The Myth of Phaethon and the Sun God’s Chariot

Phaethon, also known as the “Radiant One” or “Shining”, was the son of Helios, the Greek sun god, and a water nymph called Clymene. He is most famous in Greek mythology for recklessly driving Helios’ powerful golden chariot.

By the Oceanid Clymene, Helios had eight children – seven daughters and a son called Phaethon. Due to Helios’s infidelity, Clymene packed up and left the sun god. She also took her children with her. She would end up settling down with an Ethiopian king called Merops.

Family tree of Phaethon

Growing up, Phaethon constantly heard stories from his mother about his father, the sun god Helios. Being the son of the powerful sun god, the young Phaethon took immense pride from his birth story.

By sheer coincidence, Phaethon lived in the same city as Epaphus, one of the numerous sons of Zeus, the sky god and chief of the Olympians. Epaphus decided to play a psychological game on the young and slightly arrogant son of the sun god as he had grown tired of hearing Phaethon ramble on and on about his divine father. Epaphus told Phaethon that his mother had lied about who his father was.

Distraught by Epaphus’ words, Phaethon went back to his mother, Clymene, in order to get her to assure him about his birth. With absolute conviction, Clymene told Phaethon that he was truly the son of the sun god. Phaethon still did not believe his mother’s words. Clymene then asked him to head towards the east and find out from Helios himself.

Phaethon went on a wild adventure until he finally made it to the Helios’ amazing palace in the east. When Phaethon confronted Helios about the issue of his birth, the sun god promised to give Phaethon whatever he wanted. The sun god hoped that this kind gesture was enough to remove all doubts in the young man.

Helios, the Greek god of the sun, is famed for driving his four-horse fiery chariot across the skies everyday | Image: Helios in his chariot, early 4th century BC, Athena’s temple, Ilion

It was in that moment Phaethon conceived of an idea: he reasoned that by driving Helios’ powerful sun chariot for one day he would at least be able to convince himself that Helios was indeed his father.

Helios pleaded with Phaethon, but to no avail. Helios explained to Phaethon how difficult a task it is to ride the chariot, and that it needed very careful control and focus in order to keep the sun in its precise path, least the earth either got scorched or got too cold. However, the young man insisted on riding the fire breathing horse-drawn chariot of the sun god. Bound by his promise to Phaethon, Helios could not say no. Therefore, preparations were made for Phaethon to ride the chariot for a day.

A chariot so powerful not even Zeus could drive it

Helios reluctantly allows Phaethon to drive his chariot. He had tried his best to talk him out of it. Helios told Phaethon that operating the chariot was so difficult that not even Zeus (Roman Jupiter), king of the Greek gods, could properly steer the chariot on its precise path in the skies. None of that could quench Phaethon’s desire to possess for a day a power far greater than himself.

Phaeton loses control of the reins

Grossly underestimating the skill and focus that was needed to ride such a powerful chariot as the sun god’s, Phaethon quickly entered the chariot and took hold of the reins. Phaethon could feel the sheer power that flowed through the reins. He was literally in cloud nine and all his doubts about his father disappeared. Overjoyed, he had completely forgotten all the advice his father had given him, i.e. making sure to stick to the path in order to ensure that the chariot remains stable at all time.

Phaethon steered the chariot higher and higher and strayed off the path Helios had asked him to stay on. He went so far away that the earth stopped receiving the warmth of the sun. Therefore, everything on earth began to freeze, including the world’s oceans and seas. By this time Zeus and all the Olympian gods had begun to panic. Should Phaethon continue to climb higher and higher, the earth and everything on it risked freezing to death.

Phaethon, Helios’s son, losing control of the reins. Image: Phaethon, by French painter and artist Gustave Moreau

The fall of Phaethon

When it dawned on Phaethon how far he had gone, he quickly pulled the reins, causing the horses to change their trajectory instantly. The horses began to gallop and nose dive straight towards the earth. Soon the heat the horse chariot produced began to literally melt the earth. Lands were scotched, oceans boiled, mountains erupted, and forest were consumed by fire. This time around Zeus decided to do something about it. In order to prevent the earth from going up in flames, Zeus hurled his thunder bolts, hitting Phaethon directly. The thunderbolt frightened the horses, which then peeled away from Phaethon.

According to one version of the myth (by Hyginus in his Fabulae), Zeus uses the rivers of the world to douse the fire that raged across the earth following Phaethon’s close ride to the earth. In doing so, Zeus caused a great deluge that killed everyone on earth except for the couple Pyrrha and Deucalion. Pyrrha was the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora, while Deucalion was the son of Prometheus.

After he was struck by Zeus’s lightning bolt, Phaethon plummeted to the earth and was never seen again. Image: The fall of Phaethon by Belgian painter Adolphe Pierre Sunaert

The story goes on to say that Phaethon fell from the sky down to earth. Phaethon is believed to have fallen near the River Eridanus. Heart broken by his death, his seven sisters sit and mourn by the river until they all turn into poplar trees. The trees then leaked amber into the water. In some account, it was their tears that turned into amber.

Devastated by the death of his son Phaethon, Helios locks himself up in his palace and refuses to drive his chariot across the sky. However, his mind is later changed after the Olympian gods make a heartfelt appeal to him. The gods also placed Phaethon among the stars as a constellation called Auriger or the Charioter. And so every day Helios rode through the sky, he got the chance to see his son Phaethon in the likeness of his son in the stars.

More on Phaethon and Helios’ powerful chariot

The Fall of Phaëthon on a Roman sarcophagus (Hermitage Museum, in Saint Petersburg, Russia)

In Roman pantheon, Helios goes by the name Sol.

Phaethon struggles to control the horses which veer off their usual course. As a result the earth got heated up and waters in the world began to boil. The earth was began to get scorched, creating massive deserts and dry lands. The Greeks used this as an explanation for why there are variations in the climate conditions as well the geography of places around the world.

In ancient Greece, Phaethon’s name was sometimes used to describe the planet Jupiter.

According to Roman historian Seutonius, second Roman Emperor Tiberius described his future heir and adopted son the future emperor Caligula as “…a Phaethon for the world”. Tiberius was said to be very much afraid of the kind of terror his successor Caligula would unleash upon the Empire.

In one version of the myth, Phaethon’s lover Cycnus of Liguria is consumed by an overwhelming grief following the death of Phaethon. He subsequently metamorphosed into a swan and later a constellation.

Cycnus

The gods changed Cycnus into a swan in order to relieve the pain and grief he was feeling following the death of his lover Phaethon.

The myth of Phaethon and Helios’s chariot is found in the work of Euripides, the ancient Greek author popularly known as the father of tragedy. It is also found in Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ancient Greek poet Hesiod also wrote about the myth of Phaethon and the sun god’s chariot. In Hesiod’s account, Phaethon is the grandson of Helios (Roman Sol). In this version, his parents are the Oceanid Merope and Clymenus.

In making his promise to Phaethon to give him whatever he wanted, Helios is believed to have made his vow by the river Styx. The river, which is also a goddess, is found in the Underworld. The river was proclaimed by Zeus to be the place every oath should be taken.

The horses that pulled Helios’s chariot not only breathed out fire, but they could also run at incredible speeds. Latin writer Ovid describes the chariot that the horses pulled is  as very hot as they were the physical embodiment of the sun itself.

Quick Facts about Phaeton

Father: Helios

Mother: Clymene

Meaning: “Shining One” or “Radiant”

Lover: Cycnus of Liguria

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