Helius and Phaethon

Helius was the god of the sun. He ruled no particular area on the earth’s surface because he had not been present when Zeus was busy assigning jobs to the gods. Helius’s main job was to ride a chariot across the sky each day.

This chariot was very important because, in fact, it was the sun itself. The sun gave light and warmth to the earth, and its travels across the heavens caused day and night. Helius was careful never to let anything jeopardize the daily rising and setting of the sun.

Although he was very busy, Helius had an affair with Clymene, a mortal woman. Clymene lived in the geographical area that is now known as Ethiopia. The couple had a son named Phaethon.

Soon after the birth of Phaethon, the love affair ended, and Clymene married a prince who raised the boy as his own son. The prince and Clymene had other children after their marriage, and they all lived very happily for many years.

The happiness of the royal family was shattered, however, when Clymene confided to Phaethon that her husband, the prince, was not the boy’s real father. Clymene told Phaethon that his father was Helius, the sun god. Phaethon was amazed at what his mother told him.

Phaethon was so obsessed with this shocking news that he bragged about his important father to the other boys at school. However, the other boys did not believe him, and although they were his friends, the boys teased Phaethon about his story.

They just could not believe that their friend was the son of a god, suspecting instead that this story was just another one of Phaethon’s fantasies. One of his friends challenged Phaethon and said, “If Helius is really your father, show us some proof. Then we will believe you.”

Determined to show his friends that he was telling the truth, Phaethon went home and asked his mother to help him prove that Helius was really his father. Clymene had no physical evidence available to prove that the god was her son’s father. However, she promised to show Phaethon the way to Helius’s palace where he could ask the god himself for some proof.

With his mother’s directions, Phaethon easily found the god’s palace. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw it for the first time. It was the most magnificent building the boy had ever seen. In fact, it was probably one of the most beautiful palaces ever built. Nervously, Phaethon approached the majestic dais where Helius was sitting.

The boy could not help but gawk at the splendor of everything around him. Huge pillars of bronze and gold held up the ceiling of the throne room, making the chamber sparkle with light. Even the god’s throne, carved out of solid emerald, was exquisite. There were lesser gods, who acted as Helius’s servants, milling about the room, adding to the god’s majesty. These various gods were called Day, Month, Year, the Centuries, the Hours, and the Seasons.

Phaethon looked so much like his beautiful mother with his striking physique and intense eyes that Helius recognized him as his son right away. The god told Phaethon that, indeed, he was his father, just as Clymene had said. When Phaethon explained that he wished to have proof to show his friends, Helius was surprised but understanding.

He told Phaethon, “By the River Styx in Hades, I swear to give you whatever proof you ask for.” Phaethon knew that the god was serious when he said this because no one, not even a god, could go back on a promise sworn by the River Styx.

Then, with the assurance of this promise, Phaethon turned to Helius and said, “Father, I believe that I am your son. But I would like to prove it to my friends who teased me and claimed that I am only pretending that you are my father.

I know that you are very careful about driving your chariot across the sky each day, but if I am your son, you will allow me to drive the chariot tomorrow so that everyone may see me riding in your place. Then they will believe that I am your son. They will see that I can be as strong and as brave as a god. Remember your promise, and let me drive your chariot.”

As soon as he heard his son’s request, Helius wished that he had not made such a rash, unbreakable promise. The sun god never allowed anyone else to drive his chariot for the simple reason that it was extremely difficult to manage. The horses were so unruly that they would obey no one but Helius. Even Zeus, the king of the gods, could not drive Helius’s chariot.

Helius begged his son to reconsider his request and to ask for some other kind of proof. He tried to make Phaethon understand the danger and futility of trying to drive the chariot. Even if he were Zeus himself, Helius stressed, Phaethon could easily be killed by trying to ride across the sky.

Despite these warnings, Phaethon was determined to drive the sky chariot. He reminded the god of his oath upon the River Styx. Thus, Helius was forced to allow the boy his wish, and he told his servants, the Hours, to hitch up the horses to prepare for the boy’s departure.

Phaethon was bursting with excitement. He could hardly keep from shouting for joy as he watched the Hours prepare the horses. While the servants held the horses steady, Phaethon climbed into the chariot, grinning at his father, who looked on with dismay.

“Father,” Phaethon said assuringly, “Do not worry. I will show you all what a good driver I am. You will be so proud!” With a final wave, the young prince dismissed the servants and tugged on the flaming gold reins to urge the magnificent horses on ward into the sky.

For one brief moment, the earth was bathed in a calm morning light. Helius began to breathe an audible sigh of relief - perhaps Phaethon would be able to drive the horses after all. Unfortunately, this moment of calm was soon shattered.

Almost immediately after leaving his father’s palace with the chariot, Phaethon lost control of the horses. He just could not keep them on their path. The horses left the road they usually traveled and began to race in different directions.

The boy did not feel at all like the powerful son of Helius, the ruler of the day and night. Instead, he was terrified, and he clutched the side of the chariot to keep
from falling out. Mournfully, Helius watched his son’s wild ride from his shimmering throne, but he could do nothing to stop the disobedient horses.

First, the chariot took Phaethon into the night sky where he caused such damage that a huge burnt trail was left behind wherever the chariot happened to touch down. This scar became the Milky Way, and even now the etchings of Phaethon’s chariot ride can be seen streaking across the sky.

After leaving the night, the horses raced back toward earth, dragging their frightened driver behind them. The horses swooped down over the area near the earth’s equator, where the land caught fire when the chariot touched it. These burned areas became the deserts of Africa.

News of Phaethon’s disastrous ride soon made its way to Mount Olympus. Gaia, the first mother of the gods, begged the other gods to help save the earth from destruction. As they watched, the gods began to realize that the entire world would soon be burned to a crisp if they did not step in soon and somehow manage to stop the racing chariot.

Although he did not want to kill Helius’s son, Zeus knew that this idea would be the only way to save the earth. So Zeus hurled a bolt of lightning at Phaethon. His aim was good, and Phaethon fell out of the chariot to his death in the Eridanus River. The wild horses and the splintered chariot also fell into the river.

Although they were sorry that the boy had died, most of the gods were relieved to see that the earth had been merely scorched and not completely destroyed. At his forge, Hephaestus the blacksmith made Helius a new chariot so that the world would continue to enjoy day and night. The new chariot - covered in jewels and intricate carvings - was even more beautiful than the first, in memory of the god’s lost son.

Helius’s daughters, the Heliades, were so upset about their brother’s death, however, that they gathered along the Eridanus River to weep for him. They cried so many tears and for so many years that the gods took pity on them and turned them into poplar trees that grew along the banks of the river; their abundant tears were turned into amber, which dropped from the trees into the river.

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