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Morpheus: The God of Dreams

by August 28, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Mythology often personifies aspects of nature and life, transferring these elements into gods. It should be no surprise then that our state of repose – something we do for a third of our life – is no exception. In the Greek world, the god of dreams was Morpheus and in some stories and fables he is also associated with sleep or unconsciousness.
He was the son of the god of Sleep, Hypnos, and his mother was Pasithea, the goddess of relaxation but also paradoxically of hallucinations. Moreover, his grandmother was Nyx, the fearsome deity of Night. All of these ‘gods’ contribute and culminate in the characteristics that we associate with dreaming.
Morpheus Sleeping

A painting of Morpheus sleeping in his cave, by Jean-Bernard Restout

Morpheus: The Dream-maker
Hypnos had many children, but he selected Morpheus to be the god of Dreams because of his uncanny ability to assume forms and mimic living beings.
Morpheus was assisted by the Oneiroi (Greek for Dreams) who were all his brothers. They helped him to create the dreams of humans. One sibling, Icelus, made the dreams seem real, while another, Phobetor, was responsible for phobic or terrifying dreams. Then Phantasus, the third brother, created fantastic and surreal dreams. Morpheus was their leader. As a result, he ensured that he alone oversaw the dreams of monarchs and heroes. Moreover, he could even appear to the Gods in Olympus. Unlike his brothers, all of Morpheus’ dreams were true and many prophetic.
Asleep with his half brother

The god of sleep and his half-brother death, by John William Waterhouse

Morpheus is derived from the Greek for ‘form’ or ‘shape’. He came to people in sleep and assumed the forms that people dreamt. Morpheus was an artist of dreams, he could shape images and visions and make them seem alive. He could perfectly imitate a person, their voice, their walk, mannerism, and moods. There was one limitation to Morpheus; he could only transform himself into a male figure.
In the arms of Morpheus
The Ancient Greeks had a saying regarding the ‘arms of Morpheus’. When in the embrace of the god, an individual would enjoy deep, peaceful sleep; they would also dream. These were dreams about the future and upcoming events.
Morpheus did not merely make people dream of simple and everyday things. He was doing so much more. Morpheus was a messenger of the gods and he was transmitting, through dreams, messages from the divinities. The Greeks, and later the Romans, believed that many dreams were portents and omens. As a result, the god of dreams was a very important figure in the classical world and was highly revered.
In the arms of Morpheus

A 19TH Century painting of a girl in the arms of Morpheus

Messenger of the Gods
Morpheus was a winged being. He had two wings on his back that allowed him to travel great distances and at great speed. This allowed him to visit so many bedrooms at night. These wings were a gift from his uncle, Thanthos, the god of Death and one of the most powerful of all the ancient deities. Some Greeks believed that Morpheus was possibly a messenger of death and that he could appear to predict the death of a person.
The god of dreams was very protective of his family. His father, the god of sleep, enjoyed tricking Zeus, which meant he often incurred the wrath of the king of gods. Morpheus would carry Hypnos to safety to a place known to the Greeks as the Dream World.

Fresco in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence: Charon’s boat, the sleep of Night and Morpheus by Luca Giordano (1684–1686)

The Dream World of Morpheus
The place where Morpheus and his family lived was known as the Dream World of Morpheus. Here the god of sleep, his wife and their many children lived. When not appearing to humans in the form of dreams, Morpheus would sleep. A lot. According to the stories, his bedroom was a cave and it was filled with poppy seeds. This was used in ancient times to produce primitive pain killers, which caused drowsiness. The drug morphine is derived from Morpheus.
The only entrance to the world was through the Gates of Morpheus. The River of Forgetfulness and the River of Oblivion, two characteristics of sleep and dreams, were found in Morpheus’ Dream World. The realm of dreams was guarded by two monsters who would appear when any man or god came close to the rivers. However, the Olympian Gods, such as Apollo and Zeus, were allowed to enter the Dream World of Morpheus.
Morpheus: Minor but Powerful
Morpheus was among the busiest of the Gods, as he was constantly forming dreams for men and deities. In most version of the myths, he did not have a partner like most of the other gods, presumably because he was too busy. Some interpretations of the myth have him as the husband of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and another messenger of the Gods.
Morepheus and Iris

