BORNE by luminous pillars, the palace of the sun-god rose lustrous with gold and flame-red rubies. The cornice was of dazzling ivory, and carved in relief on the wide silver doors were legends and miracle tales. To this beautiful place came Phaethon, son of Phoebus, and asked for his father, the sun-god. He dared not approach too closely, but stopped at a little distance, because he could not endure that glittering, burning nearness.
Phoebus, robed in crimson, was seated on his throne adorned with matchless emeralds. To the right and the left of him stood his retinue ranged in appointed order: the Day, the Month, the Year, the Centuries, and the Seasons: young Spring with his fillet of flowers, Summer garlanded with sheaves of yellow grain, wine-stained Autumn, and Winter, whose locks were white as hail. The all-seeing eyes of Phoebus, in the midst of these, soon noticed the youth, who was gazing at the glory about him in silent amazement. “Why did you undertake this journey?” he asked him. “What brings you to the palace of your father, my son?”
“O father,” answered Phaethon, “it is because on earth men are making mock of me and slandering my mother Clymene. They say that I only pretend to be of heavenly origin, and that, in reality, I am the son of a quite ordinary, unknown man. So I have come to beg of you some token which will prove to the world that I am indeed your son.”
He paused, and Phoebus laid aside the beams which circled his head and bade him come close. Then he embraced him tenderly, flinging his arms around him, and said: “Clymene, your mother, told you the truth, my son, and I shall never disown you in the face of the world. But to dispel your doubts forever, ask a gift of me. I swear by the Styx, that river in the underworld upon which all gods take their oath, that your wish shall be granted, no matter what it may be.”
Phaethon barely waited for his father to finish. “Then make my wildest dream come true!” he cried. “For one whole day let me guide the winged chariot of the sun!”
Fear and sorrow shadowed the god’s shining face. Three—four times he shook his radiant head. At last he said: “O son, you beguiled me into speaking rash words. If only I could retract my promise! For you have asked something which is beyond your strength. You are young, you are mortal, but what you crave is granted only to the gods—and not to all of them, for only I am permitted to do what you are so eager to try. Only I can stand on the glowing axle which showers sparks as it moves through the air. My chariot must travel a steep path. It is a difficult climb for the horses even when they are fresh, at dawn. The middle of the course lies at the zenith of the sky. I tell you that I myself am often shaken with dread when, at such a height, I stand upright in my chariot. My head spins when I look down on the lands and seas so far beneath me. And the last stretch of the way descends sharply and requires a sure hand on the reins. Even Thetis, goddess of the sea, who waits to receive me in her smooth waters, is full of alarm lest I be hurled from the sky. And there is still another peril to consider, for you must remember that heaven turns incessantly and that the driving is against the sweep of its vast rotations. Even if I gave you my chariot, how could you overcome such obstacles? No, dear son, do not insist that I keep my word to you, but mend your wish while there is still time. You can read my concern from my face. Could you but look through my eyes into my heart, heavy with a father’s anxiety! Choose anything that earth and heaven have to offer, and by the Styx I swear it shall be yours!—You fling your arms around me? Alas, that it is to ask this dangerous thing!”
The youth pleaded and pleaded, and Phoebus Apollo had, after all, sworn a most sacred oath. So he took his son by the hand and led him to the sun-chariot, the work of Hephaestus. Pole, axle, and the rims of the wheels were of gold, the spokes of silver, and the yoke glittered with chrysolite and other precious stones. While Phaethon was still marvelling at this perfect craftsmanship, Dawn wakened in the east and flung wide the doors to her rosy chamber. The stars faded, last of all the morning star, which lingers longest at his post in the heavens, and the horns of the crescent moon paled on the brightening horizon. Now Phoebus ordered the winged Hours to yoke the horses, and they did as he bade, bringing the shining-flanked animals, sated with ambrosia, out of their splendid stalls, and putting them into the gleaming harness. Then the father salved the face of his son with a magic ointment to enable him to withstand the heat of the flames. He crowned his head with sun-rays, sighing all the while, and said warningly: “Child, spare the goad and use the reins, for the horses will run of themselves, and your labor will lie in slowing their flight. The course slants in a wide and shallow curve. Keep away from both the South and the North poles. You will find the road by the tracks the wheels have left. Do notdrive too slow, lest the earth catch fire, nor too high, lest you burn up the sky. So go now, if you must! Darkness is passing. Take the reins in your hands, or—dear son, there is still time to give up this folly! Leave the chariot to me, and let me shed the light on the world. Be content to watch!”
The boy scarcely heard what his father said. One spring, and he was up in the chariot, exultant at having the reins in his own hands. He only nodded and smiled his thanks to unhappy Phoebus. The four winged horses neighed, and the air kindled with their burning breath. In the meantime Thetis, knowing nothing of her grandchild’s venture, opened wide her portals; the vast spaces of the world lay before Phaethon’s eyes, and the horses bounded up the course and broke through the mists of morning.
But soon they felt that their burden was lighter than usual, and like ships which toss on the ocean when the hold is not heavy with cargo, the chariot reeled and floundered through the air and swerved aimlessly, as though it were empty. When the horses became aware of this, they wheeled from the beaten paths of the sky and jostled each other in savage haste. Phaethon began to tremble. He did not know which way to pull the reins, he did not know where he was, nor could he curb the animals straining from him with headlong speed. When he looked down from the arch of the heavens and saw the land spread out so far below, his cheeks grew pale and his knees shook with terror. He glanced back over his shoulder, and much of the sky lay in his wake; he turned forward, and more loomed ahead. In his mind he measured the vast reaches before and behind, and not knowing what to do he stared into space. His helpless hands neither slackened nor tightened the reins. He wanted to call to the horses but did not know their names. He saw the many constellations strewing the heavens, and his heart numbed with horror at their strange shapes, like those of monsters. Chill with despair he dropped the reins, and instantly the horses shied from their course, leaping sidewise into unfamiliar regions of air. Now they sprang forward, now they plunged down. Now they rushed against the fixed stars, and now they slanted toward earth. They grazed against drifts of cloud, which kindled and began to smoulder. Lower and lower hurtled the chariot until the wheels touched the tall mountains. The earth panted and cracked with heat, the saps were dried out of growing things, and suddenly everything began to flicker. The heather yellowed and drooped. The leaves of the forest trees shrivelled and burst into flame. The fire sped on to the plains and scorched the harvests. Entire cities went up in smoke, and whole countries with all their peoples burned to cinders. Hills were consumed, and woods, and mountains. They say that it was then the skin of the Ethiopians turned black. Rivers ran dry or streamed backwards to regain their sources. The sea itself shrank and narrowed so that what its waters had only lately covered was now nothing but dry sand.
The world was afire, and Phaethon began to suffer from the intolerable heat. Every breath he drew seemed to come from a seething furnace, and the chariot seared the soles of his feet. He was tortured with fumes and blasts of ashes cast up by the burning earth. Smoke black as pitch surged around him, while the horses jounced and tossed him hither and thither. And then his hair caught fire. He fell from the chariot and whirled through space like a shooting star, such as sometimes trails its brightness through the clear sky. Far from his home the broad river Eridanus received him and closed over his throbbing limbs.
His father, the sun-god, who had witnessed this sight of destruction, veiled his radiant head and brooded in sorrow. It is said that this day brought no light to the world. Only the great conflagration shone far and wide.