of the Sun
Tale of Eridanus, Cygnus and Libra
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.
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
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
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,"
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
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
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.
the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl