Unit 4: Hubris and Nemesis

Story: Phaethon

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The Fall of Phaethon, by Johann Michael Franz, 1719-1799, \ccpd

Phaethon

Adapted from Stories of Old Greece by Emma M. Firth, \ccpd

Phaethon was a tall, handsome youth, with bright eyes and a determined spirit. He was known as the most courageous among his friends, for no task, however reckless it might be, was too dangerous for Phaethon to undertake. And yet, with all his bravery he was a great boaster, often bringing ridicule upon himself because of his pride.

One day he was boasting about his father, Helios. Now, as everyone knows, a great and wise father may not always have a son as wise and great as himself, and Phaethon’s friends provoked him with this; and even declared that his father was not a god at all. This was too much for Phaethon’s pride, and rushing to his mother, Clymene, he earnestly asked her to tell him the truth, and assure him of his noble birth.

“My son,” said Clymene, “you are too quick to boast, and will surely suffer as a consequence; but it is true, my son. You are the son of your father, Helios, and to convince you, go and ask him yourself.

Now Phaethon had never seen his father. In order that he might become self-dependent, he had been brought up far away from the palace to which his mother intended to take him when he had proven himself worthy. Clymene told him how difficult he would find the journey, but Phaethon was willing to overcome all difficulties, and he started at once. On the way, he had many adventures, but at last found himself in a far Eastern country, which has for its boundary a wall of high mountains.

On the top of the highest mountain was the palace of the sun-god, a palace of far greater beauty than any which Phaethon had ever seen, and its brightness amazed him. It had golden columns, great silver doors, ceilings of ivory, walls with vast pictures of the sky, the rivers, oceans, and lands of the earth, and most wonderful of all were the pictures of all the people of the earth in their cities and villages.

But Phaethon did not stop to look at these beautiful things, or to listen to the sweet music of many fountains. He entered the hall in which Helios was preparing to take his daily journey, and walking straight up to the sun-god and said, “Light of the endless world, my father, claim me, I beg of you, as your son!” Helios encouraged his approach, stretching out both arms and kissing him. Helios replied, “You are most welcome, my son. I have looked forward to us meeting for the longest time, and to prove my love for you, you may ask of me whatever you wish.”

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Eos / Aurora, goddess of dawn. By Juan Antonio de Ribera, 1819, \ccpd

At this moment the goddess of the morning, Eos, drew aside a beautiful crimson veil, and the chariot and horses were brought in. It was a glorious moment as the attendants burst into a chorus of glad music, the air became sweet with perfume from many flowers, and the spirited horses stamped impatiently at the delay. Phaethon looked at the horses, and then at the shining chariot. Hephaestus had given it to Helios. With its wheels of gold and spokes of silver, which sparkled and flashed with many-colored jewels, it was charming. Phaethon became instantly obsessed with a great desire to drive the fire-flashing horses. “Let me just drive them for a day,” he asked. “So I can prove to you how worthy a son I am for so great a father.” Then, bowing low, he begged, “Please?”

 

 

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Helios and his sun horses. By John Flaxman, 1810, \ccpd

“I cannot grant that wish, my son. The horses can be safely driven only by Helios himself. Ask anything else.” But Phaethon, the foolish boy, insisted, and as Helios had promised, he at length yielded, after trying in vain to discourage Phaethon from his wish. Phaethon was very stubborn. He longed for the glory of having driven the sun-chariot for a day, and with this desire strong in his heart, he forgot to respect the wishes of an older and wiser person.

When he jumped in his father’s chariot and started upon his journey, the singing stopped; the Hours, Minutes, and Seconds looked sad; Spring dropped her flowers; Summer threw down her necklace of roses, and Autumn’s rosy face turned pale, while old Winter’s icicles began to melt.

At first, it was fine holding the reins over the fire-breathing horses. Helios had wisely allowed them their own pace, which was far from slow; but Phaethon urged them on until they were rushing at a terrific speed quite out of their regular course, nearly crashing into the stars. They came so near to the poisonous Scorpio that Phaethon was in danger of being grasped by the great claws, and dropping the reins in his fright, he clung desperately to the chariot.

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Phaethon falling, crashing into constellations and monsters along the way. Painting by Gustave Moreau, 1878, \ccpd

The horses dove wildly on. They came so near to the earth that the oceans and rivers dried up, the mountains began to smoke, and the people cried to Zeus, god of the sky and king of all other gods, for help. When Zeus saw what had been so foolishly done, he became very angry and sent a thunderbolt which threw Phaethon from the chariot, down, down — his hair and clothes on fire — into a river which hid him in its cool waters.

A sad ending was this to Phaethon’s great day. But, sadder still, two maidens who were standing on the bank of the river, saw in the boy-comet their brother Phaethon. They could not help him; they could only stand and weep, and they wept so long that their feet became rooted to the ground, and they turned into poplar trees. If you listen near one of these trees, you may still hear the gentle sighing of the poplar sisters for their brother.

Phaethon’s friend Cygnos saw the fall and was deeply pained. Day after day he mourned, and each day his neck grew longer as he remained near the water and looked into its waves. He became a swan, and spent his time floating on the river always looking for, but never finding, Phaethon. Only once did he call Phaethon, and that was when he was dying.

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A red-billed tropicbird–its scientific name is phaethon aethereus. Photo by Mia Morete, \ccbysa
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Aurora borealis in Alaska. Photo by janeb13 on Pixabay, \cczero

Comprehension Questions

Answer the following questions according to the reading.

  1. Who is Phaethon’s father?
  2. Why did Phaethon start going on an adventure?
  3. Who is Eos?
  4. What had Helios promised Phaethon, and what did Phaethon want to do?
  5. What happened to the earth while Phaethon had the sun horses?
  6. What did Zeus do to stop Phaethon?
  7. What happened to Phaethon’s friend Cygnos?

Vocabulary and Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions. Compare your answers with a partner.

  1. We get the word “photon” and the prefix “photo-” from the character Phaeton.
    1. What is a “photon”, and how is it related to Phaethon?
    2. What does the prefix “photo-” mean?
    3. What is “photosynthesis”?
    4. Why is it called a “photograph”?
    5. What do you think “photoaging” might mean?
  2. We also get the prefix “helio-” from this story.
    1. What does this prefix mean?
    2. What is “heliocentrism”?
    3. What do you think “heliotherapy” is?
  3. This story mentions the goddess Eos. She has her own holiday that is still somewhat celebrated today. Do a Google search about her holiday and find information about what images are related to her holiday.
  4. What is Phaeton’s “hubris and nemesis”?

CEFR Level: CEF Level B2

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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