According to Greek mythology, Phaethon was the son of Helios, the sun god. He received permission to drive the chariot that carried the sun across the sky. But he was too young to manage the horses, and he came too close to the earth. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt to save the world from fire.

Phaethon’s mother was the nymph* Clymene. When Clymene married Merops, the king of Egypt, Phaethon discovered that Helios was his real father. Seeking his father, Phaethon arrived at Helios’s palace in the east just as the sun was rising. Delighted by the visit, Helios told the boy that he would grant him any wish. Phaethon replied that he wanted to drive the sun-chariot across the sky for one day. Although surprised by the request, Helios granted it.

After the four strong horses were attached to the chariot, Helios instructed his son and presented him with the reins. Once in the sky, however, Phaethon was too small to control the horses. They galloped out of control across the sky, leaving a fiery streak that became the Milky Way. According to the myth, the horses then approached the earth, causing a drought and blackening the skins of the people of Africa.

When Zeus saw how much destruction Phaethon was causing, he struck him with a thunderbolt that knocked him out of the chariot. His flaming body fell into the Eridanus River (present-day Po River). His sisters, who were nymphs, stood on the banks of the river and wept in sorrow for their loss. They turned into poplar trees, which are still common along the banks of the Po River. According to some versions of the myth, Zeus then flooded the earth to cool it after Phaethon’s fiery ride. The Roman poet Ovid told a version of the story in the Metamorphoses. (See also Divinities; Metamorphoses; Myths, Greek.)

* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature

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