ONCE upon a time, the reckless whim of a lad came near to
destroying the Earth and robbing the spheres of their wits.
There were two playmates, said to be of heavenly parentage.
One was Epaphus, who claimed Zeus as a father; and one was
Phaethon, the earthly child of Phœbus Apollo (or Helios, as
some name the sun-god). One day they were boasting together,
each of his own father, and Epaphus, angry at the other's
fine story, dared him to go prove his kinship with the Sun.
Full of rage and humiliation, Phaethon went to his mother,
Clymene, where she sat with his young sisters, the Heliades.
"It is true, my child," she said, "I swear it in the light
of yonder Sun. If you have any doubt, go to the land whence
he rises at morning and ask of him any gift you will; he is
your father, and he cannot refuse you."
As soon as might be, Phaethon set out for the country of
sunrise. He journeyed by day and by night far into the
east, till he came to
the palace of the Sun. It towered high as the clouds,
glorious with gold and all manner of gems that looked like
frozen fire, if that might be. The mighty walls were
wrought with images
of earth and sea and sky. Vulcan, the smith of the
gods, had made them in his workshop (for Mount Ætna is one
of his forges, and he has the central fires of the earth to
help him fashion gold and
 iron, as men do glass). On the
doors blazed the twelve signs of the Zodiac, in silver that
shone like snow in the sunlight. Phaethon was dazzled with
the sight, but when he entered the palace hall he could
hardly bear the radiance.
In one glimpse through his half-shut eyes, he beheld a
glorious being, none other than Phœbus himself, seated
upon a throne. He was clothed in purple raiment, and round
his head there shone a blinding light, that enveloped even
his courtiers upon the right and upon the left,—the Seasons
with their emblems, Day, Month, Year, and the beautiful
young Hours in a row. In one glance of those all-seeing
eyes, the sun-god knew his child; but in order to try him
he asked the boy his errand.
"O my father," stammered Phaethon, "if you are my father
indeed," and then he took courage; for the god came down
from his throne, put off
the glorious halo that hurt mortal eyes, and embraced him
"Indeed, thou art my son," said he. "Ask any gift of me
and it shall be thine; I call the Styx to witness."
"Ah!" cried Phaethon rapturously. "Let me drive thy
chariot for one day!"
For an instant the Sun's looks clouded. "Choose again, my
child," said he. "Thou art only a mortal, and this task is
mine alone of all the gods. Not Zeus himself dare drive the
chariot of the Sun. The way is full of terrors, both for
the horses and for all the stars along the roadside, and for
the Earth, who has all blessings from me. Listen, and
choose again." And therewith he warned Phaethon of all the
dangers that beset the way,—the great steep that
 the steeds
must climb, the numbing dizziness of the height, the
fierce constellations that breathe out fire, and that
descent in the west where the Sun seems to go headlong.
But these counsels only made the reckless boy more eager to
win honor of such a high enterprise.
"I will take care; only let me go," he begged.
had sworn by the black river Styx, an oath that none of the
gods dare break, and he was forced to keep his promise.
Already Aurora, goddess of dawn, had thrown open the gates
of the east and the stars were beginning to wane. The Hours
came forth to harness the four horses, and Phaethon looked
with exultation at the splendid creatures, whose lord he was
for a day. Wild, immortal steeds they were, fed with
ambrosia, untamed as the winds; their very pet names
signified flame, and all that flame can do,—Pyrois, Eoüs,
As the lad stood by, watching, Phœbus anointed his face with
a philtre that should make him strong to endure the terrible
heat and light, then set the halo upon his head, with a last
word of counsel.
"Follow the road," said he, "and never turn aside. Go not
too high or too low, for the sake of heavens and earth;
else men and gods will suffer. The Fates alone know whether
evil is to come of this. Yet if your heart fails you,
as I hope, abide here and I will make the journey, as I am
wont to do."
But Phaethon held to his choice and bade his father
farewell. He took his place in the chariot, gathered up the
reins and the horses sprang away, eager for the road.
As they went, they bent their splendid necks to
 see the meaning of the strange hand upon the
reins,—the slender weight in the chariot. They turned
their wild eyes upon Phaethon, to his secret foreboding, and
neighed one to another. This was no master-charioteer, but a
mere lad, a feather riding the wind. It was holiday for the
horses of the Sun, and away they went.
Grasping the reins that dragged him after, like an enemy,
Phaethon looked down from the fearful ascent and saw the
Earth far beneath him, dim and fair. He was blind with
dizziness and bewilderment. His hold slackened and the
horses redoubled their speed, wild with new liberty. They
left the old tracks. Before he knew where he was, they had
startled the constellations and well-nigh grazed the
Serpent, so that it woke from its torpor and hissed.
The steeds took fright. This way and that they went,
terrified by the monsters they had never encountered before,
shaking out of their silver quiet the cool stars towards the
north, then fleeing as far to the south among new wonders.
The heavens were full of terror.
Up, far above the clouds, they went, and down again, towards
the defenceless Earth, that could not flee from the chariot
of the Sun. Great rivers hid themselves in the ground, and
mountains were consumed. Harvests perished like a moth that
is singed in a candle-flame.
In vain did Phaethon call to the horses and pull upon the
reins. As in a hideous dream, he saw his own Earth, his
beautiful home and the home of all men, his kindred, parched
by the fires of this mad chariot, and blackening beneath
him. The ground cracked open and the sea shrank. Heedless
water-nymphs, who had lingered in the shallows, were left
 bright fishes. The dryads shrank, and tried
to cover themselves from the scorching heat. The poor
Earth lifted her withered face in a last prayer to Zeus to
save them if he might.
Then Zeus, calling all the gods to witness that there was no
other means of safety, hurled his thunderbolt; and Phaethon
knew no more.
His body fell through the heavens, aflame like a shooting-star;
and the horses of the Sun dashed homeward with the
Poor Clymene grieved sore over the boy's death; but the
young Heliades, daughters of the Sun, refused all comfort.
Day and night they wept together about their brother's grave
by the river, until the gods took pity and changed them all
into poplar-trees. And ever after that they wept sweet tears
of amber, clear as sunlight.