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

in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


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.

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

in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions



AlvarezA. El Meteorito del Chaco 1926 Buenos Aires Talleres S.A. Casa Jacobo Peuser

AsherD.J.ClubeS.V.M. Towards a Dynamical History of ‘Proto-Encke’ Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy 1998 69 149 170

BarrientosG.MasseW.B. The Archaeology of Cosmic Impact: Lessons from Two Mid-Holocene Argentine Case Studies Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 2014 21 134 211

BerezkinY. Dwarfs and Cranes: Baltic-Finnish Mythologies in Eurasian and American Perspective (70 Years after Yrjö Toivonen) Folklore 2007 36 67 88

BlomqvistJ. The Fall of Phaethon and the Kaalijärv Meteorite Crater: Is there a Connection? Eranos 1994 92 1 16

BlomqvistJ.WickmanF.E. Myten och Verkligheten: Störtade Faethon på Ösel? Medusa 1994 1 15 32 39

BoasF. Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas 1895 Berlin A. Asher

BoasF. Kwakiutl Tales 1910 2 New York AMS Press

BoasF. Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes 1917 Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society 11 Lancaster, PA The American Folk-Lore Society

BoasF.HuntG. Kwakiutl Texts—Second Series The Jesup North Pacific Expedition: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 1908 10 1 269

BodiD. The Book of Ezekiel and the Poem of Erra 1991 Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 104 Freiburg Universitätsverlag

BömerF. P. Ovidius Naso: Metamorphosen Wissenschaftliche Kommentare zu griechischen und lateinischen Schriftstellern 1969 Heidelberg Carl Winter

Börker-KlähnJ. Altvorderasiatische Bildstelen und vergleichbare Felsreliefs 1982 Baghdader Forschungen 4 Mainz am Rhein von Zabern

BrownD. Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology 2000 Cuneiform Monographs 18 Groningen Styx

BurkertW. The Orientalizing Revolution 1992 Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press

CagniL. The Poem of Erra 1977 Sources and Monographs on the Ancient Near East 1 3 Malibu Undena

ChengHs.-Ch.Pai ChengH.-Ch.ThernK.L. Shan Hai Ching 1985 Taipei The Committee for Compilation and Examination of the Series of Chinese Classics

ClubeV.NapierB. The Cosmic Winter 1990 Oxford Basil Blackwell

Colonna d’IstriaL.BeyerD. Erra-Kibri, Šabra d’Iddin-Ilum et ses Collègues Journal of Cuneiform Studies 2015 67 23 38

CookA.B. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion 1925 II 1 Cambridge University Press

CooleyJ.L. ‘I Want to Dim the Brilliance of Šulpae!’ Mesopotamian Celestial Divination and the Poem of Erra and Išum Iraq 2008 70 179 188

CooleyJ.L. Poetic Astronomy in the Ancient Near East: The Reflexes of Celestial Science in Ancient Mesopotamian Ugaritic and Israelite Narrative 2013 History Archaeology and Culture of the Levant 5 Winona Lake, IN Eisenbrauns

CourtyM.-A. PeiserB.J.PalmerT.BaileyM.E. The Soil Record of an Exceptional Event at 4000 B.P. in the Middle East Natural Catastrophes during Bronze Age Civilizations: Archaeological Geological Astronomical and Cultural Perspectives 1998 Oxford Archaeopress 93 108

CourtyM.-A.CrisciA.FedoroffM.GriceK.GreenwoodP.MermouxM.SmithD.ThiemensM. KapurS.MermutA.StoopsG. Regional Manifestation of the Widespread Disruption of Soil-Landscapes by the 4 kyr bp Impact-Linked Dust Event Using Pedo-Sedimentary Micro-Fabrics New Trends in Soil Micromorphology 2008 Berlin Springer-Verlag 211 236

CullenH.M.deMenocalP.B.HemmingS.HemmingG.BrownF.H.GuildersonT.SirockoF. Climate Change and the Collapse of the Akkadian Empire: Evidence from the Deep Sea Geology 2000 28 379 382

DalfesH.N.KuklaG.WeissH. Third Millennium BC Climate Change and Old World Collapse 1997 Berlin NATO/Springer

