T HERE was once a proud boy named Phaeton, who thought he was able to do quite everything. But one day his schoolmates laughed at him for being so proud, and Phaeton ran home to his sisters and his mother—the beautiful nymph, Clymene—crying: "Mother, mother, am I not able to do everything?"
Clymene stroked his head sadly. She feared her boy would meet with trouble, because he was so proud, but she said: "Your father was Apollo. You should be as great and strong as he. Go and ask the king of the sun if you are able to do everything."
So Phaeton was happy once more, and he set out on a long journey to the land of the sunrise. He traveled for many days, until at last he found, at the top of a steep mountain, the wonderful palace of the sun. Oh, but it was beautiful!—all built and carved by the skilled workman, Vulcan. It stood high, upon golden columns, and it glittered with emeralds, and topazes, and amethysts. The doors were made of silver, and the ceilings were all of carved ivory. On the walls Vulcan had set marvelous pictures of the earth, the sea, and the sky. There were the woods, the rivers, and the towns; the sea fairies riding on the fishes, or sitting on the rocks to dry their sea-green hair. Last of all, Vulcan had painted the sky and all the shining stars.
When Phaeton entered the great throne room the light was so bright that it blinded him, for there was Phoebus, the king of the sun, all dressed in purple and sitting upon a throne which shone with diamonds. Near him stood his servants ready to do his bidding—the Days, the Months, and the Years. Spring was there with a wreath of flowers on her head. Summer stood near, with a great sheaf of ripened grain in her arms. Autumn's feet were stained with grape juice, and Winter wore a mantle of ice and snow.
But in spite of all this splendor Phoebus reached out his hand kindly to Phaeton. "What do you wish, my son?" he asked.
"My father was Apollo," said Phaeton. "Am I not able to do everything?"
"You may attempt mighty deeds," said Phoebus. "Whatever you ask of me, that will I let you do."
Phaeton thought for a minute, and then he said: "For one day I will drive the chariot of the sun!"
Then Phoebus was sorry that he had promised so much to Phaeton. "My boy," he said, "none but myself may drive the sun; not even Jupiter who hurls the thunderbolts. The first part of the way is steep to climb, and the middle part is so high to travel that I, myself, cannot look down at the earth and seas beneath. The last part of the journey is down so rapid a descent that you would fall headlong. From morning till night the heaven is turning around, and the stars twist about my head. You must pass the Great Bear and the Small Bear; the horns of the Bull; the Archer, who will shoot at you; the Lion; and the Crab, who has such sharp claws. My horses breathe fire, and they are so headstrong that you could not drive them. Choose more wisely, my son, than to ask me this."
But Phaeton was now bursting with pride. "I will drive the sun," he said. So Phoebus led him out to the chariot of the sun. Vulcan had built the chariot, also, with its axles of gold, and gold wheels with silver spokes. All about the edge were chrysolites and diamonds that dazzled and shone.
Phoebus led the horses from their stalls, and harnessed them. Then he bathed Phaeton's face with sweet oils that the sun might not burn him, and he fastened the rays about Phaeton's head.
"My son, hold fast to the reins, and spare the whip," he said. "Follow the wheel tracks which you will see in your path."
So Phaeton jumped into the chariot, and took the reins in his hand. But the horses knew at once that it was not their own master, Phoebus, who was driving them. They stamped, and snorted, and breathed fire from their nostrils. The chariot was light with only Phaeton in it, so they jumped the bars of the Day, and they rushed headlong through the clouds and away from the old road they had always traveled.
Phaeton was frightened, indeed, but he could not stop the horses. On and on they went! They scorched the paws of the Great Bear and the Small Bear. Old Bootes, who was quietly ploughing the skies, dropped his plough and ran as far away as the north pole, in order to keep cool. At last, right in his path, Phaeton saw the Crab with his sharp claws spread out, and he was so frightened that he forgot the names of his horses, even, and he dropped the reins.
Then the horses dashed off wherever they liked. They ran into the moon; they set the clouds to burning. Down on the earth the mountains smoked, the forests burst into flame, and the seas boiled. The rivers began drying up; the crops were scorched black. I do not know what would have happened in the end, had not the mighty Jupiter just then thrust his lightning sword through the clouds and hurled a great thunderbolt at Phaeton. It stopped the horses at once, who turned and went slowly back to the palace of the sun; but poor Phaeton! Down, down he fell like a shooting star, with his hair and clothing all on fire—down—until he dropped in a deep river, and that was the end of him!
For a long time his sisters and his mother, Clymene, waited for him. At last his sisters changed to poplar trees, which stood on the river bank and dropped tears of amber into the water where Phaeton fell. And his mother said, sadly:
"Phaeton was full of pride, but he failed in a great undertaking."
— Adapted from the Greek myth|
by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey