Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology
Author: Bulfinch, Thomas

Chapter V: Phaeton.

Phaeton was the son of Apollo and the nymph Clymene. One day a
schoolfellow laughed at the idea of his being the son of the god, and Phaeton
went in rage and shame and reported it to his mother. "If," said he, "I am
indeed of heavenly birth, give me, mother, some proof of it, and establish my
claim to the honor." Clymene stretched forth her hands towards the skies, and
said, "I call to witness the Sun which looks down upon us, that I have told
you the truth. If I speak falsely, let this be the last time I behold his
light. But it needs not much labor to go and inquire for yourself; the land
whence the Sun rises lies next to ours. Go and demand of him whether he will
own you as a son." Phaeton heard with delight. He travelled to India, which
lies directly in the regions of sunrise; and, full of hope and pride,
approached the goal whence his parent begins his course.

The palace of the Sun stood reared aloft on columns, glittering with gold
and precious stones, while polished ivory formed the ceilings, and silver the
doors. The workmanship surpassed the material; ^* for upon the walls Vulcan
had represented earth, sea and skies, with their inhabitants. In the sea were
the nymphs, some sporting in the waves, some riding on the backs of fishes,
while others sat upon the rocks and dried their sea-green hair. Their faces
were not all alike, nor yet unlike, - but such as sisters' ought to be. ^* The
earth had its towns and forests and rivers and rustic divinities. Over all
was carved the likeness of the glorious heaven; and on the silver doors the
twelve signs of the zodiac, six on each side.

[Footnote *: See Proverbial Expressions, page 477.]

Clymene's son advanced up the steep ascent, and entered the halls of his
disputed father. He approached the paternal presence, but stopped at a
distance, for the light was more than he could bear. Phoebus, arrayed in a
purple vesture, sat on a throne which glittered as with diamonds. On his
right hand and his left stood the Day the Month, and the Year, and, at regular
intervals, the Hours. Spring stood with her head crowned with flowers, and
Summer, with garment cast aside, and a garland formed of spears of ripened
grain, and Autumn, with his feet stained with grape-juice, and icy Winter,
with his hair stiffened with hoar frost. Surrounded by these attendants, the
Sun, with the eye that sees every thing beheld the youth dazzled with the
novelty and splendor of the scene, and inquired the purpose of his errand The
youth replied, "O, light of the boundless world, Phoebus, my father, - if you
permit me to use that name, - give me some proof, I beseech you, by which I
may be known as yours." He ceased; and his father, laying aside the beams that
shone all around his head, bade him approach, and embracing him, said, "My
son, you deserve not to be disowned, and I confirm what your mother has told
you. To put an end to your doubts, ask what you will, the gift shall be
yours. I call to witness that dreadful lake, which I never saw, but which we
gods swear by in our most solemn engagements." Phaeton immediately asked to be
permitted for one day to drive the chariot of the sun. The father repented of
his promise; thrice and four times he shook his radiant head in warning. "I
have spoken rashly," said he; "this only request I would fain deny. I beg you
to withdraw it. It is not a safe boon, nor one, my Phaeton, suited to your
youth and strength. Your lot is mortal, and you ask what is beyond a mortal's
power. In your ignorance you aspire to do that which not even the gods
themselves may do. None but myself may drive the flaming car of day. Not
even Jupiter, whose terrible right arm hurls the thunderbolts. The first part
of the way is steep, and such as the horses when fresh in the morning can
hardly climb; the middle is high up in the heavens, whence I myself can
scarcely, without alarm, look down and behold the earth and sea stretched
beneath me. The last part of the road descends rapidly, and requires most
careful driving. Tethys, who is waiting to receive me, often trembles for me
lest I should fall headlong. Add to all this, the heaven is all the time
turning round and carrying the stars with it. I have to be perpetually on my
guard lest that movement, which sweeps every thing else along, should hurry me
also away. Suppose I should lend you the chariot, what would you do? Could
you keep your course while the sphere was revolving under you? Perhaps you
think that there are forests and cities, the abodes of gods, and palaces and
temples on the way. On the contrary, the road is through the midst of
frightful monsters. You pass by the horns of the Bull, in front of the
Archer, and near the Lion's jaws, and where the Scorpion stretches its arms in
one direction and the Crab in another. Nor will you find it easy to guide
those horses, with their breasts full of fire that they breathe forth from
their mouths and nostrils. I can scarcely govern them myself, when they are
unruly and resist the reins. Beware, my son, lest I be the donor of a fatal
gift; recall your request while yet you may. Do you ask me for a proof that
you are sprung from my blood? I give you a proof in my fears for you. Look
at my face, - I would that you could look into my breast, you would there see
all a father's anxiety. Finally," he continued, "look round the world and
choose whatever you will of what earth or sea contains most precious, - ask it
and fear no refusal. This only I pray you not to urge. It is not honor, but
destruction you seek. Why do you hang round my neck and still entreat me?
You shall have it if you persist, - the oath is sworn and must be kept, - but
I beg you to choose more wisely."

