Chariot of the Sun
The Tale of Eridanus, Cygnus and Libra

The palace of the Sun stood high on lofty columns on top of the mountain. It seemed to touch the sky. Phaethon climbed a steep path up to the glittering gold and bronze palace. It was so bright it looked like it was on fire. The roof was made of ivory and the huge double doors were polished silver.

Phaethon had never seen doors this big. They were so wide they covered half the palace and so tall they reached to the stars; and they were carved with pictures that told the story of life. In the carvings Phaethon saw Eros shape the earth with his own loving hands. He saw the ethers of Heaven dance around the world. He saw Aphrodite rise from the sea and Athena rise from the head of Zeus. He saw Zeus stand among the stars, hurling his thunderbolts and Poseidon swim through the sea surrounded by nymphs and porpoises, while Hades stood tall within the flames of Hell. Above these scenes Phaethon saw the zodiac with six signs on the right-hand door and six signs on the left. Higher than the pictures of the gods were the stories of the humans. He wasn't big enough to see those pictures. He was just a teenager.

When Phaethon was a child, his mother had told him he was the son of Apollo. Now that he was almost a man, he needed to know if this was true. He came to the palace on the mountain to find out but, now that he was there, he felt frightened and alone. He took a deep breath as he gathered all his courage and pushed open the giant doors.

At the far end of the great hall was a man crowned with sunbeams. He sat on an emerald throne. The child, Spring, played at his feet, weaving flowers into her hair. Summer stood on his right, wearing garlands of grain and leaves. On his left was Autumn with his feet stained purple from stamping grapes for wine. Finally, old, bent Winter with his icy white beard, sat alone and away from the others. The man on the throne looked up at Phaethon and asked, "Why are you here, my son?"

"Are you Apollo?" the boy asked. The man nodded. "Are you my father?" The man nodded again. "Prove it," the boy demanded.

Apollo removed his crown. "Come here," he said gently. The boy walked up to him and Apollo stood and hugged him. "Yes, I am your father," he said softly. "Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you."

Without a moment's hesitation, the boy replied, "I want to drive your chariot for the day."

Apollo gasped. He hadn't expected a request like that. "I'm sorry my boy, I can't let you do that. I'm the only one who can drive the sun and even I'm sometimes afraid. The journey is dangerous and my winged horses are hard to handle. Remember, heaven is constantly spinning and I have to drive opposite of its current. None of the other gods are strong enough to do it and you are just a mortal boy. This is not something you can do. Pick something else."

Phaethon lowered his eyes and pouted. "I want to drive your chariot," he said.

Apollo grabbed his arms. "Look at me," he said firmly. "What do you think you'll see up there; cities, treasures, beautiful forests? Well, you won't! There's nothing but danger and horrible beasts. The Bull's horns are sharp as swords, the Lion growls and bares his teeth and the vicious Scorpion swings his stinger, trying to kill you as you pass. If you're still looking for proof that I'm your father, just listen to my fatherly fear for your safety. Look around you. The world is a rich and wonderful place. Ask for anything else and I will gladly give it to you; but please, don't ask to drive my chariot."

But the boy didn't listen. He threw his arms around Apollo's neck and said, "Please father, I can do it. I'm your son."

The stars slowly disappeared and the slender horns of the waning moon faded from sight. Sadly, Apollo led his son to his high chariot and said, "I made a promise. If you really must do this, the chariot is yours; but please, I beg you to change your mind." Again, Phaethon didn't listen as he eagerly ran his hands over the beautiful cart that would soon be his for the day.

The winged horses were brought from their stable. They whinnied and stamped impatiently as they were yoked to the chariot. Meanwhile, Apollo reached into his pocket and pulled out a jar of ointment to protect his son against the burning heat of the sun. He gently rubbed it over his son's naive and determined face. Then Apollo massaged the ointment over Phaethon's slender arms and chest. The boy didn't even have any muscles. How could he survive?

"If you insist on going, at least listen to my advice. The horses are fast enough on their own accord, so don't use the whip. The hard task is to hold them back. Hold tight on their reins. Are you listening to me?" Apollo asked. The boy nodded. "Don't drive a straight route through heaven," he warned. "The true path is a wide curve. Avoid both the southern sky and the farthest point north. If you stay on this course you will clearly see the tracks made by my wheels. Also, make sure that you drive in the middle between the earth and the top of heaven. If you go too high you'll burn up the sky; if you go too low, you'll scorch the earth. Follow my instructions and you should be safe. May Fortune guide you, my son. It is time to start your journey. Here," Apollo said, "grab the reins, or quit this foolish trip now, while you still have a chance."

Again, the eager boy didn't listen. He mounted the chariot, and grabbed the reins proudly, ready for his journey!

The horses whinnied and stomped impatiently and, as the bar was dropped, they tore through the clouds. "Oh no," Phaethon gasped, "we've already started." The horses were immediately out of control since the weight they were pulling was feather light and Phaethon wasn't able to hold the reins firmly so the bits were barely noticeable in their teeth. The horses ran wild, leaping through the air, fighting against each other for the lead and bumping and tossing the chariot like a toy. Phaethon turned pale in fear. He had only begun and already the horses were out of control and he was thoroughly lost.

