He who is ever of unrestrained mind,
Devoid of true understanding
His sense desires become uncontrollable
Like the wild horses of the charioteer.
— Katha Upanishad
Legend as old as man claim for him divine ancestry saying that he was fathered by the sun god. A part of him is always seeking reunion with the Father, and these same legends say that one day he shall come into his own. But woe unto him who looks upon the solar splendor unprepared, or who claims his birthright selfishly!
The day was fair, but storm signals were around young Phaethon as he stood with clenched fists and flashing eyes.
"Do you say I lie, Epaphos? I tell you again, Helios is my father. My mother has told me."
"Ha, ha, ha!" Four or five boys led by Epaphos were hugely enjoying themselves.
"Boaster!" they shouted; "Coward! Would you hide behind your mother with a tale like that?"
"It is no tale: it is truth. By Helios, I swear it, and I will make you eat your words."
More laughter — cruel, as only those who have not suffered can make it. The sound followed Phaethon as he turned from his companions and its bitterness was with him long after he had passed beyond reach of their voices.
He did not go home but followed a path up a wild and rocky glen. It took him higher and higher, and always eastward. He had no certainty of the course he must follow, only the will to find the sun god and claim from him some proof of his kinship.
Today was not the first time he had been baited by Epaphos and his friends. They had made fun of him because he lived so alone with his mother and because he knew nothing about his father. When, after much pleading, he had learned the story of his birth, things were no better: Epaphos, who long ago had boasted that great Zeus was his sire, looked upon Phaethon as a mere copy-cat, and would not believe a word he said. "He is jealous," he sneered. "An easy excuse for knowing nothing of his father!"
It was a long and weary journey to the dwelling of the sun god. When Phaethon came into the presence of his father and looked upon him, he was nearly blinded — utterly so when it came to reason, for he could think of nothing but the proof he coveted. Helios was proud of this daring son, and when the boy begged for some token of their kinship the request was unwisely granted before it was made known. "What would you have? Speak, my son, and it is yours." "O, father Helios, let me for one day only drive your golden chariot across the heavens!"
There followed an awesome silence, and then the sun god sighed and placed his hand upon the boy's head. "Phaethon, my son, ask me anything else and it is yours, but this I cannot grant."
"Cannot! The chariot and the horses are yours, are they not? Then why cannot you let me drive them just once? You mean you will break your promise to me?"
The god begged his son to reconsider. The boy was stubborn. Nothing else would satisfy him; nothing else could prove to Epaphos and the others that Helios was his father. Moreover, and the boy showed a cunning streak, had not Helios given his promise before the river Styx as witness? At last, convinced that Phaethon could not be swayed from his purpose, Helios sought to give the boy what protection he could by telling him how to manage the fiery steeds, and by instructing him in the course to be followed.
Time was passing: already dawn was heralding the coming of the sun god; the horses were impatient to be off; earth and heaven were tense with expectancy. So, heavy-hearted, Helios stepped aside and Phaethon sprang into the chariot, seizing the reins and cheering the horses forward. It was a moment of triumph and exhilaration. Never again would Epaphos or anyone else doubt that he, Phaethon, was the son of Helios!
The triumph was brief: joy was succeeded by shock, and then by utter terror. The horses were quick to feel an inexperienced hand upon the reins, and swept onward unmindful of any effort to stay them. All instructions were forgotten in the mad hurtling of the chariot: now they were too high above the course, now too low; rivers were dried up, springs boiled, portions of the earth were so scorched that the people living there turned black. It was a day of strange import, for elsewhere lands long imprisoned in snow and ice became warm and temperate. Everything was topsy-turvy, a menace to heaven as well as earth; and great Zeus, beholding the havoc wrought, and fearing more, hurled a thunderbolt and slew the offending Phaethon.
The splendor of Helios was dimmed by grief. That his son had brought the tragedy upon himself was little comfort: surely he, the mighty sun god, could have found some way to avert calamity! Lost in sorrow, he would neither drive the chariot nor take the horses out alone. A tent of darkness filled the heavens.
This could not be. The gods of high Olympos met in council and sent a messenger in supplication: grief for the hapless Phaethon they respected, but there was heaven, and earth and all the stars to think of too. Another day must dawn! Only thus was the gloom dispelled around the dwelling of the Sun.
Once more the golden chariot crossed the heavens, once more the fiery steeds kept to the course, guided by the strong, sure hand of Helios.
Some may tell you it never happened; but there are others who hold that beneath the guise of myth and legend there is truth — and many a thread of history.
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The stars shall fade away, the Sun himself
Grow dim with age, and Nature sink in years,
But thou shalt flourish in immortal youth,
Unhurt amid the war of elements,
The wreck of matter, and the crash of worlds.