First of all, a quick confession: I really like Genshin Impact, one of the most popular video games in the world. I think I should get this out at the start, before my writing is mistaken as an advert for the game – which it isn’t! The purpose of this piece is to discuss the ancient myth of Phaethon, and the interesting manner in which it is used in Genshin Impact.
I was struggling with how to begin this discussion, before I decided to search for Phaethon on Tumblr and saw this:
As much as the post cracked me up, its tag, which specifies what the joke is about, also made me realise that the myth of Phaethon is not very popular right now. When people think about a Greek boy who fell from the sky, Icarus seems to take the spotlight, while Phaethon usually generates a blank stare. I am not exaggerating: if you search for “Icarus” on Pinterest, you will generate an endless stream of poems and artworks:
By contrast, if you search for “Phaethon”, you will yield some artwork related to the mythical character, along with birds, furniture, and… someone’s account balance?
To add fuel to the fire (or perhaps pour water on dying embers): after studying Classics for the past four years, I know pitifully little about Phaethon. Sure, I can recognise that ‘Phaethon’ is a Greek name (Φαέθων), and (if I try hard enough) I might remember his association with the sun, but it doesn’t change the fact that, for the most part, Phaethon has been absent from my studies, and I haven’t even noticed.
Modern ignorance of Phaethon – or my lack of knowledge anyway – can perhaps be explained in part by the scarcity of surviving ancient works that touch on this myth. According to James Diggle’s introduction to Euripides’ Phaethon (Cambridge UP, 1970), the history of this myth in Classical literature can be condensed as such: Aeschylus (525/4–456 BC) wrote a play about the myth that is lamentably lost in the mists of time. Euripides (c.480–406 BC) referred to the myth in his Hippolytus, and of course also wrote the play Phaethon.
In terms of Roman literature, there is the Metamorphoses of Ovid (43 BC–AD 17/18), whose account of this myth is presumably inspired to some extent by Euripides’ Phaethon. According to Diggle, this version was the most influential depiction of Phaethon’s myth. Aside from these treatments, mentions of Phaethon in ancient works are mostly brief, and don’t differ much from each other. Since Diodorus Siculus (writing in the mid-1st century BC) claims that the myth was used by many poets and authors, it makes one quite sad to think just how much we have lost.
However, one thing to be glad of is that at least a coherent narrative can be strung together using what we do have. Phaethon was born of a union between Helios (the sun god) and the Oceanid Clymene. For one reason or another, probably to prove his divine lineage, Phaethon decides to find Helios, and asks to drive Helios’ chariot for one day. Unable to dissuade Phaethon, Helios reluctantly agrees; this decision results in havoc all over the Earth, as Phaethon loses control of the chariot pretty quickly. He is eventually halted by Zeus, who stops this poor kid with his thunderbolt. The story of Phaethon ends with him falling into the Eridanus (a mythical river said to be somewhere in northern Europe).
According to Ovid, the myth of Phaethon was used to explain natural phenomena, such as the creation of amber, which came from his sisters’ tears; also, certain extremely hot or cold barren areas of the Earth were said to be created by Phaethon when he drove the sun’s chariot either too close or too far away from Earth.
Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know about any of these. Like I said, the absence of Pantheon in my Classics education was inconspicuous, so it wasn’t as though I woke up one day with the urge to go down a rabbit hole in search of him. The trigger for my fascination, as I mentioned at the outset, is a game named Genshin Impact.
For those of you who have never heard of it: Genshin Impact is an action role-playing game released in 2020 by the Chinese video game company Mihoyo. Pulling in nearly $400 million US in revenue within two months of its release, the game has proved highly popular as well as profitable. Although it is often seen as similar to other ‘anime’-inspired games, as a player of Genshin Impact since version 1.1, I remain convinced that it has engaged interestingly with ancient myths from many cultures, and spread awareness of them rather successfully. A recent example is the Divine Damsel of Devastation, a much-loved modern revival of the style and techniques of traditional Peking Opera that is based on the backstory of the game’s 5-star character Shenhe. Genshin’s use of Classics shouldn’t be ignored, especially when it has engaged with this material in so imaginative and captivating a manner, as we will now see with the myth of Phaethon.
