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HELIOS CULT
 
Greek Name Transliteration Latin Spelling Roman Name
Ἡλιος Hêlios Helius Sol
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Helios General Info. & Myths
Helios God of
Helios Family
Helios Loves
Helios Estate and Attendants

HELIOS was the god of the sun. His two main cult centres were on the island or Rhodes and in the city of Korinthos. He was not widely worshipped outside of these two regions.

The most famous cult statue of the god was the gigantic bronze colossus of Rhodes which stood at the entrance of that island's main harbour. The statue was listed as one of the seven wonders of the world by ancient writers.


GENERAL CULT

White horses were traditionally sacrificed to the sun-god.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 20. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Among the sacrifices they [the Lakedaimonians of Bryseai] offer to Helios are horses. I am aware that the Persians also are wont to offer the same sacrifice."

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1. 31 (trans. Conybeare) (Greek biography C1st to 2nd A.D.) :
"[The C1st A.D. Greek prophet] Apollonios approached and saluted him, the king [of Babylon] was addressed him in the Greek language and invited him to sacrifice with him; and it chanced that he was on the point of sacrificing to Helios the Sun as a victim a horse of the true Nisaian breed, which he had adorned with trappings as if for a triumphal procession. But Apollonios replied : `Do you, O king, go on with your sacrifice, in your own way, but permit me to sacrifice in mine.’
And he took up a handful of frankincense and said : `O thou Helios, send me as far over the earth as is my pleasure and thine, and may I make the acquaintance of good men, but never hear anything of bad ones, nor they of me.’
And with these words he threw the frankincense into the fire, and watched to see how the smoke of it curled upwards, and how it grew turbid, and in how many points it shot up; and in a manner he caught the meaning of the fire, and watched how it appeared of good omen and pure. Then he said : `Now, O king, go on with your sacrifice in accordance with your own traditions, for my traditions are such as you see.’
And he quitted the scene of sacrifice in order not to be present at the shedding of blood."


CULT IN KORINTHIA (SOUTHERN GREECE)

I) KORINTHOS Chief City of Korinthia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 1. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The Korinthians say that Poseidon had a dispute with Helios about the land, and that Briareos arbitrated between them, assigning to Poseidon the Isthmos and the parts adjoining, and giving to Helios the height above the city [the citadel of Akrokorinthos]."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 3. 2 :
"On leaving the market-place [of Korinthos] along the road to Lekhaion you come to a gateway, on which are two gilded chariots, one carrying Phaethon the son of Helios, the other Helios (the Sun) himself."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 4. 5 :
"The Akrokorinthos [at Korinthos] is a mountain peak above the city, assigned to Helios by Briareos when he acted as adjudicator [i.e. between Helios and Poseidon in their contest for Korinthos], and handed over, the Korinthians say, by Helios to Aphrodite. As you go up this Akrokorinthos you see two precincts of Isis, one if Isis surnamed Pelagin (Marine) and the other of Egyptian Isis, and two of Serapis, one of them being of Serapis called Of Kanopos. After these are altars to Helios, and a sanctuary of Ananke (Necessity) and Bia (Force), into which it is not customary to enter."


CULT IN SIKYONIA (SOUTHERN GREECE)

I) SIKYON Chief City of Sikyonia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 11. 1 :
"They [the Sikyonians] say that the sanctuary of Artemis and Apollon [in Sikyon] was made by [the mythical king] Epopeus, and that of Hera after it by [the mythical] Adrastos. I found no images remaining in either. Behind the sanctuary of Hera he [Adrastos] built an altar to Pan, and one to Helios (Sun) made of white marble.[At Sikyon] is built an altar to Pan, and one to Helios (Sun) made of white marble."


CULT IN ARGOLIS (SOUTHERN GREECE)

I) Near MYKENAI Town in Argolis

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 18. 2 :
"A little beyond the Rams--this is the name they give to the tomb of Thyestes--there is on the left a place called Mysia and a sanctuary of Demeter Mysia . . . Further on [on the road from Mykenai to Argos] is a river called Inakhos, and on the other side of it an altar of Helios."

