Only once was the established order in the world challenged, and the sun-god did not go out in his chariot to heaven to shine upon men. This is what happened. The Sun, Helios, had a son by Clemena, the daughter of the sea goddess Thetis, who was called Phaeton. Phaeton’s cousin Epaphus, the son of the thunderer Zeus, once laughed at him, telling him:
“I do not believe that you are the son of the radiant Helios. Your mother is lying. You are the son of an ordinary mortal.”
Anger stew up in Phaeton, redness of shame flooded his face, he ran to his mother, threw himself into her arms and with tears in his eyes complained about the insult. And his mother, stretching out her hands to the radiant sun, cried out:
“Oh, son! I swear to you in Helios, who sees and hears us, whom you yourself see now, that he is your father! Let him deprive me of his light if I do not tell the truth. Go to him alone, his palace is not far from us. He will confirm my words to you.”
Phaeton immediately went to his father Helios. He quickly reached his palace, which shone with gold, silver, and precious stones. The whole palace seemed to sparkle with all the colors of the rainbow, so wonderfully decorated by the god Hephaestus himself. Phaeton entered the palace and saw Helios sitting there on his throne in purple. But Phaeton could not approach the radiant god; his eyes, the eyes of a mortal, could not bear the radiance that radiated from the crown of Helios. The sun god saw Phaeton and asked him:
“What brings you to me in the palace, son?”
“Oh, light of the whole world, oh, Father Helios! But do I dare call you Dad?”, Phaeton shouted. “Give me proof that you are my father. Please remove my doubt.”
Helios took off the radiant wreath, called Phaeton to him, hugged him and told him:
“Yes, you are my son; your mother, Klimena, told you right. And so that you do not doubt any more, ask me what you wish, and swear in the waters of the sacred river Styx, I will fulfill your request.”
“Madman, what do you want?”, shouted Helios. “Oh, that I could break my oath! You want the impossible, Phaeton. This is beyond your power. You are mortal, and is this a mortal job? Even the immortal gods are unable to hold on to my chariot. The great Zeus the Thunderer alone cannot rule it, and who is more powerful than him! Just think: at first the road is so steep that even my winged horses can barely climb it. Towards the middle it walks so high above the ground that even I am overwhelmed with fear as I look down at the seas and lands below me. And towards the end, the road descends so steeply to the sacred shores of the ocean that without my experienced driving, the chariot will fly headlong and crash. You may think that you will meet many good things along the way, No, the road leads through dangers, horrors and among wild animals. It is narrow; if you turn aside, there the horns of the terrible taurus are waiting for you, they are threatened by the bow of the centaur, the raging lion, the monstrous scorpions and cancer. There are many horrors on the heavenly path. Believe me, I don’t want to be the cause of your death. Oh, if you could peek into my heart and see how afraid I am of you! Look around, look at the world, how many good things there are in it! Ask for anything you want, I won’t deny you anything, just don’t ask for this. Because you do not want a reward, but a terrible punishment.”
But Phaeton did not want to listen to anything; wrapping his arms around Helios’s neck, he begged him to comply with his request.
“All right, I’ll comply with your request. Calm down, I swore in the waters of the Styx. You will receive what you ask of me; but I thought you were wiser”, said the sadden Helios.
He took Phaeton to the place where his chariot stood. Phaeton began to admire the chariot: she was all golden and shone with multicolored stones. They brought the winged horses of Helios, fed with ragweed and soaked in nectar. They were harnessed to the chariot. The pink-fingered Eos opened the door to the sun. Helios anointed Phaeton’s face with sacred grease to keep the sun’s flame from burning him, and placed a dazzling wreath on his head. With a sigh of sorrow, Helios gives his last instructions to Phaeton.
“Son, remember my last instructions, follow them if you can. Do not ride the horses hard, hold the reins as tightly as possible. My horses will run on their own. It’s hard to stop them. And you will clearly see your path on the tracks that pass through the whole sky. Do not go up too high so as not to set the sky on fire, but do not go down too low, otherwise you will set the earth on fire. Do not deviate, remember, neither to the right nor to the left. Your path is right in the middle between the Serpent and the Altar. I leave everything else to fate, I only hope for it. But it is time, the night has already left the sky; the pink-fingered Eos has already ascended. Hold the reins tighter. And maybe you will change your decision after all – it threatens you with death. Oh, let me shine on the earth! Don’t perish.”