Morpheus awakening as Iris draws near by René-Antoine Houasse (1690)

Morpheus was one of the minor gods, but he was very powerful. This is because he personified the importance of dreams in life and their often hidden messages and insights. The myth of Morpheus allowed the Greeks and Romans to understand dreams and the role that they play in life. The god of dreams still fascinates writers to this day. A character in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, Sandman often assumes the name of the deity, and perhaps most famously, the character Morpheus in the Matrix was inspired by the son of Hypnos.

The Greek Gods of the Countryside

by July 8, 2019

Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena… these are just a few of the names that Greek mythology lovers know, as they are no doubt aware of the standard Greek pantheon, the Olympians. They get all the air time, after all, with their epic tales of love, murder, incest, revenge…and everything in between.
The Titans, likewise, grab headlines with their creation stories… They gave fire to man, hold up the earth, and father the sun, the moon and the dawn.
While these deities were held in high esteem by the ancients, the Greeks also worshipped smaller, kinder, more…natural gods – the gods of the countryside. Not surprisingly, these represent water, trees and beasts. Some of these you will have heard about, but others, perhaps, are a little less known:
1. Pan
Pan and Daphnis

Pan teaching his eromenos, the shepherd Daphnis, to play the pan flute, Roman copy of Greek original c. 100 BCE, found in Pompeii

This satyr-god is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, and can often be seen with flute in hand. Being a rustic god of mountain wilds, Pan was not worshipped in temples or other built edifices, but in natural settings, usually caves or grottoes such as the one on the north slope of the Acropolis of Athens. Pan is connected to fertility and the season of spring. The ancient Greeks also considered Pan to be the god of theatrical criticism.
The worship of Pan began in Arcadia which was always the principal seat of his worship. Arcadia was a district of mountain people, culturally separated from other Greeks and Arcadian hunters used to scourge the statue of the god if they had been disappointed in the chase.
The word panic ultimately derives from the god’s name, as his angry shouts determined victories.
2. Naiads
Painting of Naiad

A Naiad by John William Waterhouse, 1893; a water nymph approaches the sleeping Hylas.

A type of female spirit, this nymph presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.
Naiads were often the object of archaic local cults, worshipped as essential to humans. Boys and girls at coming-of-age ceremonies dedicated their childish locks to the local naiad of the spring. In places like Lerna their waters’ ritual cleansings were credited with magical medical properties. Animals were ritually drowned there. Oracles might be situated by ancient springs.
The Naiads are distinct from river gods as well as salt water gods.
3. Nereids
Nereid Sculpture

Nereid riding a sea-bull (latter 2nd century BC)

Sea nymphs were female spirits of sea waters. The Nereids often accompany Poseidon, the god of the sea, and can be friendly and helpful to sailors, like the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. Famous examples include the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris, sisters to Nerites.
4. Oceanids

Les Oceanides Les Naiades de la mer. Gustave Doré, 1860s

Also called Oceanides, they are the nymphs who were the three thousand (a number interpreted as meaning “innumerable”) daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. The Oceanid nymphs were associated with water, as the personification of springs. Hesiod says they are “dispersed far and wide” and everywhere “serve the earth and the deep waters”.
5. Dryads

The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan.

A tree nymph or tree spirit in Greek mythology, Drys signifies “oak” in Greek. Dryads are specifically the nymphs of oak trees, but the term has come to be used for all tree nymphs in general, or all human-tree hybrids in fantasy. They were normally considered to be very shy creatures except around the goddess Artemis, who was known to be a friend to most nymphs.
6. Satyrs
Satyr and Nymph

Ancient relief carving from the Naples National Archaeological Museum depicting a fight between satyr and a nymph, a theme which became popular during the Hellenistic Era

Also known as a silenos, a satyr is a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse, as well as a permanent, exaggerated erection. They were companions of the god Dionysus and were believed to inhabit remote locales, such as woodlands, mountains, and pastures. They often attempted to seduce or rape nymphs and mortal women alike, usually with little success.

