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This article is about the son of Helios. For other uses, see Phaeton (disambiguation). For another mythical figure of this name, see Phaethon (son of Eos).
The fall of Phaethon, Johann Liss, early 17th century.

Of the characters in Greek mythology called Phaethon (/ˈf.əθən/; Ancient Greek: Φαέθων, Phaéthōn, pronounced [pʰa.é.tʰɔ͜ɔn]), the best known was the son of the Oceanid Clymene and the solar deity Helios.[1][2] Alternatively, less common genealogies make him a son of Clymenus by Oceanid Merope,[3] of Helios and Rhodos (thus a full brother of the Heliadae)[4] or of Helios and Prote.[5]

In the prevailing account, Phaethon, challenged by his playmates, sought assurance from his mother that his father was the sun god. She gave him the requested assurance and told him to turn to his father for confirmation. He asked his father for some proof that would demonstrate his relationship with the sun. When the god promised to grant him whatever he wanted, he insisted on being allowed to drive the sun chariot for a day.[6] Placed in charge of the chariot, he was unable to control the horses. The earth was in danger of being burnt up and, to prevent this disaster, Zeus is forced to strike down the chariot with a thunderbolt and kill Phaethon in the process.[7]

The name "Phaethon", which means "Shining One",[8] was given also to Phaethon (son of Eos), to one of the horses of Eos (the Dawn), the Sun, the constellation Auriga, and the planet Jupiter, while as an adjective it was used to describe the sun and the moon.[9] In some accounts the planet referred to by this name is not Jupiter but Saturn.[10]

In modern times, an asteroid whose orbit brings it close to the sun has been named "3200 Phaethon" after the mythological Phaethon.

The French form of the name "Phaethon" is "Phaéton". This form of the word is applied to a kind of carriage.[11][12]

An order, family, and genus of birds bear the name Phaethon in their taxonomic nomenclature, the tropicbirds.

Plato's Timaeus[edit]

In Plato's Timaeus, Critias tells the story of Atlantis as recounted to Solon by an Egyptian priest, who prefaced the story by saying:

There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story that even you [Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time, Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals.[13]


The Fall of Phaëthon on a Roman sarcophagus (Hermitage Museum)

In the version of the myth told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Phaethon ascends into heaven, the home of his suspected father. His mother Clymene had boasted that his father was the Sun-God or Phoebus. Phaethon went to his father who swore by the river Styx to give Phaethon anything he would ask for in order to prove his divine sonship. Phaethon wanted to drive the chariot of the sun for a day. Phoebus tried to talk him out of it by telling him that not even Jupiter (the king of the gods) would dare to drive it, as the chariot was fiery hot and the horses breathed out flames. He said:


The fall of Phaethon by Adolphe Pierre Sunaert

Phaethon was adamant. When the day came, the fierce horses that drew the chariot felt that it was empty because of the lack of the sun-god's weight, and went out of control. Terrified, Phaethon dropped the reins. The horses veered from their course, scorching the earth, burning the vegetation, bringing the blood of the Ethiopians to the surface of their skin and so turning it black, changing much of Africa into desert, drying up rivers and lakes and shrinking the sea. Earth cried out to Jupiter, who was forced to intervene by striking Phaethon with a lightning bolt. Like a falling star, Phaethon plunged blazing into the river Eridanos.

The epitaph on his tomb was quite to the point:

Here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god's chariot fared.
And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.[15]

Phoebus, stricken with grief at his son's death, at first refused to resume his work of driving his chariot, but at the appeal of the other gods, including Jupiter, returned to his task.


In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius attributes to the emperor Tiberius the following repeated remark about the future emperor Gaius Caligula: "That to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was raising a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world".[16]

Clement of Alexandria[edit]

According to Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata, " the time of Crotopus occurred the burning of Phaethon, and the deluges of Deucalion.[17]

Other ancient writers[edit]

Phaethon, by Gustave Moreau

Fragments of Euripides' tragedy on this subject suggest that, in his account, Phaethon survives. In reconstructing the lost play and discussing the fragments, James Diggle has discussed the treatment of the Phaethon myth (Diggle 2004).

In the True History by the satirical Greek writer Lucian, Phaëthon is king of the sun and is at war with the moon.

Post-classical works[edit]

Dante refers to the episode in both the Inferno and Paradiso Canto XVII of his Divine Comedy.