But Phaeton quickly jumped on the chariot and grabbed the reins. He happily rejoices, thanks to his father Helios and hurries to leave. The horses rummage with their hooves, a flame jumps out of their nostrils, they gently pull the chariot and through the fog they quickly make their way forward on the steep road to the sky. The chariot is unusually light for horses. Here they are already racing across the sky, deviating from the ordinary path of Helios and flying without a path. And Phaeton does not know where the road really is, he is not able to control the horses. He looks down from heaven to the earth and pales with fear, it is so far below. His knees tremble, darkness obscures his eyes. He already regrets asking his father to let him drive his chariot. What to do! He has come a long way, but he has an even longer way to go. Phaeton can’t handle the horses, he doesn’t know their names, and he has no strength to keep them with the reins. Around him he sees terrible celestial beasts and is even more frightened.
There is a place in the sky where a monster, a terrible scorpion, is lying – the Phaeton horses continue to suffer. The unfortunate young man saw a scorpion covered in dark poison, threatening him with his deadly sting, and, mad with fear, missed the reins. Feeling free, the horses then endure even faster. Here they ascend to the stars themselves, here they descend and float above the earth itself. Helios‘ sister, the goddess of the Moon Selena, watches in amazement as her brother’s horses rode off the road, unmanned by anyone, across the sky. The earth is engulfed in the flames of the low chariot. Big rich cities perish, whole tribes perish.
Mountains covered with forests blaze: the two-headed Parnassus, the shady Kitheron, the green Helicon, the forests of the Caucasus, Tmol, Ida, Pelion and Osa. The smoke obscures everything around; due to the thick smoke, the Phaeton does not see where he is going. The water in the rivers and streams boils. The nymphs cry and hide in the deep caves in terror. The Euphrates, Orontes, Alpheus, Eurota and other rivers boil. From the great heat the earth cracks and a ray of the sun penetrates the dark realm of Hades. The seas begin to dry up and the sea deities suffer from heat. Then the great goddess Gaia-Earth rises and shouts loudly:
“Oh, the greatest of the gods, thunderer Zeus! Should I perish, should the kingdom of your brother Poseidon perish, should all living things perish? Look at Atlas, it can barely hold the weight of the sky. So the sky and the palaces of the gods can collapse. Will everything return to the original Chaos? Oh, save from the fire what is left!”
Zeus, hearing the request of the titan Gaia, swung his right hand terribly, threw his blinding lightning and extinguished the fire with its fire. With lightning, Zeus broke the chariot. Helios’s horses ran in different directions. Pieces of the chariot and the harnesses of Helios‘ horses were scattered throughout the sky.
And Phaeton, with burning curls on his head, soared through the air like a shooting star and fell in the midst of the waves of the river Eridan, far from his homeland. There the Hesperian nymphs picked up his body and buried it. Phaeton’s father Helios fell into deep sorrow, covered his face and did not appear in the blue sky all day. Only the glare of the fire illuminated the earth.
Phaeton’s unfortunate mother, Klimena, searched for the body of her dead son for a long time. Finally, she found not her son’s body on Eridan’s shores, but his grave. The inconsolable mother wept bitterly over her son’s grave; together with her they mourned their dead brother and Klimena’s daughters, the heliads. Their grief was boundless. The great gods turned the weeping heliads into poplars. The heliad poplars stand on the shores of Eridanus, leaning over him and their tears – glue, falling into the cold water. The glue hardens and turns into transparent amber.
His friend Kicken also mourned the death of Phaeton. His cries spread far and wide on the shores of Eridanus. Seeing Kicken’s inconsolable grief, the gods turned him into a snow-white swan. Since then, the Kikan swan has lived in the water – on rivers and wide bright lakes. He is afraid of the fire that destroyed his friend Phaeton.
Phaeton (exposed according to “Metamorphoses”)