Helios, also Helius (/ˈhiːlioʊs/; Ancient Greek: Ἥλιος Hēlios; Latinized as Helius; Ἠέλιος in Homeric Greek), in ancient Greek religion and myth, is the god and personification of the Sun, often depicted in art with a radiant crown and driving a horse-drawn chariot through the sky.
Though Helios was a relatively minor deity in Classical Greece, his worship grew more prominent in late antiquity thanks to his identification with several major solar divinities of the Roman period, particularly Apollo and Sol. The Roman Emperor Julian made Helios the central divinity of his short-lived revival of traditional Roman religious practices in the 4th century AD.
Helios figures prominently in several works of Greek mythology, poetry, and literature, in which he is often described as the son of the Titans Hyperion and Theia and brother of the goddesses Selene (the Moon) and Eos (the dawn).
The Greek ἥλιος (from earlier ἡϝελιος /hāwelios/) is the inherited word for the Sun from Proto-Indo-European *seh₂u-el which is cognate with Latin sol, Sanskrit surya, Old English swegl, Old Norse sól, Welsh haul, Avestan hvar, etc. The name Helen is thought to share this etymology and may express an early alternate personification of the sun among Hellenic peoples.
The female offspring of Helios were called Heliades. The Greek sun god had various bynames or epithets, which over time in some cases came to be considered separate deities associated with the Sun. Among these is Hyperion (superus, “high up”), Elektor (of uncertain derivation, often translated as “beaming” or “radiant”, especially in the combination elektor Hyperion), Phaëton “the radiant”, Terpsimbrotos (“gladdens mortals”), and Hekatos (also Hekatebolos “far-shooter”, i.e. the sun’s rays considered as arrows).
Helios in his chariot, early 4th century BC, Athena’s temple, Ilion
Helios is usually depicted as a handsome young man crowned with the shining aureole of the Sun who drove the chariot of the Sun across the sky each day to Earth-circling Oceanus and through the world-ocean returned to the East at night. In the Homeric Hymn to Helios, Helios is said to drive a golden chariot drawn by steeds (HH 31.14–15); and Pindar speaks of Helios’s “fire-darting steeds” (Olympian Ode 7.71). Still later, the horses were given fire related names: Pyrois, Aeos, Aethon, and Phlegon.
The imagery surrounding a chariot-driving solar deity is likely Indo-European in origin and is common to both early Greek and Near Eastern religions. The earliest artistic representations of the “chariot god” come from the Parthian period (3rd century) in Persia where there is evidence of rituals being performed for the sun god by Magi, indicating an assimilation of the worship of Helios and Mithras.
Helios is seen as both a personification of the Sun and the fundamental creative power behind it and as a result is often worshiped as a god of life and creation. Homer described Helios as a god “who gives joy to mortals” and other ancient texts give him the epithet “gracious” (ἱλαρός), given that he is the source of life and regeneration and associated with the creation of the world. One passage recorded in the Greek Magical Papyri says of Helios, “the earth flourished when you shone forth and made the plants fruitful when you laughed and brought to life the living creatures when you permitted.”
L. R. Farnell assumed “that sun-worship had once been prevalent and powerful among the people of the pre-Hellenic culture, but that very few of the communities of the later historic period retained it as a potent factor of the state religion”. The largely Attic literary sources used by scholars present ancient Greek religion with an Athenian bias, and, according to J. Burnet, “no Athenian could be expected to worship Helios or Selene, but he might think them to be gods, since Helios was the great god of Rhodes and Selene was worshiped at Elis and elsewhere”. James A. Notopoulos considered Burnet’s distinction to be artificial: “To believe in the existence of the gods involves acknowledgment through worship, as Laws 87 D, E shows” (note, p. 264). Aristophanes’ Peace (406–413) contrasts the worship of Helios and Selene with that of the more essentially Greek Twelve Olympians, as the representative gods of the Achaemenid Persians (See also: Hvare-khshaeta, Mah); all the evidence shows that Helios and Selene were minor gods to the Greeks.