In Genshin Impact, the myth of Phaethon is mainly encountered through the world quest located in the Enkanomiya region: “Hyperion’s Dirge”. In this quest players learn that Enkanomiya sank beneath the sea during a calamitous ancient war, becoming a sunless realm entirely severed from the outer world. The inhabitants of Enkanomiya suffered as a result of this drastic change, as they were forced to live in constant darkness while being assaulted by dragon-like creatures that roamed the dark. Yet, despite these circumstances, the people of Enkanomiya survived. Among them, a sage named Abrax was enlightened by a primordial god, who granted him the gift of some divine knowledge. Armed with this knowledge, along with immense courage and dedication, Abrax led the people to achieve the impossible: he created an artificial sun called Helios – the divine chariot of the sun. This impressive structure dominates the Enkanomiya region, having chased away the dragon-like creatures and replaced eternal darkness with the cycle of day and night.
The obvious brilliance (heh) of this story lies in its creative incorporation of the sun god Helios. The Helios we meet in myth exudes an aura of divinity. He resides in a lofty palace, attended by a retinue of immortals. This Helios shines so brightly that even his own son is dazzled. Let’s remember Ovid’s account:
Regia Solis erat sublimibus alta columnis,
clara micante auro flammasque imitante pyropo:
cuius ebur nitidum fastigia summa tegebat,
argenti bifores radiabant lumine valvae.
materiam superabat opus…
quo simul acclivi Clymeneia limite proles
venit et intravit dubitati tecta parentis,
protinus ad patrios sua fert vestigia vultus
consistitque procul: neque enim propiora ferebat
lumina. purpurea velatus veste sedebat
in solio Phoebus claris lucente smaragdis.
a dextra laevaque Dies et Mensis et Annus
Saeculaque et positae spatiis aequalibus Horae.
The palace of the Sun rose high aloft
On soaring columns, bright with flashing gold
And flaming bronze; the pediments were clothed
With sheen of ivory; the double doors
Dazzled with silver – and the artistry
Was nobler still…
Then Phaethon, climbing the steep ascent,
Entered his father’s palace (fatherhood
Uncertain still) and made his way direct
Into the presence and there stood afar,
Unable to approach the dazzling light.
Enrobed in purple vestments Phoebus sat,
High on a throne of gleaming emeralds.
Attending him on either side stood Day
And Month and Year and Century, and Hours.
(Metamorphoses 2.1-5, 19-2, trans. A.D. Melville)
However, the Helios of Enkanomiya couldn’t be more different. Although it too is a luminous entity that chases away the darkness and gives people life, it was created by mortal hands. It is not a deity that came to save the people of Enkanomiya, but an artificial device created to be their salvation. This is what I find especially fascinating about Enkanomiya’s Helios – its breakaway from the traditional dynamics between Greek gods and mortals. In games like Hades (2018), or God of War (2005–18), or many other modern entertainments that use the pantheon, the gods maintain their exalted status, even if they are depicted in a humorous or realistic manner. By contrast, Genshin Impact transforms a divine mythological figure to highlight the tenacity and ingenuity of Abrax, and of the Enkanomiyan people as a whole. In Enkanomiya, humans created Helios and found daylight in a sunless realm. And the game reminds us of this spectacular mortal achievement through Abrax, who always proudly introduces himself as the “Helios-Forger”.
παντοπόρος· ἄπορος ἐπ’ οὐδὲν ἔρχεται τὸ μέλλον: Man is “all-resourceful and never marches forward helplessly.” These are the words Sophocles (497/6–406/5 BC) uses to commend Man in the first stasimon of Antigone. I think the people of Enkanomiya have achieved more than enough in their fictional world to be praised in a similar way. But just as the “Ode to Man” ends on an ominous note, reminding the audience of Man’s capability for evil, so the quest of Hyperion’s Dirge takes a sudden dip at the end. As players converse with Abrax on top of the Helios, the ingenious architect recalls the day the Helios was completed, and how people crowded around this artificial wonder. “It should have been my fondest memory,” says Abrax. But that is not the case. With peace and prosperity secured, some Enkanomiyans turned their thoughts towards riches and power:
And it wasn’t difficult for them to achieve their goal – the awe-inspiring and luminous creation of Abrax was easily manipulated into a divine figure, worshipped by all Enkanomiya. It is crazy to think how the Enkanomiyans could be tricked into thinking this, since they were the ones who built it. But real life has often showed us the logic-defying power of belief…
With this twist, the game alters the player’s perception of Helios yet again. Deference to divinity in ancient works is often seen as some form of guarantee of goodness or justice. In fact, in Sophocles’ “Ode to Man”, observance of the θεῶν… ἔνορκον δίκαν (theōn enorkon dikān), the sworn justice of gods, is a quality which the Chorus attributes to a good man. But the narrative of Enkanomiya clearly contradicts this traditional belief, because the elevation of Helios to divinity, and the formation of a religion around it, is not a mark of goodness or justice. Rather, it indicates the corruption of the Enkanomiyans.
