Who Is Helios in The Odyssey?

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

This lesson will introduce you the character of Helios from Homer's ''Odyssey.'' You may be surprised at just what sort of character the Greeks made out of their original sun god.

An Unimpressive Sun God

From a modern, scientific perspective, the sun is an awe-inspiring, nuclear fusion furnace of immense power. It is the center point of our planetary system, our solar system, and the source of life on earth. When we think of ancient religions, we often use our associations with the Egyptians, the Incas, and even many North American native traditions, and conclude the sun was the main deity and the center of worship.

So it may come as a surprise to many of us when Helios, the original sun god in the Greek tradition, crops up in Homer's Odyssey as a sort of spoiled brat godling who pleads to fellow gods and Zeus himself to take care of business when his godly toes are stepped on by Odysseus' crew. Who would have thought the sun god could turn out to be such a wimp in a major work of western literature?

Incident at Thrinakia

Helios, Charioteer of the Sky
Helios

In Book XII of The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men approach Thrinakia, the island where the cattle and sheep precious to Helios are kept and watched over by his daughters, Phaethusa and Lampetia. Helios embodies the sun as a charioteer, crossing the sky, from east to west between earthly points, to bring daylight. After a series of trying adventures and deadly encounters, Odysseus' crew is looking for a bit of down time.

Though Odysseus has been warned on multiple occasions and in no uncertain terms to avoid the island, he permits the ship to land there against his better judgment in order to provide the men rest and a meal on dry land. Their intended overnighter is drawn out to a month, however, thanks to a sudden, violent storm (presumably conjured up by Poseidon, Odysseus' ongoing nemesis).

Odysseus and his crew have all sworn to abide by one specific rule while on the island--leave the livestock alone! Everyone should know better. How could they not? But somehow they don't, and Eurylochus convinces the rest of the ill-fated crew to slay and cook the best from Helios' sacred herd. He promises they'll set up a temple to Helios once they arrive back home and shower him with honor. Not smart. They've been warned. In no uncertain terms!

Lampetia informs Helios of the violation, and he pleads up the chain of command for an Olympic-style intervention. Zeus complies to Helios' request, and when Odysseus and company depart from the island, their ship is struck with a bolt of lightning, killing all aboard except Odysseus.

The Sun Personified

So again, if the ancient gods represent natural forces, then this set of relationships feels highly unnatural from a modern perspective. Helios, the sun, is attached to land, and is an inferior force to the sky god, who rules over all. Rather than acting directly against Odysseus and his crew, Helios essentially throws a tantrum, complaining that his pretty cattle are his favorite things to look at as he crosses the sky. He extorts action from the Olympian pantheon by threatening to bring light to the dead in the underworld if the violators are not punished. This seems to be an indirect way of saying he will remove his light from the living earth forever.

That the sun as a natural force is so diminished in the personality of Helios gives us insights into the mindset of anthropomorphism--attributing human behaviors to non-human beings, forces, or things--in the Greek epic tradition. While Helios is grounded, in a sense, by his attachment to the island, he is also a removed presence, indirect and passive, completely unlike the sun as we know it through astrophysics. Zeus, on the other hand, is violent and active, suggesting that the more immediate impact of thunder and lightning converted itself into a more powerful and dominating personality in the Greek mind.

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