According to the ancient myths, the Sun was put in a chariot and everyday God Helios would drive the chariot all along the sky. That is how the Sun would rise and set. Phaethon was the son the god Helios who secretely took the chariot one day to drive it. However, as he was young and inexperienced, he lost control of the horses and got killed.
Looking for his father
According to the Greek Mythology, Phaethon, whose name means "shining", was the son of the Sun-God Helios and a mortal woman, Clymene. However, he was living only with his mother as his father had a difficult task to perform. He was responsible to drive the horse chariot with the Sun from the one side to the Earth to the other during the daytime.
One day, a school-mate of Phaethon laughede at his claim that he was the son of a god and said he didn't believe him. In tears, Phaethon went to his mother and demanded proof of his paternity. Clymene assured her son that he was indeed the son of the great god Helios and sent him on his way to the palace of his father to establish his legitimacy.
A delighted and hopeful Phaethon travelled to India, as there was the palace of his father who was supposed to begin every day his course from the East. When he reached the palace of Helios, he was astonished at its magnificence and luxury. His eyes were almost blinded by the dazzle of the light all around him.
The palace was supported by massive columns adorned with glittering gold and precious stones, while the ceilings and doors were made with polished ivory and silver. Phaethon watched with awe the exquisite representation of the earth, the sea and sky on the walls of the palace.
Inside the luxurious palace of Helios
Amazed with all the luxury he had faced, Phaethon came into the august presence of his reputed father, Helios, sitting on a diamond-studded throne surrounded by the presences of the Day, the Month, the Year, and the Hour. His other attendants included Spring, bedecked with flowers, Summer, with a garland of spear-like ripened grains, Autumn, with feet reddened with grape juice and Winter, with hoar-frost in his hair.
Phaethon told Helios about the humiliation he had to suffer because of the imputation of illegitimacy. He pleaded Helios to recognize him as his son and establish beyond all doubt the legitimacy of his birth. Helios got deeply moved and firmly affirmed Phaethon's paternity and legitimacy. In fact, he declared, in the presence of all his attendants, that he will gladly grant his son any favour that he would ask him.
Phaethon, happy because great Helios had recognized him as his son, decided to test the limits of his father's love and benevolence. The rash boy asked to be allowed to drive the awesome Chariot of the Sun for one day. Helios was fearful at his son's irrational request. He tried to explain to his son that even the mighty Zeus could not presume to drive the Chariot of the Sun, much less a mere mortal. That onerous task was reserved solely for him, god Helios.
Unfortunately, once the gods had promised a favour, they could not withdraw or deny it. Helios used all his persuasive skills to plead the rash Phaethon to withdraw his outrageous demand, but to no avail. The boy insisted that Helios kept his promise. The god of the Sun could do nothing else but to give in.
The great destruction
Wanting to drive the awesome Chariot of the Sun was one thing, but to actually do it was not as simple as our naive Phaethon had imagined. A helpless Helios tried to warn his son for the dangers involved in driving the Chariot with its fiery horses which even the great god himself had found it difficult to control on many occasions. He advised Phaethon to steer the Chariot through a middle course and not to go too high or too low. Helios rubbed an expression of power and arrogance on his son's face.
As soon as he took off, Phaethon realized that he had taken on more than he could handle. He found himself utterly powerless to control the fiery horses. When the horses realized the weakness and inexperience of their young charioteer, they began to steer a wild and dangerous course. The Chariot of the Sun was said to have blazed a gash in the skies which supposedly became the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy.
Then the uncontrollable Chariot with the Sun began to steer a too low course, hitting the earth and unleashing immense destruction, including the burning of the African continent and turning it into desert, making the Ethiopian people black-skinned, since they were burnt from the fire of the Sun, and even causing considerable damage to the river Nile.
The danger of a greater destruction infuriated the chief of the gods, Zeus, who struck the boy down with his thunderbolt. The body of the dead Phaethon fell into the Eridanus River, which was later to be known as the river Po of Italy. The unfortunate Phaethon was deeply mourned by his sisters, the Heliades, who were transformed into poplar trees to stand by the river and protect their brother for always.