Phaethon (or Helius) & the chariot of the sun, Athenian
red-figure krater C5th B.C., British Museum, London
The Geminid meteor shower is expected to provide a spectacle of more than 50 shooting stars per hour at peak for those who are fortunate to have clear skies. It will be a moonless night as the Dark phase will enable more people to witness the showers. The meteors should be bright with llengthy persistent trains.
The Geminids are thought to be from an object known as 3200 Phaethon which is an asteroid. Asteroids are small, airless rocky worlds which revolve around the Sun but are too small to be called planets. Who was Phaethon, and why might an asteroid be named after him?
Phaeton was a young son(small sun) of Helios the Sun and Klymene. He begged his father to let him drive the chariot of the Sun much like a child today asks to borrow his father’s keys and take the car for a spin. Helios was not overkeen but tentatively handed him the reins. But Phaeton had not taken his theory or driving test and he lost control of the horse quartet and they veered off course and set our planet, the Earth alight and scorched the plains of Africa transforming it to desert. The big Chief God, Zeus was appalled by this destruction and with a face no doubt like thunder, he zapped Phaeton shooting him from the chariot with a thunderbolt. His flaming body was hurled into the waters of the river Eridanos. His sisters known as the Heliades, stood bereft on the banks of the river and their tears transformed into amber-teared poplar trees.
The deceased Phaethon was placed amongst the stars and became the Auriga or Charioteer constellation, or in other twists to the myth, he was transformed into the god of the star which the Greeks called Phaeton–the planet Jupiter or Saturn. The name Phaethon means “the shining” or “radiant one,” and the title is derived from the verb phaethô, “to shine.”
Eudoxus of Cnidus (408-355 B. C. E)
- Willingly would I burn to death like Phaeton, were this the price for reaching the sun and learning its shape, its size and its substance.