DalleyS. HalloW.W. Erra and Ishum (1. 113) The Context of Scripture 1997 Leiden Brill 404 416

DiggleJ. Euripides: Phaethon: Edited with Prolegomena and Commentary 1970 Cambridge University Press

DopplerG.GeissE.KroemerE.TraidlR. Response to ‘The Fall of Phaethon: A Greco-Roman Geomyth Preserves the Memory of a Meteorite Impact in Bavaria (South-east Germany)’ Antiquity 2011 85 274 277 by Rappenglück et al. (Antiquity 84)

EellsM. The Twana, Chemakum, and Klallam Indians, of Washington Territory Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution Showing the Operations Expenditures and Condition of the Institution for the Year Ending June 30 1887 1889 1 605 681

EmoryK.P. The Tuamotuan Creation Charts by Paiore Journal of the Polynesian Society 1939 48 189 1 29

EvansI.H.N. Folk Stories of the Tempassuk and Tuaran Districts, British North Borneo The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 1913 43 422 479

FosterB.R. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature 1993 2 Bethesda, MD CDL Press

FrahmE. Counter-Texts, Commentaries, and Adaptations: Politically Motivated Responses to the Babylonian Epic of Creation in Mesopotamia, the Biblical World, and Elsewhere Orient 2010 15 3 34

FrayneD. Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2334–2113 BC) 1993 The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Early Periods 2 University of Toronto Press

FrazerJ.G. Apollodorus: The Library 1921 2 Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press

FrenchE. StirosS.JonesR.E. Evidence for an Earthquake at Mycenae Archaeoseismology 1996 Fitch Laboratory Occasional Papers 7 Oxford Oxbow Books 51 54

FribergE. The Kalevala 1988 Helsinki Otava Publishing

Giménez BenítezS.R.LópezA.M.MammanaL.A. EstebanC.BelmonteJ.A. Meteorites of Campo del Cielo: Impact on the Indian Culture Oxford VI and SEAC 99: Astronomy and Cultural Diversity 2000 La Laguna Organismo Autónomo de Museos del Cabildo de Tenerife 335 341

GlassnerJ-J. Mesopotamian Chronicles 2004 Writings from the Ancient World 19 Atlanta Society of Biblical Literature

Goethe Goethe Phaethon, Tragödie des Euripides. Versuch einer Wiederherstellung aus Bruchstücken Ueber Kunst und Alterthum 1823 4 2 Stuttgart Cotta’schen 5 34

Goethe Goethe Euripides’ Phaethon Ueber Kunst und Alterthum 1827 6 1 Stuttgart Cotta’schen 79 84

GössmannP.F. Planetarium Babylonicum 1950 Rome Pontifical Biblical Institute

GrimbleR. Migrations Myth and Magic from the Gilbert Islands 1972 London Routledge & Kegan Paul

GusindeM. Die Feuerland Indianer: Ergebnisse meiner vier Forschungsreisen in den Jahren 1918 bis 1924, Unternommen im Auftrage des Ministerio de Instruccion Publica de Chile Die Yamana: Vom Leben und Denken der Wassernomaden am Kap Hoorn 1937 vol. 2 Mödling bei Wien Verlag der Internationalen Zeitschrift ‘Anthropos’

HaasA.PeeknaA.WalkerR.E. Echoes of Ancient Cataclysms in the Baltic Sea Folklore (Electronic) 2003 23 49 81

HaasV. Die hethitische Literatur: Texte Stilistik Motive 2006 Berlin de Gruyter

HamacherD.W. The Umm al Binni Structure and Bronze Age Catastrophes The Artifact 2005 43 115 137

HassanF.A. HawassZ.A.RichardsJ. Droughts, Famine and the Collapse of the Old Kingdom: Re-Reading Ipuwer The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David B. O’Connor 2007 1 Cairo Conseil Suprème des Antiquités de l’Égypte 357 377

HauboldJ. Homer between East and West Classics@ 2010 3 1 5

HauboldJ. Greece and Mesopotamia; Dialogues in Literature The W.B. Stanford Memorial Lectures 2013 Cambridge University Press

HeltzerM. van LerbergheK. On the Origin of the Near Eastern Archaeological Amber 1995 Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 96 Languages and Cultures in Contact at the Crossroads of Civilizations in the Syro-Mesopotamian Realm: Proceedings of the 42th [sic] RAI Leuven Peeters 169 176

