Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by  Mary E. Burt


A Story of the Setting Sun

There were three goddesses who lived in the garden of Hesperides where the golden apples grow. They were very beautiful and rosy, with white robes and golden hair. They guarded the golden apples and watched over their favorite brother, Phaeton, whose father was the great, shining sun-god Apollo.

Apollo used to drive the chariot of the Sun, and he was very skillful and wise about it. He kept it right in the middle of the heavens where it never ran against anything.

But Phaeton had heard some one say that he did not believe he was the son of Apollo, because he never drove the heavenly horses and was not allowed the honors of a royal prince. Phaeton begged his father, therefore, to let him drive the horses and guide the chariot just for one day, so that he should prove to the people who sneered at him that he really was beloved of Apollo, and his true son. The father unwillingly consented, and Phaeton mounted the chariot and drove off at great speed, but he was unskillful, and the horses ran hither and thither in confusion, and soon the unhappy youth had driven so close to the earth that he had scorched its surface everywhere, set the rivers all boiling, dried up the fountains, burned the trees and the grass, and killed many people.

Jupiter in his wrath, seeing all these things, sent a thunderbolt to strike him dead, and his beautiful sisters mourned and wept over him. They took his body to a field beyond the garden of Hesperides and buried it, and erected over it a marble tomb on which was inscribed these words, "Here lies Phaeton, the driver of his father's chariot, which he failed to manage. He died in the attempt to do a great thing." His father, Apollo, sorrowed greatly over the loss of his son. If we can believe what they say, he passed a whole day in sorrow, covering his face, and he did not drive the chariot through the heavens for that day, so that the earth was left in darkness. The flaming forests set on fire by Phaeton furnished all the light there was.

The Mother of Phaeton, whose name was Clymene, was a tall, dark-robed goddess, whose abode was beneath the earth. When she learned of the fate of her beloved son, she traversed the whole earth, going round and round it full of woe, seeking his lifeless form, and at last she came to a stream in the field beyond the garden of Hesperides, on whose bank was the tomb of Phaeton. She laid herself down on the spot and bathed the stone with her tears and warmed it with her kisses. The daughters of the Sun mourned no less and wept unavailing tears over his death. There they called upon him night and day, and lay on the ground near his tomb.

Four times did the Moon fill out her great round disk while they remained at the tomb and uttered lamentations. Jupiter was angry with them for mourning so long over their brother, and decreed that they should remain at the tomb and continue weeping forever. When they tried to rise from the ground they found that their feet were rooted to the spot, and that their arms were stiffened. They had turned into weeping-willow trees.

When their mother saw them turning into trees, she ran to them and pressed her lips to theirs in a last kiss, and the bark of the tree came over them and covered them. There they continued standing, and the tears oozed down their new formed branches and hardened in the sun. The rain beat upon them and carried the hardened tears off into the river, down to the sea, and the sailors gathered them for jewels. But Jupiter said to the other gods, let no one dare to condemn the will of Zeus. Behold the fate of these maidens. Their fidelity has been their ruin.

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