Greek Mortal

Phaethon

Phaethon by Gustave Moreau

Phaethon by Gustave Moreau (1878)

Louvre Museum, ParisPublic Domain

Overview

Phaethon was the son of Helios, the god of the sun, and Clymene, an Oceanid. He was raised by his mother alone, but upon discovering his father’s identity, he set out to find Helios’ palace in the Far East. Helios welcomed Phaethon with open arms and agreed to grant his son one request. In response, Phaethon foolishly demanded to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky.

Alas, Phaethon lost control of the unruly horses pulling the chariot; he would have set the whole world on fire had Zeus not killed him with his lightning bolt. Struck down by the king of the gods, Phaethon fell from the chariot into a remote river known as the Eridanus. There, his sisters—the Heliades—mourned for him until the gods took pity on them and turned them into poplar trees.

Etymology

The name “Phaethon” (Greek Φαέθων, translit. Phaéthōn) is the participle of the Greek verb φαίνω (phaínō), meaning “to appear, shine.” Phaethon’s name can thus be translated as “the shining one.” In English, the name is sometimes also spelled “Phaëthon.”

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    PhaethonΦαέθων (Phaéthōn)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [FEY-uh-thuhn]/ˈfeɪ ə θən/

Alternative Names

According to one source, Phaethon’s name was originally Eridanus; it was changed to Phaethon—“the shining one”—due to his fateful ride in the bright chariot of the sun. Meanwhile, the river into which he fell became known by his former name, Eridanus.[1]

Attributes

General

Phaethon’s chief characteristic was his hubris or brashness; though he was only a mortal, Phaethon desired to drive the chariot of the sun, which only Helios (a god) could control. This arrogance led to Phaethon’s downfall.

Iconography

Phaethon rarely appeared in ancient art before the time of the Roman Empire (ca. 27 BCE–476 CE). He was occasionally depicted in vase paintings but was much more popular in sculpture. Artists tended to favor scenes like his meeting with his father Helios or his disastrous ride in the chariot of the sun.[2]

Family

In the most familiar tradition, Phaethon was the son of Helios, the sun god, and an Oceanid (or perhaps a mortal) named Clymene.[3] In other traditions, however, Phaethon’s mother was Prote, the daughter of Neleus,[4] or Rhode, the daughter of Asopus.[5] Most authorities gave him several sisters or half-sisters known as the Heliades (after their father Helios).

One late source, the Roman mythographer Hyginus, made Phaethon the son not of Helios but of Helios’ son Clymenus and the Oceanid Merope.[6]

Vase painting of Helios riding his chariot out of ocean

Red-figure calyx-krater showing Helios riding his chariot out of ocean (ca. 430 BCE), excavated in Puglia, Italy

British MuseumCC BY-SA 4.0

Mythology

Origins

Already in antiquity, the myth of Phaethon was sometimes thought to have originated in a genuine cosmic fire caused by the movements of the celestial bodies.[7] Presumably these ancient authors were referring to what we would now call a meteorite impact; some contemporary scholars and geologists have indeed speculated that the Phaethon myth was inspired by such an impact.[8]

The Chariot of the Sun

For the most part, the myth of Phaethon and his disastrous attempt to drive the chariot of the sun is consistent across ancient sources, with only occasional variations.

Phaethon was the son of Helios, the god of the sun, but he was raised by his mother alone, kept far away from his powerful father. As he was entering adulthood, Phaethon decided to go in search of his father. 

In some accounts, the vain Phaethon simply wanted to verify that he really was the son of a god. But in another account, which seems to have originated in a lost tragedy by Euripides, Phaethon’s mother sent him to Helios to calm his anxieties about his upcoming wedding.[9]

When Phaethon reached Helios’ magnificent palace, located in the Far East near the rays of the rising sun, Helios greeted him warmly. He promised to grant Phaethon anything he wished. The proud Phaethon demanded to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky for one day. Helios was horrified and begged his son to ask for something else:

I’d fain deny this wish, which thou hast made,

Or, what I can’t deny, wou’d fain disswade.

Too vast and hazardous the task appears,

Nor suited to thy strength, nor to thy years.

Thy lot is mortal, but thy wishes fly

Beyond the province of mortality:

… Let not my son a fatal gift require,

But, O! in time, recall your rash desire;

You ask a gift that may your parent tell,

Let these my fears your parentage reveal;

And learn a father from a father’s care:

Look on my face; or if my heart lay bare,

Cou’d you but look, you’d read the father there.

Chuse out a gift from seas, or Earth, or skies,

For open to your wish all Nature lies,

Only decline this one unequal task,

For ’tis a mischief, not a gift, you ask.[10]

But Phaethon would not be dissuaded. With a heavy heart, Helios turned over the reins of his chariot to Phaethon, carefully instructing him on how to keep the fiery horses in check (in Euripides’ version, Helios actually accompanied Phaethon on his ride). 

Phaethon, naturally, was not strong enough to control the chariot or its divine horses. The horses swerved from their path and came close to setting the world on fire. 