Colossus of Rhodes
The island of Rhodes was an important cult center for Helios, one of the only places where he was worshipped as a major deity in ancient Greece. The worship of Helios at Rhodes included a ritual in which a quadriga, or chariot drawn by four horses, was driven over a precipice into the sea, in reenactment to the myth of Phaethon. Annual gymnastic tournaments were held in Helios’ honor. The Colossus of Rhodes was dedicated to him. Helios also had a significant cult on the acropolis of Corinth on the Greek mainland.
The Dorians also seem to have revered Helios, and to have hosted His primary cult on the mainland. The scattering of cults of the sun god in Sicyon, Argos, Ermioni, Epidaurus and Laconia, and his holy livestock flocks at Taenarum, seem to suggest that the deity was considerably important in Dorian religion, compared to other parts of ancient Greece. Additionally, it may have been the Dorians who imported his worship to Rhodes.
The tension between the mainstream traditional religious veneration of Helios, which had become enriched with ethical values and poetical symbolism in Pindar, Aeschylus and Sophocles, and the Ionian proto-scientific examination of the sun, a phenomenon of the study Greeks termed meteora, clashed in the trial of Anaxagoras c. 450 BC, in which Anaxagoras asserted that the Sun was in fact a gigantic red-hot ball of metal. His trial was a forerunner of the culturally traumatic trial of Socrates for irreligion, in 399 BC.
Conflation with Apollo
Helios as the personification of midday by Anton Raphael Mengs (showing apollonian traits absent in mythology and Hellenic art, such as the lack of a chariot)
Helios is sometimes identified with Apollo: “Different names may refer to the same being,” Walter Burkert observes, “or else they may be consciously equated, as in the case of Apollo and Helios.”
In Homeric literature, Apollo was clearly identified as a different god, a plague-dealer with a silver (not golden) bow and no solar features. The earliest certain reference to Apollo being identified with Helios appears in the surviving fragments of Euripides’ play Phaethon in a speech near the end (fr 781 N²) – Clymene, Phaethon’s mother, laments that Helios has destroyed her child, that Helios whom men rightly call Apollo (the name Apollo is here understood to mean Apollon “Destroyer”).
By Hellenistic times Apollo had become closely connected with the Sun in cult and Phoebus (Greek Φοῖβος, “bright”), the epithet most commonly given to Apollo, was later applied by Latin poets to the sun-god Sol.
The identification became a commonplace in philosophic texts and appears in the writing of Parmenides, Empedocles, Plutarch and Crates of Thebes among others, as well as appearing in some Orphic texts. Pseudo-Eratosthenes writes about Orpheus in Catasterismi, section 24:
But having gone down into Hades because of his wife and seeing what sort of things were there, he did not continue to worship Dionysus, because of whom he was famous, but he thought Helios to be the greatest of the gods, Helios whom he also addressed as Apollo. Rousing himself each night toward dawn and climbing the mountain called Pangaion, he would await the Sun’s rising, so that he might see it first. Therefore, Dionysus, being angry with him, sent the Bassarides, as Aeschylus the tragedian says; they tore him apart and scattered the limbs.
Dionysus and Asclepius are sometimes also identified with this Apollo Helios.
Classical Latin poets also used Phoebus as a byname for the sun-god, whence come common references in later European poetry to Phoebus and his chariot as a metaphor for the Sun but, in particular instances in myth, Apollo and Helios are distinct. The sun-god, the son of Hyperion, with his sun chariot, though often called Phoebus (“shining”) is not called Apollo except in purposeful non-traditional identifications.
Coin of Roman Emperor Constantine I depicting Sol Invictus/Apollo with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, c. 315 AD.
By Late Antiquity, Helios had accumulated a number of religious, mythological, and literary elements from other deities, particularly Apollo and the Roman sun god Sol. In 274 AD, on December 25th, the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted an official state cult to Sol Invictus (or Helios Megistos, “Great Helios”). This new cult drew together imagery not only associated with Helios and Sol, but also a number of syncretic elements from other deities formerly recognized as distinct. Other syncretic materials from this period include an Orphic Hymn to Helios; the so-called Mithras Liturgy, where Helios is said to rule the elements; spells and incantations invoking Helios among the Greek Magical Papyri; a Hymn to Helios by Proclus; Julian’s Oration to Helios, the last stand of official paganism; and an episode in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. Helios in these works is frequently equated not only with deities such as Mithras and Harpocrates, but even with the monotheistic Judaeo-Christian god.