HöflmayerF. NigroL. Dating Catastrophes and Collapses in the Ancient Near East: The End of the First Urbanization in the Southern Levant and the 4.2 ka bp Event Overcoming Catastrophes: Essays on Disastrous Agents Characterization and Resilience Strategies in Pre-Classical Southern Levant 2014 Rome « La Sapienza » Studies on the Archaeology of Palestine & Transjordan 11 117 140

JamesP. The Sunken Kingdom 1995 London Jonathan Cape

JamesP.van der SluijsM.A. ‘Silver’: A Hurrian Phaethon Journal for the Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 2012 12 237 251

KannichtR. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (TrGF) 2004 5 Göttingen Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

KelloK. Kaali Crater-Lake in Saaremaa 2003 Tallinn Printon

Koch-WestenholzU. Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination 1995 Carsten Niebuhr Institute Publications 19 Copenhagen Museum Tusculanum Press

KrinovE.L. The Kaalijarv Meteorite Craters on Saarema Island, Estonian ssr American Journal of Science 1961 259 430 440

KuglerF.X. Sibyllinischer Sternkampf und Phaëthon in naturgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung 1927 Münster Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung

LambertW.G. Review of F. Gössmann, Das Era-Epos, 1956 Archiv für Orientforschung 1957–1958 18 395 401

LambertW.G. Studies in Nergal Bibliotheca Orientalis 1973 30 355 363

Lane FoxR.L. Travelling Heroes 2008 Harmondsworth Penguin

LiddellH.G.ScottR. A Greek-English Lexicon 1996 Oxford Clarendon Press

LoftsP. When the Snake Bites the Sun 2004 Lindfield, New South Wales Scholastic Press

López-RuizC. When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East 2010 Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press

MajorJ.S.QueenS.A.MeyerA.S.RothH.D. The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China: Liu An King of Huainan 2010 New York Columbia University Press Translations from the Asian Classics

MasonF. Religion, Mythology, and Astronomy among the Karens Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 1865 34 2 173 188 195 250

MasseW.B. BobrowskyP.T.Rickman The Archaeology and Anthropology of Quaternary Period Cosmic Impact Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisplinary Approach 2007 Berlin Springer 25 70

MasseW.B.MasseM.J. PiccardiL.MasseW.B. Myth and Catastrophic Reality: Using Myth to Identify Cosmic Impacts and Massive Plinian Eruptions in Holocene South America Myth and Geology 2007 Geological Society Special Publication 273 London Geological Society, 2007 177 202

MasterS. A Possible Holocene Impact Structure in the Al-’Amarah Marshes, near the Tigris-Euphrates Confluence, Southern Iraq Meteoritics & Planetary Science 2001 36 9 A124

MasterS. LeroyS.StewartI.S. Umm al Binni-Lake, a Possible Holocene Impact Structure in the Marshes of Southern Iraq: Geological Evidence for its Age, and Implications for Bronze-Age Mesopotamia Environmental Catastrophes and Recovery in the Holocene: Abstracts Volume 2002 Uxbridge Brunel University 56 57

MasterS.WoldaiT. BobrowskyP.T.RickmanH. Umm al Binni Structure, Southern Iraq, as a Postulated Late Holocene Meteorite Impact Crater Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society: An Interdisplinary Approach Berlin Springer 89 103

MayorA. The First Fossil Hunters 2000 Princeton University Press

McClintockW. The Old North Trail or Life Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians 1992 Lincoln University of Nebraska Press

MelchertH.C. BeckmanG.BealR.McMahonG. Hittite antaka- ‘Loins’ and an Overlooked Myth about Fire Hittite Studies in Honor of Harry A. Hoffner Jr. on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday 2003 Winona Lake, IN Eisenbrauns 281 287

MétrauxA. Myths of the Toba and Pilagá Indians of the Gran Chaco 1946 Memoirs of the American Folklore Society 40 Philadelphia American Folklore Society

MooraT.RaukasA.StankowskiW.T.J. Dating of the Reo Site (Island of Saaremaa, Estonia) with Silicate and Iron Microspherules Points to an Exact Age of the Fall of the Kaali Meteorite Geochronometria 2012 39 4 262 267