In an effort to put a stop to this wanton destruction, Zeus struck Phaethon with a lightning bolt—though according to some versions, Phaethon simply fell from the chariot. In either case, Phaethon plummeted to his death, and the gods helped Helios regain control of his chariot.

After Phaethon’s fall, his sisters, the Heliades, searched far and wide for his body. They eventually found him by the Eridanus, a remote river sometimes identified with the Po in northern Italy. The Heliades mourned their brother without rest until the gods took pity on them and turned them into poplar trees, forever weeping tears of amber.[11]

Phaethon was also mourned by Cycnus, the young king of the Ligurians who was Phaethon’s close friend or lover. Cycnus was likewise transformed by his mourning, becoming a swan or a constellation (depending on the source).[12]

Print of the transformation of the Heliades and of Cycnus by Hendrick Goltzius

Print of the transformation of the Heliades and of Cycnus by Hendrick Goltzius (1590)

RijksmuseumPublic Domain

In another version, Phaethon took the chariot without Helios’ permission, enlisting the help of the Heliades to carry out his task. According to this account, Phaethon fell from the chariot not because he was struck down by Zeus but because of his own terror. The Heliades were then turned into poplar trees as punishment for helping Phaethon.[13]

Finally, there may have been yet another version of the story, known only from ancient art, in which Artemis helped kill Phaethon.[14]

References

Notes

  1. Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 6.659.

  2. François Baratte, “Phaethon (1),” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1994), 7.1:350–54.

  3. Hesiod, frag. 311 Merkelbach-West; Euripides, Phaethon frag. 785 Kannicht; Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.754ff; Hyginus, Fabulae 152, 156, 250; etc. Cf. John Tzetzes, Chiliades 4.359, who writes that the Phaethon who was the son of Clymene was not the same as the more famous Phaethon who attempted to drive the chariot of the sun.

  4. John Tzetzes, Chiliades 4.360–91.

  5. Scholia on Homer’s Odyssey 17.208 (it is possible that the scholia’s source is Aeschylus). See also Apollodorus, Library 1.4.5.

  6. Hyginus, Fabulae 154.

  7. Plato, Timaeus 22c–d; Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 5.396–405.

  8. See, for example, J. Blomqvist, “The Fall of Phaethon and the Kaalijärv Meteorite Crater: Is There a Connection?,” Eranos 92 (1994): 1–16.

  9. Euripides, Phaethon frag. 773 Kannicht.

  10. Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.51–99, trans. Samuel Garth et al.

  11. For Phaethon and the Heliades, see Aeschylus, Heliades frags. 68–73 Radt; Euripides, Phaethon 771–86 Kannicht; Palaephatus, On Unbelievable Tales 52; Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.595–611; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 5.23.2–4; Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.750–2.400; Hyginus, Fabulae 154; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 38.90–434; etc.

  12. Virgil, Aeneid 10.189–93; Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.367–80, 4.190–270; Hyginus, Fabulae 152a.

  13. Hyginus, Fabulae 152a.

  14. As shown on a decorated bowl from ca. 20 BCE–10 CE (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession number 98.828).

Primary Sources

Greek

The story of Phaethon may have been attested in Greek literature as early as Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE). Both Aeschylus (ca. 525/4–ca. 456/5 BCE) and Euripides (ca. 480–406 BCE) are known to have written tragedies about Phaethon, but only fragments of these have survived. 

There are early references to the myth of Phaethon in the works of Plato (ca. 429–ca. 347 BCE), Palaephatus (late fourth century BCE), and Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE). More complete accounts of the Phaethon myth were given later by Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE) in his Library of History (5.23.3–4) and by Nonnus (fifth century CE) in his Dionysiaca (38.90–434).

Roman

Phaethon occasionally appears in Roman literature. Lucretius (early/mid first century BCE), for instance, interpreted his myth as an allegory for the cosmic fire by which the world is destroyed and recreated (On the Nature of Things 5.396–405). Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later) also summarized a few versions of the myth in his Fabulae (152a, 154).

But our most important source for the myth of Phaethon is Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE), whose retelling of the myth spans the end of Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2 of the Metamorphoses.

Other

Additional information on Phaethon, including his role in works that are now lost, can be found in texts, reference works, and commentaries produced during the Byzantine and medieval periods. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

  • Baratte, François. “Phaethon (1).” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 7.1, 350–54. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

  • Diggle, James. Euripides: Phaethon. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. 8th ed. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Heinze, Theodor. “Phaethon.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e917330.

  • Knaack, G., and W. H. Roscher. “Phaethon (2).” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 3.2, 2177–200. Leipzig: Teubner, 1902–1909.

  • Rose, H. J., and Simon Hornblower. “Phaethon.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1120. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Smith, William. “Phaethon (1).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed June 7, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D18%3Aentry%3Dphaethon-bio-1.

  • Theoi Project. “Phaethon.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Titan/Phaethon.html.

  • Türk, Gustav. “Aither.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 19.2, 1508–15. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1938.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Phaethon.” Mythopedia, August 18, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/phaethon.

Kapach, Avi. “Phaethon.” Mythopedia, 18 Aug. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/phaethon. Accessed on 8 Jul. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, August 18). Phaethon. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/phaethon

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

    Avi Kapach Profile Photo