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca E2. 12 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Zeus then sent Hermes to Atreus and told him to get Thyestes to agree that Atreus should rule [Argos], if Helios (the Sun) should journey backwards. Thyestes agreed, and Helios put his setting where he usually rose."
[N.B. The altar of Helios described above, near the tomb of Thyestes, may have been connected with this myth.]

II) TROIZENOS Town in Argolis

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 31. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"They [the people of Troizenos, Argolis] had every reason, it seems to me, for making an altar to Helios Eleutherios (God of Freedom), seeing that they [the Troizenians] escaped being enslaved by Xerxes and the Persians."
[N.B. The altar may have been dedicated to Helios because the Persians worshipped the sun as the first of their gods.]

III) HERMIONE Town in Argolis

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 34. 10 :
"Here the Hermionians had their former city. They still have sanctuaries here: one of Poseidon at the east end of the spit, and a temple of Athena . . . There is also another sanctuary of Athena, of no great size, the roof of which has fallen in. There is a temple to Helios (Sun), another to the Kharites (Graces)."


CULT IN LAKEDAIMONIA(SOUTHERN GREECE)

I) TAINARON Village in Lakedaimonia

Homeric Hymn 3 to Pythian Apollo 408 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th to 4th B.C.) :
"Tainaron [in the Peloponnesos of Greece], sea-garlanded town and country of Helios, who gladdens men, where the thick-fleeced sheep of the lord Helios feed continually and occupy a gladsome country."
[N.B. Sacred flocks dedicated to Helios are also mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey and Herodotus. Cf. Cult of Helios in Illyria below.]

II) BRYSEAI Village in Lakedaimonia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 20. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Above Bryseai [in Lakedaimon] rises Taleton, a peak of Taygetos. They call it sacred to Helios, and among the sacrifices they offer here to Helios are horses. I am aware that the Perisans also are wont to offer the same sacrifice."

III) THALAMAI Village in Lakedaimonia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 26. 1 :
"From Oitylos to Thalamai [in Lakedaimonia] the road is about eighty stades long. On it is a sanctuary of Ino and an oracle. They consult the oracle in sleep, and the goddess reveals whatever they wish to learn, in dreams. Bronze statues of Pasiphae and of Helios (the Sun) stand in the unroofed part of the sanctuary. It was not possible to see the one within the temple clearly, owing to the garlands, but they say this too is of bronze. Water, sweet to drink, flows from a sacred spring. Pasiphae is a title of Selene (the Moon), and is not a local goddess of the people of Thalamai."


CULT IN ELIS (SOUTHERN GREECE)

I) ELIS Chief City of Elis

Pausanias, Description of Greece 6. 24. 6 :
"In another part [of the market-place at Elis] are the stone images of Helios (the Sun) and Selene (the Moon); from the head of Selene project horns, from the head of Helios, his rays."

II) OLYMPIA Sanctuary in Elis

Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 11. 8 :
"[Amongst the images on the throne of Zeus at Olympia :] On the pedestal supporting the throne and Zeus with all his adornments are works in gold: [including] Helios mounted on a chariot."


CULT IN ARKADIA (SOUTHERN GREECE)

I) MEGALOPOLIS Chief City of Arkadia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 31. 7 :
"Within the enclosure of the goddesses [Demeter and Kore in Megalopolis] are the following images, which all have a square shape: Hermes, surnamed Agetor, Apollon, Athena, Poseidon, Helios (Sun) too, surnamed Soter (Saviour), and Herakles."

II) MANTINEIA Village in Arkadia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 9. 4 :
"Near the altar of Hera [in Mantineia] is the grave of Arkas, the son of Kallisto. The bones of Arkas they brought from Mainalos, in obedience to an oracle delivered to them from Delphoi . . . This place, where the grave of Arcas is, they call Altars of Helios (the Sun)."

