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The story of Phaethon, or Phaeton as he is also known, begins, in Greek mythology, when the character is a young man living in the court of King Merops of Aethiopia. Not being the true son of Merops is something that Phaethon is teased about, but in truth, there is nothing for Phaethon to be embarrassed about, for the true father of Phaethon is the Greek sun god Helios.

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Helios swears on the River Styx that he will give anything that his son wants as proof of his parentage. It proved to be a rash promise, for swearing on the Styx formed an unbreakable promise, and when Phaethon asked for the unthinkable, Helios was left with no option but to agree. Helios cannot break his word, but nevertheless, the sun god tries to talk Phaethon out of the endeavour, and Helios points out that driving the sun chariot is something that not even Zeus would consider doing.

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Despite the pleadings of Helios though, Phaethon is unmoved in his desire to drive the chariot. Almost immediately though, there are problems, for Phaethon cannot control the horses, and the chariot veers upwards and downwards violently. When the chariot of the sun god travels too high, the earth starts to freeze, but when it plunges downwards, the planet starts to burn. During one of these downward plunges, the chariot scorches the earth, and creates the Nubian Desert.

A low trajectory also causes lakes and rivers to dry up. Zeus follows proceedings from Mount Olympus, and realises that the passage of Phaethon cannot be allowed to continue, and so the supreme god unleashes one of his lightning bolts. The bolt of lightning strikes Phaethon, and the lifeless body of the son of Helios plunges to earth, and falls into the Eriadanos River a river often equated with the Po.

Phaethon - Gustave Moreau — - PD-art Helios was of course distraught at the death of his son, and for days afterwards, he refused to drive his chariot; and the earth was plunged into darkness for days, causing all to suffer. Zeus asked Helios to re-harness his horses, but of course Helios blamed Zeus for the death of Phaethon; although Zeus would claim it was the only way to save the earth.

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In the end, it required the pleadings of many other gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, before Helios would once again drive his chariot. Helios was not the only one who mourned the passing of Phaethon, for the seven sisters of Phaethon, the Heliades, also grieved. The Heliades would go to the place where Phaethon had fallen, and for four months, they remained and grieved. Helius tried to dissuade him, for that was too great a boon, and something to be performed by an immortal and not by a mortal.

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And even if the other immortals may do as they will, none, not even Zeus , according to what Helius explained to his son, could drive his chariot of fire; for the first part of the road is steep and difficult, the mid-way is extremely high, and the last part, being precipitous, requires an assured control. Moreover, all parts had to be performed while the vault of heaven spins round in constant motion, whirling at high speed.

Through detailed descriptions of the dangers of this daily trip, Helius attempted to induce his son to make a wiser decision, begging him not to ask this one thing, which would prove to be a bane and not a blessing. Not having been able to dissuade his son, Helius gave him driving advices: to spare the lash and use the reins, not to take the way straight through the five zones of heaven, but to follow the path which runs slantwise, with a wide curve and within the limits of three zones, avoiding the far south and the far north.

Helius also advised him neither to go too low nor too high, so to avoid burning either the earth or the sky. And still at the last minute Helius bade him: "Take my counsel, not my chariot, while you still stand on solid ground. And when the driver looked down, he was panic-stricken, and likewise when he looked in other directions. For one thing is to look at the constellations from the ground, and another to travel through or near them.

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And the horses, not being able to recognize the track, broke loose even more from their course, roaming aimlessly through unknown regions, at times climbing up to the top of the sky, at other times plunging headlong down near the earth. In heaven there was amazement, but on earth the meadows were burned, the trees consumed, and whole cities and nations were reduced to ashes.


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In the meanwhile, the driver breathed air hot like fire and was completely blinded by the dense smoke, not being any more able to tell where he was or whither the horses were taking him. It was at this time that the Ethiopians and the Indians became black-skinned, and Libya became a desert, and many regions lost their fountains and their pools.

In the same way, the seventh mouths of the Nile were filled with dust, and many rivers steamed when their banks were aflame.