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Children of the Sun

March 25, 2015

There’s a Greek myth that goes something like this:

Phaeton was the son of Helios and a human woman. The children of his village teased him about not having a father and when Phaeton responded that he was the son of Helios, they demanded proof. So Phaeton, in a fit of adolescent pique, travelled to his father’s palace. He wanted to be publicly recognized as Helios’ son, which Helios promptly did, saying he’d grant Phaeton any one favour to prove it.

“Let me drive the sun chariot, Father, just for one day. I’ll be good, I promise.”

Helios wasn’t entirely convinced of this at first, but finally gave in with the warning that the horses that drew the sun chariot were hard to control, so Phaeton would need to keep a firm hand on the reigns for the entire day, and try to keep an even course through the sky, neither too high or too low.

Phaeton assured his father that he could handle everything , and so the next morning it was Phaeton, not Helios, who commanded the chariot at dawn. Shortly after the drive began, the horses began to pull apart and race each other and Phaeton lost control. The horses pulled the chariot high up into the sky, slashing it to create the Milky Way, and then they plunged towards the ground, burning Africa so that it became a desert and its people burned black.

At this point, Zeus noticed the destruction that Phaeton and the sun chariot were causing and smote him with a lightning bolt, killing the boy.

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There’s a Salish story from the BC coast* that goes something like this:

The people of Mink’s** village teased him about not having parents. Mink said, “Sun is my father. I will go to him and get proof.” Everyone laughed harder because the road to the sky was too long. Mink went to his uncle to get a bow and arrows. The first arrow he shot struck the house of Sun. The second struck the first arrow and stuck fast, and the third arrow stuck to the second. Mink continued until he had a chain of arrows that reached the ground, then climbed up them.

When Mink reached Sun’s house, Sun invited him in. “I am glad you are here, my son,” he said. “I am old and weak now and it grows harder each day to carry the sun through the sky. Now you are here, you can do this instead of me. But be sure to walk steadily, so you do not burn the world.” He gave Mink a nose ring made of abalone shells, which was the sun.

The next day, Mink set out, walking steadily as his father had told him. However, around noon, the sky grew cloudy and Mink, as he often did, grew impatient. He began to run, which meant that his nose ring flashed too brightly and too hot. The seas boiled and the rocks cracked and all the people and animals were toasted brown. When Sun saw this, he ran out and took the sun back, sending Mink crashing into the ocean.

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When I first read the second story, it naturally struck me how similar it was to the first, even though the cultures that told them are across the planet from each other and never had contact with each other. (At least, it’s very unlikely.) So are the similar elements due to a story told far enough back in pre-history that it spawned both the Greek and the Salish versions? Or are they similar because humans tend to the same explanations and narrative structures, no matter where they are in the world? Either way, it’s fascinating and now I’m wondering if there are similar stories told elsewhere in the world too.

 

* the version I have is Kwakiutl

** a trickster who shares stories with Raven elsewhere on the coast

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    March 25, 2015 6:20 pm

    Nice article! Biological story-telling and deep memory … why do we have to choose? I love both possibilities.

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