From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In Greek mythology, Phaëtōn or Phaethōn ("shining") was the son of Helios (Phoebus). Perhaps the most famous version of the myth is given us through Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Book II). Phaeton seeks assurance that his mother, Clymene, is telling the truth that his father is the sun god Helios. When Phaeton obtains his father's promise to drive the sun chariot as proof, he fails to control it and is killed to prevent further disaster.
In the version of the myth told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Phaeton ascends into heaven, the home of his suspected father. His mother Clymene had boasted that his father was the sun-god Helios (or the god of sun, Apollo). Phaeton went to his father who swore by the river Styx to give Phaeton anything he should ask for in order to prove his divine paternity. Phaeton wanted to drive his chariot (the sun) for a day. Though Helios tried to talk him out of it by telling him that not even Zeus (the king of gods) would dare to drive it, the chariot was fiery hot and the horses breathed out flames. Phaeton was adamant. When the day came, Apollo anointed Phaeton's head with magic oil to keep the chariot from burning him. Phaeton was unable to control the fierce horses that drew the chariot as they sensed a weaker hand.
"...consider what impetuous force Turns stars and planets in a diff'rent course. I steer against their motions; nor am I Born back by all the current of the sky. But how cou'd you resist the orbs that roul In adverse whirls, and stem the rapid pole?"
First it veered too high, so that the earth grew chill. Then it dipped too close, and the vegetation dried and burned. He accidentally turned most of Africa into desert; burning the skin of the Ethiopians black.
"The running conflagration spreads below. But these are trivial ills: whole cities burn, And peopled kingdoms into ashes turn."
Rivers and lakes began to dry up, Poseidon rose out of the sea and waved his trident in anger at the sun, but soon the heat became even too great for him and he dove to the bottom of the sea.
Eventually, Zeus was forced to intervene by striking the runaway chariot with a lightning bolt to stop it, and Phaëthon plunged into the river Eridanos. Helios, stricken with grief, refused to drive his chariot for days. Finally the gods persuaded him to not leave the world in darkness. Helios blamed Zeus for killing his son, but Zeus told him there was no other way.
The moral of the story is that the sun travels its proper course every day giving correct amounts of light and warmth to the world.
Phaeton in Plato's Timaeus
In Plato's Timaeus, Critias tells the story of Solon's visit to Egypt shortly after Solon was elected archon in 594 B.C. Solon was puzzled by the fact that the Greeks have no history prior to the Trojan War and told the Egyptians that history must begin with the first man (Phoroneus) and woman (Niobe) and after the Deluge with Deucalion and Pyrrha. To which the Neith priest identified by Plutarch as Sonchis the Saite said, "in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why. There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father's chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals."
Phaethon in Aristotle's Meteorology
In Aristotle's Meteorology, Aristotle says, "...the stars...fell from heaven at the time of Phaethon's downfall." Aristotle is saying Phaethon caused a meteor shower. This has lead many scientists including Immanuel Velikovsky to speculate that Phaethon was a comet.
Phaethon In Clement of Alexandria
Phaëthon in other stories
In an alternate genealogy, Eos bore Cephalus a son named Phaëthon, but Aphrodite stole him away while he was no more than a child to be the night-watchman at her most sacred shrines. The Minoans called him Adymus, by which they meant the morning and evening star.
Fragments of Euripides' tragedy on this subject suggest that Phaethon survives. In reconstructing the lost play and discussing the fragments, James Diggle has discussed the treatment of the Phaeton myth (Diggle 2004).
The motif of the fallen star must have been familiar in Israel, for Isaiah referred to it in admonishing the king of Babylon for his pride ("How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!" Isaiah 14:12ff). The Jewish Encyclopedia reports that "it is obvious that the prophet in attributing to the Babylonian king boastful pride, followed by a fall, borrowed the idea from a popular legend connected with the morning star." The falling-star image reappears in John's Apocalypse without a name. In the 4th century, Jerome's translation of the "morning star" as "Lucifer" carried the fallen-star myth-element into Christian mythology. For fuller details, see Lucifer and Azazel.
Phaethon was also mentioned in the Greek Myth of the Chariot of the sun, of which he was killed.
Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a symphonic poem entitled Phaéton.