Phaeton & the Chariot of the Sun: Harnessing the Powers of the Gods
Powers which were once confined to the realm of fantasy are now at our fingertips. We fly through the air as though on Pegasus’ wings, and carry knowledge in our pockets that outmatch any ancient library or wizard’s tome. At this very moment my voice and image are being projected to you across time and space through invisible airwaves, channeled by stones harnessing the power of lightning. More and more each day, powers once reserved for the gods are placed into our hands.
Yet as technology advances, it becomes increasingly unclear where we are advancing to. Our capabilities for creation and destruction have grown side-by-side at shocking speed. And as exponential growth demands an ever-faster pace of innovation, we develop new technologies faster than we can realize the extent of their impact, or how our lives will be changed. We clearly see the world of tomorrow ahead, but our place within it is increasingly opaque.
As we search for our place in this strange future, we must not turn a blind eye to the wisdom of the past; the tales of the gods whose powers we have claimed and the humans who encountered them, and the incredible and disastrous consequences. The Ancient Greek myth of Phaeton tells the dramatic rise and fall of an ambitious youth who wielded the power of the sun for a single day. Millennia later, these powers are increasingly at hand; and we must learn from the wisdom of the past, lest we meet his same fate.
The Son of a God
In the ancient days of Greece and Rome the story was told of Phaeton, the son of the ocean nymph Clymene by the sun god Helios. Young Phaeton is raised by his mother, never meeting his father who is busy each day driving the chariot of the sun from east to west across the sky. Tellings of the myth vary: to the ancient Athenian Euripides, Phaeton never knew that Helios was his father; to the Roman poet Ovid, Phaeton had been told of his father, but had only ever seen him from a distance, in his daily journey across the sky. But all versions of the myth have Phaeton set out to meet his father.
It is Ovid’s telling that we will follow from here, in which Phaeton seeks to prove his divine parentage to other children who bully him for being fatherless. Phaeton begs his mother for some proof of his father’s identity. She, either moved by his plea or insulted at the insinuation, holds out her arms to the sun’s light and cries:
By this great glorious radiance,
This beaming blaze, that sees and hears us now,
I swear, dear child, that he, the Sun, on whom
You gaze, the sun who governs all the globe,
He is your father. If I lie let him
Deny his beams, let this light be the last
My eyes shall ever see! And you may find
Your father’s home with no long toil. The place
From which he rises borders our own land.
Go, make the journey if your heart is set,
And make the question to the Sun himself.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I
So Phaeton sets off from his home in Ethiopia to the east, crossing over India, until he reaches the source of the dawn, and arrives at the gates of his father’s palace.
The Palace of the Sun
As Phaeton arrives at the Palace of the Sun he is dwarfed by its majesty, rising high above the eastern end of the earth on soaring columns of flashing gold and flaming bronze. The doors to which he climbs are dazzled with silver, an image of earth, sea, and sky engraved by the god Vulcan. The image of the world gives detailed attention given to each of the inhabitants therein – a masterpiece to rival even the shield that Vulcan, known by the Greek name Hephaestus, would create for the hero Achilles in the Trojan War.
The majesty of the palace’s doors is only fitting for the one who dwells within, as Helios, draped in royal purple robes, shines with an all-encompassing light from his bejeweled throne. But at the sight of his son Phaeton, Helios casts decorum aside, removing the crown of sunbeams from his head and embracing his son, promising Phaeton anything his heart desires.
But Helios soon regrets this promise, as Phaeton’s desire is to command the chariot of the sun. He tries to dissuade Phaeton; not even Zeus could control the fiery orb on its way across the sky:
Dangerous is your choice;
You seek a privilege that ill befits
Your growing years and strength so boyish still.
Mortal your lot – not mortal your desire;
This, to which even the gods may not aspire,
In ignorance you claim. Though their own powers
May please the gods, not one can take his stand
Above my chariot’s flaming axle-tree
Save I. Even he whose hand hurls thunderbolts,
Olympus’ mighty lord, may never drive
My team – and who is mightier than Jove?
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II
Helios warns his son; the four horses which drive the chariot are fierce, the driver faces a steep climb and sharp descent, and must take care not to be pulled away by the sky’s rotation. The night sky is not filled with cities of gods, but constellations which make up fierce beasts, the scorpion, lion, and bull among them. Helios begs Phaeton to take his concern as proof enough of fatherhood. But Phaeton is bold, his burning desire matching the blazing sun. He sees the golden chariot and wants to experience the glory for himself.
The Ultimate Flight
Helios stays true to his promise, placing the crown of sunbeams on Phaeton’s head. And though Phaeton would not heed his father’s warnings, he hopes that he will at least take his advice. Four horses, Blaze, Dawn, Fire, and Flame, power the golden chariot, snorting flames and kicking at the gates. The charioteer’s task is not to spur them on, but to rein their mighty powers in. As the horses take off, the driver must guide their course steeply up, then keep their path through the middle of the sky, finally holding them steady through the steep descent into the night.
Phaeton holds the reins lightly, and as soon as the gate is raised the horses blast off. Like an unweighted ship carried off by the waves the chariot rushes upward, so high that even the cold northern bear is thawed and flees for refuge. Looking down at the earth below Phaeton realizes the extent of the power that is driving him, suddenly, but too late. His face grows pale, his knees weak, and he is blinded by the light of the sun. He cannot even remember the names of the steeds and is filled with doubt; how could he dream of controlling a power that he does not even know?
Without a master able to control them, the horses panic at the sight of the beasts in the constellations, and cascade down to the earth. The result is a disaster. Clouds dissolve into steam, leaves burn on the trees, rivers dry and mountain forests blaze. Entire nations are turned to ash as even the peaks of the Alps burn and the green Sahara turns to dust.
The horses’ wild path cracks the earth open as the sun’s light shines down to Hades. The ocean god Poseidon hurls the seas at the flames, but they only turn to steam. At last Gaia, the goddess Mother Earth, pleas to Zeus with hoarse voice, burnt hair, and ash in her eyes; that if earth falls to flame, the pillars holding the cosmos will fall with it, Atlas will drop the sky, and all creation will return to primordial chaos.
Zeus cannot bring storms to quench the flames and is forced to choose between the bold youth and all of creation. With a single bolt, he strikes Phaeton from the chariot and from life, as he falls to earth. Helios veils his face to mourn, and Phaeton’s sisters mark his grave with an epitaph for his fall and his ambition:
Here Phaeton lies, his father’s charioteer;
Great was his fall, yet did he greatly dare.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II
Conclusion: Taking the Reins
Today we celebrate the same ambition which drove Phaeton in the industrial and technological pioneers who have brought about our rapid advancement. We hold godlike powers of light to heal diseases, forge automatons, and create alternate worlds; alongside powers of darkness to stalk each other, poison minds, and destroy the world we share. At the time of recording in December 2023, we now have tools capable of language and creativity, realms once thought of as exclusively human. With the current exponential pace of advance, this is not a box that we can expect to close anytime soon.
As we are the heirs of Phaeton’s ambition, we must take care not to share in his fate – whether the destruction of the world or ourselves. Dealing with forces more powerful than ourselves, we must not blindly spur them on, but carefully rein them in to keep the right path. Unlike Phaeton, who forgot the names of the horses which propelled him, we must understand the powers that we wield. Phaeton’s reckless ambition with the chariot of the sun was his downfall. If we listen to wisdom, understand the powers we wield, and navigate the constellations with a steady hand, perhaps we can fulfill the mission of lighting the world.