IS fiery steeds and gleaming chariot the Sun-God, Helios, gave over to the young man Phaethon. The shining doors were rolled open and the steeds stood there, pawing the ground and sniffing the wind that blew towards them; yoked to the steeds was the gleaming chariot.
These were the horses and this was the chariot that, journeying through the heavens, brought light and warmth to men. None but Helios himself had ever driven them before. Now Helios stood there and the light was gone from his face. "O Phaethon, O my son," he cried, "thou art being given what thou hast claimed. But before thou dost take the reins, stay and consider! Thou art half mortal, and only the immortals may drive these fiery steeds and this gleaming chariot through the course of the heavens."
But the young man, Phaethon, sprang into the chariot and took in his hands the reins that were across the necks of the fiery steeds. "Long did I live on earth," he said, "without name and without honour; now I would have the world know that I am indeed the son of bright Helios. Thou didst swear to let me have a token that I, Phaethon, am indeed thy son, and this is the token that I claim—to be let drive thy steeds and thy chariot through the course of the heavens for a single day."
"Renounce thy desire before it is too late, and stay in my shining halls, known to mortals and immortals as my son, the son of Helios who brings light and warmth to the world."
But already the young man had shaken the reins; the fiery steeds sprang forward, and the shining doors of their stable rolled back. Something more his father said to him, but Phaethon did not hear his words. The bright wheels spun round and the chariot of Helios took its course through the sky.
The brightness of their tossing manes made Phaethon exultant; the swiftness of the steeds as they swept along the brightening path through the heavens filled him with delight, and his heart was lifted with pride as he held the reins that guided the course of the horses. "I—I," he cried in his pride, "I, the nameless son of Klymene, my mother, have the horses of Helios under my hands; I drive my father's gleaming chariot through the heavens; I, Phaethon, will be remembered, and all men must speak of me, because for a single day I am bringing them light and warmth."
He thought of the time he had bade farewell to Klymene, his mother; he thought of how he had come into the bright halls of Helios; he thought of how he had heard his father speak of him, praising his beauty, and of how pride had grown in him then and a resolve to have his father grant him a token that would make the world know that he, Phaethon, was indeed the son of Helios. His father had sworn that he would grant him any token that he might ask.
"And what other token might I ask than this?—to have their reins in my hands and these fiery steeds sweeping forward upon the brightening path. O brightness of fire! What was it that my father said about none but an immortal being able to drive the steeds of Helios? I drive them. I am half mortal, but now that I have driven the fiery steeds and the gleaming chariot I feel that I am become immortal! Immortal, immortal, immortal!" he cried, as he went through the brightening heavens, "immortal Phaethon!"
But the immortal horses knew that hands that were not immortal held their reins. They knew that the weakness of one who dies was in the hold that was upon them. They swerved aside from their path in the heavens. They plunged and plunged, going farther off their course. And upon earth men looked up and said, "A portent in the heavens! The steeds of Helios are rushing here and there!"
To Phaethon the horses were but tossing their manes; the bright wheels were but spinning as they should spin. He stood upright in the chariot, holding the reins, and he spoke:
"Are these the hands of one who is half immortal? These hands that hold and guide the horses of Helios! But must men speak always of the horses of Helios? Would that there was a way of making men below wonder at their course today! Wonder, and then know that not Helios but another, one younger and more daring than he, has hands upon the reins today!"
Plunging and plunging, the horses went farther and farther off their course.
They went too far from their course in the blue heavens. Earth withered as they came too near. Fire sprang up, fire, and again, fire! The trees on the plains crackled, and dropped branches, and burned. On the mountains the forests took fire. Now there were mountains burning with fires that went up to the sky.
He knew now that the steeds had gone from their course. He tried to guide them back. The fiery steeds turned savage eyes and bared teeth upon him. They tossed their heads; the wheels spun faster and faster, and the chariot rocked as they rushed and plunged along.
Fires went up in the cities of men; in the rivers and lakes the waters dried up; men lay dying upon the earth. The young man Phaethon, knowing his hands too weak to guide them, shouted to the fiery steeds.
Zeus, the ever-watchful, saw Phaethon's course through the heavens, saw the plunging steeds and the fires going up on the earth, and he knew that all life might be destroyed by the horses and chariot coming nearer and nearer to the earth. He gathered the clouds together, making a veil between the chariot coming nearer and nearer to the earth. He gathered the clouds together, making a veil between the chariot and the world of men. And then he flung his lightning on young Phaethon. The lightning of Zeus tore him from the chariot, and the horses, now that they no longer felt his hands upon the reins, staggered back to their course. Feebly now they went on. Feebly they finished their journey, but they won back to the shining stables that had been built for them by Hephaestos beside the gleaming halls of Helios.
Down, down into the seething sea young Phaethon fell. But he was not lost in the sea. The daughters of Hesperus found him and lifted his body out of the depths of the sea. They made a tomb for him on the sea-shore, and they wrote above his tomb, "Young Phaethon fell from his father's chariot, but even so he lost nothing of his glory, for his heart was set upon the doing of great things."