38. Phaethon fails to control Phoebus’ horses

Once upon a time, Clymene the mother of Phaethon, had told Phaethon that his father was the sun-god Phoebus. To ascertain the truth, Phaethon entered the heavens and stood in the presence of his father. When Phoebus asked the purpose of the visit, Phaethon replied that if her mother Clymene had not concealed her sin under some pretext, and if indeed he be the son of the glorious Phoebus, then a token to that effect should be given to him, for establishing his paternity. Phoebus agreed to give whatever token Phaethon desired and swore by the Stygian Waves, to abide by his word. The witless boy Phaethon, as a token of paternity, asked to command his father’s wing-footed horses and chariot, only for a day.

Phoebus repented that he had sworn to accede to any request of Phaethon. He greatly urged Phaethon to reconsider, since even the king of the Olympian gods, the mighty Zeus, hesitated to command his horses. Moreover, neither the strength nor the tender years of Phaethon were ably suited, to drive his star traversing chariot. But Phaethon resisted his father’s sage advice. Phoebus being bound by his own oath, reluctantly agreed, while dreadful apprehensions made his breast tremble with fear.

The excited Phaethon, with youthful eagerness, jumped inside the chariot. Instantly, Eous, Aethon, Pyrois and Phlegon, the winged horses of the Sun, started to move their shining hoofs. Tethys let back the barriers and the horses galloped away. But Phaethon was unable to control the horses and they strayed from their usual course. The earth was scorched, vegetation was burned, rivers and lakes dried up, and Gaia cried out to Zeus for help.

Zeus struck Phaethon with his thunderbolt. Phaethon died and his flaming body plunged into the river Eridanos. Phoebus was so grief-stricken that he refused to drive his chariot ever again. But at the appeal of the gods and Zeus, Phoebus finally agreed to perform his daily duty.

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Excerpt from the book “Once Upon A Time-II: 150 Greek Mythology Stories” by Rajen Jani

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