THE STORY OF PHAETON
BY M. M. BIRD
A fiery and high-spirited youth, Phaeton could not
brook the taunts of his playmate Epaphus, who
claimed divine descent from Isis. When Phaeton boasted
that his father was Ph[oe]bus the Sun-god, Epaphus only
laughed and called him a base-born pretender. So one
day Phaeton, stung to madness by these taunts, went
boldly to his mother Clymené and demanded that she
should give him some clear proof that he was indeed, as
she averred, the very son of Phœbus. Clymené lifted
her beautiful hands to the Sun, who rode gorgeous in
the Heavens, and swore by him that none other than
Phœbus was the father of the boy. "Nevertheless," said
she, "if this doth suffice you not, and you seek other
proof, travel yourself to his Eastern Mansion, which lies
not so far remote from here, and ask him whether you are
not his son."
The ambitious youth hastened to follow her counsel; he
longed to see his father, and to visit the Eastern Mansion
where he abode. Through India he traveled in
haste, never resting till afar off he saw the wondrous
light that shimmered perpetually over the Palace of the
High it stood on columns of burnished gold ablaze
with jewels. The folding doors were of silver, the walls
of ivory, and Vulcan had wrought the precious metals in
designs of wonderful beauty. The seas, the earth, the
fair forms of the immortal gods, all graced the carven
Phaeton, toiling up the steep ascent, saw at a great distance
the dazzling god, seated high on an imperial throne,
all sparkling with gems. The Hours, Days, Months, and
Years, were ranged on either hand. He saw Spring decked
in flowers, Summer with her garner of grain, Autumn
bowed beneath his burden of grapes and fruits, and
hoary Winter shivering behind them. The all-beholding
eye of the god perceived him from afar, and before he
had spoken a word, a voice from the throne bade him
welcome: "What wants my son? For my son thou art."
Thus encouraged, the youth, though dazzled by the exceeding
brightness, poured out his tale and proffered
The god was touched by his tale of wrong. Flinging
aside the awful glories that surrounded him, he bade his
son advance, and embraced him with tenderness.
"Make of me some request," he said, "and to convince
thee that I am thy father, I swear by Styx to grant it,
whate'er it be."
The youth was transported with delight, and asked at
once to be permitted to guide the Sun's bright chariot
for one day.
Phœbus was grieved beyond measure at the young
man's rash ambition, and bitterly repented of his oath;
but even a god, when he has sworn by Styx, cannot take
back or annul that awful oath.
"Ask of me some other proof," he begged. "Too vast
and hazardous this task for thy strength and years. Not
one of all the gods—not Jupiter himself, ruler of the
sky—dares mount that burning chariot, save I alone!"
He told him how with pain and labor the wild steeds
climb up the arc of the sky—how from the topmost pinnacles
of Heaven the Earth and Ocean lie so far beneath
that even he himself is sometimes seized with giddiness
and his brain reels. And when down the steep descent
of the western sky the horses plunge headlong, it needs a
strong and steady hand to check them in their course.
He told him how, through all his daily task, the brave
Sun has to front the opposing forces of the Bear, the
Scorpion, and the Dog Star, and guide his steeds among
their influences. Through a thousand snares his progress
lies, with forms of starry monsters ready to devour him
if he strays by a hair's breadth from the appointed way.
And the very horses themselves, when their mettle is up,
are a team that only a god may control. "My son," he
besought him, "do not require of me a fatal gift."
But the fond father pleaded in vain. The bold youth
was unaffrighted, and the oath was binding.
The time had come: Aurora heralded the new day.
The golden chariot made by Vulcan was drawn forth; the
spokes of the wheels were of silver, its seat was starred
The nimble Hours brought forth from their stalls the
With last words of warning and advice, the father
bade his son farewell, and watched him wend forth on
his perilous journey. The youth leaped into the seat, he
gathered up the reins, and gave his father such praise
and thanks for his indulgence as cut him to the heart.
The horses neighed and pranced, breathing fire from
their distended nostrils. They sprang out through the
gates of Dawn and flew over the clouds, leaving the light
breezes of Morn far behind them.
