Meet Phaeton, a young bloke who's a little less than your regular chappie. His claim to fame? He's the son of the sun, Helios. Some punk kid joshes Phaeton about not really being the son of Helios, so Phaeton travels to the Palace of the Sun to ask daddy to prove it once and for all. Helios has the rather bright idea (pun extremely intended) that if he promises Phaeton whatever his adolescent heart might desire, that that ought to convince anybody. Big mythtake. Phaeton demands that Helios let him take his sun-chariot out for a spin. Despite Dad's protests, Phaeton gets his way. With the reins in his hands, things pretty much immediately go haywire and the fiery horses dash about the sky, incinerating half the earth. Zeus, a little cheesed off at this point, zaps Phaeton with a thunderbolt and he falls like a barbecued june bug into the River Po.
The Less Short Story
In the land of Egypt, there once lived a young whippersnapper named Phaeton. He gets into trouble for starting some beef with another kid named Epaphus, bragging that his father is the the sun god. (Some stories say it's Apollo, god of the sun, and others say it's Helios, a Titan associated with the sun. As far as this story's concerned, it's the same difference.)
Epaphus calls baloney, and tells Phaeton that his mom, Clymene, just made the story about his dad up. Phaeton flips out and runs home to his mom, demanding an answer to this slander.
But Clymene, arms full of her blubbering little son, swears up and down it's 100% true: Helio really is his dad. She tells him to go visit Helios in his Sun Palace if he wants assurance straight from the source.
Phaeton hears this, perks up, and zips off in search of his father.
After crossing Ethiopia and India, he eventually gets to his dad's crib.
The Palace of the Sun is made of bright, gleaming metals and is just mad awesome.
Phaeton struts right through the palace doors and finds Helios on his shining, diamond throne (talk about some major bling).
The boy asks for proof from Helios that he's his real Dad.
"Alright sonny-boy," says Helios. "I swear on the River Styx that I'll give you anything you ask for. I'd only do that for my real son. How's that for air-tight logic, huh?"
"Anything? Aaaaannything?" says Phaeton, as stupid ideas begin to explode in his head like a thousand low-IQ fireworks. "Well," says Phaeton at last. "How 'bout you fork over the keys to your sun-chariot? I'd like to see if I could hit triple digits on that sweet baby."
Helios, quite understandably, is super unhappy with this request.
For after all, the sun-chariot is what Helios uses to take the sun across the sky everyday, and he's the only one who's authorized to drive it.
The sun god tries to reason with Phaeton, telling his son that the path across the sky is a really half-baked plan.
Not only is he going to have to deal with a bunch of random monsters, the fiery flying horses that pull the chariot are incredibly hard to handle.
But, despite every one of Helios' level-headed protests, the little squirt won't give up. Sound like anybody you know?
So, Helios is forced to take his son to the chariot and give him some tips on how to drive it.
For starters, Phaeton is not supposed to whip the horses; they're nuts enough as it is.
Also, the boy needs to keep his altitude at a medium level; if he goes too high or too low, really bad stuff will happen.
Helios begs Phaeton one last time to change his mind.
"Yeah yeah, whatever Dad. I got this," says Phaeton as he puts on his sunglasses and cracks the whip across the horses' back.
Right out of the gate, the horses start running wild, and pansy little Phaeton is not strong enough to regain control.
The chariot zooms really high in the sky, so high, in fact, that the sun singes the constellation animals of the zodiac.
At this point, Phaeton is starting to see how terrible an idea this was.
When Phaeton gets near the constellation Scorpio, the star-scorpion pulls its tail back to sting him.
Totally freaked out, Phaeton drops the reins.
(Bad idea. Really bad idea.)
The horses of the sun go completely bananas, and the little rugrat realizes that he has lost all control..
The chariot collides with stars, sets clouds on fire, and then veers down towards earth, incinerating a handful of cities along the way.
The Sun's heat scorches rivers, melts the snow off of mountains, dries up parts of the ocean, and ruins a fair quantity of picnics and baby showers (or so one might reasonably imagine).
It even scorches Northern Africa so bad, that it remains the Sahara Desert to this day.
In the midst of all this chaos, Gaia, the Earth, calls out to Zeus and tells the king of the gods that he better do something quick.
Acting fast, Zeus hurls a thunderbolt at Phaeton, knocking the boy from the chariot.
Phaeton plummets toward the earth, looking for all the world like the effort of a Cub Scout wrought upon a toasted marshmallow.
Phaeton's dead body lands with a sizzle in the River Po (located in Northern Italy and called Eridanus by the Greeks).
Clymene hears about all the horrible fate of her son and wanders the earth looking for his body.
Eventually, she finds him and weeps over his grave.
Then the Heliades (which is just a fancy name for Clymene's daughters) join in the lament.
Then, for no particular reason, they turn into poplar trees and their tears turn to amber, wrapping up a tragic story with a bizarre ending.