He ended; but the youth rejected all admonition, and held to his demand.
So, having resisted as long as he could, Phoebus at last led the way to where
stood the lofty chariot.

It was of gold, the gift of Vulcan; the axle was of gold, the pole and
wheels of gold, the spokes of silver. Along the seat were rows of chrysolites
and diamonds, which reflected all around the brightness of the sun. While the
daring youth gazed in admiration, the early Dawn threw open the purple doors
of the east, and showed the pathway strewn with roses. The stars withdrew,
marshalled by the Daystar, which last of all retired also. The father, when he
saw the earth beginning to glow, and the Moon preparing to retire, ordered the
Hours to harness up the horses. They obeyed, and led forth from the lofty
stalls the steeds full fed with ambrosia, and attached the reins. Then the
father bathed the face of his son with a powerful unguent, and made him
capable of enduring the brightness of the flame. He set the rays on his head,
and, with a foreboding sigh, said, "If, my son, you will in this at least heed
my advice, spare the whip and hold tight the reins. They go fast enough of
their own accord; the labor is to hold them in. You are not to take the
straight road directly between the five circles, but turn off to the left.
Keep within the limit of the middle zone, and avoid the northern and the
southern alike. You will see the marks of the wheels, and they will serve to
guide you. And, that the skies and the earth may each receive their due share
of heat, go not too high, or you will burn the heavenly dwellings, nor too
low, or you will set the earth on fire; the middle course is safest and best.
^* And now I leave you to your chance, which I hope will plan better for you
than you have done for yourself. Night is passing out of the western gates
and we can delay no longer. Take the reins; but if at last your heart fails
you, and you will benefit by my advice, stay where you are in safety, and
suffer me to light and warm the earth." The agile youth sprang into the
chariot, stood erect and grasped the reins with delight, pouring out thanks to
his reluctant parent.

[Footnote *: See Proverbial Expressions, page 477.]

Meanwhile the horses fill the air with their snortings and fiery breath,
and stamp the ground impatient. Now the bars are let down, and the boundless
plain of the universe lies open before them. They dart forward and cleave the
opposing clouds, and outrun the morning breezes which started from the same
eastern goal. The steeds soon perceived that the load they drew was lighter
than usual; and as a ship without ballast is tossed hither and thither on the
sea, so the chariot, without its accustomed weight, was dashed about as if
empty. They rush headlong and leave the travelled road. He is alarmed, and
knows not how to guide them; nor, if he knew, has he the power. Then, for the
first time, the Great and Little Bear were scorched with heat, and would fain,
if it were possible, have plunged into the water; and the Serpent which lies
coiled up round the north pole, torpid and harmless, grew warm, and with
warmth felt its rage revive. Bootes, they say, fled away, though encumbered
with his plough, and all unused to rapid motion.

When hapless Phaeton looked down upon the earth, now spreading in vast
extent beneath him, he grew pale and his knees shook with terror. In spite of
the glare all around him, the sight of his eyes grew dim. He wished he had
never touched his father's horses, never learned his parentage, never
prevailed in his request. He is borne along like a vessel that flies before a
tempest, when the pilot can do no more and betakes himself to his prayers.
What shall he do? Much of the heavenly road is left behind, but more remains
before. He turns his eyes from one direction to the other; now to the goal
whence he began his course, now to the realms of sunset which he is not
destined to reach. He loses his self command, and knows not what to do, -
whether to draw tight the reins or throw them loose; he forgets the names of
the horses. He sees with terror the monstrous forms scattered over the
surface of heaven. Here the Scorpion extended his two great arms, with his
tail and crooked claws stretching over two signs of the zodiac. When the boy
beheld him, reeking with poison and menacing with his fangs, his courage
failed, and the reins fell from his hands. The horses, when they felt them
loose on their backs, dashed headlong, and unrestrained went off into unknown
regions of the sky, in among the stars, hurling the chariot over pathless
places, now up in high heaven, now down almost to the earth. The moon saw
with astonishment her brother's chariot running beneath her own. The clouds
begin to smoke, and the mountain tops take fire; the fields are parched with
heat, the plants wither, the trees with their leafy branches burn, the harvest
is ablaze! But these are small things. Great cities perished, with their
walls and towers; whole nations with their people were consumed to ashes! The
forest-clad mountains burned, Athos and Taurus and Tmolus and Oete; Ida, once
celebrated for fountains, but now all dry; the Muses' mountain Helicon, and
Haemus; Aetna, with fires within and without, and Parnassus, with his two
peaks, and Rhodope, forced at last to part with his snowy crown. Her cold
climate was no protection to Scythia, Caucasus burned, and Ossa and Pindus,
and, greater than both, Olympus; the Alps high in air, and the Apennines
crowned with clouds.