Aphrodite: The Original Honey Trap

by April 23, 2019

There’s a thin line between love and hate, but there’s hardly a crack of daylight between Love and War.
Aphrodite, born from a pair of discarded testicles, had a perfect body, and a magic girdle that made everyone fall in love with her. She also had a libido to rival that of Zeus.
Meanwhile, Ares, with his bad-temper, rippling muscles, blood-lust and love of drink was the dumb jock of Mount Olympus.
Unfortunately for Ares, the problem with being a dumb jock, is that you can easily be outsmarted by your lover’s husband. Especially if he is the God of Smiths, the calf-crippled Hephaestus.
Aphrodite and Ares had been making love all night at his palace in Thrace. Losing track of time, Dawn arose fresh and rosy-fingered followed by Helios, the Sun God. As his warm rays caressed the bodies of the busy lovers, he was given a personal peep-show of two of the most gorgeous creatures in existence locked in a passionate embrace.
With such a red-hot piece of gossip as this to spread, Helios immediately went running to Hephaestus and told him everything.
Aphrodite with Ares

Aphrodite with Ares

Hephaestus, poor lame Hephaestus, wanted to get even. Knowing he couldn’t best Ares physically, he set a trap for him.
Retiring to his workshop he fashioned a bronze hunting-net, as fine as gossamer, but strong enough to hold the wrathful and writhing God of War.
On telling his wife he was off for a holiday to sunny Lemnos, Aphrodite seized upon her opportunity for a bit of ‘how’s your father’ in the comfort of her own home.
Returning from his sojourn at the beach, Hephaestus walked into his bedroom to find his wife and her lover in bed, naked, trapped under the net.
His plan had worked! Brains had bested brawn and the adulterers were at the mercy of the cuckold.
hephaestus aphrodite

Hephaestus and Aphrodite

But what next? You’ve caught the lovers in the act. They’re naked, trapped defenceless and vulnerable. What steps do you take? What demands do you make? What revenge do you enact?
Of course the obvious answer is you invite all of your friends around to have a gawk. And gawk they did!
The gods flocked to the scene and stood around the embarrassed and bemused couple. Zeus was shocked, Poseidon aroused, whilst Hermes and Apollo behaved like the relative juveniles that there were:

“You’d swap places with Ares right now, wouldn’t you?” Sniggered Apollo.
“Too right I would! Even if there were three nets!” Replied the salivating Hermes.

The incandescent Hephaestus refused to release the couple until he had been repaid his marriage gifts. Zeus, in a bout of incongruous prudishness, was so disgusted by the whole affair that he would have nothing to do with it.
Poseidon offered surety that Ares would pay the debt.
“And if he doesn’t, I will expect you to take his place!” Bellowed the outraged Hephaestus.
“What under the net?” Giggled Apollo.
The couple were released.
Ares returned to Thrace – he didn’t repay the debt.
Aphrodite, grateful for Poseidon’s help in releasing her, bore him two sons. And grateful for Hermes’ compliments, she bore him a son too.
Poseidon, happy to marry Aphrodite, didn’t cough up the money. Hephaistos, still in love, didn’t divorce her.
Aphrodite went for a swim in the sea at Paphos, thus renewing her virginity.

The Athenian Athena

by April 3, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Anyone with an interest in the classical Greek world may well have been intrigued, possibly confused, by the relationship between the goddess Athena and the ancient centre of democracy, philosophy and theatre, Athens.
As Walter Burkett said in his excellent book, Greek Religion: “whether the goddess is named after the city or the city after the goddess is an ancient dispute”. One, unfortunately, which is impossible to resolve.
However, an ancient tourist would have needed to look no further than the pediments of the mighty Parthenon to see evidence of Athena’s importance to the city.
Pediments from the Parthenon.

Pediments from the Parthenon.

