Helios in ancient Greek religion and myth is the god and personification of the Sun.
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).
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“. 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 assimilation of the worship of Helios and Mithras.
He 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“, 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.”
Archaic and Classical Greece
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, all the evidence shows that Helios and Selene were minor gods to the Greeks.
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.
In Plato’s Republic (516 B), Helios, the Sun, is the symbolic offspring of the idea of the Good.
Conflation with Apollo
He 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 (“bright”), the epithet was 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.
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
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.”
He 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.