III) KLEONAI Village in Arkadia

Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 11. 5 :
"The inhabitants of Kleonai were [in history], like the Athenians, afflicted with the plague, and obeying an oracle from Delphoi sacrificed a he-goat to Helios (the sun) while it was still rising. This put an end to the trouble, and so they sent a bronze he-goat to Apollon [i.e. to the shrine at Delphoi]."


CULT IN ILLYRIA (NORTH OF GREECE)

I) APOLLONIA Town in Illyria (Greek Colony)

Herodotus, Histories 9. 93. 1 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.) :
"There is at Apollonia [in Illyria] a certain flock sacred to Helios (the Sun), which in the daytime is pastured beside the river Khon, which flows from the mountain called Lakmon through the lands of Apollonia and empties into the sea by the harbor of Orikon. By night, those townsmen who are most notable for wealth or lineage are chosen to watch it, each man serving for a year, for the people of Apollonia set great store by this flock, being so taught by a certain oracle. It is kept in a cave far distant from the town. Now at the time of which I speak, Evenios was the chosen watchman. But one night he fell asleep, and wolves, coming past his guard into the cave, killed about sixty of the flock. When Evenios was aware of it, he held his peace and told no man, intending to restore what was lost by buying others. This matter was not, however, hidden from the people of Apollonia, and when it came to their knowledge they brought him to judgment and condemned him to lose his eyesight for sleeping at his watch. So they blinded Evenios, but from the day of their so doing their flocks bore no offspring, nor did their land yield fruit as before. Furthermore, a declaration was given to them at Dodona and Delphoi, when they inquired of the prophets what might be the cause of their present ill : the gods told them by their prophets that they had done unjustly in blinding Evenios, the guardian of the sacred flock, `for we ourselves' (they said) `sent those wolves, and we will not cease from avenging him until you make him such restitution for what you did as he himself chooses and approves; when that is fully done, we ourselves will give Evenios such a gift as will make many men consider him happy.'"


CULT IN RHODES (GREEK AEGEAN)

I) RHODOS Chief Town of Rhodes Island

Strabo, Geography 14. 2. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The city of the Rhodians lies on the eastern promontory of Rhodes . . . [and it] has been adorned with many votive offerings . . . The best of these are, first, the Kolossos (Colossus) of Helios, of which the author of the iambic verse says, 'seven times ten cubits in height, the work of Khares the Lindian;' but it now lies on the ground, having been thrown down by an earthquake and broken at the knees. In accordance with a certain oracle, the people did not raise it again. This, then, is the most excellent of the votive offerings, at any rate, it is by common agreement one of the Seven Wonders."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 223 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Seven Wonders of the World. The bronze statue of Sol [Helios] at Rhodes, which is colossal, being 90 feet hight."

Suidas s.v. Kolassaeis (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Kolassaeis (Colassaeans) : The Rhodians, who erected on the island a bronze statue of Helios the sun, which because of its size they called Kolossos, in the reign of Seleukos son of Nikanor, successor of Alexander the Great. In Epigrams : `For you yourself the habitants of Dorian Rhodos did stretch out this Kolossos towards Olympos, O Helios (Sun), a bronze one, when having laid to sleep the wave of Enyo (War) they garlanded the fatherland with the spoils of their ill-wishers.'"

Suidas s.v. Aleion :
"Aleion (or Haleion) : The shrine of Helios at Rhodes. It means water."
[N.B. Haleion properly means of Halios, or Helios, the sun.]


Sources:

  • The Homeric Hymns - Greek Epic C8th-4th B.C.
  • Herodotus, Histories - Greek History C5th B.C.
  • Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
  • Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic C3rd B.C.
  • Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
  • Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana - Greek Biography C2nd A.D.
  • Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
  • Suidas - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.