In Greek mythology, the sun was carried across the sky by Helios in a divine chariot. Helios’s son, Phaeton, asked his father to prove his relationship to the sun by letting him drive the solar chariot for a day. Phaeton’s test drive goes poorly, he loses control of horses and nearly crashes the sun into the earth. Zeus, to save their earth, is forced to kill Phaeton with a lightning bolt.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Helios attempts to talk Phaeton out of driving the chariot, describing the difficulties of his divine workday —
“The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong. Moreover the rushing sky is constantly turning, and drags along the remote stars, and whirls them in rapid orbits. I move the opposite way, and its momentum does not overcome me as it does all other things, and I ride contrary to its swift rotation. Suppose you are given the chariot. What will you do? Will you be able to counter the turning poles so that the swiftness of the skies does not carry you away? Perhaps you conceive in imagination that there are groves there and cities of the gods and temples with rich gifts. The way runs through ambush, and apparitions of wild beasts! Even if you keep your course, and do not steer awry, you must still avoid the horns of Taurus the Bull, Sagittarius the Haemonian Archer, raging Leo and the Lion’s jaw, Scorpio’s cruel pincers sweeping out to encircle you from one side, and Cancer’s crab-claws reaching out from the other. You will not easily rule those proud horses, breathing out through mouth and nostrils the fires burning in their chests. They scarcely tolerate my control when their fierce spirits are hot, and their necks resist the reins. Beware my boy, that I am not the source of a gift fatal to you, while something can still be done to set right your request!”
Got questions, comments or corrections about The Fall of Phaeton? Join the conversation in the Obelisk chat room, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member to unlock exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts at the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "The Fall of Phaeton," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 20, 2016; last modified May 19, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/peter-paul-rubens/the-fall-of-phaeton/.