The last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian, made Helios the primary deity of his revived pagan religion, which combined elements of Mithraism with Neoplatonism. For Julian, Helios was a triunity: The One, which governs the highest realm containing Plato’s Forms, or intelligible gods; Helios-Mithras, the supreme god of the Intellectual realm; and the Sun, the physical manifestation of Helios in the Encosmic, or visible realm. Because the primary location of Helios in this scheme was the “middle” realm, Julian considered him to be a mediator and unifier not just of the three realms of being, but of all things (which was a concept likely imported from Mithraism, and also may have been influenced by the Christian idea of the Logos). Julian’s theological conception of Helios has been described as “practically monotheistic”, in contrast to earlier Neoplatonists like Iamblichus, though he also included the other traditional gods worshiped around the ancient Mediterranean as both distinct entities and also certain principles or manifestations that emanate from Helios.
A mosaic found in the Vatican Necropolis (Mausoleum M) depicts a figure very similar in style to Sol/Helios, crowned with solar rays and driving a solar chariot. Some scholars have interpreted this as a depiction of Christ, noting that Clement of Alexandria wrote of Christ driving his chariot across the sky. Some scholars doubt the Christian associations, or suggest that the figure is merely a non-religious representation of the sun.
In the Greek Magical Papyri
Solar Apollo with the radiant halo of Helios in a Roman floor mosaic, El Djem, Tunisia, late 2nd century
Helios figured prominently in the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of hymns, rituals, and magic spells used from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD all around the Greco-Roman world. In these mostly fragmentary texts, Helios is credited with a broad domain, being regarded as the creator of life, the lord of the heavens and the cosmos, and the god of the sea. He is said to take the form of 12 animals representing each hour of the day, a motif also connected with the 12 signs of the zodiac.
The Papyri often syncretize Helios with a variety of related deities. He is described as “seated on a lotus, decorated with rays”, in the manner of Harpocrates, who was often depicted seated on a lotus flower, representing the rising sun. According to the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus, “sitting on a lotus implies pre-eminence over the mud, without ever touching the mud, and also displays intellectual and empyrean leadership.”
Helios is also assimilated with Mithras in some of the Papyri, as he was by Emperor Julian. The Mithras Liturgy combines them as Helios-Mithras, who is said to have revealed the secrets of immortality to the magician who wrote the text. Some of the texts describe Helios Mithras navigating the Sun’s path not in a chariot but in a boat, an apparent identification with the Egyptian sun god Ra. Helios is also described as “restraining the serpent”, likely a reference to Apophis, the serpent god who, in Egyptian myth, is said to attack Ra’s ship during his nightly journey through the underworld.
In many of the Papyri, Helios is also strongly identified with Iao, a name derived from that of the Hebrew god Yahweh, and shares several of his titles including Sabaoth and Adonai. He is also assimilated as the Agathos Daemon (called “the Agathodaimon, the god of the gods”), who is also identified elsewhere in the texts as “the greatest god, lord Horus Harpokrates”.
The Neoplatonist philosophers Proclus and Iamblichus attempted to interpret many of the syntheses found in the Greek Magical Papyri and other writings that regarded Helios as all-encompassing, with the attributes of many other divine entities. Proclus described Helios as a cosmic god consisting of many forms and traits. These are “coiled up” within his being, and are variously distributed to all that “participate in his nature”, including angels, daemons, souls, animals, herbs, and stones. All of these things were important to the Neoplatonic practice of theurgy, magical rituals intended to invoke the gods in order to ultimately achieve union with them. Iamblichus noted that theurgy often involved the use of “stones, plants, animals, aromatic substances, and other such things holy and perfect and godlike.” For theurgists, the elemental power of these items sacred to particular gods utilizes a kind of sympathetic magic.
Identification with other gods
Bust of Alexander the Great as an eidolon of Helios (Musei Capitolini).
