Helios: The Greek God of The Sun

In Greek mythology, Helios was simply regarded as the God of the sun. The ancient Greeks also characterized him as the personification of the sun itself, further adding to his fiery tally of epithets.

As the sun always rose right when everything seemed at its lowest, he meant hope and the arrival of something new for many. Besides that, Helios symbolized aggression and wrath as the same orb that gifted the mortals with life, scorched them to death.

Being the sun himself, Helios has had his share in countless Greek myths, and rightfully so. His place in the Greek pantheon is further solidified by the fact that he is the son of one of the Greek Titans. Hence, Helios long precedes the age of the Olympians.

Helios and His Rule Over the Sun

Helios is more well-known than any other sun god in other pantheons. This is primarily due to his inclusion in various tales and references in popular culture. Hence it is safe to say that the Greek sun god had his time in the limelight in the ancient world.

Helios’ rule over the sun meant that he was in control of the very source that allowed life to flourish. As a result, his visage was well respected and feared simultaneously. Though his physical presence is often differentiated from the sun in specific tales, he is better attributed to being the sun itself. Hence, Helios takes on all the characteristics that compose the solar body and refracts its powers accordingly.

Helios’ Appearance

Helios boasts countless props and symbols that define his personality. Generally, he is portrayed as a young man donning a shining aureole after the sun, and his fire-spun garment glows as he mounts his four-winged steeds and drives across the sky each day.

This grand course across the heavens is based upon the sun moving through the sky each day from east to west.

Riding atop his fire-darting steeds, Helios ruled the firmaments in the day and circled the globe all the way through at night to return to where he was before.

Besides descriptions of Helios’ appearance in Homeric hymns, he is described in more physical and intimate details by other authors such as Mesomedes and Ovid. Each definition varies according to the most specific information. Still, they all similarly highlighted the opulent and celestial might that this mighty God resonated with.

Helios’ Symbols and Representation

Helios was often symbolized through tokens of the sun itself. This was immortalized through a golden orb with 12 rays of sunbeams radiating from its center (representing 12 months in a year).

Other symbols included a four-horse chariot driven by winged horses. In this case, Helios would be seen commanding the chariot, wearing a golden helmet representing a rather celestial sense of authority.

Helios’ visage also came to be associated with Alexander the Great when he had conquered half of the world. Known widely as Alexander-Helios, the name was synonymous with power and absolution.

READ MORE: How Did Alexander the Great Die: Illness or Not?

Worship of Helios

Helios was worshiped in countless temples due to his gracefully cosmic inclusion in the Greek pantheon of gods.

READ MORE: 41 Greek Gods and Goddesses: Family Tree and Fun Facts

The most famous of these places was Rhodes, where he was much revered by all of its inhabitants. With time, worship of Helios continued to grow exponentially due to the Roman conquest of Greece and the subsequent matrimony of the two mythologies. Compared to deities such as Sol and Apollo, Helios remained relevant for an extended period.

Corinth, Laconia, Sicyon, and Arcadia all hosted cults and altars of some form dedicated to Helios as the Greeks believed the veneration of a universal deity, unlike conventional ones, would still bring them peace.

Who Were Apollo’s Parents?

Given Helios’ imminent stardom on the silver screens of Greek mythology, it is only fair to assume that he had a star-studded family.

Helios’ parents were none other than Hyperion, the Greek Titan of Heavenly Light, and Theia, the Titan Goddess of Light. Before the Olympian gods started their rule, ancient Greeks were ruled by these precursor pantheons of deities. This happened after Cronus, the Mad Titan, chopped off his baddy daddy, Uranus‘ manhood, and threw them to the sea.

Hyperion was one of the four Titans to help Cronus in his journey to overthrow Uranus. He, alongside his Titan brothers, was awarded the most celestial of powers to flex on the mortals below being the pillars between heaven and Earth.

During those long hours of working overtime to ensure that the entire structure of the cosmos didn’t collapse, Hyperion met the love of his life, Theia. This cerulean lover bore him three children: Eos the Dawn, Selene the Moon, and Helios the Sun.

Helios During the Titanomachy

The Titanomachy was the raging war between the Titans (led by Cronus) and the Olympians (led by Zeus). It was this war that crowned the Olympians as the new rulers of the universe.

The Titans didn’t stay silent as Zeus and Cronus engaged in close combat. Wanting their share of glory, all the Titans and the Olympians clashed in a 10-year-long fight that would stand the test of time.

However, Helios was the only Titan that remained unscathed as he abstained from choosing a side and attacking the Olympians. In doing so, the Olympians acknowledged his help. They made a truce with him that would allow him to continue being the personification of the sun after the Titanomachy had ended.

