The Fall of Phaethon in Context: A New Synthesis of Mythological, Archaeological and Geological Evidence

In: Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions
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  • 1 University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, London, United Kingdom
  • 2 University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, London, United Kingdom

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The well-known classical myth of Phaethon must be the earliest recorded cautionary tale about teenage driving: taking control of the chariot of his father, the Sun-god, Phaethon set the world ablaze and endangered the cosmic order, until he was felled by Zeus’ thunderbolt and hurled to the earth. It has long been recognised that the tale must reflect some extraordinary astronomical event, recent attempts associating his fall with meteorite impact craters in southern Germany and Estonia. This geographic focus is too narrow. We examine parallels to the myth from ancient Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, most previously unrecognised; the tendency of the Greeks to relocalise borrowed myths in the Aegean region or further westwards; and, above all, the unsolved problem aired long ago by Sir James Frazer regarding how remarkably analogous tales are known from as far afield as North America. A proposed impact crater in Iraq may emerge as a suitable candidate for the source of the myth in the Near East. Using developments in the current understanding of comets, meteor, streams and asteroids on earth-crossing orbits, we offer an explanation for both the similarities and differences between the global parallels to the Phaethon story.

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  • 3

    See James & van der Sluijs 2012: 241 for the possibility that, in an earlier version of the Phaethon story, the anti-hero aimed to assault the stronghold of Zeus, who in all versions felled him with a thunderbolt.

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