Then Phaeton beheld the world on fire, and felt the heat intolerable. The
air he breathed was like the air of a furnace and full of burning ashes, and
the smoke was of a pitchy darkness. He dashed forward he knew not whither.
Then, it is believed, the people of Aethiopia became black by the blood being
forced so suddenly to the surface, and the Libyan desert was dried up to the
condition in which it remains to this day. The Nymphs of the fountains, with
dishevelled hair, mourned their waters, nor were the rivers safe beneath their
banks; Tanais smoked, and Caicus, Xanthus and Meander. Babylonian Euphrates
and Ganges, Tagus with golden sands, and Cayster where the swans resort. Nile
fled away and hid his head in the desert, and there it still remains
concealed. Where he used to discharge his waters through seven mouths into
the sea, there seven dry channels alone remained. The earth cracked open, and
through the chinks light broke into Tartarus, and frightened the king of
shadows and his queen. The sea shrank up. Where before was water, it became
a dry plain; and the mountains that lie beneath the waves lifted up their
heads and became islands. The fishes sought the lowest depths, and the
dolphins no longer ventured as usual to sport on the surface. Even Nereus,
and his wife Doris, with the Nereids, their daughters, sought the deepest
caves for refuge. Thrice Neptune essayed to raise his head above the surface,
and thrice was driven back by the heat. Earth, surrounded as she was by
waters, yet with head and shoulders bare, screening her face with her hand,
looked up to heaven, and with a husky voice called on Jupiter.

"O, ruler of the gods, if I have deserved this treatment, and it is your
will that I perish with fire, why with hold your thunderbolts? Let me at
least fall by you hand. Is this the reward of my fertility, of my obedient
service? Is it for this that I have supplied herbage for cattle, and fruits
for men, and frankincense for your altars? But if I am unworthy of regard,
what has my brother Ocean done to deserve such a fate? If neither of us can
excite your pity, think, I pray you, of your own heaven and behold how both
the poles are smoking which sustain your palace, which must fall if they be
destroyed. Atlas faints, and scarce holds up his burden. If sea, earth, and
heaven perish, we fall into ancient Chaos. Save what yet remains to us from
the devouring flame. O, take thought for our deliverance in this awful
moment!"

Thus spoke Earth, and overcome with heat and thirst, could say no more.
Then Jupiter omnipotent, calling to witness all the gods, including him who
had lent the chariot, and showing them that all was lost unless some speedy
remedy were applied, mounted the lofty tower from whence he diffuses clouds
over the earth, and hurls the forked lightnings. But at that time not a cloud
was to be found to interpose for a screen to earth, nor was a shower remaining
unexhausted. He thundered, and brandishing a lightning bolt in his right hand
launched it against the charioteer, and struck him at the same moment from his
seat and from existence! Phaeton, with his hair on fire, fell headlong, like
a shooting star which marks the heavens with its brightness as it falls, and
Eridanus, the great river, received him and cooled his burning frame. The
Italian Naiads reared a tomb for him, and inscribed these words upon the
stone: -

"Driver of Phoebus' chariot, Phaeton,
Struck by Jove's thunder, rests beneath this stone.
He could not rule his father's car of fire,
Yet was it much so nobly to aspire."

His sisters, the Heliades, as they lamented his fate were turned into
poplar trees, on the banks of the river and their tears, which continued to
flow, became amber as they dropped into the stream.

Milman, in his poem of Samor, makes the following allusion to Phaeton's
story: -

"As when the palsied universe aghast
Lay . . . mute and still,
When drove, so poets sing, the Sun-born youth
Devious through Heaven's affrighted signs his sire's
Ill-granted chariot. Him the Thunderer hurled
From th' empyrean headlong to the gulf
Of the half-parched Eridanus, where weep
Even now the sister trees their amber tears
O'er Phaeton untimely dead."


In the beautiful lines of Walter Savage Landor, descriptive of the Sea-
shell, there is an allusion to the Sun's palace and chariot. The water-nymph
says, -

" - I have sinuous shells of pearly hue
Within, and things that lustre have imbibed
In the sun's palace porch, where when unyoked
His chariot wheel stands midway in the wave.
Shake one and it awakens; then apply
Its polished lip to your attentive ear,
And it remembers its august abodes,
And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there."

Gebir, Book 1.