Phaethon (mythology)

   In classical my­thology, Phaethon was the child of the Sun and the ocean nymph, Clymene. Being twitted of humble birth he was sent by his mother to the palace of Phoebus, the Sun, in the far east for proof of his ancestry. He begged the boon of being allowed to drive his father's chariot for a single day that all might know who he really was. Phoebus, having given his promise rashly, was unable to induce the youth to refrain. Seeing that nothing else would avail, he told him of the difficulty of ascending the first part of the roadway, the dizzy height of the road at another, and the steep pitch into the ocean at evening. He told him how to pass the horns of the bull, the arrow of the archer, the lion's jaws, and the arms of the scorpion and the crab. Dawn threw open the purple doors of the east, the day star marshaled the stars aside, the moon retired, the hours harnessed up the horses. As a parting word, Phoebus told Phaethon to hold tightly his reins and to spare the whip. Phaethon leaped into the chariot full of youthful confidence. The steeds felt at once that a new hand was at the rein and a lighter person in the char­iot. They became ungovernable. The chariot, that is to say, the sun, passed too near the earth. It scorched the face of na­ture, creating the Libyan Desert. To pre­vent the destruction of the world Zeus slew Phaethon with a thunderbolt. He fell near the mouth of the Po. His weeping sisters were transformed into the Lombardy pop­lars for which that valley is noted. Their tears turned to bits of amber, still cast ashore by the waves after a storm.

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