T HERE was a nymph named Clymĕnē, who had a son so handsome that he was called Phaëthon, which means in Greek, "bright, radiant, shining," like the sun. When he grew up the goddess Venus was so charmed with him that she made him the chief ruler of all her temples, and took him into such high favor that all his friends and companions were filled with envy.
One day, when Phaëthon was foolishly bragging about his own beauty and greatness, and how much he was put by a goddess above other men, one of his companions, named Ĕpăphus, answered him, scornfully:—
"Ah! you may boast and brag, but you are a nobody after all! My father was Jupiter, as everybody knows; but who was yours?"
So Phaëthon went to his mother Clymene, and said:—
"Mother, they taunt me for not being the son of a god; me, who am fit to be a god myself for my grace and beauty. Who was my father? He must at least have been some great king, to be the father of such a son as I."
"A king!" said Clymene. "Ay—and a greater than all kings! Tell them, from me, that your father is Phœbus Apollo, the god of the Sun!"
But when he went back and told his friends, "My father is Phœbus Apollo, the god of the Sun," Epaphus and the others only scorned him and laughed at him the more. "You've caught your bragging from your mother," said they. "You're her son, anyhow, whoever your father may be."
When Clymene heard this, she felt terribly offended. "Then I will prove my words," said she. "Go to the Palace of the Sun and enter boldly. There you will see the Sun-god in all his glory. Demand of him to declare you to be his son openly before all the world, so that even the sons of Jupiter shall hang their heads for shame."
If Apollo had been still banished upon earth, of course Phaëthon could have found him very easily. But the nine years of banishment were over now, and the only way to find the god of the Sun was to seek him in his palace above the sky. How Phaëthon managed to get there I have never heard; but I suppose his mother was able to tell him the secret way. You may imagine the glorious and wonderful place it was—the House of the Sun, with the stars for the windows that are lighted up at night, and the clouds for curtains, and the blue sky for a garden, and the Zodiac for a carriage-drive. The sun itself, as you have heard, is the chariot of Apollo, drawn by four horses of white fire, who feed on golden grain, and are driven by the god himself round and round the world. Phaëthon entered boldly, as his mother had told him, found Apollo in all his glory, and said:—
"My mother, Clymene, says that I am your son. Is it true?"
"Certainly," said Apollo, "it is true."
"Then give me a sign," said Phaëthon, "that all may know and believe. Make me sure that I am your son."
"Tell them that I say so," said Apollo. "There—don't hinder me any more. My horses are harnessed: it is time for the sun to rise."
"No," said Phaëthon, "they will only say that I brag and lie. Give me a sign for all the world to see—a sign that only a father would give to his own child."
"Very well," said Apollo, who was getting impatient at being so hindered. "Only tell me what you want me to do, and it shall be done."
"You swear it—by Styx?" said Phaëthon.
Now you must know that the Styx was a river in Hades by which the gods swore; and that an oath "by Styx" was as binding upon a god as a plain promise is upon a gentleman.
"I swear it—by Styx!" said Apollo, rather rashly, as you will see. But he was now in a very great hurry indeed.
"Then," said Phaëthon, "let me drive the horses of the Sun for one whole day!"
This put Apollo in terrible alarm, for he knew very well that no hand, not even a god's, can drive the horses of the Sun but his own. But he had sworn by Styx—the oath that cannot be broken. All he could do was to keep the world waiting for sunrise while he showed Phaëthon how to hold the reins and the whip, and pointed out what course to take, and warned him of the dangers of the road. "But it's all of no use. You'll never do it," said he. "Give it up, while there is yet time! You know not what you do."
"Oh, but I do, though," said Phaëthon. "I know I can. There—I understand it all now, without another word." So saying, he sprang into the chariot, seized the reins, and gave the four fiery horses four lashes that sent them flying like comets through the air.
"Hold them in—hold them hard!" cried Apollo. But Phaëthon was off, and too far off to hear.
Off indeed! and where? The world must have been amazed that day to see the sun rise like a rocket and go dashing about the sky, north, south, east, west—anywhere, nowhere, everywhere! Well the horses knew that it was not Apollo, their master, who plied the whip and held the reins. They took their bits between their teeth, and—bolted. They kicked a planet to bits (astronomers know where the pieces are still): they broke holes in the chariot, which we can see, and call "sun-spots," to this day: it was as if chaos were come again. At last, Phaëthon, whose own head was reeling, saw to his horror that the horses, in their mad rush, were getting nearer and nearer to the earth itself—and what would happen then? If the wheels touched the globe we live on, it would be scorched to a cinder. Nearer, nearer, nearer it came—till a last wild kick broke the traces, overturned the sun itself, and Phaëthon fell, and fell, and fell, till he fell into the sea, and was drowned. And then the horses trotted quietly home.
The story of Phaëthon is always taken as a warning against being conceited and self-willed. But there are some curious things about it still to be told. The Greeks fancied that the great desert of Sahara, in Africa, is the place where the earth was scorched by the sun's chariot-wheel, and that the African negroes were burned black in the same way, and have never got white again. And the poplars are Phaëthon's sisters, who wept themselves for his death into trees.