The East pediment shows her motherless birth, straight from the head of Zeus. The myth goes that the King of the Gods, complaining of a headache, had his skull cracked open by Hephaistos‘ mighty hammer and out popped Athena, fully grown and clad in armor.
The West pediment depicts an early edition of Athens’ Got Talent (or whatever the devil the young people watch) with a competition between Athena and the sea-god Poseidon to win the honor of becoming the city’s patron deity by performing a beneficial miracle.
Poseidon created a salt water spring after striking his trident into the ground, to this Athena responded by producing an olive tree that is still visible on the Acropolis today.
Another myth explains that Athena triumphed over Poseidon because all the women, who made up a majority, voted for her and all the men for the sea-god. From this point on men decided women were not allowed to take part in elections. This fanciful, if amusing, tale of sour-grapes and misogyny is thought to have been a later introduction (i.e. during the democracy).
Statue of Poseidon

Poseidon: Loser in the City Competition of a Patron God…

As well as her role as the patron deity, Athena also contributed to the ancient lineage of the city.
She was said to have been pursued by skull-cracker Hephaistos who, with the trademark chivalry of the ancient gods, attempted to rape her of her virginity. However he spilt his seed on the ground and from it Erecthonius, the mythological ancient king of Athens was born. Athena then became foster mother to the baby and brought him up on the Acropolis.
Whilst such stories may seem whimsical, sometimes fay, to us, the power of the physical imagery of Athena cannot be underestimated.
It was one of the key factors by which Peisistratus became tyrant c.557/6 BC. According to Terry Buckley: “he dressed up a stunningly beautiful six-foot woman in full armor; it was then claimed through messengers that she was Athena…and that she herself in her chariot was delivering Peisistratus to her own Acropolis to take over the rule of Athens’.
Illustration of Politician with "Athena"

Illustration from 1838 by M. A. Barth depicting the return of Peisistratos to Athens, accompanied by a woman disguised as Athena, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus

Although it is highly unlikely that the people of Athens truly believed Athena had come to Earth and was standing next to a politician in a chariot, the symbolism of the stunt and the association to the goddess seemed to endear Peisistratus to many.
Thus, ‘I am driven with a mission from God’ is as timelessly effective as it is unoriginal.
The most significant role Athena played as the patron deity was her contribution in the Panathenaia, a huge, annual festival of religious devotion and national pride; a Christmas Day and 4th of July rolled into one.
Falling on Athena’s birthday (28th day of Hekatombaion), the vast scale of the festival is recorded on the 175-yard long frieze of the Parthenon and includes animals for sacrifice, metics (resident foreigners), musicians, infantry, cavalry, craftsmen, priests and ordinary Athenians marching by deme (parish).
Athletic competition was also a part of the festivities and, here again, we see the influence of Athena. The special olive oil that was given to the victors was presented in a vessel that had the goddess on one side and the chosen discipline of the victorious athlete on the other.
Panathenaic Amphora

Panathenaic Amphora

Over 1400 amphorae (or type of container/vase) of this sort were produced every year in time for the Panathenaia.
The celebration took place on a much larger scale every forth year. As part of the Grand Panathenaia, a huge peplos (tunic) was placed on the 39 foot statue of Athena Parthenos, situated inside the Parthenon. Outside the temple, this elegance was starkly contrasted as Athena’s birth was re-enacted in a grisly ritual where a bull’s head was smashed open, though presumably without an armored cow jumping out.
This huge chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos is worth further comment. Containing 2400 lbs of gold, it was built between 447 and 438 BC, at a time when the Greeks had just resisted invasion against the mighty Persian army.
Thus, Athens was leading the world not only in terms of power, but also in culture; the finest thinkers, playwrights and scientists were either emerging from Athens or making an intellectual pilgrimage there. The grandeur and pomp of the Athena Parthenos was fitting, not only for the time, but for the thanks the citizens owed their patron protectress.
However, when the tables turned, it would have looked at best foolish and embarrassing, and at worst mocking and damning.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