Of course, the corrupt politicians of Enkanomiya didn’t let themselves become the target of unfavourable attention. Instead, they found a scapegoat in the form of a “Sun Child”, otherwise named ‘Phaethon’, in the game.
The politicians would routinely select an infant to be a Sun Child. Although he would be seen as the physical representation of Helios, the child, as a ruler, was obviously incompetent. This gave the politicians a reason to interfere; under their persuasion, each ‘Phaethon’ would commit heinous deeds that benefited the politicians. The Phaethons resembles the original Phaethon in their shared helplessness. As Sun Children, they were seen as the representation of Helios, yet they couldn’t effectively wield the power promised by that identity. As such, although the Sun Children didn’t literally lose control of the sun and destroy the land, it was through them, and by correlation, through the Helios, that immense harm was brought upon the Enkanomiyans. Thus, the natural disaster caused by Phaethon in the original myth has been transmuted into a political and societal one.
Abrax, as the inventor of the Helios, and perhaps the real “father” of the Phaethons in a sense, tried his best to stop the first selection of a Sun Child. Yet, like the mythical Helios, Phaethon’s father, his effort was in vain. Abrax was eventually accused of treason and imprisoned on top of the Helios by the first Phaethon.
Naturally, these Phaethons would not remain children forever. They would grow up and come to understand the truth of their country, and no longer want to stay being puppets. To avert this, the Enkanomiyan politicians devised the next step of their intricate plan to stay in power: the Rite of Solar Return. Held on the birthday of each Phaethon, the ceremony was fashioned as a rite to return the Phaethon to Helios. This was done by leading the child to the inner sanctum of Helios, a machine that generates bright light and extreme heat. The end of the Phaethons is painfully easy to predict: each would be incinerated, and once the old one was dead, a new Phaethon would be chosen, continuing this vicious cycle.
In the original myth, Zeus is more directly responsible for the death of Phaethon, since it is his thunderbolt that brings him down. But we can’t ignore that Phaethon’s death is ultimately caused by Helios and the sun chariot. Furthermore, the mythical Phaethon died because of his reunion with Helios. The ultimate ending of all Phaethons of Enkanomiya thus echoes the ancient myth, as these children were all incinerated in the inner sanctum of the Helios. We could even argue that both Phaethons died in awareness of their own true identity – the mythical Phaethon went to Helios because he wanted confirmation for his parentage, while the Phaethons of Enkanomiya died because they eventually realised how they had been misused by the politicians.
I have explained why Genshin‘s use of the Phaethon myth is so creative and captivating. As the history of a nation that survived against unimaginable calamity but was damned by wanton desire and ignorance, it is perfectly capable of moving an audience with no prior knowledge of its deeply Classical roots. But at the same time, it is an effective and conscientious tribute to the ancient myth, because it brings new life to the myth by reinterpreting it as an allegory of political corruption. As someone who has absorbed both versions, I now think of Phaethon with additional sadness, because I also remember the sad fate of all the Phaethons of Enkanomiya.
It must be noted that the Phaethon myth is not the only instance where Genshin makes use of Classics. In fact, the entire region of Enkanomiya is filled with similar allusions and references, such as the quest of “The Phaethons’ Syrtos”, which gives us more insight into the Phaethons through their caretaker, Clymene, or the quest named “Lotus Eater”, which makes use of the story of Spartacus, as well as the tale of the Lotus Eaters encountered by Odysseus. I keenly encourage anyone interested in discovering more to play through Genshin Impact, and not only to experience the excellently designed Enkanomiya map for themselves: they will see with their own eyes that, while academics scratch their heads about the preservation and continued spread of Classics in the modern world, many valuable and successful efforts already exist outside the familiar academic context. QED: my interest in Phaethon was inspired by a game, not by a lecture or an academic article.
Clare Chang is a Classics student from South Africa who has just started her Classics MA at King’s College, London. She did her BA in Classics and Linguistics, and BAH in Classics in South Africa’s Rhodes University. She is interested in Greek literature and intertextuality, but also wants to explore Latin literature, Classical reception, and how and why comparative studies should be conducted between cultures without straightforward connections.
An official video showcasing the in-game scenery of Enkanomiya can be seen here. Readers wishing to see how Phaethon was received in an entirely different period, may be interested in this Antigone article.