"Shining." That is, "the shining," occurs in Homer1 as an epithet or surname of Helios, and is used by later writers as a real proper name for Helios;2 but it is more commonly known as the name of son of Helios by the Oceanid Clymene, the wife of Merops. The genealogy of Phaethon, however, is not the same in all writers, for some call him a son of Clymenus, the son of Helios, by Merope,3 or a son of Helios by Prote,4 or, lastly, a son of Helios by the nymph Rhode or Rhodos.5
Unaware of who his father is, Phaethon entreats his mother to reveal to him some sign of his parentage. Clymene relents and tells him that he is a child of the Sun. In his youthful exuberance he immediately travels east to meet his father. He arrives at Helios' palace and asks the sun god for proof that would identify him as his son. Helios swears by the Styx that he will grant his son anything he desires. Phaeton's only wish is to guide the chariot of the sun across the heavens for one day and Helios, however reluctant, is bound by his oath. Four times he tries to dissuade his son but Phaeton is adamant.
Receiving final instructions from his father, Phaeton takes possession of the chariot and grabs the reins. The horses rush out of the gate but the weight is lighter than before and also the yoke is free of its accustomed load. The chariot leaps into the air and rushes into the heights, but soon the horses run wild and leave their preordained course. Phaeton is terrified, unable to control the horses and in panic drops the reins.
Without even the slightest guidance, the horses now run lawlessly, rushing closer and closer to the earth. Then, the earth is set on fire, the highest regions first, and many rivers and lakes dry up. Meadows turn white, trees burst into flames, cities are destroyed, and whole nations with all their people are reduced to ashes. The sun scorches the Ethiopians, turning their skins black.
The earth, unable to tolerate the heat any longer, pleads with Zeus to intervene. Even Atlas suffers and can barely hold up the white-hot sky on his shoulders. Zeus climbs to the highest summit of heaven and hurls his lightning bolts at Phaeton, knocking him from the sun chariot. The confused horses lurch in different directions, throwing off the broken yoke and harness, and the fire of the chariot is extinguished.
Phaeton, flames ravaging his body, is hurled headlong, leaving a long trail in the air. The river god Eridanus takes him from the air and bathes his smoke-blackened face. The nymphs consign his still-smoking body to the earth and carve a verse in the rock:
- Driver of Phoebus' chariot Phaeton,
- Struck by Jove's thunder, rests beneath this stone.
- He could not rule his father's car of fire,
- Yet was it much so nobly to aspire.
Phaeton's sisters, the Heliades, lament his fate and are turned into poplar trees on the banks of the river, and their tears turn into amber.
Phaeton appears on monuments in the Roman imperial era, such as on a sarcophagus from Ostia (second century BCE; Copenhagen). The demise of Phaethon was a popular subject of Renaissance and baroque painters, such as Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Brueghel, and Rubens.
- Iliad xii, 735; Odyssey v, 479.
- Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica iv, 1236; Virgil. Aeneid v, 105.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 154.
- Tzetzes. Chiliades iv, 127.
- Scholiast on Pindar's Olympian Odes vi, 131.
- Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica iv, 598 ff.
- Euripides. Hippolytus, 737 ff.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 152, 154.
- Lucian. Dialogues of the Gods, 25.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses i, 755 ff.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
- Virgil. Eclogues vi, 62; Aeneid x, 190.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.