Phaethon (shining) In Greek mythology, son of Apollo or Helios, both sun gods, and the nymph Clymene. Phaethon was laughed at by his companions when he said he was the son of Apollo. He went to Apollo and begged to be allowed to drive Apollo’s sun chariot across the heavens. Reluctantly consenting, Apollo gave Phaethon his horses and chariot. After a time Phaethon could not control the chariot. It plunged to the earth and parched Libya. Zeus, in response, killed the boy with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell into the Eridanus or Po River and was transformed into a swan. There his sisters, the Heliades, mourning him, were transformed into willow trees and their tears into drops of amber. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (books 1, 2) tell the myth in detail. Spenser’s “Tears of the Muses” calls Phaethon “Phoebus foolish sonne.” In Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (3.1.154–5) the Duke compares Valentine to Phaethon when he plans to elope with Silvia: “Wilt thou aspire to guide the heavenly car / And with thy daring folly burn the world?” Shakespeare also cites the image of the falling Phaethon in Richard II (3.3.178–79). The Heliades appear in Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Faun” (99–100). In music Lully’s opera Phaeton (1683) and Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Phaëton (1873) deal with the myth. In art Hans Rottenhammer’s Fall of Phaeton portrays the ride.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante