November 5th, 2008

about to unfold

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In the version of the myth told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Phaeton bragged to his friends that his father was the sun-god. One of his friends, who was rumored to be a son of Zeus, refused to believe him and said his mother was lying. So Phaeton went to his father Helios, who swore by the river Styx to give Phaeton anything he should ask for in order to prove his divine paternity.

“Then let me drive your chariot, Father,” said Phaethon. “For then no king’s son will mock me as a bastard.”

“Not that,” said Helios, frowning. “It is not safe for you, my son. The horses that pull the Sun are fierce and wild. Only I may handle them. Ask me another boon.”

“That is my wish,” Phaethon insisted. “Father, you promised.”

At this Helios was much aggrieved, for even the gods dared not break an oath sworn upon the Styx. At last, he yielded to his son’s pleas, and led him to the stable shortly before dawn.

“Fly not too high,” Helios instructed him. “Nor too low. Keep to the zodiac.That is the middle way.”

Then he put the whip in Phaethon’s hand and helped him into the chariot, wrapping the traces around his waist.

The bronze doors of the east opened with a clang. Proudly, Phaethon stood tall as the horses leapt into the sky. They climbed swiftly, red sparks clattering from their harnesses. At first all seemed well.

But Phaethon feared his friend would not believe him unless he had some proof. So he tried to coax the horses to drop lower over Africa, so that Epaphos might see him. The steeds fretted and danced nervously. His weight was lighter than his father’s, and the chariot was already swinging from side to side. Abruptly, they bolted.

Down they plunged. The sun rattling behind them burned the lower air and set the forests ablaze. Rivers and lakes smoked and dried up. The lands were parched to deserts, and the people living there turned brown in the heat. Desperately Phaethon tried to jerk the reins back and turn the horses upwards. They reared and raced heavenwards, leaving the smoking earth behind. The lands beneath cracked under sheets of ice, and the sky itself began to burn, leaving a white scar in his wake now called the Milky Way.

The horses plunged up, then down, then up again, burning and freezing the earth and sky. Zeus heard the cries from suppliants praying at the temples and looked out from Mt. Olympus. Seeing a stranger in Helios’ chariot, he let fly a thunderbolt, striking Phaethon dead in an instant. The horses of the sun, now driverless, turned and headed back to their stables.

Phaethon dropped like a falling star a long, long way and plunged into the sea. There his mother’s sisters lamented him. In the voices of the gulls, you can hear their cries to this day.


"Hey, everybody," he says repeatedly. Why so glum?" -