top of page

Hellas and Helios

The Ancient Greek word Hellas (Ἑλλάς, Ellás) is the original word for Greece, from which the word Hellenistic was derived. The Ancient Greek word Ἑλληνιστής (Hellēnistḗs) means “one who uses the Greek language”).

The name Hellas comes from Ἕλληνες (Héllēnes, “Greeks”), most probably a derivation of Ἑλλοί (Helloí) or Σελλοί (Selloí), the Greek inhabitants of the area around the sanctuary of Dodona (Δωδώνη), itself of pre-Greek origin.

In Greek mythology, Hellen (Ancient Greek: Ἕλλην Hellēn means “bright”) was the progenitor of the Hellenes (Ἕλληνες). His name is also another name for Greek, meaning a person of Greek descent or pertaining to Greek culture, and the source of the adjective “Hellenic”.

In Greek mythology Héllēn, whom the Ἕλληνες (Héllēnes, “Greeks”) were named after, was the son of Δευκαλίων (Deukalíōn), or sometimes Zeus, and Πύρρα (Púrrha), the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora and wife of Deucalion of whom she had three sons, Hellen, Amphictyon, Orestheus; and three daughters Protogeneia, Pandora II and Thyia.

Folk etymology derives the name Deukalíōn from Ancient Greek deûkos, a variation of gleûkos (“sweet new wine”) and halieús (“sailor”), from (háls) and the word pyrrhus from red from the Greek adjective purrhos (i.e. “flame coloured”, “the colour of fire”, “fiery red” or simply “red” or “reddish”). Pyrrha was evidently named after her red hair as Horace and Ovid describes her as red haired.

In Greek mythology, Deucalion was the son of Prometheus; ancient sources name his mother as Clymene, Hesione, or Pronoia. He is closely connected with the flood myth in Greek mythology. Like the Biblical Noah and the Mesopotamian counterpart Utnapishtim, he uses his device to survive the deluge with his wife, Pyrrha.

Helios is god and personification of the Sun in Hellenistic religion. He is often depicted in art as a handsome young man with a radiant crown, the shining aureole of the Sun. He drow a horse-drawn chariot of the sun across the sky each day to earth-circling Oceanus and through the world-ocean returned to the East at night.

Helios 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.” 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.

Helios 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.” By Hellenistic times Apollo had become closely connected with the Sun in cult. Phoebus (“bright, shining”), the epithet most commonly given to Apollo, was later applied by Latin poets to the sun-god Sol.

Helios is also sometimes conflated in classical literature with the highest Olympian god, Zeus. He is referred either directly as Zeus’ eye, or clearly implied to be. For instance, Hesiod effectively describes Zeus’s eye as the Sun. This perception is possibly derived from earlier Proto-Indo-European religion, in which the sun is believed to have been envisioned as the eye of *Dyḗus Pḥatḗr.

The Etruscan god of the Sun, equivalent to Helios, was Usil. However, while Usil is depicted as male in some artwork, there are also feminine depictions. In particular, there is a possible equation with another indigenous Etruscan goddess, Catha, which is often interpreted as having a solar character.

Catha is a female Etruscan lunar or solar deity, who may also be connected to childbirth, and has a connection to the underworld. She is also the goddess of the south sanctuary at Pyrgi, Italy. She is often seen with the Etruscan god Śuri with whom she shares a cult. She is also frequently paired with the Etruscan god Fufluns, who is the counterpart to the Greek god Dionysus, and Pacha, the counterpart to the Roman god Bacchus.

Additionally, at Pyrgi, Catha is linked with the god Aplu, the counterpart to the Greek god Apollo. Aplu may have even taken some of the characteristics of Catha when he was brought into the Etruscan religion. Giovanni Colonna has suggested that Catha is linked to the Greek Persephone since he links Catha’s consort, Suri, to Dis Pater in Roman mythology.

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.

Helios is frequently equated not only with deities such as Mithras and Harpocrates, but even with the monotheistic Judaeo-Christian god. 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.

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.

Helios is also assimilated with Mithras in some of the Papyri, as he was by Emperor Julian, the last pagan emperor of Rome, who made Helios the primary deity of his revived pagan religion, which combined elements of Mithraism with Neoplatonism.

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.

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 god of silence, secrets and confidentiality in the Hellenistic religion.

Harpocrates was adapted by the Greeks from the Egyptian child god Horus, who represented the newborn sun, rising each day at dawn. His name was a Hellenization of the Egyptian Har-pa-khered or Heru-pa-khered, meaning “Horus the Child”.

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.

The Greek ἥλιος is the inherited word for the Sun, from Proto-Indo-European *seh₂u-el, which is cognate with Latin sol, Sanskrit surya, Old English swegl, Old Norse sól, Welsh haul, Avestan hvar, etc. The female offspring of Helios were called Heliades (Greek: Ἡλιάδες, “children of the sun”), the daughters of Helios and Clymene the Oceanid.

The name Helen is thought to share this etymology, and may express an early alternate personification of the sun among Hellenic peoples. While the predominance of Helios in Sparta is currently unclear, it seems Helen was the local solar deity.

Helen of Troy, also known as Helen of Sparta, was said to have been the most beautiful woman. She was believed to have been the daughter of Zeus and Leda. She was married to King Menelaus of Sparta but was abducted by Prince Paris of Troy after the goddess Aphrodite promised her to him in the Judgement of Paris.

This resulted in the Trojan War when the Achaeans set out to reclaim her. The fall of Troy came to represent a fall from an illustrious heroic age, remembered for centuries in oral tradition before being written down.

The origins of Helen’s myth date back to the Mycenaean age. Her name first appears in the poems of Homer, but scholars assume that such myths derive from earlier Mycenaean Greek sources.

Her mythological birthplace was Sparta of the Age of Heroes, which features prominently in the canon of Greek myth: in later ancient Greek memory, the Mycenaean Bronze Age became the age of the Greek heroes. The kings, queens, and heroes of the Trojan Cycle are often related to the gods, since divine origins gave stature to the Greeks’ heroic ancestors.

5 views0 comments
bottom of page