Dad, Can I Borrow Your Car?
Icarus was not the only young man of myth whose towering ambition led to a tragic end. Phaëthon, too, soared high—only to be brought crashing down to Earth. Unlike the fall of Icarus, however, the fall of Phaëthon nearly destroyed the entire planet.
Son of the Sun
Clymene, an Oceanid married to King Merops of Egypt, gave birth to a son, Phaëthon. Yet she insisted the boy's father was not her husband, but Helius, the god of the sun. Though he had never even met Helius, Phaëthon, a proud young man, never doubted his mother's tale—and boasted of his parentage to any who would listen.
What a Life!
The sisters of Phaëthon followed Clymene as she wandered the earth searching for her son's body. When they found his bones on the banks of a foreign river, Clymene collapsed with sorrow and her daughters stood on the spot weeping for four months. Rooted to the ground where they stood, the girls were transformed into poplar trees and their tears into amber jewels.
One day, a friend accused Phaëthon of foolishness for believing his mother's fairy tale about his father. Stung by this insult, Phaëthon ran to his mother, demanding some proof of his parentage. Clymene swore that she had told the truth and advised her son to silence these new doubts by going to the royal palace of the sun and asking his father directly. Phaëthon traveled to the far east, whence his father set out in his chariot every morning. Helius, the all-seeing, called out to his son as he approached. When Phaëthon asked if the sun god was truly his father, Helius embraced the boy and assured him that his mother had spoken the truth.
Although reassured, Phaëthon still wanted proof that he could show to those on Earth who doubted his parentage. So Helius swore by Styx (a name that no god invoked lightly) to grant him any boon he might want.
No sooner had this oath been spoken than Phaëthon asked his father for permission to drive the chariot of the sun. Helius tried desperately to dissuade his son. He warned that none of the other gods and goddesses of Olympus—not even Zeus—had the power to control the winged horses that pulled the chariot of the sun. But Phaëthon would not listen to reason. He wanted nothing except to drive the golden chariot. Reluctantly, Helius honored his oath.
Hold Your Horses
Phaëthon climbed into the chariot and picked up the reins. The four magnificent horses, feeling a lighter, more uncertain hand at the reins, shot up into the sky. Phaëthon, soaring much too high, almost immediately panicked. Scared out of his wits, the boy dropped the reins. The horses, free to run their own course, first bolted too high and then plunged down toward the earth. The scorching heat of the sun dried up rivers, burned mountains and trees, and destroyed cities. The intensity of the heat also reportedly darkened the skins of equatorial peoples. Phaëthon saw the earth burning, but could do nothing to stop it. The Earth petitioned Zeus to end this miserable suffering, which threatened not only her, but also his brother Poseidon's oceans and Zeus's own skies. After calling together Helius and all the gods and goddesses to explain that the runaway chariot would destroy everything if he did not stop it, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt down upon the chariot, killing Phaëthon instantly. The horses broke free from the chariot as the burning Phaëthon, trailing fire like a shooting star, fell from the heavens.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.