The Etruscan god of the Sun, equivalent to Helios, was Usil. His name appears on the bronze liver of Piacenza, next to Tiur, the Moon. He appears, rising out of the sea, with a fireball in either outstretched hand, on an engraved Etruscan bronze mirror in late Archaic style, formerly on the Roman antiquities market. On Etruscan mirrors in Classical style, he appears with a halo.
Helios is also sometimes conflated in classical literature with the highest Olympian god, Zeus. Helios is referred either directly as Zeus’ eye, or clearly implied to be. For instance, Hesiod effectively describes Zeus’s eye as the Sun. This perception is possibly derived from earlier Proto-Indo-European religion, in which the Sun is believed to have been envisioned as the eye of *Dyḗus Pḥatḗr (see Hvare-khshaeta). An Orphic saying, supposedly given by an oracle of Apollo, goes: “Zeus, Hades, Helios-Dionysus, three gods in one godhead!” When quoting this in his Hymn to King Helios, Emperor Julian substituted the name Dionysus with Serapis, whose Egyptian counterpart Osiris was identified with Dionysus. On the basis of this oracle, Julian concluded that “among the intellectual gods, Helios and Zeus have a joint or rather a single sovereignty.”
Diodorus Siculus of Sicily reported that the Chaldeans called Cronus (Saturn) by the name Helios, or the sun, and he explained that this was because Saturn was the most conspicuous of the planets.
Head of Helios, middle period, Archaeological Museum of Rhodes
The best known story involving Helios is that of his son Phaethon, who attempted to drive his father’s chariot but lost control and set the Earth on fire. If Zeus had not interfered by throwing a thunderbolt at Phaethon, killing him instantly, all mortals would have died.
Helios was sometimes characterized with the epithet Panoptes (“the all-seeing”). In the story told in the hall of Alcinous in the Odyssey (viii.300ff.), Aphrodite, the consort of Hephaestus, secretly beds Ares, but all-seeing Helios spies on them and tells Hephaestus, who ensnares the two lovers in nets invisibly fine, to punish them.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his surviving crew land on Thrinacia, an island sacred to the sun god, whom Circe names Hyperion rather than Helios. There, the sacred cattle of Helios were kept:
You will now come to the Thrinacian island, and here you will see many herds of cattle and flocks of sheep belonging to the sun-god. There will be seven herds of cattle and seven flocks of sheep, with fifty heads in each flock. They do not breed, nor do they become fewer in number, and they are tended by the goddesses Phaethusa and Lampetia, who are children of the sun-god Hyperion by Neaera. Their mother when she had borne them and had done suckling them sent them to the Thrinacian island, which was a long way off, to live there and look after their father’s flocks and herds.
The companions of Odysseus rob the cattle of Helios, fresco by Palazzo Poggi, 1556.
Though Odysseus warns his men, when supplies run short they impiously kill and eat some of the cattle of the Sun. The guardians of the island, Helios’ daughters, tell their father about this. Helios appeals to Zeus telling them to dispose of Odysseus’ men or he will take the Sun and shine it in the Underworld. Zeus destroys the ship with his lightning bolt, killing all the men except for Odysseus.
In one Greek vase painting, Helios appears riding across the sea in the cup of the Delphic tripod which appears to be a solar reference. Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae relates that, at the hour of sunset, Helios climbed into a great golden cup in which he passes from the Hesperides in the farthest west to the land of the Ethiops, with whom he passes the dark hours. While Heracles traveled to Erytheia to retrieve the cattle of Geryon, he crossed the Libyan desert and was so frustrated at the heat that he shot an arrow at Helios, the Sun. Almost immediately, Heracles realized his mistake and apologized profusely, in turn and equally courteous, Helios granted Heracles the golden cup which he used to sail across the sea every night, from the west to the east because he found Heracles’ actions immensely bold. Heracles used this golden cup to reach Erytheia.
By the Oceanid Perse, Helios became the father of Aeëtes, Circe, Perses (brother of Aeetes) and Pasiphaë. His other children are Phaethusa (“radiant”) and Lampetia (“shining”).
This artifact is a part of SwordTemple Library