The Myth of Phaethon Short Summary

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            The ancient Greek myth of Phaethon and the sun chariot gives a dramatic account of the intense global heating that resulted from the combined effects of the activated Sun and the dust-congested solar system.

            Keeping this in mind, let us now see what the ancient Greek myth of Phaethon tells us about conditions that once prevailed in the solar system.

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            Helios, the sun god, and Clemene, a mortal woman, produced a mortal son named Phaethon. The child lived on Earth, where he was raised by his mother. One day at school, hoping to impress his classmates, Phaethon proclaimed that Helios was his father, but the others did not believe him. Instead he received back only ridicule. At the advice of his mother, the troubled Phaethon one night journeyed to the Palace of the Sun to meet his father. He explained to Helios how his classmates teased him and asked him if Helios could find some way to give him proof that he was really his father. To accommodate him, Helios swore by the river Styx that he would grant Phaethon any wish he desired. Phaethon’s choice was that his father let him drive the sun chariot across the sky for one day.

            Helios very much regretted Phaethon’s choice because driving the sun chariot was a very tricky task, unsuitable for a child. He tried to persuade Phaethon to choose another wish, but Phaethon would not give in. Having sworn by the river Styx, Helios could not go back on his word, so he finally consented. He took Phaethon to the stable and had his winged horses yoked to the chariot. He anointed Phaethon with ambrosia juice so that he might better endure the greater heat of the sun chariot. Then he cautioned him that he must keep to his course, that if he drove too high, he would set fire to the heavenly constellations, and if he drove too low, he would consume the Earth.

            Having received these words of advice, Phaethon eagerly mounted the chariot, took the reins, and departed into the sky. At first everything went well. However, as Phaethon drove the steeds higher, the horses sensed that the chariot was lighter than usual and began to realize that their master was not in control of the reins. Becoming bold, they left the beaten track and began to rush where they chose. On their wild course they passed various constellations, causing them to warm up. As they passed Scorpius, Phaethon happened to glimpse the barbed point of the Scorpion’s tail wet with black venom. He panicked and let go of the reins. The horses then began to stampede and range at large, first soaring up to the very top of the sky, then plunging downward close to the Earth.

            In other words, the venom from the Scorpion’s stinger – the cosmic dust propelled inward by the cosmic rays from the Galactic center – triggered an exponential increase in solar activity.

            The myth’s description of the Sun surrounded by smoke and pitchy darkness portrays the Sun surrounded by a cocoon of cosmic dust vaporized into submicron smoke-like particles. The sun chariot’s unusually intense heat signifies the excess infrared radiation that the Sun was emitting while in its activated T Tauri state. The myth then describes how large quantities of moisture evaporate from the land surface, rivers, and oceans.

            Earth pleads to Zeus, king of the gods, to do something to save the earth and heavens. Zeus then hurls a mighty bolt of lightning at Phaethon, killing him and knocking him from the chariot. The frightened horses tear themselves free, and “fragments of the chariot, torn in pieces, are scattered far and wide.” Phaethon wrapped in fire, streaks through the air like a shooting star and falls into the river Eridanus. Zeus finally ends the holocaust by sending down a torrential rain that causes the Deluge.

            The myth goes on to relate that Cygnus, king of Liguria, grieved deeply for the dead Phaethon. He continuously plunged into the river to retrieve pieces of Phaethon’s body. Taking pity on Cygnus, Helios transformed him into a swan and placed him in the heavens, where he appears as a constellation by that name. The Cygnus constellation, also known as the Northern Cross, is located on the galactic equator near Sagitta. Interestingly, it depicts Cygnus flying in the direction of the Galactic center.

            Further on, the myth describes a period of darkness in which the Sun was heavily obscured.

            The myth then relates that all the deities stood around the Sun and entreated him not to be determined to bring darkness over the world. At length they succeeded in inducing him to resume his task. The Sun returned and the Earth was restored with Zeus’s help: The springs and rivers began to flow, grass returned to the ground, and green leaves to the trees. That is, the Galactic center activity subsided, the cosmic dust was expelled from the solar system, and things returned to normal on Earth.

            The Phathon story has often been understood to commemorate some great flashing event in the skies, whether comet or meteor. Everyone rushes by instinct more accurately, habit for a so called natural explanation. But on examination, the case turns out not to be so easy. The narrating of the cataclysm may be fanciful and impressionistic, as if the poets enjoyed an emotional release from the regularity of celestial orbs, but their account also makes technical sense, as anyone would suspect who has read Stegemann’s solid inquiry into Nonnos as the heir to Dorotheos of Sidon’s tightknit astrology. As for Ovid, his standing as a scholar is by now unchallenged and, in fact, he hints at rigid cosmological formulae with surprising authority. In his description of the hidden mountains emerging from the waves, when the seas shrank into sand they rise as new islands. How much better does this image of mountain peaks and islands illustrate the stars of a constellation rising, one after the other, than for instance, the Icelandic wording of the emerging of a new earth.

            The image of Phaethon suggests the role of the eternal youth in our cultural fascination with new technology and its power. This represents a technicized variety of the idealism and boundless energy evoked by myth’s imagination of youth.

            The myth of Phaethon could represent any of the several celestial phenomena. Perhaps Venus path crosses to either side of the sun and is in some ways erratic is intended by the allegory. Or perhaps some dramatic, unexpected, and unwelcome cosmic visitor inspired the myth. A comet may seem wayward and sun settling. Some evidence in the myth implies that the story concern the order of the year ant the fear the sun might abandon its normal path, an anxiety akin to the notion that the sun threatens just to continue its way south and maroon the world in winter. Although the chariot’s departure with Phaethon was styled as a sunrise in the sun’s daily course, the sun’s annual motion on the ecliptic may be the story’s real core. Helios advised Phaethon the road would pass by the Bull, the Archer, the Lion, the Scorpion, and the Crab. These constellations define the better part of the zodiac, territory the sun would never encounter in but one day’s travels.


Allister, M. C. (2004). Eco-man. New perspective on masculinity and nature.

            Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

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