How The Horses Of The Sun Ran Away
A Greek Legend
Phaeton was the child of the Sun-god, Apollo.
"Mother Clymene," said the boy one day, "I am going to visit my father's palace."
"It is well," she answered. "The land where the Sun rises is not far from this. Go and ask a gift from him."
That night Phaeton bound his sandals more tightly, and, wrapping a thicker silken robe about him, started for the land of Sunrise, sometimes called India by mankind.
Many nights and many days he traveled, but his sandals never wore out nor did his robe make him too hot or too cold.
At last, as he climbed the highest mountain peak of all the earth, he saw the glittering columns of his father's palace. As he came nearer he found that they were covered with millions of precious stones and inlaid with gold. When he started to climb the numberless stairs, the silver doors of the palace flew open, and he saw the wonderful ivory ceiling and the walls of the long hall.
He was glad that the steps were many and he looked long at the pictures carved on the walls by an immortal artist.
There were pictures of both land and sea. On the right was earth with its towns, forests, and rivers, and the beings that live in each. On the left was the ocean with its mermaids sporting among the waves, riding on the backs of fishes, or sitting on the rocks drying their sea-green hair. Their faces were alike, yet not alike, as sisters ought to be.
Up, up the hundreds of steps he climbed, never wearied. On the ceiling of this marvelous hall he could see carved the stars of heaven. On the silver doors were the twelve strange beings of the sky, formed of stars; six on each door.
The last step was reached. Outside the sky was dark, but at the doorway Phaeton stopped, for the light from his father was more than he could bear. There sat Apollo, dressed in crimson, on a throne which glittered with diamonds. On his right hand and on his left stood the Days, bright with hope; and the Months, hand in hand with the Days, seemed listening to what the Years were whispering to them.
Phaeton saw there the four seasons. Spring, young and lovely, came first, her head crowned with flowers. Next came Summer, with her robe of roses thrown loosely about her and a garland of ripe wheat upon her head. Then came merry Autumn, his feet stained with grape juice; and last, icy Winter, with frosty beard and hair, and Phaeton shivered as he looked at him. Dazzled by the light, and startled to find himself in such a presence, he stood still.
The Sun, seeing him with the eye that sees everything, asked:
"Why are you here?"
"Apollo, my father, grant me one request, that I may prove to mortals that you are my father."
Apollo laid aside his dazzling crown of rays, clasped Phaeton in his arms and said:
"Brave son, ask what you will, the gift is yours."
Quicker than a flash from his father's crown came the question from Phaeton:
"Will you let me for one day drive your chariot?"
Foolish father, foolish son! Apollo shook his head three times in warning.
"I have spoken rashly. This one thing no mortal can achieve. Nor can any immortal save myself hold in the horses that draw the fiery car of day. It is not honor, but death you ask. Change your wish."
"My mother taught me that my father always kept his promises."
"It is even so, rash boy. If you do not change, neither can I. Bring the chariot of the Sun."
The daring child stood beside the glorious car that was higher than his head. His eyes flashed bright as the diamonds that studded the back of the golden chariot. The golden axle gleamed through the silver spokes, for the chariot was made of naught but gold and silver and precious stones.
Then Early Dawn threw open the purple doors of the eastern sky. The stars, answering the signal of the Day Star, slowly passed from sight, followed by their marshal.
The Hours obeyed Apollo's orders, and, harnessing the horses, led out the wondrous creatures and fastened them to the chariot.
Apollo bathed Phaeton's face with ointment, and taking up the crown of shining rays, fastened it on the rash boy's head.
With a sigh, he said:
"My son, you will at least take my advice in one thing: spare the whip and hold tight the lines. You will see the marks of the wheels where I have gone before, and they will guide. Go not too high or you will burn the heavens, nor too low or you will set your mother's home, the earth, on fire. The middle course is best. Take the reins, or, if even now you will change your wish, abide here, and yield the car to me."
Phaeton leaped into the golden chariot, and with a proud smile thanked his father. Then he gave the word to the horses.
They darted forward through the morning clouds with the fury of a tempest. Men on the earth thought it was noonday and tried to do double their daily work. The fiery horses soon found their load was light, and that the hands on the reins were frail. They dashed aside from their path, until the fierce heat made the Great and the Little Bear long to plunge into the sea.
Poor Phaeton, looking down on the earth, grew pale and shook with terror. He wished that he had never seen these shining steeds, had never sought the palace of the Sun, and that he had never held his father to that rash promise.
Diana, who drives the chariot of the Moon, heard the mad racket in the sky, and shooting her arrows at the frightened horses, turned them aside in time to prevent them from dashing her own silver car to pieces.
Earth cried for clouds and rain. The people of Africa became black because of the terrible heat. Streams dried up, mountains burned, and the River Nile hid his head forever in a desert. At last Earth cried in a husky voice to Jupiter, the ruler of the gods:
"What have I done that this punishment should come? Slay me, or save my people from this burning!"
Jupiter, from his seat in the thunderclouds, saw the danger the heavens and the earth were in, and hurled his lightnings at the rash driver. Phaeton fell dead from the chariot. From morning till night, and from that night till morning, he fell like a shooting star, and sank at last into an Italian river. His sisters trembled so at his fall and wept so bitterly that they changed into poplar trees upon the river banks. Even to this day they mourn for him and tremble at the least breeze from heaven. Apollo's horses, calmed by Jupiter's voice, finally found the track. When evening came they entered the western gates of the sky and were taken back, by way of the north, to their stalls near Apollo's palace.
Sources And Further Reading
Project Gutenberg Classic Myths Retold by Mary Catherine Judd with drawings entirely from classic sources