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Detail from card 44 of the Mantegna Tarocchi, depicting Helios the sun god of Greek mythology and his chariot, from the Uffizi gallery in Florence. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Deciphering the Role of Helios, the Sun God of Greek Mythology

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An unpunished second-generation Titan of Greek mythology, Helios was a deity who was important, but not always recognized for his powers. Until his role was usurped by a newer god, Helios was the deity of the life-giving, season-changing sun. He appeared in artwork riding his horse-drawn chariot across the sky and was a firsthand witness to several major events in the lives of other gods and goddesses. Nevertheless, Helios the sun god was generally depicted as existing in the background, bearing witness to everything going on both on Earth and in the heavens as he made sure to follow his daily routine.

Detail from card 44 of the Mantegna Tarocchi, depicting Helios the sun god of Greek mythology and his chariot, from the Uffizi gallery in Florence. ( Public domain )

Titans, Nymphs, Kings, and Oceanids: Helios’ Extensive Family

Helios’ parents were the Titans Hyperion, god of light, and Theia, goddess of sight. His sisters were  Selene (the Moon) and Eos (Dawn). Born, or created, in what is called the Golden Age of Greek Mythology, Helios was responsible for bringing light to the world as the god of the sun . That role would gradually be usurped over time.

Within the legends of Greek mythology, the lovers of the god Helios include Perse, an Oceanid water-nymph whom some sources call his wife, and Clymene, as well as the nymphs Crete and Rhodes. His daughters with Perse include the famed sorceresses  Circe, a lover to Odysseus, and  Pasiphae, King Minos of Crete’s wife.

His two sons with Perse were King Aietes (Aeete) of Kolchis (Colchis) and King Perses of Persia. Phaethon was his son born from Helios’ relationship with Clymene and he had three (or five) daughters with her, known collectively as the Heliades . The sun god also had seven sons with Rhode, and a daughter named Electryone.

These sons were said to have been smarter and stronger than any other men and soon became the rulers of Rhodes. Three of the main cities, Ialysos, Cameiros, and Lindos, are said to be named for three of his sons. Meanwhile, two of his nymph daughters, Lampetia and Phaethusa, were in charge of overseeing his cattle on Thrinacia.

Helios the sun god of Greek mythology on a red-figure calyx-krater from circa 430 BC. (British Museum / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Helios the sun god of Greek mythology on a red-figure calyx-krater from circa 430 BC. (British Museum / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Helios in Art – How Did the Ancients Depict the Greek Sun God?

Helios appeared in all kinds of Greek art. Generally depicted as a young man wearing a crown of the sun’s rays, or with bright, curly hair, his piercing eyes reflect the legends of his all-seeing gaze. Within ancient Greek depiction the sun god Helios is usually clothed in a garment fit for a god. A simpler Greek symbol for Helios is a large, haloed eye.

The poet who authored the 31st Homeric Hymn presents a beautiful description of the sun deity’s appearance in artwork:

“As he rides in his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind: and stallions carry him.”

Usually the sun god is shown riding his golden chariot at the edge or in the background of someone else’s scene. His chariot is drawn by four-winged horses, or sometimes dragons, and he is sometimes accompanied by one or both of his sisters.

The image of the sun god Helios has been identified in several examples of Greek pottery dating to the 5th and 6th centuries BC. For example, Helios is depicted on a red-figure calyx-krater from about 430 BC, in which boys symbolizing the stars fall towards the ocean as he approaches. He’s also represented in some  Heracles scenes on 6th century BC black-figure and 5th century BC red-figure pottery.

The Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbor, the 1886 painting by Ferdinand Knab. (Public domain)

The Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbor, the 1886 painting by Ferdinand Knab. (Public domain )

The most famous example of Helios in art, however, was the Colossus of Rhodes . This massive standing figure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World . It was constructed between 304 and 280 BC, but toppled over during an Earthquake in either 228 or 226 BC. Coins from Rhodes also presented their patron deity for centuries. Some notable historic figures also took on the likeness of the Greek sun god in their portraits.  Alexander the Great  and the  Roman emperors Vespasian and Nero  all desired to be seen as incarnations of a sun god.

Alexander the Great depicted as Helios, the ancient Greek sun god. Roman copy after a Hellenistic original dating back to between the 3rd and 2nd century BC. (Capitoline Museums / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Alexander the Great depicted as Helios, the ancient Greek sun god. Roman copy after a Hellenistic original dating back to between the 3rd and 2nd century BC. (Capitoline Museums / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Helios and his Daily Journey Across the Sky

The most important ancient Greek myth of Helios is his daily journey. The ancient Greeks believed that there was  a golden chariot  of the sun that was so bright that human eyes could not bear to gaze upon it. For them, that chariot was driven from the east (Ethiopia) to the west (Hesperides) across the sky every day by the sun god Helios.

