The Theosophical Forum – September 1950

THE PHAETON MYTH — M. A. Duncan

Hellas was ever a land of light and the Hellenes a light-loving race. They gloried in the fair hours and bright moods of nature; they were the children of the dawn time to whom the rising of the sun meant far more than the mere physical phenomenon. We can picture their exultation of spirit as their favorite deity, Apollo, guided his gleaming chariot over the rosy hills of the east. It would be natural, therefore, to find sun myths abounding in their religious and legendary lore. One such, the myth of Phaeton and Apollo, however, must be carried back in origin to times far more remote, and traced to sources of inspiration far deeper and more comprehensive than the land of Hellas alone could boast.

The myth tells us that the youth Phaeton, angered at the doubt cast by his playmates on his reputed divine origin, begged his father to allow him to vindicate his celestial parentage. This the Sun God is said to have granted unconditionally, whereupon Phaeton asks leave to take a turn at guiding his father's resplendent sun chariot. Apollo stands aghast at the fatal petition, but having given his promise, cannot refuse. After anointing his son with a powerful unguent, and giving him every possible warning and advice as to the management of the steeds, he sends him forth on his perilous day's journey. No sooner have the steeds sprung free than, becoming aware of a light and inexperienced hand upon the reins, they straightway "rush headlong and leave the travelled road," so that "the great and little bear were scorched with heat . . . and the serpent which lies coiled up around the north pole, torpid and harmless, grew warm, and with the warmth felt its rage revive." Still the rash youth is borne helplessly hither and thither, till at length he encounters the great arms and tail and crooked claws of Scorpion "reeking with poison and menacing with his fangs" — whereupon in sheer terror the youth lets fall the reins from his hands.

The rebellious steeds rush madly into unknown regions of the sky, now high above the clouds scorching the open heavens, now nether-ward with fearful nearness to the teeming earth, whereon cities with their inhabitants are reduced to ashes; fountains parched to dryness-verdant and smiling cornlands seared to a desert waste. This naming sun chariot in its ungoverned course gives Libya her wasted leagues and turns the Ethiop tribe an ebon black; dries up the life-giving waters of the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Ganges, together with their tributary streams. The surface of the parched earth cleaves into yawning chasms whose deeps reach down to gloomy Tartarus, and whose wan and cheerless denizens flee in terror from the light of day. Seas that had been were now dry land; mountain peaks sometime submerged now pierced the bosom of the waters, becoming solid islands. Frightful chaos and supreme devastation stalked in flame and fury over the world until the very earth cried out in woe, calling upon the gods to intervene.

In answer mighty Jupiter launched a thunder-bolt that struck the youthful charioteer from his seat and sent him hurtling "headlong like a shooting star which marks the heavens with its brightness as it falls, and Eridanus the great river, received him and cooled his burning frame."

And Phaeton, caught in mid career,
And hurled from the Sun to utter sunlessness,
Like a flame-bearded comet, with ghastliest hiss,
Fell headlong in the amazed Eridanus,
Monarch of streams, who on the Italian fields
Let loose, and far beyond his flowery lips
Foam-white, ran ruinous to the Adrian deep.
      — Worsley

     Him the Thunderer hurled
From the empyrean headlong to the gulf
Of the half-parched Eridanus, where weep
Even now the sister trees their amber tears
O'er Phaeton untimely dead.
      — Milman

In the above, as in all myths, there is a wealth of symbology; symbology applicable to and illustrative of many planes of thought and feeling. To consider the psychological bearing of the legend before entering upon its larger relationships, one might readily see in it a plain and obvious simile of human Passion liberated by desire or inclination, and once free proving itself beyond the control of the unthinking mortal that evoked it. Like this sun chariot careering through space, a man's passions once beyond control, send their lurid flames throughout his whole nature, parching and withering all those fair productive fields of spiritual endeavor and inspiration. They know no course or boundary, but sweep wherever their yearning may lead, until at length the very force of their fury begets those evils in the organism of the victim which strike him as with a thunder-bolt, hurling him from the chariot of the body into the waters of oblivion.

Yet, if this is one of the vital applications of this sun myth, there are still others more far-reaching in their relation to the affairs of this earth. They yield a revelation of cosmic truths from which the legend took its rise in days far antedating Hellenic culture.

