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Francesco Durantino, perhaps in the workshop of Guido da Merlino, Urbino,

Circa 1545

Tin-glazed earthenware

Inscribed on the back Le sorelle di Fetonte (The sisters of Phaethon)

D.26 cm.


German private collection    

In Greek mythology, the Heliades (Greek: Ἡλιάδες, "children of the sun") were the daughters of Helios, the sun god (also known as Phoebus) and Clymene the Oceanid.

According to one version recorded by Hyginus, there were three of them: Aegiale, Aegle, and Aetheria. According to another version, there were five: Helia, Merope, Phoebe, Aetheria and Dioxippe. Aeschylus's fragmentary Heliades names Phaethousa and Lampetia as well, making a total of seven sisters. Their brother, Phaethon, died after attempting to drive his father's chariot (the sun) across the sky. He was unable to control the horses and fell to his death (according to most accounts, Zeus struck his chariot with a thunderbolt to save the Earth from being set afire). The Heliades grieved for four months and the gods, taking pity on them,  turned them into poplar trees and their tears into amber. According to some sources, their tears (amber) fell into the river Eridanos, into which Phaethon had fallen. Hyginus relates that the Heliades were turned to poplar trees because they yoked the chariot for their brother without their father Helios's permission.

In the version of the myth told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Phaethon ascends into heaven, the home of his suspected father, Helios. His mother Clymene had boasted that his father was the Sun-God. Phaethon went to his father who swore by the river Styx to give Phaethon anything he might ask for in order to prove his love for his son. Phaethon asked to drive the chariot of the sun for a day. Helios tried to talk him out of it by telling him that not even Jupiter (the king of the gods) would dare to drive it, as the chariot was fiery hot and the horses breathed out flames. Phaethon was adamant. When the day came, the fierce horses that drew the chariot felt that it was empty because of the lack of the sun-god's weight and went out of control. Terrified, Phaethon dropped the reins. The horses veered from their course, scorching the earth, burning the vegetation, bringing the blood of the Ethiopians to the surface of their skin and so turning it black, changing much of Africa into a desert, drying up rivers and lakes and shrinking the sea. Earth cried out to Jupiter who was forced to intervene by striking Phaethon with a lightning bolt. Like a falling star, Phaethon plunged blazing into the river Eridanos. The epitaph on his tomb was:

Here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god's chariot fared. And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.

Helios, stricken with grief at his son's death, at first refused to resume his work of driving his chariot, but at the appeal of the other gods, including Jupiter, returned to his task.

According to Apollonius of Rhodes and Ovid, amber originated from the tears of the Heliades, encased in poplars as dryads, shed when their brother, Phaethon, died and fell from the sky, struck by Zeus' thunderbolt, and tumbled into the river Eridanos, where, "to this very day the marsh exhales a heavy vapour which rises from his smouldering wound; no bird can stretch out its fragile wings to fly over that water, but in mid-flight it falls dead in the flames along the green banks of the river Eridanos." Cycnus was the son of Sthenelus and a king of Liguria as well as being a good friend of Phaethon who, according to Ovid, mourned his death so much that the gods transformed into a swan to relieve him of his grief.

The Heliades Turning into Polar Trees

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