A Blog on Mythology and occasionally on Reality.

This is a Blog on Mythology, both Indian and World and especially the analysis of the myths.

In effect, the interpretation of the inherent Symbolism.


Monday, March 25, 2013

The Fall of Phaethon

Here is a Greek myth, the lesson of which is valid even today.

Phaethon was the son of the Greek Sun God Helios* and Clymene, a mortal from Ethiopia. Since Helios had a tough job of driving the sun from across one end to the other every day in his chariot, Phaethon stayed with his mother on earth. Once one of his friends laughed at him when he said that he was the son of Helios and refused to believe him. Later his mother too assured him about it, but he would not believe. His doubt took him to the heavens where he found himself in the presence of the mighty Helios who was bright and radiant, and so was his palace with lofty pillars of gold and bronze, all shining like burning fire.

When Phaethon asked Helios if he was really his father, Helios agreed and assured him about it. Helios went a step further by announcing to all in his palace that Phaethon was indeed his son. Seeing that the son had not quite been assured, Helios told Phaethon that he was willing to do anything to prove his paternity and to that effect, he can ask for anything from him, and he would do it.

On hearing this, Phaethon asked to drive his father’s chariot for a day. Helios realised that he had erred and tried to convince him out of his demand. He explained to him that the chariot was no ordinary chariot as it was fiery hot and the horses breathed fire, so much so that even Zeus, the king of all gods, could not control the chariot. But Phaethon would not relent, and having made a commitment, Helios could not go back on his word, even though he realised his folly of hasty commitment. So with a heavy heart, he allowed him to take the chariot out the next day.

The chariot was truly majestic. It had axle and pole made of gold and so were the wheels of gold with silver spokes. The yoke was set with jewels and the horses which were fed on ambrosia were breathing fire ready to charge. Helios applied an ointment on Phaethon to protect him from the intense heat that he would be subjected and advised him to tread the middle path and not to drive it too low towards the earth or high towards the sky. As night had retreated on the Western end and dawn was breaking in and it was time for the sun to appear on the horizon and so Helios bade his son, goodbye.

Phaethon took hold of the reins and charged. But this was no ordinary chariot and nor was he used to holding such heavenly horses. Soon the chariot was beginning to get out of control. It went too high towards the skies, drying up all the clouds. Seeing this, he plunged the chariot down towards the seas, but it only ended up drying the waters. When Poseidon, the Lord of the seas, saw this, he came out to warn the charioteer, but the uncontrolled charge towards him made him plunge deep into the sea, with casualties of dead sea-creatures which upset him to no end. The chariot burnt up forests, melt down ice-capped mountains and it is said that it went too close to modern-day Ethiopia (supposedly to have his friend get a closer look of him on the chariot), the people there became black, since the heat drew the blood to the surface of the body of the people there. It is also said that it went so close to the modern-day Libya that the area became a desert and the river Nile was so scared that it went and hid its head in the earth which is hidden till date!

Earth was in flames, the waters had dried up and sky was scorched. The gods came out and appealed to Zeus to stop the menace. Zeus seeing no option hurled his thunderbolt and brought down the chariot and the charioteer to the ground and soon all was well, but Helios lost his son. Helios was sad, but he realised his folly too.
The Fall of Phaethon - A Painting
The myth leaves us with a very important lesson. Helios shouldn’t have made a promise, without thinking about its ramifications. Also, he should not have allowed his responsibility to become a juveniles sport. Driving the chariot across the sky was an important responsibility and Phaethon was neither experienced nor capable of handling it. He was too young to even understand the gravity of his father’s responsibility which for him was a matter of adventure, or misadventure as it turned out to be.

I find this myth so contemporary when I read about underage children driving their parents’ vehicles irresponsibly leaving a trail of tragedy behind them, when they are unable to control the vehicle. Myths of this nature highlight the repercussions of granting a child’s wish too hastily without giving it forethought. It also highlights that one shouldn’t abdicate ones responsibility in favour of parental affection.

To quote Joseph Campbell, the well known author – “This tale (i.e. the tale of Phaethon) of indulgent parenthood illustrates the antique idea that when the roles of life are assumed by the improperly initiated, chaos supervenes”.

*Different versions of this myth have used the names Phoebus and at times Apollo in place of Helios. The other details remain more or less the same.

All Pics taken from Internet.

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