The journey was difficult, and it was believed that Helios was a skilled charioteer to be able to not fly too close or distant from the Earth. Helios’ daily trip across the sky began when his sister Eos (as dawn) threw open the gates of his beautiful eastern palace. He set off with his four-winged horses, known as Aethon, Aeos, Pyrois, and Phlegon. The long travel had a steep ascent, peaked around midday, and then steeply descended towards his western palace, where his nephew, Hesperus (evening) awaited him.

To return to the eastern palace, Helios was believed to have sailed under the world via the northerly stream of the realm of Oceanus with his horses and chariot in a golden boat (or large cup/goblet, or bed) created by  the master smith and deity, Hephaestus . While Helios was hidden in Oceanus,  Selene, the moon goddess , took her turn to cross the sky.

Three paintings by Anton Raphael Mengs showing three deities of Greek mythology as personifications of the times of the day. From left to right: Helios (or sun god Apollo) personifying Day, Hesperus embodying Evening, and Selene (or Diana, Luna) personifying Night or the Moon. (Public domain)

Three paintings by Anton Raphael Mengs showing three deities of Greek mythology as personifications of the times of the day. From left to right: Helios (or sun god Apollo) personifying Day, Hesperus embodying Evening, and Selene (or Diana, Luna) personifying Night or the Moon. ( Public domain )

Minor Roles for Helios in Greek Myths

Another well-known myth involving Helios was when his son almost destroyed the Earth. A popular version of the Greek myth of Phaethon says that the young man wanted proof that the sun was his father, so he went east to test the deity and ask him for a gift. Helios agreed to give his son whatever the youth wanted, but was distressed to discover Phaethon wanted to take a turn driving the golden sun chariot across the sky. He reluctantly consented and that favor turned into a disaster.

Phaethon could not control  the winged horses  and spun out of control, hurtling too far and too close to the Earth. Some of the world froze and other parts were set on fire as Phaethon struggled to control the chariot. But it was too much for him and as the gods watched the chaos unfold it was decided that something must be done before the Earth was destroyed.

Zeus saw no other option than to strike Phaethon down with a thunderbolt. The gods had to beg Helios to return to his work following the death of his son, but the sun god eventually agreed. And Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, were in such despair due to their brother’s death that their tears turned into amber and they became poplar trees.

Cancer from Jacob Jordaens’ allegorical paintings of the Signs of the Zodiac depicts the fall of Phaethon after his father, Helios the sun god, lets him ride his chariot. (Public domain)

Cancer from Jacob Jordaens’ allegorical paintings of the Signs of the Zodiac depicts the fall of Phaethon after his father, Helios the sun god, lets him ride his chariot. ( Public domain )

Helios played a minor role in many Greek myths . For example, his power to see everything on Earth and in the heavens made him an eyewitness to the  abduction of Persephone by Hades  and the affair between  Aphrodite and Ares .

He sometimes offered his assistance to other characters in Greek myth, such as when he allowed his granddaughter Medea to flee on his chariot after  she murdered her children . The sun god also lent his golden ship/cup to Heracles when the Greek hero had to cross Oceanus and capture the cattle of Geryon. Helios rescued his friend Hephaestus from the battlefield during the Gigantomachy and restored Orion’s eyesight after he was blinded by Oenipion as well. The Earth mother goddess, Gaia, also sought his aid in warming and drying her when the land had been frozen by the remains of Typhon.

But Helios also showed his vengeful side when he appeared in the epic Greek tale,  the Odyssey. After Odysseus’ men fed upon Helios’ sacred cattle, he was so angered he had Zeus strike Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt. Odysseus was the only survivor of the attack.

The Cult of the Sun God Helios

In Classical Greece, Helios was openly worshipped in Rhodes, where he was considered their patron deity from at least the early 5th century BC. Legends said that Helios was the first to see the island emerge from the waters and claimed it as his own. The island’s name came from Helios’ nymph lover, Rhodos. Every five years the island held  Panhellenic games , called the Halieia, and a chariot and four horses were thrown into the sea as an offering to Helios.

While he was worshiped on Rhodes, it seems that Helios was not a major cult deity in the rest of ancient Greece. Temples of worship have not been mentioned to any extent, perhaps due to a belief that barbarians had built temples of worship to the sun. Nonetheless, his name was invoked in serious oaths and  Plato wrote  that Socrates and others would greet and pray to the sun every day.

Apollo and the Sun Chariot, by Pinckney Marcius-Simons. (Public domain)

Apollo and the Sun Chariot, by Pinckney Marcius-Simons. ( Public domain )

Helios vs Apollo and Sol – Who was the Real Sun God of Greek Mythology?

The Greek Titans fell, and the Olympians arose. Helios was not punished after  the Titanomachy , but ancient Greeks pushed his role as the sun god towards someone else – Apollo. It seems that the radiant and pure  god Apollo  began to gradually take over the role of sun god beginning around the 5th century BC. By the Hellenistic period the transition was almost complete, and Apollo and Helios had become almost synonymous.

Top image: Detail from Helios on His Chariot, a 17th century depiction of Helios the sun god of Greek mythology, by Hans Adam Weissenkircher. Source: Public domain

By Alicia McDermott





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