The youth was light; he could not poise or weight the
chariot as did its accustomed rider. The bounding car
was tossed to and fro, the sport of winds and currents.
Wildly they hurtled headlong up the sky. The steeds
perceived the lighter weight, the weaker hands. They
plunged, and plunging, left the stated course.
The youth became confused; he looked around him,
but could no longer recognize the track. He did not
know which way to steer, nor would the horses have
obeyed his hand. Wildly they careered and brought the
heat of midday into far regions of the Heavens that were
unused to its untempered rays. All around him monstrous
threatening shades awoke and stirred in the
Heavens as he vexed them with the heat. Far, far below
the affrighted youth could see Earth and Ocean
spread out. But as his chariot raced madly down the
heights, the clouds were dispersed by his fierce rays, the
high mountains began to smoke, the forests to burn;
ripened harvests were devoured by fire, whole cities were
turned to ashes. Pindus and Parnassus were steaming,
the fountains of Mount Ida were dried up, and Ætna
raged with redoubled heat. Even the towering Apennines
and Caucasus lost their snows, and the huge Alps
were one range of living flame.
The horrified youth beheld the universe burn around
him, and he could scarce endure the sultry vapors that
rose about him as from a furnace. Lost in clouds of whirling
smoke and ashes, the steeds careered madly to and
fro, he knew not whither. It is said that in that day the
Moor began to change his hue and turn black, and Libya
and all the deserts of Africa were then first drained of
their moisture and left in great tracts of parching sandy
waste. The great rivers, the Ganges, Euphrates, and the
Danube, rose up in clouds of hissing steam, and the
frightened Nile ran off and hid his head in the sands,
and there for centuries and centuries it has lain hid.
Stern Neptune, in amazement and anger, thrice reared
his head above the shrinking waves where his fishes all
were dying, and thrice the fierce flames drove him back.
At length Earth, wrapped in her scalding seas, uplifting
her scorching brows, appealed to Jupiter.
"See how fierce vapors choke my breath; see my
singed hair, my withered face, the heaps of cinders that
defile my fair body.... Have pity."
Jupiter heard her prayer. He mounted his high
ethereal throne, called all powers, even the god whose
son drove the chariot, to witness that what he did he
was compelled to do, and launched a thunderbolt at the
head of the despairing Phaeton.
Thus with fire the god of gods suppressed the raging
fire. Lifeless from the chariot the boy fell like a falling
star, and his charred body dropped to the earth far from
his own land, far in the western world, beside the river
The horses broke loose from their harness, the chariot
was splintered into a thousand shining fragments and
scattered far over the steaming earth.
And the story goes, that for the space of one whole
day, from morn till eve, the world existed without a sun,
lighted only by the lurid glare of the burning ruins.
Beside the waters of the river the Latian nymphs came
round and gazed with awe upon the dead youth. His
charred body they inclosed in a marble urn and wrote
on it an epitaph:
"Here lies a youth as beautiful as brave,
Who through the heavens his father's chariot drave."
His mother Clymené, frantic with grief, ceased not to
roam the world, followed by her weeping daughters, until
at last she came to the banks of Po, and found there the
sculptured urn. She hung above it, bedewing the marble
with her tears, crying aloud the name so dear to her.
Her daughters stood around, weeping and lamenting
with her. All night long they kept their watch, and
returning day found them still calling on their brother's
name. Four days and nights they kept their stand, till
at length, when for their weariness they would have
sought rest, they found they could not move. Phaethusa's
arms were covered with hardening bark and branching
boughs; Lampetia stood rooted to the ground; Æglé, as
she tore her hair, only filled her hands with leaves. While
their faces were yet untransformed, they cried to their
mother for help. But, alas! she was powerless. She
tore the bark from their fair bodies, she stripped the
leaves from their sprouting fingers, she clung to their
hardening limbs in vain. Only blood came trickling
where she tore away the leaves and bark, and in faint
voices the maidens cried that she only wounded her
daughters when she tore their trees.
Then the bark covered their fair faces, and they stood
for ever dumb, waving green boughs in the sun, while
tears of amber rolled slowly down the encrusting bark.