According to the theosophical teachings, the Phaeton myth in its primary significance is the recorded memory of one or several cosmic disturbances. As H. P. Blavatsky writes, the story

is an allegory referring directly to the changes of climate in those distant times when, from a frigid zone, the polar lands had become a country with a moderate and warm climate.
      — The Secret Doctrine, II, 770, fte.

These words bring us to a consideration of the phenomenon of radical changes in the earth's distribution of climatic conditions as well as land masses. Such climatic changes come about owing to the constant motion of the earth's axis, a motion extremely gradual yet unceasing. Embracing and explaining as it does the law of cycles, Theosophy shows that this axial motion, proceeding through vast periods of time, tends at the close of the Greater Cycle or Age to become accelerated, thereby bringing about those major cataclysms which mark the close of a Root-Race and the appearance upon the earth of a new Race. Such cataclysms as those just referred to would have occurred at the time of the decline of that great Root-Race known as the Third Race and inhabiting the Lemurian Continent. This continent, H. P. Blavatsky explains, extended over the

whole area of space from the foot of the Himalayas, which separated it from the inland sea rolling its waves over what is now Tibet, Mongolia, and the great desert of Schamo (Gobi); from Chittagong, westward to Hardwar, and eastward to Assam. From thence, it stretched South across what is known to us as Southern India, Ceylon, and Sumatra, then embracing on its way, as we go South, Madagascar on its right and Australia and Tasmania on its left, it ran down to within a few degrees of the Antarctic Circle, when, from Australia, an inland region on the Mother Continent in those ages, it extended far into the Pacific Ocean, not only beyond Rapa-nui (Teapy, or Easter Island) which now lies in latitude 26 S., and longitude 110 W. . . .

This statement seems corroborated by Science, — even if only partially, as, when discussing continental trends, and showing the infra-Arctic masses trending generally with the Meridian, several ancient continents are generally mentioned, though inferentially. Among such the "Mascarene continent," which included Madagascar, stretching north and south, is spoken of, and the existence of another ancient continent running "from Spitzbergen to the Straits of Dover, while most of the other parts of Europe were sea bottom," is taught. The latter corroborates, then, the Occult teaching which shows the (now) polar regions as the earliest of the seven cradles of Humanity, and as the tomb of the bulk of the mankind of that region during the Third Race, when the gigantic continent of Lemuria began separating into smaller continents. This is due, according to the explanation in the Commentary, to a decrease of velocity in the earth's rotation —

When the Wheel runs at the usual rate, its extremities (the poles) agree with its middle circle (equator), when it runs slower and tilts in every direction, there is a great disturbance on the face of the earth. The waters flow toward the two ends, and new lands arise in the middle belt (equatorial lands), while those at the ends are subject to pralayas by submersion. — Op. cit., II, 324-5

Here we have a description first of the extent of the great continental home of the Third Race, Lemuria, together with a general statement of the conditions bringing about radical changes in position and condition of our earth. In the same way, further cosmic changes brought about by the spiritual needs and conditions of humanity caused the submersion of Lemuria, and the elevation of Atlantis, concerning both of which one may find innumerable legends in all parts of the world, clothed in different language, attributed to different authors and sources but referring directly to these two cataclysms. Nor have we reason to believe that in any age there existed none who thoroughly understood and appreciated the true meaning of the legends or the astronomical and geographical conditions to which they point. The Egyptian priests assured Herodotus that the Sun had not always risen where it now rises, "and that in former times the ecliptic had cut the equator at right angles"; and while a Greek, Xenophantes, guided by his religious belief that Phaeton "in his desire to learn the hidden truth, made the Sun deviate from its usual course" declared that "the Sun turned towards another country," we find Joshua in the Jewish Bible saying:

Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon, and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies — x, 12-13

— which achievement, rather astounding if taken literally, has probably its esoteric significance.

If then, we can with unbiased judgment accept the facts which these legends seek to symbolize, we shall be in a position to appreciate the significance of this myth of Phaeton and Apollo.

