Phaëthon. Hamilton takes this story from Ovid, and she calls it one of his best. Phaëthon is a mortal boy who learns that his father is the Sun, so he goes to his radiant, beautiful palace to find him. The Sun is overjoyed to meet his son, and he swears by the river Styx to grant Phaëthon anything he should wish.
This will become a story about the importance of humility, but also how bravery, even arrogant bravery, can be rewarded. The Sun has trysts with mortals just like Zeus and the other gods.
Phaëthon immediately asks to take the Sun’s place for one day and ride his golden chariot across the sky. The Sun tries to persuade Phaëthon to choose a different wish, as he foresees that this will end in tragedy, but the bold, ambitious Phaëthon will not be dissuaded.
Phaëthon tries to equal the gods with his request, and he is warned of the inevitable tragedy that will result. But such characters never listen to the warnings in the myths.
Dawn approaches and Phaëthon enters the chariot, which is pulled wild, powerful horses. The chariot starts to rise, but then everything goes wrong. Phaëthon cannot control the horses, and they rush about, setting the world on fire. Mount Olympus itself is set aflame, and Jove hurls a thunderbolt at the chariot to stop the destruction. Phaëthon is killed instantly, and the mysterious river Eridanus cools his burning body. The naiads inscribe his bravery on his tomb and Phaëthon’s sisters, the Heliades, mourn for him, and are turned into poplar trees.
Phaëthon is punished for his hubris with death and destruction, but he is also rewarded for his bravery. Because his attempt was so bold and daring, the naiads write a monument to his bravery, and he is immortalized within the myth itself. In this way he serves as both a hero and a bad example. The myth ends with another transformation into a tree.
Pegasus and Bellerophon. The story of Bellerophon, a beautiful, strong youth whose father is Poseidon, comes from Hesiod, Homer, and Pindar. Bellerophon’s greatest desire is to the possess Pegasus, the winged horse, though this seems an impossible wish. Polyidus, a seer, advises Bellerophon to sleep in Athena’s temple. Athena then comes to Bellerophon in a dream and leaves him a golden bridle to charm Pegasus.
Bellerophon is another hero whose first task involves doing little that is heroic. Athena helps him tame Pegasus, so it is hardly any work at all. Pegasus has become a mythical creature much more famous than its master, an example of a beautiful, sacred “monster.”
Bellerophon finds Pegasus and becomes his rider with the aid of the golden bridle. He is then the lord of the air, but hard trials await him. He rejects the infatuated Anteia, the wife of King Proetus, and she accuses him evil and plots his death. Proetus will not kill Bellerophon, as he has eaten at his table, but he sends him on a deadly quest: to kill the Chimaera.
This is another example of a king fearing to kill a guest because of the sacred rules of hospitality, and instead sending the guest on a deadly quest. Bellerophon’s hero’s quest repeats many of the motifs of Jason and the Argonauts.
The Chimaera is a terrible, fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. Bellerophon flies over her and shoots her with arrows. Then Proetus sends him to battle the mighty Solymi warriors, and then the Amazons, but Bellerophon defeats both. Finally Proetus accepts Bellerophon and gives him his daughter to marry.
The Chimaera is just a combination of animals, like Pegasus, yet the Chimaera is evil because of its ugliness. More aspects of Bellerophon’s heroism involve defeating fierce foreigners and winning the hand of a princess.
Bellerophon’s ambition becomes too great then, and leads to his downfall. He wants to become immortal, and he tries to fly Pegasus up to Mount Olympus. Pegasus wisely bucks his rider, and after that Bellerophon wanders the earth, alone and miserable. Pegasus leaves him and becomes the wonder of Zeus’s stables.
Like Phaëthon, Bellerophon’s story is also a cautionary tale. This is a classic example of the gods punishing hubris in a mortal. Any time someone claims equality with the gods, it never ends well for the mortal.
Otus and Ephialtes. This story comes from Apollodorus. Otus and Ephialtes were twin Giant brothers, sons of Poseidon. They were huge and ambitious, and wanted to prove themselves superior to the gods. They managed to kidnap and imprison Ares, though Hermes later freed him by stealth.
This is another cautionary tale about pride and hubris, although with Otus and Ephialtes it seems they have some reason to compare themselves to the gods, as they can capture Ares.
The brothers then decide to kidnap Artemis, as Ephialtes is in love her (though Hamilton comments that they really only loved each other). They pursue Artemis a long way, but then she outwits them. She transforms into a beautiful white deer, and the brothers (who are standing on either side of it) hurl their javelins at it. Then the deer disappears and the brothers’ javelins each strike the other, killing him.
This is a strange tale in that the Giants seem to be as physically strong as the gods, so the gods have to defeat them through trickery. Their punishment is especially tragic, as the brothers loved only each other, and are then made to kill each other.
Daedalus. Hamilton takes this story from Apollodorus. Daedalus is the architect and inventor who built the Labyrinth in Crete and then showed Ariadne how she could help Theseus escape it. King Minos suspects that Daedalus helped Theseus, and he imprisons Daedalus with his son, Icarus, in the Labyrinth itself.
The story of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur will be told in more detail later, as it connects with Theseus’s story. Daedalus represents the great value of artistic and inventive beauty. His clever mind, like Orpheus’s lyre, is as valuable as many strong warriors.
Daedalus builds wings for himself and his son, and they escape by flying away. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too high or the sun will melt the glue and his wings will fall apart. Icarus does not listen, though; he flies joyously towards the sun, and then falls into the sea and drowns.
Icarus becomes a famous example of the danger of pride, the classic image of flying too high. But like Phaëthon, Icarus is also immortalized in this story because of his boldness.
The grieving Daedalus flies to Sicily, where he is welcomed. Minos is enraged at Daedalus’s escape, and tries to trap him by arranging a contest rewarding whoever can pass a thread through a spiraling shell. Minos knows that only Daedalus could solve the riddle, and when he does, Minos comes to Sicily to find him, but in the end Minos himself is slain.
Hamilton ends the story here, but there are other tales about Daedalus as well, including how he killed his nephew, Perdix, when he invented the saw and the compass. Daedalus was jealous and let him fall to his death, but Athena turned Perdix into a partridge.