Phaeton by Gustave Moreau (1878).

In Greek mythology, Phaëton or Phaethon (pronounced:ˈfeɪ.ətən or ˈf|eɪ.əθən; Ancient Greek: Φαέθων "shining") was the son of Helios and the Oceanid Clymene. Alternate, less common genealogies make him a son of Clymenus by Merope[1], of Helios and Rhode (thus a full brother of the Heliadae)[2] or of Helios and Prote[3].

Perhaps the most famous version of the myth is given us through Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Book II). Phaeton seeks assurance that his mother, Clymenē, is telling the truth that his father is the sun god Helios (as her husband is Merops, a mortal king). When Phaeton obtains his father's promise to drive the sun chariot as proof, he fails to control it and the Earth is in danger of burning up when Phaeton is killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent further disaster.

The name "Phaëton", which means "shining", is also an epithet of Eosphoros, the Morning Star Venus.[4]

Phaethon is also the name of another minor Greek deity, the god of the wandering star Dios (the planet Jupiter).


In the version of the myth told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Phaeton ascends into heaven, the home of his suspected father. His mother Clymene had boasted that his father was the sun-god Helios. Helios was especially worshipped in Rhodes, however by the 5th Century BCE the Greeks had primarily replaced him with Apollo Phoebus. However, in Roman mythology the sun-god Helios is adopted again only by his Latin name, which is Sol."[5] Phaeton went to his father who swore by the river Styx to give Phaeton anything he should ask for in order to prove his divine paternity. Phaeton wanted to drive his chariot of the sun for a day. Helios tried to talk him out of it by telling him that not even Zeus (the king of gods) would dare to drive it, as the chariot was fiery hot and the horses breathed out flames. Phaeton was adamant. When the day came, Helios anointed Phaeton's head with magic oil to keep the chariot from burning him. Phaeton was unable to control the fierce horses that drew the chariot as they sensed a weaker hand.

"...consider what impetuous force Turns stars and planets in a diff'rent course. I steer against their motions; nor am I Born back by all the current of the skye. But how cou'd you resist the orbs that roul In adverse whirls, and stem the rapid pole?"[6]

First it veered too high, so that the earth grew chill. Then it dipped too close, and the vegetation dried and burned. He accidentally turned most of Africa into desert; bringing the blood of the Ethiopians to the surface of their skin, turning it black.

"The running conflagration spreads below. But these are trivial ills: whole cities burn, And peopled kingdoms into ashes turn."[6]

Rivers and lakes began to dry up, Poseidon rose out of the sea and waved his trident in anger at the sun, but soon the heat became even too great for him and he dove to the bottom of the sea.

Eventually, Zeus was forced to intervene by striking the runaway chariot with a lightning bolt to stop it, and Phaëthon plunged into the river Eridanos. Helios, stricken with grief, refused to drive his chariot for days. Finally the other Greek gods persuaded him not to leave the world in darkness. Helios blamed Zeus for killing his son, but Zeus told him there was no other way.

The epitaph on his tomb was quite to the point:

"Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god's chariot. Greatly he failed, but greatly he dared."[7]

This story has given rise to two latter-day meanings of "phaeton": one who drives a chariot or coach, especially at a reckless or dangerous speed, and one that would or may set the world on fire.

Phaeton in Plato's Timaeus

In Plato's Timaeus, Critias tells the story of Solon's visit to Egypt shortly after Solon was elected archon in 594 BCE. Solon was puzzled by the fact that the Greeks had no history prior to the Trojan War and told the Egyptians that history must begin with the first man (Phoroneus) and woman (Niobe) and after the Deluge with Deucalion and Pyrrha. To which the Neith priest, identified by Plutarch as Sonchis the Saite. said:

in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why. There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals."[8]

Phaethon in Aristotle's Meteorology

In Aristotle's Meteorology, Aristotle says, "...the stars...fell from heaven at the time of Phaethon's downfall."[9] Aristotle is saying Phaethon caused a meteor shower. This has led many scientists including Immanuel Velikovsky to speculate that Phaethon was a comet.

Phaethon In Clement of Alexandria

According to Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata, " the time of Crotopus occurred the burning of Phaethon, and the deluges of Deucalion.[10]

Phaethon in Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Suetonius attributes the following quote to Tiberius speaking about the future emperor Caligula, "Caius (Caligula) was destined to be the destruction of him, and them all; and that he was cherishing a hydra for the people of Rome, and a Phaeton for all the world" This means, more or less, that Caligula will bring about the destruction of the Empire.

Phaëthon in other stories

Fragments of Euripides' tragedy on this subject suggest that Phaethon survives. In reconstructing the lost play and discussing the fragments, James Diggle has discussed the treatment of the Phaeton myth (Diggle 2004).

In the True History by the satirical Roman writer Lucian, Phaëton is king of the sun and is at war with the moon.

Dante refers to the episode in both the Inferno and Paradiso Canto XVII of his Divine Comedy.

The motif of the fallen star must have been familiar in Israel, for Isaiah referred to it in admonishing the king of Babylon for his pride ("How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!" Isaiah 14:12ff). The Jewish Encyclopedia reports that "it is obvious that the prophet in attributing to the Babylonian king boastful pride, followed by a fall, borrowed the idea from a popular legend connected with the morning star." The falling-star image reappears in John's Apocalypse without a name. In the 4th century, Jerome's translation of the "morning star" as "Lucifer" carried the fallen-star myth-element into Christian mythology. For fuller details, see Lucifer and Azazel.

Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote a musical tragedy Phaeton, in which he referred indirectly to the fate of Nicolas Fouquet whose ambitions to imitate the King Louis XIV -- The Sun King—brought on his downfall.

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a symphonic poem entitled "Phaéton".

Niccolò Jommelli wrote an opera Fetonte to an Italian-language libretto by Mattia Verazi using various sources, principally Ovid, for the myth of Phaeton. First performed at the Ducal Theatre, Ludwigsburg in February, 1768, where Duke Karl-Eugen of Württemberg maintained an opera troupe.

William Shakespeare uses the story of Phaethon as an allegory in his play Richard II.

In the novel A Room with a View, the carriage driver who takes the English to the Tuscan hills is given the pseudonym Phaethon.

In the short-lived 1990s sci-fi cartoon series Exosquad the evil leader of the humanoid species "Neosapien" is named Phaeton.

In The Golden Age science fiction trilogy by John C. Wright, the lead character is named Phaethon and his father is named Helion.


  1. Gaius Julius Hyginus, Fabulae, 154
  2. Scholia on Pindar, Olympian Ode 6. 131
  3. Tzetzes, Chiliades, 4. 127
  4. Euripides, Orestes. 2008-04-16. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  5. CD MLA Style Encyclopædia Britannica, Helios: 2010 Desktop Encyclopedia CD. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Metamorphoses by Ovid Book II PHAETHON". 2010-06-15. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  7. Edith Hamilton, MYTHOLOGY: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, ISBN 0-446-60725-8
  8. "The Internet Classics Archive | Timaeus by Plato". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  9. "Meteorology By Aristotle, Book 1, part 8". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  10. "Clement of Alexandria: Stromata, Book 1". 2006-02-02. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Phaëton. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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