NagyG. Phaethon, Sappho’s Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 1973 77 137 178

NeevD.EmeryK.O. The Destruction of Sodom Gomorrah and Jericho 1995 Oxford University Press

NelsonE.W. The Eskimo about Bering Strait Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (for 1896–1897) 1899 18 1 3 518

NurA.ClineE.H. Poseidon’s Horses: Plate Tectonics and Earthquake Storms in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Journal of Archaeological Science 2000 27 43 63

ParrinderG. African Mythology 1967 London Paul Hamlyn

ParsonsE.C. Pueblo Indian Religion 1996 1 Lincoln University of Nebraska Press

PowellJ.W. Mythologic Philosophy The Popular Science Monthly 1879 October 15 795 808

RappenglückB.RappenglückM. Does the Myth of Phaethon Reflect an Impact? Revising the Fall of Phaethon and Considering a Possible Relation to the Chiemgau Impact Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry: International Journal 2006 6 3 101 109

RappenglückB.RappenglückM.A.ErnstsonK.MayerW.NeumairA.SudhausD.LiritzisI. The Fall of Phaethon: A Greco-Roman Geomyth Preserves the Memory of a Meteorite Impact in Bavaria (South-east Germany) Antiquity 2010 84 428 439

RappenglückB.RappenglückM.A.ErnstsonK.MayerW.NeumairA.SudhausD.LiritzisI. Reply to Doppler et al. Response to ‘The Fall of Phaethon: A Greco-Roman Geomyth Preserves the Memory of a Meteorite Impact in Bavaria (South-east Germany) (Antiquity 84).’ Antiquity 2011 85 278 280

ReckfordK.J. Phaethon, Hippolytus, and Aphrodite Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 1972 103 405 432

Reichel-DolmatoffG. Los Kogi: una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Colombia 1985 2 Bogotá Nueva Biblioteca Colombiana de Cultura 2

RiordanJ. The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon: Siberian Folk Tales 1989 Edinburgh Canongate

RisserA. Seven Zuñi Folk Tales El Palacio 1941 48 10 215 226

Ritter-KaplanH. The Impact of Drought on Third Millennium B.C. Cultures on the Basis of Excavations in the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds’ Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins 1984 100 2 8

RobertsJ.J.M. Erra—Scorched Earth Journal of Cuneiform Studies 1971 24 1 2 11 16

SchaefferC. Stratigraphie comparée et chronologie de l’Asie occidentale (IIIe et 11e millénaires 1948 Oxford University Press

ScobieA. The Battle of the Pygmies and the Cranes in Chinese, Arab, and North American Indian Sources Folklore 1975 86 122 132

StanleyJ.-D.KromM.D.CliffR.A.WoodwardJ.C. Nile Flow Failure at the End of the Old Kingdom, Egypt: Strontium Isotopic and Petrologic Evidence Geoarchaeology 2003 18 3 395 402

SteelD.I.AsherD.J. GustafsonB.A.S.HannerM.S. When Might 2P/Encke Have Produced Meteor Storms? Physics Chemistry and Dynamics of Interplanetary Dust 1996 Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 104 San Francisco Astronomical Society of the Pacific 125 128

StevensonJ. Ceremonial of Hasjelti Dailjis and Mythical Sand Painting of the Navajo Indians Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (for 1886–1887) 1891 8 235 285

TurnerG. Samoa; A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before together with Notes on the Cults and Customs of Twenty-Three Other Islands in the Pacific 1884 London MacMillan and Co.

ÜnalA. OttenH.AkurgalE.ErtemH.SüelA. Parts of Trees in Hittite According to a Medical Incantation Text (kub 43, 62) Hittite and Other Anatolian and Near Eastern Studies in Honour of Sedat Alp 1992 Ankara Türk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi 493 500

van BeekW.E.A. Dogon Restudied: A Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule Current Anthropology 1991 32 2 139 158

van der SluijsM.A. Phaethon and the Great Year Apeiron 2006 39 57 90

van der SluijsM.A. On the Wings of Love Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 2008 8 219 251

van der SluijsM.A. Hll: Lord of the Sickle Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2009a 68 269 281

