It’s been pretty nuts around here lately, and likely to get even worse from here on out. (I have to get yet another MRI tomorrow. Ugh.) But I should have time to write this post before diving head first back into my class reading. (An absurd statement to make, since the post will, by necessity, already be finished before anyone else can read it.)
Anyway, if you’re only familiar with Ovid’s version of this story (and since that’s the one people usually repeat, that seems likely) then you may find some surprises in store.
Helios, the son of the Titan Hyperion, had inherited the chariot of the sun from his father early on. Hyperion, like the other free Titans, hadn’t felt entirely welcome under the reign of Zeus (despite that he hadn’t helped Kronos and the other Titans, and had, in fact, aided Zeus and the gods) and had wanted to retire, to be the subject of less attention. Since Helios loved to shine and have people look at him, he was all in favor of taking over his father’s job. (It little bothered him that any mortal who looked at him while he was in the chariot would lose his eyesight. Like the other immortals of his generation, Helios could be quite short-sighted.)
After spending a few (mortal) generations getting used to his job, Helios settled into a steady routine, as well the sun should. (It did, after all, tend to panic the mortals if he failed to show up for work some morning!)
Like many others among the younger immortals, Helios had quite the eye for female beauty — in fact, he and Apollo so often went girl-hunting together that some mortals (particularly in the boot-shaped bit of land to the west of Hellas) began not only to associate them with each other, but even to confuse them for each other! — and whenever he noticed a promising beauty as he was traveling across the sky, he would take note of her location, and return to visit her in the night.
One of these mortal girls so pleased Helios that he brought her back to his palace with him, and they had four children together; three daughters, Lampetie, Aigle, and Phaethousa, and one son, Phaethon.
Now, these children were all reared on stories of their father’s exploits (most having been made up by their father, as he hardly had time for any ‘exploits,’ what with driving the sun-chariot all day every day), and on tales of their grandfather Hyperion, the first to drive the sun-chariot. Phaethon in particular relished the tale of how Helios had inherited Hyperion’s mantle as the sun, certain that the day would come when Helios would step down and turn the reins over to him.
Whenever Phaethon said so, Helios avoided his gaze. Helios knew that, since their mother was mortal, these children were likely to be mortal, too. But he had never had the heart to tell them so, and their mother had passed away so long ago that the children barely remembered she had ever existed, so there was no one to break the truth to them gently.
One day, as Helios was crossing the sky, he noticed one of the Oceanids winking up at him. That was an invitation if ever he had seen one! Eagerly, he departed for her place as soon as he had dismounted from his chariot that night, and told his children not to wait up for him, as he would be gone all night.
They were used to that, and paid it no mind.
Later that night, they were roused from their sleep as Eos was wandering the halls of their palace, calling out for Helios. The four children dragged themselves from their beds, and found the goddess of the dawn looking annoyed.
“Where is your father?” she asked. “It’s nearly time for me to herald his arrival, but where is he? His horses are still in their stalls, rather than hitched up to his chariot! What is that slacker doing?”
“Don’t worry,” Phaethon told her, with a winning smile. “Father’s on his way here even now. The sun will rise as it always has.”
Eos smiled with relief, and thanked the boy, then departed, making her preparations to caress the sky with her rosy fingers.
“How could you know if Father’s done with his hussy yet?” his sister Aigle asked. His sisters, Phaethon had noticed, had very little patience for their father’s many affairs. Phaethon assumed that meant it took a man to understand these things.
“Just go and prepare the chariot,” Phaethon said, looking at all three of his sisters. “And don’t worry so much!”
His sisters continued to worry quite vociferously, but they did as he had told them. Not because they saw any reason to obey their brother, but because they were sure their father would need the chariot ready when he returned, and surely he must be on his way back, or he’d be late going up!
But Phaethon had no expectation of their father being back in time. In fact, he was hoping that their father was going to be very late indeed.
Because Phaethon wanted to be the one driving the sun-chariot today.
It was his birthright, after all. And he was sure that the time for him to accept the duty was long overdue.
Once the chariot was ready, Phaethon strode out of the palace, wearing the finest golden tunic he could find in his father’s rooms. (In truth, it was a special tunic his father only wore when visiting Mt. Olympos at the invitation of Zeus.)
“What are you wearing?” Phaethousa asked.
“Where’s Father?” Lampetie asked.
“I’m going to drive the sun today,” Phaethon told them.