The first event we are apprised of in the legend is the desire of Phaeton, as he declares, to vindicate his divine origin. No philanthropic or altruistic motive is suggested for this, but simply the satisfaction of the personality. As we have seen, one Greek writer speaks of Phaeton as seeking "inner" truths. Needless to say, every legend has at least seven aspects; hence whatever interpretation we attempt in this instance can be but one out of a number. However, in view of the teaching that the great continent Lemuria was destroyed by subterranean fires at a time when its inhabitants had acquired immense occult knowledge, had abused this knowledge, and in seeking to acquire added knowledge of still more hidden mysteries must necessarily bring more evil upon themselves, may we not interpret Phaeton's quest as symbolizing this very ambition of the Lemurians for hidden knowledge and the power it should bring with it? Under such an interpretation Phaeton becomes the Third Race on the eve of its destruction; his rash interference with his father's task of driving the chariot of the sun, the unholy exploitation of the men of the Third Race, in their decline, of potent occult forces; the mad and fatal career of Phaeton in his sun chariot through the sky, the mighty cosmic disturbances brought about karmically by the needs of the Third Race; his death by Jupiter's bolt and his descent into the river Eridanus, the destruction of the Race by fire and the ultimate submersion of the continent itself.

The above is one aspect of the myth. When, however, we come to consider the symbology of that wild ride through the heavens we are called upon to enlarge our interpretation, to take in periods still more vast and a field of cosmic evolution yet more comprehensive.

The steeds of Apollo, it will be remembered, bore the chariot first northward to the domain of the Great and Little Bear, and to the sleeping place of the Serpent which lies coiled about the north pole. Later the ungoverned team rush southward and netherward where they are said to have scorched the lands of Greece, Scythia and Africa until at length the hapless occupant of the chariot is cast into the Eridanus where his three sisters the Heliades wept over his loss, their tears becoming drops of amber.

This portion of the myth, according to the Theosophic teachings, refers to two Great Ages in evolution. The course of the chariot up to the domain of the Bear and Serpent symbolizing the change of climate which converted the polar regions at that period into a land of warm semi-tropical climate — the home and birth-place of nascent physical man. The later southerly turn and the ultimate ejection of Phaeton into the river Eridanus depicts for us the second great change when once more the "burning north" was chilled in the icy waters of those Polar Regions familiar to us today.

As our Sun is the center of our universe, it stands to reason that such changes as these could come about only in one way — changes in the position of the earth's axis. To such changes H. P. Blavatsky refers again and again, from some of which we quote:

According to the old teaching, the axis of the earth gradually changes its inclination to the ecliptic, and at the period referred to, this inclination was such that a polar day lasted during the whole period of the earth's revolution about the sun, when a kind of twilight of very short duration intervened; after which the polar land resumed its position directly under the solar rays. This may be contrary to astronomy as now taught and understood: but who can say that changes in the motion of the earth, which do not take place now, did not occur millions of years back? — S. D., II, 292

It is of this cataclysm [the submersion of Atlantis] that the old records say (See the "Book of Enoch") that "the ends of the Earth got loose"; and upon which the legends and allegories of Vaivasvata, Xisuthrus, Noah, Deukalion and all the tutti quanti of the Elect saved, have been built. Tradition, taking into no account the difference between sidereal and geological phenomena, calls both indifferently "deluges." Yet there is a great difference. The cataclysm which destroyed the huge continent of which Australia is the largest relic, was due to a series of subterranean convulsions and the breaking asunder of the ocean floors. That which put an end to its successor — the fourth continent — was brought on by successive disturbances in the axial rotation. It began during the earliest tertiary periods, and, continuing for long ages, carried away successively the last vestige of Atlantis, with the exception, perhaps, of Ceylon and a small portion of what is now Africa. — Op. cit., II, 314

Herodotus (Thalia, No. 77) tells posterity that when Cambyses entered the temple of the Kabirim, he went into an inextinguishable fit of laughter, on perceiving what he thought a man erect and a woman standing on the top of her head before him. These were the poles, however, whose symbol was intended to commemorate "the passing of the original North Pole of the Earth to the South Pole of the Heaven," as perceived by Mackey. But they represented also the poles inverted, in consequence of the great inclination of the axis, bringing each time as a result the displacement of the Oceans, the submersion of the polar lands, and the consequent upheaval of new continents in the equatorial regions, and vice versa. — Op. cit., II, 360

And so one might continue to accumulate evidence brought forth by that champion of Truth, who gave generously and without the timidity of bias and prejudice. One turns from her works to the contemplation of such legends as the above with a gratifying sense that those imaginative symbols of the past are not childish, meaningless, and unreal, but in very truth crystallized memories of a great and glorious past for this race of man. As H. P. B. pertinently remarks, the allegory of the Phaeton and Apollo myth, "if well understood ought to be a demonstration of the enormous antiquity of the human races." (Op. cit., II, 770, fte.)

Such is the native grandeur of this solar myth of ancient Greece when clothed in its true symbology.


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