earliest wives.
In Greek mythology the goddess Themis, black poplar trees and the winter solstice all have ties to the Eridanus River. Zeus and Themis were thought to have made their home at the previously mentioned point of the winter solstice. Although many of these details seem to follow an esoteric train of thought, it seems quite safe to say that they all lead us back to the sacred king and his surrogate.
Even the Roman poet Virgil mentions the Eridanus in one of his narratives, stating that it was one of the many rivers that flowed through the underworld.
Though I have chosen to use the Eridanus River in my story of Phaethon, there are other versions that state it was the Po River that actually claimed the body of the falling youth. There are a few reasons for this, all of them stemming from the Heliades and the tears of amber that were shed over the loss of their brother. The Po is the largest and most important river in Italy. It flows eastward across Northern Italy until finally emptying into the Adriatic Sea.
Almost twice the size of the Tiber, the Po earned Virgil's admiration and was deemed by him as being The King of Rivers. The Amber Islands (islands of the North Sea) were located very close to the Po, adding credence to the reports of amber being plentiful along its banks. This is important because long ago an ancient trade route known as the Amber Trail ran from the Baltic Sea down into Northern Italy.
Because the Po was located near the end of the Amber Trail, Hesiod believed it was in fact the Eridanus River. Although the Greek writings describe the Eridanus as being rich with amber and place its location in Northern Europe, there are some who say that the enigmatic river never existed at all.
The Greek writer Strabo loudly proclaimed that the Eridanus never existed anywhere on the earth. True as this may be we also have to take into account that Strabo also denied the existance of the Amber Islands, a declaration that we know is not accurate.
Strabo was not alone in this thoughts. Both Pliny the Elder and Herodotus refused to accept the ancient stories of the Eridanus as fact. So where exactly was the Eridanus River? Was it another name for the Po River in Italy? Could it have been the Rhone River in France? Did it ever exist at all?
Mythologist Edith Hamilton writes in her story of Phaethon "No mortal has ever laid eyes upon the Eridanus." I am inclined to believe otherwise. What do you think?
Medea's Lair Of Greek Mythology © 1999-2016.