“Are you out of your mind?!” Aigle shouted. “Father will kill you!”
“Would you rather the sun didn’t rise?” Phaethon countered. “Father will thank me for covering for him!”
In fact, Phaethon had begun to suspect that his father was late intentionally, to give Phaethon this opportunity. No, he didn’t just suspect it. As he stepped up into that chariot and took hold of the golden reins, he was convinced that his father’s plan had been exactly that. Thus, he didn’t listen to a word his sisters said in trying to talk him out of it, and soon he was tugging the reins to urge the horses into action.
Now, these were obviously very special, immortal horses. They had to be able to fly, after all! And as immortal horses, they didn’t take kindly to having a mortal telling them what to do.
But at first they obeyed. They knew it was their duty to ride across the sky every day, after all, and they had no more desire to let down the horses of the world than Helios ever had the desire to let down the humans. (Naturally, as horses, they didn’t really care about the humans, or the dogs, cats or weasels.) So they rode up into the sky as usual, and began running their normal course. They were excellent horses, and always ran exactly the same route through the sky, so further attention on the part of the charioteer was entirely unnecessary. (That was exactly what allowed Helios so much free time to spy on the other gods, and to watch out for pretty mortal maids.)
But Phaethon didn’t know how reliable the horses were.
And he was impatient. He wanted to go faster. He wanted to feel the dizzying speed he was expecting.
So he pulled the whip from the wall of the chariot (kept there just in case the horses ever got uppity, or started chasing down some pretty mortal mares), and whipped the horses, telling them to go faster.
The first time he did it, the horses ignored him. He was only a mortal, after all.
The second time, they whinnied in protest, but maintained their speed.
The third time, they decided they weren’t going to put up with this mortal any longer.
With a mind to kick him out of the chariot, they set off running down towards the surface. Once they were close enough that their master’s precious mortal son wouldn’t be killed by the fall, they were going to tip over the chariot.
As horses, they didn’t realize that bringing the sun so close to the earth would set the land ablaze. (And they might not have cared, even if they did realize it. Being horses didn’t make them any more caring than the other immortals, the ones who had stood by and done nothing as Zeus flooded the whole world.)
Phaethon didn’t know that either, but he noticed it soon enough, as the trees began to burn and crackle.
Panicking, he started whipping the horses harder and harder, screaming at them to go back up.
Now the horses were really mad.
“If he wants to go up, then let’s go up,” one of them whinnied to the other. (Phaethon, of course, couldn’t speak horse, so he had no idea what they were saying, or even that they were speaking at all.)
The other horse agreed with a vicious neigh, and the sun-chariot was soon headed almost directly upwards. Once they were at a dizzying height — even higher than usual — both horses started kicking the chariot, until the terrified boy within was finally thrown loose, and began to plummet towards the earth now far below him.
Rid of their unwanted mortal passenger, the two horses resumed pulling the sun-chariot along its normal path, as if nothing had happened.
Phaethon fell and fell.
Fortunately for him, he had already lost consciousness before he crashed into the River Eridanos, so he didn’t feel the agonizing sting of the impact, nor the cold dread of drowning, nor the icy clutches of death itself.
His sisters saw his fall, and hurried down from their father’s palace, making their way to the banks of the river, where they knelt down and began to weep for their poor brother.
Looking down at the scene from Mt. Olympos, Zeus sent a rain to put out the fires Phaethon had caused, then went to speak to Phaethon’s sisters in the guise of a friendly old man. He urged them to stop crying, but they didn’t listen. Zeus tried every trick he could think of to convince them that mourning the dead was pointless.
But no matter what he did, they wouldn’t stop crying.
He began to think they weren’t capable of stopping.
Since Helios was sure to be angry with them for having helped their brother into his folly, and Zeus hated the idea that they were in for a lecture when they were already so upset, he decided to turn them into trees. That way, the wouldn’t have to live with the memory of having caused their brother’s death.
Quietly, he turned the three grieving maidens into poplar trees.
But they kept on weeping, even as trees, dripping out electrum.
I don’t like the fact that it’s pity that makes him turn them into trees. Is turning into a tree really better than living in sorrow? Sorrow fades in time, after all. (And in these stories, it’s not like they wait very long before deciding the sorrow will never go away, and it’s better to turn them into a tree, or rock, or whatever. )
Just had to say that. I couldn’t change the ending, ’cause that’s always how it goes, but I just wanted to make it clear that it’s not an ending I’m fond of.