According to myth, Phaethon was the son of Helios, the god of the Sun, and Clymene. It was not until Phaethon reached a certain age, however, that he learned that his father was indeed the Sun-god. When he realized who - and what - his father was, Phaethon decided to meet Helios. He therefore went on a journey to the East, where he found his father's grand palace.
Phaethon was exuberant. He father was an important and influential god, and the boy was no doubt awed by the power that Helios wielded. So Phaethon did something rash - he asked his father for a favor. Helios, thrilled at meeting his young son, immediately agreed, without even knowing what the boy would ask. However, this fatherly attempt at affection was to have unfortunate consequences. For Phaethon wanted to drive the Sun-god's chariot across the sky. Knowing the folly of the request, but unable to take back his gift, Helios was forced to comply.
So the young man joyfully leapt into the chariot. As soon as Phaethon took hold of the reins, however, it was clear that he could not control the powerful horses. Indeed, the immortal horses were much too strong for Phaethon, and they dragged both the chariot and the boy across the sky, causing destruction wherever they went. When the chariot got too close to the earth, the very ground was burned.
Zeus quickly realized that this was a dangerous situation. So the ruler of the Greek gods threw a thunderbolt directly at Phaethon. The young man was killed instantly, his body landing in the Eridanus river. There Phaethon was mourned by his sisters. The legend is that Phaethon's weeping sisters were eventually transformed into trees, their tears turning into amber.
Phaethon in Art
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Who's Who in Classical Mythology