The Sun’s palace is made of gold and bronze. A huge map of the world is painted on its walls, illustrating the gods and nymphs of the sea and the men and animals of the earth under the heavens with the zodiac signs. Phaëthon mounts the steps to the palace and marches boldly up to Phoebus—the Sun god whom he hopes is his father. The Spirits of the days, months, and years and of the seasons stand by Phoebus’s emerald throne. Phoebus addresses Phaëthon as his son and asks him what he is doing here. Phaëthon asks Phoebus to give him a sign that he is Phaëthon’s father. Phoebus tells Phaëthon to stop doubting. He makes an oath to grant Phaëthon whatever he wants. Phaëthon asks to drive Phoebus’s chariot for one day.
The Sun god’s palace is the operating room of the passing of time. When Phaëthon walks into the palace and witnesses divine mechanisms that he has never seen before, he is not humbled. Instead, he walks right up to Phoebus as though they are equals. He also refuses to take Phoebus at his word and instead demands proof that Phoebus is his father in the form of a sign. Phaëthon even asks to drive Phoebus’s chariot, arrogantly believing that, because he is a god’s son, he can do the same things as a god.
Phoebus begs Phaëthon to take back his request and explains that driving the sun god’s chariot is extremely dangerous. The route through the sky is steep, and Phaëthon will encounter the beasts of the zodiac signs along the way. Looking down on the earth from the chariot’s great height will terrify him, and he won’t have the strength to steer the spirited horses. Phoebus understands that Phaëthon wants proof that the Sun is his father, but he fears that driving the chariot will kill him.
Phoebus tries to explain that, although Phaëthon is the son of a god, he does not possess the power and invincibility of the gods. Phaëthon, now that he has witnessed the divine realm, aspires to the gods’ height of power. Because Phoebus has made an oath, he is forced to give Phaëthon what he wants, showing that the gods are not quite all-powerful but are bound by their words to a certain extent.
Phaëthon ignores his father’s warnings and insists on driving the chariot. Reluctantly, Phoebus leads him to the beautiful golden chariot. As the moon sets and the morning star rises, the horses are brought out and harnessed to the chariot. Phoebus takes off his crown of sunbeams and puts it on Phaëthon’s head. He tells Phaëthon to restrain the horses rather than encourage them and avoid riding too high where he’ll burn the heavens or too low where he’ll encounter the Serpent. He tries to change Phaëthon’s mind again, but Phaëthon ignores him and climbs in the chariot.
Phaëthon is willful and arrogant. He desires to drive the Sun god’s chariot and believes—ignoring the god himself—that he will succeed. In this way, Phaëthon’s thirst for glory and for a taste of the divine realm leads him into extreme danger. Having witnessed the divine realm, Phaëthon refuses to believe there is anything the gods can do that he can’t do, an attitude that proves to be his downfall.
The Sun god’s fiery horses leap into the sky, flying upward. Phaëthon is lighter than Phoebus and the horses can’t feel his weight. They run wild, and Phaëthon panics. He lacks both the strength to manage them and the knowledge of the route to take. He looks down on earth lying far below and regrets having taken the chariot. He wishes that Merops—his human father—was his only father. He doesn’t know where to go or what to do. The zodiac beasts appear. The Scorpion reaches its pincers towards him, and he lets go of the reins in fright. The horses break their course and bolt downwards towards the earth.
As soon as Phaëthon is in the chariot, he realizes that he lacks both strength and knowledge to perform a god’s task. The gods possess both inhuman strength and power and a knowledge of the workings of the universe that are invisible to humans. This story demonstrates that, although human beings have a connection to the divine realm which makes them aspire to its heights, they are also fundamentally unequipped to participate in it. This places humans in a position of limbo between gods and animals.
The earth bursts into flames. The crops and forests burn, earth dries out, and the cities crumble to ashes. Phaëthon looks down at the blazing earth, and the floor of the chariot starts to burn his feet. Many places that were lush turn into desert. The rivers steam and fill with dust, and gold and other ores melt. Fish and dolphins dive down to the depths of the sea. Neptune—the sea god—hides beneath the sea.
The fire that Phaëthon ignites on earth is reminiscent of the flood Jupiter used to purify the earth of corruption: both catastrophes reconstitute the landscape. Phaëthon’s fire is an example of a metamorphosis in nature and is another reminder that nothing—not even the Earth—remains in the same form for long.
Mother Earth manages to raise her head above the ashes and speak to the gods in a parched voice. She asks the gods to look at her burned hair and skin and asks if this is the respect she deserves. She has worked tirelessly to yield crops and has endured the pain of the plough, all so that humans can live and worship the gods. She asks why Neptune must suffer. She asks the gods to rescue the Earth from chaos and to prevent their own heavens from being burned.
Mother Earth asks the gods to rescue the Earth from chaos, suggesting that, after the terrible fire, the earth reverted to the state of chaos it was in before creation. Mother Earth finds this chaos painful and upsetting, harking back to the benevolent divine actions that first created the world. Mother Earth suggests that, without a formed landscape, there would be no human beings.
After Mother Earth finishes her speech, Jupiter flies to the region where he rules the rain and clouds, but they are depleted. So, he launches a lightning bolt at Phaëthon instead, killing him. Phaëthon falls from the chariot and lands in a river far from his home. Some naiads find his body, wash his face, and bury him with an inscription that praises his bravery. Meanwhile, Phoebus is so grieved that the Sun goes into an eclipse. Clymene wanders the earth until she finds her son’s tombstone and weeps over his grave.
Phoebus pauses the operation of the sun—a usually constant aspect of the universe—because he is so grieved over Phaëthon’s death. This shows that the gods, although all-powerful, have many weaknesses, including the love of their children. Because of Phoebus’s love for his son, he makes mistakes and suffers losses like humans do for the sake of their children.
Phaëthon’s sisters also weep over Phaëthon’s grave. After several days, they start to transform into trees. Clymene tries to peel away their bark, but they cry out in pain. Soon, they can’t speak but continue to weep beads of amber sap. Sthénelus, Phaëthon’s best friend, wanders in grief until he is turned into a swan. He is angry at Jupiter for killing Phaëthon and refuses to fly, so he only swims in the lakes.
In this passage, excessive grief causes Phaëthon’s family and friends to transform. This suggests that grief can sometimes be so extreme as to change a person irreversibly. Furthermore, grief can be crippling, as Phaëthon’s sisters’ loss of speech and his friend’s refusal to fly suggest.
Phoebus, distraught and angry at himself, keeps the sun in eclipse. He declares that he won’t work for the world any longer; he wants Jupiter to take over driving the unruly horses so he can see how hard it is and regret punishing Phaëthon for his mistake. The rest of the gods beg Phoebus not to doom the world to darkness, and Jupiter threatens him with his lightning bolts. At last, Phoebus returns to driving the chariot, taking out his grief by harshly whipping the horses.
While Phaëthon’s mortal relatives grieve for him, Phoebus undergoes a similar process of grief. In a human way, Phoebus angrily refuses to go back to work. When he does, he is bitter and angry, showing that the gods, although all-powerful, are not above the emotions that afflict human beings.