William Shakespeare uses the story of Phaethon as an allegory in his play Richard II. He also makes Juliet wish 'Phaëton would whip [Apollo's horses] to the west' as she waits for Romeo in Romeo and Juliet 3.2.3

John Marston includes reference to Phaeton in 'The Malcontent' whereby Mendoza's monologue describes the '...sparkling glances (of women), ardent as those flames that singed the world by heedless Phaeton!' - Act 1, Scene 5

Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote a musical tragedy, Phaëton, in which he referred indirectly to the fate of Nicolas Fouquet, whose ambitions to imitate Louis XIV—The Sun King—brought about his downfall. This opera is also used in the second version of Paul Hindemith’s opera Cardillac (1952).

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a symphonic poem entitled Phaéton.

Niccolò Jommelli wrote an opera Fetonte to an Italian-language libretto by Mattia Verazi using various sources, principally Ovid, for the myth of Phaeton. First performed at the Ducal Theatre, Ludwigsburg in February, 1768, where Duke Karl-Eugen of Württemberg maintained an opera troupe.

Wilhelm Waiblinger’s epistolary novel Phaëthon amalgamates the Phaethon myth with Goethe’s Werther as well as Hölderlin’s Hyperion.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe published a poetic reconstruction of Euripides’ fragmented tragedy in Kunst und Altertum (1823), which served as a basis for various full-scale dramatic adaptations such as Marie Wernicke’s Phaethons Sturz (1893), Karl Wilhelm Geißler’s Phaëthon (1889) and Arnold Beer’s Phaeton (1875).

Gerhart Hauptmann’s long poem Helios und Phaethon (1936) omits the cosmic desaster in order to focus on the relationship between godly father and mortal son.

In Otakar Theer's symbolist tragedy Faëthón (1916), the hero epitomizes man's revolt against the world order ("the gods") and against human destiny. The tragedy was adapted in 1962 into a celebrated eponymous radio play by Miloslav Jareš (director) and Jaromír Ptáček (dramaturge).[18]

Paul Goodman’s early Phaëthon, Myth (1934) juxtaposes the Phaethon myth with a grotesque version of a Christological narrative.

Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for oboe, first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival on 14 June 1951, include the short piece Phaeton, which as a solo piece seems to focus on the invididual lost in space rather than the furious effects emphasised by earlier instrumental renditions of the myth.

In Ayn Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, an in universe opera is composed by the character of Richard Halley where Phaeton succeeds in his attempt to control the chariot of the sun, as an allegory for the power of mankind and individualism.

Angus Wilson’s novel Setting the World on Fire (1980) opens with the description of a Phaethon painting which proves pivotal to the protagonist’s emerging self-conception, leading up to his production of Lully’s Phaëton.

John C. Wright's The Golden Oecumene Trilogy (2002) features a protagonist named Phaethon, whose father's name is Helion. Mythical references abound.[19]

In 2012, former Disco Inferno frontman Ian Crause adapted the story of Phaethon as The Song of Phaethon for his first musical release in over a decade. Crause used the story as an analogy for Britain's entry into the Second Gulf War.[20]

in 2016 Taffety Punk Theatre premiered Michael Milligan's play "Phaeton" in Washington, DC.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford Dictionaries, "Phaethon"
  2. ^ Collins English Dictionary, "Phaethon"
  3. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae, 154
  4. ^ Scholia on Pindar, Olympian Ode 6. 131
  5. ^ Tzetzes, Chiliades, 4. 127
  6. ^ Gunnell, John A. (ed.). Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 (Second ed.). krause publications. p. 14. ...okay to borrow the chariot of the Sun for a day. 
  7. ^ Olivia E. Coolidge, Greek Myths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001 ISBN 978-0-61815426-5), pp. 12-17
  8. ^ Liddell and Scott, φαέθω
  9. ^ Liddell and Scott: Φαέθω
  10. ^ Theoi Greek Mythology, "Phaethon"
  11. ^ Oxford Dictionaries: "phaeton"
  12. ^ Collins English Dictionary: "phaeton"
  13. ^ Translation by Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) reproduced in, for example, John Michael Greer, Atlantis (Llewelyn Worldwide 2007 ISBN 978-0-73870978-9), p. 9
  14. ^ A.S. Kline's translation of Ovid, Metamorphoses
  15. ^ Edith Hamilton, MYTHOLOGY: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, ISBN 0-446-60725-8
  16. ^ Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars (Barnes & Noble 2004 ISBN 978-0-76075758-1), p. 115
  17. ^ "Clement of Alexandria: Stromata, Book 1". 2006-02-02. Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  18. ^ Pekárek, Hynek. "Otakar Theer: Faëthón" (in Czech). Retrieved 2013-03-13. 
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ Pitchfork: 'Listen: Ian Crause of Disco Inferno Shares First New Music in Over a Decade'
  21. ^ See: [2]

External links[edit]