The God Helios in Greek Mythology
The religious rites of Ancient Greece evolved over many hundreds of years, and so it is no surprise to find over time, new gods replacing existing ones. This is most evident with the rise of the Olympian gods, including Zeus, who replaced the existing generation of gods, the Titans.
Surviving stories of Greek mythology tell of the transition of roles as well, and this is evident in the case of Helios, the Greek god of the Sun, who replaced another Sun god, Hyperion.
Helios and his role in the cosmos
Helios was in fact the son of the Titan Hyperion, and his wife, Theia, making him brother to Eos (Dawn) and Selene (Moon).
Upon his birth, Helios would immediately take up the position of sun god, and his role was subsequently to bring light to god and man alike.
In this role, each morning Helios would climb into his golden chariot, in the domain of Oceanus in the east, and from there his four horses, Aethon, Aeos, Pyrois and Phlegon, would pull his chariot across the sky. The journey of Helios’ golden chariot would come to an end in the west, in the far reaches of Oceanus’ domain.
Each night, Helios and his chariot would be transported back to the starting point by a golden ship or cup manufactured by Hephaestus. Alternatively, Helios may have ridden his chariot through a tunnel beneath the wide realm of Oceanus.
Later writers would tell of Helios’ two magnificent palaces found at the start and end point of his daily journey.
The Horses of Helios
Children of Helios
Helios would father a number of famous children, and with his wife, the Oceanid Perse, Helios would be father to Aeetes, Perses, Circe and Pasiphae. Aeetes was the king of Colchis, and father of Medea, whilst Perses was ruler of Persia. Circe and Pasiphae were two sorceresses, the latter being wife of King Minos, and the former being the one time lover of Odysseus.
Other famous children of Helios include the daughters Phaethusa and Lampetia, who would become keepers of their father’s cattle on Thrinacia, and a son called Phaethon. The mothers of these children are not commonly named.
Stories of Helios
Helios is one of the Greek gods who appears regularly in Greek mythological tales.
The daily journey across the sky would allow Helios to observe all that went on below him, and it was Helios who first told Demeter news of the abduction of Persephone. It was also Helios who told Hephaestus of the secret liaisons being undertaken between Aphrodite and Ares.
Helios would be encountered by a number of heroes, and indeed Helios was responsible for the death of many of Odysseus’ crew, after they had eaten his sacred cattle.
Helios was also encountered by the greatest of all Greek heroes, Heracles, during the hero’s quest for the Cattle of Geryon. As Heracles traversed the Libyan Desert, so he became angry at the intense heat emanating from Helios. Heracles then took up his bow and arrows and started to shoot at Helios. To avoid the danger of the arrows, Helios quickly loaned Heracles the use of his Golden cup, so that Heracles could complete the journey more quickly.
The supreme hunter Orion also sought out Helios, and this time the Sun god showed his compassionate side. For at the time, Orion was blind, having been attacked by Oenopion, but Orion was guided to Helios by Cedalion, who subsequently restored the sight of the hunter.
The Competitive Helios
Helios also appears competing against other gods. The Sun god would compete against Poseidon for the right to be the main god of Corinth, and when the possibility of violence between the two gods became a possibility, the Hecatonchire, Briaros, decided that the isthmus of Corinth would be Poseidon’s and the acropolis of Corinth (the Acrocorinth) would be Helios’.
Another contest is told in Aesop’s Fables when Boreas and Helios competed about who was the most powerful. The contest was based on which could get a passing traveller to remove his clothes. Boreas, the North Wind, blew with all his might, but the traveller simply wrapped his clothing tighter around him. Helios though simply made the traveller warmer, and the man willingly removed his clothes; Persuasion besting force.
The Fall of Phaethon
Helios and Phaethon
Arguably the best know story from Greek mythology about Helios involves his son Phaethon. Phaethon would trick Helios into allowing him to guide his sun chariot one day across the sky, but the four horses pulling the chariot recognised the weakness of the charioteer, and so started to play up.
The chariot would rise and fall rapidly, causing some areas of the earth to freeze, and some to burn. Zeus saw the devastation being caused, and threw a lightning bolt to stop the chaos, causing Phaethon and the chariot to crash to earth. Blaming the death of his son on Zeus, Helios would subsequently refuse to undertake his role again. With the world in darkness, people cried out, but it was only after the pleading of many other gods and goddesses that Helios agreed once again to be the Greek sun god.