O NCE, on their way from school, two Greek boys began to quarrel.
"You are nobody!" said one. "Who is your father?"
"My father is Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun. He drives the four great horses of the day. He lights the earth and the heavens with his light, and I, Phaeton, am his son."
His comrade laughed loudly at his boast. He could not believe that the father of Phaeton, his schoolmate, was Apollo, the god of the sun. He called the other boys together and told them Phaeton's story. They crossed their fingers at him and made all manner of fun of the boy for pretending to be the son of a god.
Phaeton, his cheeks flaming with anger, ran home and burst into his mother's chamber. He told her what had happened.
"Is Apollo indeed my father?" he demanded. "How can I be sure, how can I find proof?"
"Is Apollo indeed my father?"
Clymene, his mother, smiled and drew him to her side. She told him again of the glories of Apollo, as she had often told him before.
"Soon," she said, "you will wish to go yourself to the land where the sun rises and find him where he sits on his throne of light, with the four seasons beside him and the hours and the days grouped near by. Why not journey there and see for yourself, and find proof that Apollo is your father?"
So, although Clymene grieved to have him leave her, she made him ready for the journey and bade him a loving farewell.
He traveled many days through gray and barren lands, over mountains and across streams, until at length he reached the land of the rising sun and saw afar off the flaming light which glowed about the palace of his father.
As he drew nearer he saw that the columns of the palace were of gold and ivory, upholding a jeweled roof. The steps leading to the entrance shone with every kind of precious stone.
Phaeton entered the palace, and there on his golden throne in the great central hall, surrounded by a wonderful white light, he saw Apollo, clad in pale purple, beautiful and dazzling.
On the sun god's right stood Spring, her head crowned with flowers, and Summer, with poppies in her hair. On his left stood Autumn, wreathed in grapes, and aged Winter, bowed over with the weight of ice and snow.
Apollo looked down and saw the boy as he drew near, his hand shielding his eyes. He knew in a moment that this was his son Phaeton, and laid aside the rays that shone about his head, so that Phaeton might not be blinded by their brightness.
"O light of the boundless world, Phoebus, my father!" Phaeton cried. "If you are indeed my parent, give me some proof by which I may be known as your son."
Apollo stretched out his hand to Phaeton and drew him nearer. He looked at him, so straight and brave and young, and the sun god was proud of him.
"My son," he said, "for proof, ask of me what you wish and it shall be given."
Phaeton at once thought of the chariot of the sun. He pictured himself riding across the sky holding the reins of his father's horses. He imagined the amazement of his friends if they could see him.
"Let me for one day drive the chariot of the sun," he answered. "Let me ride from morning until evening through the clouds in your chariot, holding the reins of your four horses."
Apollo was sorry that he had made Phaeton so rash a promise, and begged him to choose something else. He reminded the boy that he was not yet grown, and that he was only mortal. He told of the dreadful dangers that every day surrounded the chariot on both its upward and its downward path.
"The first part of the way," he said, "is so steep that the horses can barely climb it, and the last part descends so rapidly that I can hardly hold them. Besides, the heaven itself is always turning, hurrying with it the stars, and always I am afraid lest it sweep me from the chariot and carry the horses from the road. The way leads through the abode of frightful monsters. You must pass the horns of the Bull, the Lion's jaws, the Scorpion, and the Crab.
"O Phaeton," he begged, "look around the world and choose whatever you wish that is precious, whether in the sea or in the midst of the earth, and it shall be yours; but give up this longing to drive my chariot, which can mean only death to you, and destruction."
"No," said Phaeton, "I do not care for anything either in the sea or on the earth. I want only to drive the chariot of Phoebus, my father."
So Phoebus Apollo sadly led the way to the chariot. It was of gold, with a seat of jewels, and around it flamed such a blaze of light that for a moment Phaeton feared to go nearer, it seemed so fiery and scorching.
Rosy-fingered Dawn threw open the silver doors of the East, and there before him Phaeton saw the stars fading away, and the moon, her nightly journey finished, hurrying from the sky. The four great chargers were led from their stalls, and Phaeton cried out in delight as he saw their arched necks and stamping feet. Fire poured from their nostrils, and their hoofs were shod with light.
Phoebus bathed the boy's face with a powerful oil so that he would not be burned, set the rays of the sun on his head, and bade him hold tight to the reins, keep to the middle of the road, and follow the tracks of the wheels.
"Go not too high," he warned, "or you will burn the heavenly dwellings; nor too low, or you will set the earth on fire."
Phaeton joyfully grasped the reins and, holding his head high with delight and pride, rode into the purple path of the morning sky.
The horses darted forward with mighty strength and scattered the clouds. Soon they felt that the touch on the reins was not their master's, but a lighter one, and that the chariot itself was not so heavy. So, filling the air with their fiery snorting, they sped on faster and faster, while Phaeton tried to hold them back.
They left the traveled road and dashed headlong in among the stars. Phaeton was borne along like the petal of a flower by the wind, and knew not how to guide his fiery steeds.
The horses left the traveled road and dashed headlong in among the stars.
Looking down, he saw the earth spreading below, and his knees grew weak with fright. He wished that he had never left his mother or asked to drive the chariot of the sun.
Around him on every side were the monsters of the sky. The Scorpion reached his great claws toward the chariot as it passed, and Phaeton dropped the reins.
The Scorpion reached his great claws toward the chariot.
The horses galloped off into unknown regions of the sky, now high up toward the abode of the gods, now downward, so close to the earth that the mountains caught fire, the Alps covered with snow grew hot, and the Apennines flamed.
The earth cracked open. Grassy plains were scorched into deserts. Even the sea shrank, and the fishes and water nymphs hurried down to the deepest parts of the ocean.
So terrible was the heat that Mother Earth cried out to Jupiter, "O ruler of the gods, I can no more supply fruits for men, or herbage for cattle, and my brother Ocean suffers with me. Your own heaven is smoking, and your clouds are on fire. If sea, earth, and heaven burn, we fall again into Chaos. Oh, take thought for our deliverance!"
Then Jupiter mounted the tower on Olympus, from which he shook his thunderbolts and his forked lightning. He hurled a mighty bolt at the chariot and poured rain on the smoking earth until the fires were extinguished.
Poor Phaeton, still clinging to the reeling chariot as it swayed across the sky, was struck by Jupiter's thunderbolt and, his hair on fire, fell headlong like a streak of lightning into the river Eridanus, which soothed him and cooled his burning body.