Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

A Fiery Runaway

"Mother," said young Phaeton, "is it true, as you have always told me, that the bright sun-god is my father?"

"Yes, my son," she replied. "I have told you the truth."

"But, mother," he said, "the boys do not believe me when I tell them that. They laugh at me and say I only brag. How may I know for sure that I am his son?"

"My boy," she answered, "the land of the sun lies next to ours. Go, find your father there, and he will tell you, as I do, that you belong to him."

The lad was glad to go. He traveled to India, and found there the palace of the sun. It was more splendid than anything he had ever seen. The ceilings were ivory, the doors were silver, the columns were bright with gold and precious stones. There were pictures and carvings of everything in the sky, on the earth, and under the water.

Through the open doors the boy saw the god sitting upon his throne. His robe was purple, and around his head were rays of piercing light. The Day, the Month, the Year, and the Hours, stood near him. Spring was there, crowned with flowers; Summer, wearing a garland of ears of grain; Autumn, with his feet stained with grape-juice; and Winter, white with frost.

Phaeton was surprised and frightened at all of this. The sun-god saw him, and said, "Whence do you come, and what are you seeking?"

The lad answered, "They tell me that you are my father. If it is true kindly give me some proof that will make me sure."

The sun-god said, "It is true; and the proof is that whatever you now ask I will give you!"

"Dear father," cried the youth, "for one single day let me drive your chariot."

The sun-god shook his head. "You do not know what you are asking. This makes me sorry for my promise. Not one of the gods could drive my car. The road is steep at first, the middle part is very high, and I myself am almost afraid when I see the earth and sea so far below me. The last part of the road goes down very suddenly, and there is danger of falling. The sky with its stars is forever turning around, and I must be very careful that it does not carry me away.

"Besides, there are monsters up there. You must drive by the horns of the Bull, past the Lion's jaws, near the Archer with his arrows, and between the Scorpion and the Crab. The horses are wild, their breath is fire, they pull hard upon the reins. Ask something else; do not hold me to this."

Phaeton said, "It is that one thing that I want to do. You must keep your promise, and I will take the risk."

The father was sorry, but he had to keep his word. He led his son to the golden chariot. The Dawn opened the gates of the East. The paths outside were strewn with roses. The stars began to march away, last of all the Day-star. The Hours harnessed the horses. Phaeton mounted the seat. The sun-god said, "Hold the reins tight, and do not use the ship. Follow the track the wheels have made. Do not rise too high or sink too low. The middle of the way is best and safest."

Phaeton took the reins. The horses leaped up and plunged forward. They understood that a stranger was driving them. He could not keep them in the road. They went so near the Great Bear that she was scorched with heat, and the Little Bear was frightened and tried to run away. The Serpent around the North Pole was no longer cold, but warm. He lifted up his head and began to hiss and wriggle his huge body. The plowman picked up his plow and ran.

Phaeton wished he had never undertaken to drive. He forgot the names of the horses, and could not remember whether to whip or to hold the reins tight. The Lion roared at him, the Bull bellowed, the Crab snapped its claws, the Scorpion stretched out its dreadful arms.

The frightened boy dropped the reins. The horses went high up in the sky, then plunged down almost to the earth. The snow melted on the tops of the Alps. The clouds on the Apennines were driven away. The forests on the mountains took fire. The springs and streams were dried up. Flames caught the grain in the fields and swept away the villages. Great cities became roaring furnaces. Heat and fire and smoke covered the world.

The smoke rose up into the sky and made it black before Phaeton's eyes. The ashes were blown into his face by the winds.

The rivers began to boil. The Nile ran up into the desert and his head, so that it was never found until lately. The sea bubbled and steamed. Poseidon tried to look up to see what was the matter, but the heat drove him down. The ground cracked, and Pluto saw a strange and dreadful light shine into his kingdom. Earth, wild with fear, called upon Zeus for help.

"Save us, O king of the gods," she cried. "have mercy upon us before it is too late. The grass, the trees, the cattle, and mankind are perishing. Save us quickly, O Thou, that rulest all!"

Zeus was excited and angry. He called the sun-god and all the others and said to them, "You can see that this must stop. I must bring this wild drive to an end. I am sorry for the young man, but this cannot go on."

He went up into his high tower and threw a thunderbolt which struck Phaeton. His hair was already on fire. He fell, like a shooting star, into a deep river. The sun-god ran out and caught the horses and drove them into the right way. The wild ride was over.