Of course, this worked out perfectly for him. Helios returned to being himself, traversing the sky during the day, riding the sun chariot, and sailing the oceans in the back of the planet at night.

This entire event was highlighted by Eumelus of Corinth in his 8th Century poem “Titanomachy.”

Helios as the Sun God

In ancient times, explaining certain events such as longer days or shorter nights was a monumental task. After all, it was much easier to slap on myths than to waste brainpower to figure out why it was happening. Also, they didn’t have telescopes, so let’s go easy on them.

Longer days meant Helios was in the sky for longer than usual. Often, this was attributed to him slowing down his velocity to observe whatever event was going down below. This could’ve ranged from the birth of a new deity or simply because he wanted to take a break and peek at dancing nymphs on a hot summer day.

Other times when the sun rose later than usual, it was thought to be so because Helios had simply enjoyed too much of a good time with his wife the night earlier.

Likewise, the characteristics of the sun were directly correlated to Helios’ personality. Every slight rise in heat, every little delay, and every little drop in the sunshine was explained as having been caused by random events taking place on both heaven and Earth.

Troublesome Lovers: Helios, Ares, and Aphrodite

In Homer’s “Odyssey,” there is an exciting encounter that involves a star-studded cast of Hephaestus, Helios, Ares, and Aphrodite.

It starts with the simple fact that Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus. Any relationship outside their marriage would naturally be considered cheating. However, Hephaestus was dubbed to be the ugliest God in the Greek pantheon, and this was something well revolted by Aphrodite.

She looked for other sources of pleasure and eventually settled with Ares, the god of war. Once Helios caught wind of this (watching from his sunny abode), he was angry and decided to let Hephaestus know about it.

Once he did, Hephaestus produced a thin net and decided to entrap his cheating wife and Ares if they tried getting mushy again.

Helios Catches Aphrodite

When the time finally came, Hephaestus placed the net on Aphrodite’s bed and when the two undressed to make love again and fell on the bed the net entrapped them leaving them exposed to everyone’s eyes and laughter.

However, this event caused Aphrodite to hold a grudge against Helios and his entire kind. Well done, Aphrodite!

On the other hand, Ares was angry that Alectryon, a young boy whom he selected to guard the door to Aphrodite’s room had failed to guard the door, which allowed Helios to sneak through. So he did the only natural thing and turned the young man into a rooster. That’s why the rooster crows when the sun is about to rise every dawn.

Helios and Rhodes

The Titan god of the sun makes another appearance in Pindar’s “Olympian Odes.”

This revolves (pun intended) around the island of Rhodes being granted to Helios as a reward. When the Titanomachy had finally ended, and Zeus divided the lands of men and God, Helios had shown up late to the show and missed the grand division by a couple of minutes.

Disappointed by his late arrival, Helios went into depression because he wouldn’t be rewarded any land. Zeus didn’t want the sun to be so sad because it would mean months of rainy days, so he offered to perform the division again.

However, Helios mumbled that he had seen a dope new island rising from the sea called Rhodes that he would love to tame cattle on. Zeus granted his wish and tethered Rhodes to Helios for eternity.

Here, Helios would be worshiped relentlessly. Rhodes would soon become the breeding ground for producing priceless art as it was later blessed by Athena. She did this as a reward for Helios commanding the people of Rhodes to construct an altar to honor her birth. 

Children of the Sun

Helios’ seven sons would eventually become the governors of this opulent island. These sons were lovingly known as “Heliadae,” meaning “sons of the Sun.”

With time, the offspring of the Heliadae constructed the cities of Ialysos, Lindos, and Camiros on Rhodes. Helios’ island would become the hub of art, trade, and of course, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Helios in Various Other Myths

Helios vs. Poseidon

Though that seems like a scary match in the card, it really isn’t. Helios being the Titan god of the sun and Poseidon being the god of the oceans, there seems to be a rather poetic theme at play here.

However, this was merely a dispute between the two regarding who would claim ownership over the city of Corinth. After months of bickering, it was finally settled by Briareos, one of the Hecatonchires, a hundred-handed daddy god dispatched to solve their tantrum.

Briareos granted the Isthmus of Corinth to Poseidon and the Acrocorinth to Helios. Helios agreed and continued his business of peeking at nymphs in the summer.

The Aesop Fable of Helios and Boreas

On one fine day, Helios and Boreas (god of the north wind) were arguing about which one of them was mightier than the other.

Instead of brawling to death, the two gods decided to settle this matter with the utmost maturity they could muster. They decided to run an experiment on a human being using nothing but an exquisite piece of fabric known as a cloak.

