In earlier Greek mythology, the sun was personified as a deity called Hêlios (Greek for "the sun"), whom Homer equates with the sun Titan, Hyperion. Other sources say Helios is Hyperion's son by his sister Theia. Helios was to be seen driving a fiery chariot across the sky. He has two sisters, the moon goddess Selene and the dawn goddess Eos. The solar roles of Helios were assumed by Apollo, who eclipsed Helios as Artemis eclipsed lunar Selene. The equivalent of Helios in Roman mythology is Sol.
The etymology of Helios, unlike most of the major figures in Greek myth, is Indo-European (Burkert p 17).
The best known story involving Helios is that of his son Phaethon, who drove the sun chariot to his own disaster.
Helios was sometimes referred to with the epithet Helios Panoptes ("the all-seeing").
The names of the horses were Pyrois, Eos, Aethon and Phlegon.
"The island of Rhodes is almost the only place where Helios enjoys an important cult", Burkert asserts (p 174), instancing a spectacular rite in which a quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, is driven over a precipice into the sea, with its overtones of the plight of Phaethon noted. There annual gymnastic tournaments were held in his honor. The Colossus of Rhodes was dedicated to him.
Helios was often depicted as a haloed youth in a chariot, wearing a cloak and with a globe and a whip. Roosters and eagles were associated with him.
- 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 head 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."
There were kept the sacred red Cattle of the Sun. Though Odysseus warned his men not to, they impiously killed and ate some of the cattle. The guardians of the island, Helios' daughters, told their father. Helios, however, had to appeal to Zeus, who destroyed the ship and all the men save Odysseus.
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. Helios begged him to stop and Heracles demanded the golden cup which Helios used to sail across the sea every night, from the west to the east. Heracles used this golden cup to reach Erytheia.
In one story Aphrodite bedded Ares while having an affair with Hephaestus. Helios spied on them and told Hephaestus who ended up punishing the two lovers. By the Oceanid Perse he became the father of Aeëtes, Circe, and Pasiphae. His other children are Phaethusa ("radiant") and Lampetia ("shining") and Phaethon.
Helios and Apollo
Apollo as he appears in Homer, a plague-dealing god with a silver (not golden) bow, has no solar features. "Different names may refer to the same being," Walter Burkert observes (p 120), "or else they may be consciously equated, as in the case of Apollo and Helios."
The earliest certain reference to Apollo identified with the sun titan 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 here understood to mean Apollon "Destroyer").
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 common references in later European poetry to Phoebus and his car ("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. Roman poets often referred to the sun god as Titan.
- Walter Burkert, 1982. Greek Religion.
- Konrad Schauenburg, 1955. Helios: Archäologisch-mythologische Studien über den antiken (Mann)
- Karl Kerenyi. Apollo: The Wind, the Spirit, and the God: Four Studies