van der SluijsM.A. Myth and Geology 2009b Geological Society Special Publication 273 London The Geological Society 58 74 Review of Piccardi L. and W.B. Masse (eds.) 2007 Myth and Symbol 5.2

van der SluijsM.A.JamesP. Saturn as the ‘Sun of Night’ in Ancient Near Eastern Tradition Aula Orientalis 2013 31 279 321

van DijkJ. LenzenH.J. Die Inschriftenfunde XVIII. vorläufiger Bericht über die von dem Deutschen Archäologischen Institut und der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft aus Mitteln der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft unternommenen Ausgrabungen in Uruk-Warka: Winter 1959/60 1962 Abhandlungen der deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 7 Berlin Gebr. Mann 39 62

van DongenE. Studying External Stimuli to the Development of the Ancient Aegean 2010 (PhD thesis Dept. of History University College London). At:

van DongenE. The ‘Kingship in Heaven’-Theme of the Hesiodic Theogony: Origin, Function, Composition 2011 Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 51 180 201

VeskiS.HeinsaluA.LangV.KestlaneÜ.PossnertG. The Age of the Kaali Meteorite Craters and the Effect of the Impact on the Environment and Man: Evidence from Inside the Kaali Craters, Island of Saaremaa, Estonia 2004 Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 13 197 206

VeskiS.HeinsaluA.PoskaA.SaarseL.VassiljevJ. BobrowskyP.RickmanH. The Physical and Social Effects of the Kaali Meteorite Impact—A Review Comet/Asteroid Impacts and Human Society 2007 Berlin Springer 265 275

Vīķis-FreibergsV. Amber in Latvian Folk Songs and Folk Beliefs Journal of Baltic Studies 1985 16 3 320 340

von EngelhardtW. Phaetons Sturz—ein Naturereignis? Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften; Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Klasse 1979 2 161 199

WalcotP. Hesiod and the Near East 1966 Cardiff University of Wales Press

WalkerM.J.C.BerkelhammerM.BjörckS.CwynarL.C.FisherD.A.LongA.J.LoweJ.J.NewnhamR.M.RasmussenS.O.WeissH. Formal Subdivision of the Holocene Series/Epoch: A Discussion Paper by a Working Group of INTIMATE (Integration of Ice-Core, Marine and Terrestrial Records) and the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (International Commission on Stratigraphy) Journal of Quaternary Science 2012 27 7 649 659

WatsonB. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi 2013 New York Columbia University Press Translations from the Asian Classics

WeissH. WeissH. Quantifying Collapse: The Late Third Millennium Khabur Plains Seven Generations since the Fall of Akkad 2012 Wiesbaden Harassowitz Verlag 1 24

WeissH.CourtyM.-A.WetterstromW.GuichardF.SeniorL.MeadowR.CurnowA. The Genesis and Collapse of Third Millennium North Mesopotamian Civilization Science 1993 261 995 1004

WestenholzJ.G. Legends of the Kings of Akkade: The Texts 1997 Mesopotamian Civilizations 7 Winona Lake, IN Eisenbrauns

WestenholzJ.G. AroS.WhitingR.M. The King, the Emperor, and the Empire: Continuity and Discontinuity of Royal Representation in Text and Image 2000 Melammu Symposia 1 The Heirs of Assyria: Proceedings of the Opening Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project Held in Tvärminne October 8–11, 1998 Finland Helsinki The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project 99 125

WinterI.J. DercksenJ.G. The Conquest of Space in Time: Three Suns on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sîn Assyria and Beyond: Studies Presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen 2004 607 628 (Uitgaven van het Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten te Leiden 100; Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten)

WestM.L. Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient 1971 Oxford Clarendon Press

WestM.L. The East Face of Helicon 1997 Oxford Clarendon Press

WilbertJ.SimoneauK. Folk Literature of the Nivaklé Indians 1987 Folk Literature of South American Indians; UCLA Latin American Studies 66 Los Angeles UCLA Latin American Center Publications

WitzelE.J.M. The Origins of the World’s Mythologies 2012 Oxford University Press

WormsF. Der Typhoeus Kampf in Hesiods Theogonie Hermes 1953 81 29 44


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.


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 49 49 16
Full Text Views 83 83 47
PDF Downloads 6 6 2
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0