Terrified by the height, Phaethon's stomach hurt as he saw the earth far, far below. It all seemed like a bad dream. He broke into a cold sweat and the reigns became slippery in his hands. He started to faint. Why hadn't he listened to Apollo?

"No, I can't give up" he said. It took more concentration than he had ever used, but he managed to gain his composure again and remain conscious. He quickly surveyed his course. He had already covered a huge distance, but there was more to cover ahead. He had no idea what to do or where to go. Then he saw in horror that he was traveling directly toward the beasts of heaven. Immediately ahead he saw the Scorpion, its tail and stingers spread across the sky like a trap. Phaethon was close enough to see black, poisonous venom dripping from the monster's body. In absolute terror he dropped the reins.

As soon as the horses felt their reins lying on their backs, they broke loose, flying faster yet across the sky and running over the stars. They ran wildly up to the top of heaven and then down near the Earth. The Earth burst into flames. The heat dried up and cracked the land and evaporated lakes and rivers. Meadows and fields turned to ashes and the forests became a raging inferno. Cities were consumed in firestorms and it seemed to everyone on earth as if civilization were coming to a blazing end.

Phaethon saw the Earth in flames at every corner of the globe. The sweat poured from his brow as the chariot grew white-hot beneath his feet, and the air, filled with ashes and whirling sparks, was so hot he choked as each breath burned his lungs. The sky was completely shrouded in dense, hot smoke which grew so dark he could see nothing. He lost all sense of direction as he was swept along by the uncontrollable will of his flying steeds.

The fiery chariot raced low over Asia and lower yet over Africa. It was then that the fields and forests of northern Africa became the Sahara Desert. The Nile, attempting to protect her source, hid her mouth far below the surface in a deep corner of the continent. The glacial polar ice-caps evaporated and turned into fountains of steam. The oceans boiled and the fish, seals, dolphins, whales and all other sea creatures, suffocated from the heat.

Fires raged across the continents as stampeding creatures fled for their lives, racing to beat the walls of flames. The Earth cracked and her crust shrank until deep crevices split the globe and it looked as if the fires of Hell had broken through the surface and were consuming the planet in a fiery apocalypse. Demeter cried for the loss of everything she loved, but even her tears evaporated in the intense heat.

"Oh Zeus," cried Atlas, "the Earth has grown as hot as the sun upon my shoulders. I can't hold it any longer."

Earth and Demeter screamed out in pain. Poseidon and the Naiads cried for the destruction of their oceans and creatures. Finally Eros warned that if the sea and land and sky were annihilated, the universe would return to chaos.

Zeus listened to the gods and watched the heavens smoking from pole to pole. He climbed to the highest peak of Olympus and raised his arms. Always before, when he did this the clouds would part; but now there were no clouds for they had all been burned or evaporated. While the thunder rolled across the hills, Zeus grabbed a lightning bolt and hurled it through the smoke filled sky, straight into Phaethon's heart. The bolt flew with such force that it knocked him from the chariot. His burning body fell through the sky like a meteor and the smoke trail traced his descent until he fell to earth into the waiting arms of the river Eridanus. The kindly Naiads retrieved his body and placed it in a tomb. On the tomb's marble gate, they wrote, "Here lies Phaethon. He drove Apollo's chariot."

Phaethon's mother heard of her son's death and she sent her four daughters to retrieve his body. They found their brother's tomb, but all they felt like doing was sitting at the gate and weeping. They wept and wept; the river canyon echoed with their cries. People begged them to lay the dead to rest and continue with their own lives, but they couldn't stop and the unending lament was heard for miles along the river.

Then, one day, the eldest sister tried to throw herself over the grave. She found that her feet were cold and immovable. The next sister heard her cries and tried to come to her. She discovered that her own feet had grown roots. When the third sister tried to tear at her hair, she found leaves instead and the fourth sister saw that her own ankles had become encased in wood. She watched in amazement as her graceful arms changed to long willowy branches. Bark closed around their legs and hips and soon covered their waists, breasts, shoulders and hands. They called to their mother. The only parts still human were their lips and eyes. Everything else was wood.

Their mother was frantic as she saw her daughters turned into willow trees and she tried to tear the bark from their bodies. As she did, blood dropped from their wounds. "Stop, mother," they screamed as tears welled-up in their eyes. Their words disappeared in silence as their mouths turned to wood. Their tears flowed down their trunks and as they fell, they hardened into amber.

When he heard his sisters' screams, their other brother, Cycnus, ran to help. He cried out to them but his mouth became a beak as his voice grew shrill, his neck stretched and white feathers grew all over his body. Cycnus became a swan. Afraid that Zeus' fiery thunderbolts would kill him like they had killed his brother Phaethon, Cycnus refused to fly. Instead, he became a creature of the water. Always remaining close to his sisters, he swam near the banks of Eridanus.

Then Zeus placed Eridanus in the stars as the River of the Sky, and he placed Phaethon's brother Cycnus as Cygnus, the swan. Because the Scorpion frightened both Phaethon and his horses, Zeus severed its claws and transformed them into the scale of justice called Libra, and Zeus said, "These stars will remind everyone that ego can destroy the balance of the universe." Finally, as Apollo mourned his son, he turned and faced the palace doors. There, already etched into the history of life, was his son Phaethon, driving the chariot through a sea of flames.

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Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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