Greek Mythology: The Fall of Phaethon

The Fall of Phaethon – Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Public Domain

Greek mythology contains many stories that have relevance and significance today.  The story of Phaethon’s downfall is one such myth.  Phaeton was a young man who felt embarrassed and humiliated because he was illegitimate and did not know who his father was. He knew his mother who loved him and he had sisters who loved him but this was not enough.

Ever since he was a boy his play mates had taunted him because he had no father and was illegitimate.  This upset him greatly so one day he went to his mother, Clymene and begged her to tell him who is father was.   His mother told him his father was the sun god, Helios (Apollo).

Phaethon Begs His Father A Favor

Excited by the thought that the great god of the Sun was his father Phaethon went to see Helios and told him what his mother had said. Helios had not known he had a son by Clymene and was pleased and proud to discover that he was Phaethon’s father.   Phaethon was ecstatic that his father was the powerful and important god of the sun and wanted everyone to know the truth.  He begged his father a favor which Helios rashly granted without knowing what it was.

So that everyone would see that in truth he did have a father of such high significance he wanted to ride his father’s chariot across the skies. He thought that in doing so it would prove his own importance and significance.

Helios is Fearful

When Phaethon told Helios what he wanted granted he was full of fear and tried to dissuade his son from this.  He pointed out that even the mighty Zeus, who was the King of the Gods, would not attempt such a feat as the horses breathed fire and were wild and the chariot glowed red hot.  It needed someone of great strength, skill and experience to control the chariot on its journey across the sky.

Phaethon was not put off and insisted his father fulfill his wish as he had promised.  Reluctantly Helios gave in and Phaethon took the reins of the chariot.

Phaethon Loses Control of the Chariot

The fiery, wild horses knowing there was a lesser charioteer than their master, Helios, charged across the sky.  The chariot glowed ret hot and spewed flames and the young and inexperienced boy could not master the powerful horses.

Out of control the horses rampaged across the sky bringing death and destruction to the earth and its inhabitants below.   They flew so high that the earth was bereft of light and grew cold, before turning and diving so close to the earth that cities were scorched and forests set ablaze and turned to ash.

Zeus Acts

At last seeing the danger Zeus decided to intervene.  He threw a thunderbolt at Phaethon killing him.  His body plummeted from the sky falling into the River Erianus.   There his sisters found his body and were transformed by grief and mourning into trees and their tears became amber.

Helios Blames Zeus

Full of grief and guilt for his weakness in giving into his son, Helios blamed Zeus and refused to drive his chariot across the sky for many days. But Zeus insisted that there had been no other way to save the world.  The other gods begged Helios to take to his chariot again as the earth needed light and warmth.  Eventually Helios agreed and light and warmth in proper measure were restored to the earth.

Boy Racers

Today one only has to think of those “boy racers” who drive their father’s powerful cars too fast in search of respect and admiration from their friends only to lose control and meet disaster.  No doubt their father’s, like Helios the Sun god, would rue their own weakness for the rest of their days.

References and Attributions
Phaethon, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Theoi Project
Image - File:Phaeton-engraving.jpg From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository -An engraving  The fall of Phaëton by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) - Public Domain
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