There once was a boy named Phaeton. Phaeton lived in Greece, and had a normal life, going to school each day, playing with his friends, and helping his mother with chores around the house. But one thing about his life was different: he lived alone with his mother, and had never seen his father. He often wondered what his father was like. Was he a warrior? A hunter? A rich ruler? Would knowing his father’s identity change his own identity? He hoped that he would one day meet his father, and that he would be someone important, but he was doubtful that this wish would ever come true.
Finally, one day when Phaeton was a teenager, his mother, perhaps a little foolishly, let him in on the most important secret of his life. “It’s time you know the truth about the identity of your father,” she told him. “Your father is Helios, the god of the sun.”
Phaeton was so excited that he could think of nothing else. All day long, he thought of his father’s identity, and how important he himself must be as a god’s son. Although his father was more powerful and important than all of his friends’ fathers, he knew that the identity of his father must be kept a secret. The gods did not like their relationships with mere mortals to be known.
The next day, Phaeton could not contain the news any longer. He foolishly blurted out to his friends, “My father is Helios, the god of the sun!”
But his friends were doubtful, even though Phaeton stubbornly insisted that it was true. Instead of being impressed with the identity of his father, they just laughed and made fun of him. At first, this made Phaeton feel angry with his friends, and he would often get in fights with them. Then, after a while, he began to feel sad, and even doubted whether what his mother had told him was true.
He asked his mother, “How can I be sure that my father really is the god of the sun?”
His mother looked at him for a long moment. Finally she slowly replied, “My son, your father is a good god, but he is very busy. Without him, no plants would grow, and the earth would be very cold. Nothing would live without him. I think you should go to Helios yourself so he can tell you the truth about your identity, and you will no longer have any reason to doubt.”
The next day, Phaeton and his mother got up just as Eos, the goddess of the dawn, was painting the sky red in preparation for sunrise. Phaeton’s mother instructed him to walk toward the east, to where he saw the sun starting to rise, where he would find the castle of Helios.
Phaeton walked and walked. He walked across Greece, Persia and India, and began to doubt he would ever arrive. Just when he was about to completely lose hope, he came to some tall mountains. As he approached the highest mountain, a glimmer of light caught his eye. As he approached source of the light, he saw a glowing castle at the top of the mountain. Its twelve walls were made of bright gold, reflecting the sun; there were twelve doors made of bright silver; and sparkling diamonds on the tower roofs. He cautiously walked through an open door, and when he got inside, it was so bright that he covered his eyes and began to cry.
When Phaeton’s eyes had adjusted to the light, he saw a throne with a powerful man sitting on it. The man’s eyes seemed to be staring through Phaeton. He realized that this was no man, it was Helios, the god of the sun. Phaeton cautiously looked at the god’s face, but he didn’t dare approach him.
Helios’ deep voice demanded, “Who are you, and what do you want?”
Phaeton tried to answer, but his words got caught in his throat. He tried again, “I am Phaeton, the son of an earth woman of Greece. She says you are my father, but I doubt it very much. Please, if you are my father, prove it to me.”
Helios smiled and replied, “Surely only the son of a god would be able to find my castle and be brave enough to approach it. Don’t ever doubt that you are my son. I will prove it to you by giving you anything you wish. What would you like me to do for you?”
Phaeton didn’t even have to think about what he wanted, he blurted out, “I have always wanted to drive the sun chariot for one day!”
Helios knew that only he was capable of driving the sun chariot, so he tried to convince his son to not try such a hard task. “My son, your wish is very foolish. Not even Zeus can drive my sun chariot. It would be a disaster if you tried to drive it, even for one day. You must ask me for something else.”
Phaeton’s heart was set, and he stubbornly insisted, “I will drive the sun chariot tomorrow!”
Helios saw Phaeton’s stubbornness, so he tried to explain just how dangerous the trip would be. “The first part of the trip is steep, and the horses are almost wild. If they get off track even a little, they will hit the constellations. If they go too high, the earth will freeze, and if they run too low to the earth, it will burn up. Not only that, the chariot goes so high in the middle of the day that even I get dizzy if I look down. Please, do not do such a foolish and dangerous thing.”
But, the next morning, as Eos opened the dawn, Phaeton sat in the chariot, holding the reins to the wild horses. Suddenly, the horses bolted out of the castle, and shot straight up into the sky. Phaeton jerked back on the reins, but when the horses felt the inexperienced hand of Phaeton, they veered wildly off the path. They crashed into the constellations, which made the bear, the bull and the scorpion lash out at them. The horses shied, and took off higher and higher into the sky. Back on earth, as the sun got further away, everything suddenly got icy cold. The crops froze, the rivers and lakes froze in place, and people couldn’t even get warm with blankets and fires. Meanwhile, Phaeton looked down from such a great height and got so dizzy that he passed out in the chariot, pulling the reins down with him. Therefore, horses changed their course and headed downward, pulling the sun closer and closer to the earth. Suddenly, the ice melted, and the earth got hotter and hotter. Fires started, crops shriveled up, and all the rivers and lakes evaporated. Just as the horses were about to pull the sun into the earth and completely destroy it, Zeus pulled out a thunderbolt and threw it at Phaeton. When the bolt hit him, he fell out of the chariot, and landed in the sea, never to be seen again.
Fortunately, the horses immediately got back on their course, and the sun set peacefully that night, just as it always had. After that, Helios was careful to never let anyone else drive his chariot, except Apollo, the god of light.