The fall of Phaethon

The Fall of Phaethon

Joseph Campbell in his iconic work on myth, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, recounts what he refers to as ” the unhappy exploit of the lad Phaethon.”

As the Greeks told the story, young Phaethon, born of a virgin in Ethiopia, suffered the taunts of his peers about his parentage. So he set off on a journey to resolve the question once and for all.  His mother had given him one small clue.  According to her his father was Phoebus.

You remember Phoebus. He dwelt in the Palace of the Sun for he was the god who drove the solar chariot.

I have to hand it to the ancient Greeks.  They knew how to set up a story.

Young Phaethon traveled across Persia and India until he arrived at the palace and confronted his father, beseeching him to grant him proof of his lineage.

Phoebus, overcome with emotion at his son’s quest, swore a binding oath that he would give him whatever proof he required.

(At this point in the story, we know Phaethon is going to screw up.  We just don’t know how bad.)

He did it royally.

As Joseph Campbell put it: “What Phaethon desired was his father’s chariot, and the right to drive the winged horses for a day.”

Piece of cake, right?  That was a chariot of fire, by the way.

Phoebus tried to dissuade his son, but he wouldn’t relent.

So Phoebus did what any good father would do.  He tossed Phaethon, an unlicensed driver who hadn’t even taken driver’s ed, the keys to his Maserati and told him to be careful.

Phaethon wasn’t careful.  The autopilot on the chariot broke on takeoff.  The chariot surged into the heavens, burning and scorching as it went.  It dove toward earth, decimating cities, drying up lakes and seas.

Mother Earth had had enough.  She pleaded with Jove, the almighty father, to save her realm before it was too late.  Jove summoned the  other gods to bear witness of the terrible plight and proceeded to take swift and sure action.

When Jove takes swift and sure action he doesn’t fool around.

The Fall of Phaethon II

Here is the conclusion of the story as Campbell relates it.

Thereupon he [Jove] hurried to the zenith, took a thunderbolt in his right hand, and flung it from beside his ear. The car shattered; the horses, terrified, broke loose; Phaethon, fire raging in his hair, descended like a falling star.  And the river Po received his burning frame.

The Naiads of that land consigned his body to a tomb, whereupon this epitaph:

Here Phaethon lies: in Phoebus’ car he fared,

And though he greatly failed, more greatly dared.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

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