The challenge was whoever could make the human remove his cloak would win and claim the right to dub themselves as the mightier one. As a cloaked mortal passed by in his boat, minding his own business, Boreas called shotgun and took the first shot.

He commanded the north wind to force the traveler’s cloak with all his power. However, instead of the cloak being blown away, the poor soul clung to it tighter as it was shielding him from the streams of cold wind scything his face.

Admitting his defeat, Boreas lets Helios work his magic. Helios streaked closer to the cloaked man in his golden-yoked chariot and simply shone brighter. This made the man sweat so hard that he decided to take the cloak off to cool down.

Helios smiled in victory and turned around, but the north wind had already begun to flow south.

Helios and Icarus

Another well-known story in Greek mythology is about Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun and dared challenge a god.

The myth begins with Daedelus and his son, Icarus, inventing functioning wings held together by wax, mimicking a flying bird. The wings were designed to fly them out from the island of Crete.

Once their feet had lifted from the ground, Icarus made the rather stupid decision of thinking that he could challenge the sun itself and fly as high as the heavens. Blood boiling from this foolish remark, Helios dispensed blazing sunbeams from his chariot, which melted the wax on Icarus’ wings.

That day, Icarus realized Helios’ actual power; he was merely human, and Helios was a god that he had no chance against.

Unfortunately, that realization came a little too late as he was already falling to his demise.

Helios, the Shepherd 

When he is not the sun god Helios, he works part-time at a cattle farm.

During his off time, the sun god tamed his holy flock of sheep and cows on the island of Thrinacia.

The number of sheep and cows totaled 350 each, representing the total number of days in a year in the ancient Greek calendar. These animals were divided into seven herds, each representing 7 days a week.

Moreover, these cows and sheep were never bred, and they were utterly deathless. This factor added to their eternal status and symbolized that the number of days would remain constant through all ages.

Helios and Peithenius 

In another safe haven in Apollonia, the sun god had stowed away a couple of his sheep. He had also dispatched a mortal named Peithenius to watch the animals closely.

Unfortunately, an attack from the local wolves led the sheep straight down their hungry bellies. The citizens of Apollonia ganged up on Peithenius. They shifted the blame on him, gouging his eyes out in the process.

This greatly angered Helios, and as a result, he dried up the lands of Apollonia so its citizens couldn’t reap any crops from it. Fortunately, they made up for it by offering Peithenius a new house, finally calming the sun god down.

Helios and Odysseus

In Homer’s “Odyssey,” while Odysseus camped at Circe’s island, the enchantress warned him not to touch Helios’ sheep when he passed by the island of Thrinacia.

Circe further warns that if Odysseus dared to touch the cattle, Helios would go all out and prevent Odysseus from reaching back to his home with all his might.

Once Odysseus reached Thrinacia, though, he found himself low on supplies and made the biggest mistake of his life.

He and his crew butchered the sheep of the sun in hopes of eating it, which immediately opened the gates of the sun god’s raw fury. Shepherd Helios turned into sun god Helios in one thundering instant and went straight to Zeus. He warned him that if he chose not to do anything about this sacrilege, he would go to Hades and provide light for those in the underworld instead of those above.

Scared by Helios’ threatening caution and promise of the removal of the sun itself, Zeus sent a rampaging thunderbolt after Odysseus’ ships, killing everyone except for Odysseus himself.

Helios in Other Fields

Besides being the local hotshot sun god in the pantheon of Greek gods, Helios also holds dominion over other aspects of the world.

In fact, the well-known element “Helium” comes from his name. It is the second periodic table element and is much prevalent in the universe. It is thought that almost 5% of the observable universe is composed of Helium.

This isn’t where the sun god’s spacefaring ventures end, though. Being deeply connected to the sky, Helios’ name appears in the confines of outer space quite often. One of Saturn’s moons is named Helios.

Furthermore, two of NASA’s space probes were named after this sunlike deity. Hence, in deep space where the influence of the sun is felt the most, Helios reigns supreme, giving a sense of eternity in his wake.

Conclusion

Helios is one of the most well-known Greek gods in Greek mythology. His very presence screams power, all the while being someone that even Zeus himself greatly respects.

Controlling the blazing embers of the sun with his hands and might, he holds an imposing position within the ancient Greek religion and continues to be one of the most central talking points of all mythology.

References

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0525.tlg001.perseus-eng1:2.1.6

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0053%3Abook%3D6%3Acommline%3D580

Aesop, Aesop’s Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford, 2002. 

Homer; The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. Online version at the Perseus Digital Library.

Pindar, Odes, Diane Arnson Svarlien. 1990. Online version at the Perseus Digital Library.

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