While Helios, the Titan god of the sun, plays a role in several stories of Greek mythology, it is rarely similar to the one he plays in Homer’s Odyssey.
Rather than being a passive observer or involved only in the affairs of the god, Helios serves as a primary antagonist during one of the hero’s misadventures. In other stories, he rarely shows anger, or even interacts with humans at all, but when Odysseus’s men kill some of his sacred cattle the sun god demands an act of terrible revenge.
To keep Helios from inflicting even greater damage on the world, Zeus agrees to destroy the Greek king’s last ship. All of his crew are killed and Odysseus is lost at sea, directly leading to another seven years of delays.
While this aspect of Helios is seemingly at odds with his characterization in other myths, there are close parallels to another legend of the same era. The favor Helios extends to Hercules is seemingly closely related to the anger he directs toward Odysseus.
Helios was the Greek god of the sun. One of the younger Titans, he had been welcomed into the pantheon of Mount Olympus along with his sister, the lunar goddess Selene.
Helios drove his chariot across the sky each day, lighting up the sky with his radiance.
From his position in the sky, Helios could see everything that happened both on Earth and on Mount Olympus. His most typical role in many myths was as an observer with information about the secrets of the gods.
For example, it was Helios who told Hephaestus that Ares and Aphrodite were having an affair when he saw the god of war sneak into their palace. When Persephone was abducted, only Helios saw that it was Hades who had taken the goddess away.
Helios is usually shown as a helpful and well-meaning god. In the Odyssey, however, his role is much different. He is one of the hero’s antagonists, and his anger with Odysseus leads to one of the voyage’s greatest tragedies.
In addition to advising him on the best way to get past Scylla and Charybdis, Circe wanted him of a less obvious danger he would face on the island of Thrinacia.
The island, she said, was home to a large herd of cattle. Although the men would be tempted by fresh meat, she insisted that they must not attempt to slaughter any of the animals.
The herd belonged to Helios, and the all-seeing god would immediately know if any of them came to harm. Circe foretold that Odysseus would lose his men and his ship if the herd of Helios came to any harm.
Odysseus passed the warning along to his men, and commanded them to ignore their hunger and not harm a single cow. When he went to rest, however, his crew disobeyed his order and butchered a few of the sacred cattle of the sun.
Lampetia and Phaethusa, the daughters of Helios who guarded the island, ran to tell their father what had happened.
Helios went to Zeus for justice. He threatened the king of the gods that if the crew of the ship was not punished, he would shine the light of the sun into the Underworld instead of on Earth, disrupting the entire balance of life and death.
When Odysseus awoke, he knew the crew was already doomed by their decision to kill the cattle of Helios. The gods sent a further sign when the meat on the spit began to move and bellow, but the hungry men ate the cattle for another six days while a storm kept them on the island.
When Odysseus and his crew set sail again, Zeus struck their ship with a bolt of lightning as he had promised Helios he would. The ship was sunk and everyone on board was killed except Odysseus himself, who had been the only one to not take eat any of the cattle of Helios.
The shipwrecked king eventually washed ashore on another island, this one belonging to the nymph Calliope. There he would be kept for seven full years, believing there was no way to leave.
The cattle of Thrinacia were not the only involvement Helios had in the story of Odysseus, however.
Circe had known how the sun god would react to the slaughter of his cattle because of a personal connection. The great enchantress who became Odysseus’s lover was, in fact, another of the daughters of Helios.
The Odyssey is one of the few instances in written mythology in which Helios shows exceptional anger toward a human.
The sun god rarely showed favor toward mankind either. In most stories his is either concerned with the affairs of the gods or completely removed from the narrative.
Helios does not even play a role in the Iliad, Homer’s other epic which directly precedes the Odyssey. Yet in the story of Odysseus he plays a fairly prominent role as both an antagonist and the father of an important figure.
Interestingly, another of the sun god’s most prominent stories involving a human hero was written in the same era as the Odyssey. In the 8th century BC, the story of Helios lending a cup-shaped boat to Hercules to reach the cattle of Geryon was first recorded.
In both of these early stories, the normally uninvolved sun god is active, whether as a helper or antagonist, in a story involving the theft of cattle.
Historians have suggested that both the Odyssey and the stories of Hercules are based on much more ancient pre-Greek legends. While the god of the sun is not a key player in later narratives, he plays a key role in what are considered to be two of the oldest heroic legends in Greek mythology.
This suggests that both stories were told at a time when the sun god was more central to mythology. By the time the first stories of the Trojan War were passed down he had faded from prominence, but in the older tale of a sailor lost at sea for ten years the sun god had an important role.
Sun gods are one of the major archetypes of ancient religion, although the prominence of Helios was diminished in Greece specifically. This again supports this idea that the legend of Odysseus predated many parts of the Greek pantheon.
In both stories, the god of the sun is associated with cattle as well. He is the owner of those stolen from Thrinacia, but helps Hercules to steal the cattle belonging to the giant, Geryon.
Geryon kept his cattle on the island of the Hesperides, a group of nymphs who were also occasionally said to be the daughters of Helios. Hercules needed the sun god’s help to reach the island because it was far in the west, on the opposite banks of Oceanus, in the land of the sunset.
Geryon was the son of a golden giant. This together with his herd in the far west may give him an association with the sun as well.
The role of Helios in the Odyssey seems unusual in the broader context of Greek mythology, but when compared to the story of Hercules and the cattle of Geryon there are many parallels.
Both stories, it would seem, come from a tradition in which the sun god is connected to cattle and herding. This in itself is not usual since many gods had such herds and the watchful sun god made for a natural guardian of livestock.
And both stories appear to have been told in a culture, presumably pre-Greek, in which the sun god was more actively involved in human affairs than the Titan Helios generally was.
Some parallels may exist in the story of Gilgamesh and other Near Eastern religions, but there is not even evidence to definitively link the particular scenes in Greek mythology. The Helios of the Odyssey and the quests of Hercules, however, almost certainly comes from a tradition outside that of other depictions of the sun in Greek mythology.
In most stories of Greek mythology, Helios observes everything from his position in the sky but rarely takes an active role beyond passing on information. When he does play a part in a story, he is usually concerned only with the affairs of the gods rather than the actions of mortals.
Homer’s Odyssey, however, shows Helios in a much different light, however. Here the sun god is a direct antagonist who demands the destruction of the ship and its entire crew as revenge for slaughtering a few of his sacred cattle.
Odysseus is the only one to escape this vengeance because he alone heeded the warning to not eat the cattle of Helios.
The active role of Helios is different from how he is shown in most Greek myths, but parallels at least one other early story.
In the labors of Hercules, Helios gives the hero aid in a quest to steal a herd of cattle from the land of the setting sun.
Both the story of Odysseus and that of Hercules are believed to have origination in pre-Greek culture. The active involvement of Helios, especially in the similar context of the theft of cattle, is evidence that both stories existed in a culture with a more active and powerful sun god than was known in later Greek mythology.