During the latter part of the 5th century, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, not only sustaining huge casualties, but being transformed from the leaders of progressive thought and democracy to a second-rate power. The victorious Spartans even forced the Athenians to suffer the emasculating humiliation of having their protective city walls taken down.
As often happens when people feel god has abandoned them, they abandon god. However, in this instance, it seems Athenians abandoned the over-sized, suddenly incongruous sculpture, rather than the goddess herself.
The statue still remained a great work of art and a massive tourist attraction (there were at least 300 ancient replicas), but, as Andrew Stewart commented: “it swiftly lost its religious significance to all but a tiny minority… after 404 BC the Athena Parthenos became a museum piece”.
Astoundingly, there is a full-size replica of the mighty effigy in Nashville, Tennessee which boasts extraordinary attention to detail. The main difference being there is no documented evidence the original was made of gypsum and fiberglass.
Reconstruction of Athena

The Athena Replica in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Despite her elevated status as patron, Athena was not totally dominant of the religious worship in Athens. The Eleusinian mysteries were (rather ironically) among the best known of all the Athenian cults and primarily paid homage to Demeter.
Also, the erection over the Agora of the Hephaisteion in the 440s BC gives great and towering status to the would-be assailant of Athena. What may have been doubly galling to Athena fans is that this building was made to honor the blacksmiths for their role in the Persian Wars, despite Athena being sacred to metal-workers.
Some say Socrates (executed for impiety) and men like him were bringing into question the very existence or importance of the gods. Whilst of all the extant Athenian tragedies, only The Ajax of Sophocles casts Athena in a role of any importance.
Despite these aberrations, there seems little doubt that Athena was ever-present in the psyche of the Athenians and there was certainly enough good-will in the bank to maintain for her a place of prominence within the polis.
Lemnian Athena

Lemnian Athena

Although she had many sub-roles within society: being sacred to maidens, weavers, carpenters, oil manufacturers, and blacksmiths, combined with her reverential position as the goddess of eyesight, wisdom and warfare, it is the historical, nationalistic and social links that make her such an important figure as patron.
Certainly being responsible for the year’s biggest knees-up is something that would cause even the staunchest unbeliever to rejoice in her worship.
After all, piety is all well and good, but a party is usually better.

Titans of Greek Mythology

by March 5, 2019

Okay, today we are talking about the Titans of Greek mythology.
Now, of course there are a lot of sources when it comes to discussing ancient Greek mythology, but we are going to use Hesiod’s Theogony, which is sort of like the Bible of the ancient Greek world.
So first, what is a Titan? Titans are the children of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). According to Hesiod, there were 12 original Titans: the brothers Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Cronus and the sisters Thea, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Tethys.
Chart Showing Greek Mythology Genealogy

The Genealogy of the Titans of Greek Mythology

As all Greek mythology goes, the Titans have a pretty dramatic tale, filled with violence, revenge and punishment… and it all started with mother earth (Gaia) who encouraged her children to rebel against their father after he had shut them up in the underworld (Tartarus).
The brothers and sisters chose Cronus as their leader and once he had disposed Uranus, he became ruler.
This, however, did not last long. Cronus’ son Zeus rebelled against him and a 10 year battled ensued called the Titanomachia. The Titans lost and those who sided with Cronus (his siblings) were thrown back into the underworld, Tartarus.
Painting of the Titanomachia

The Titanomachia as painted in The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis van Haarlem in 1588–1590

Perhaps surprisingly, the Titans are not pictured by Hesiod as evil monsters who the gods fortunately overthrew… but a happy golden race. This idea is continued by the Romans who saw Cronus as Saturn.
Here is a breakdown of the original 12 Titans. You’ll notice some are much more important than others…
1. Mnemosyne – She is the goddess of memory. “Mnemosyne” is derived from the same source as the word mnemonic, that being the Greek word mnēmē, which means “remembrance, memory”. Mnemosyne is the mother of the nine Muses.
Mnemosyne painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Mnemosyne.

2. Tethys – Sister and wife of Titan-god Oceanus, mother of the Potamoi and the Oceanids. Tethys had no active role in Greek mythology and no established cults.
3. Theia – Also called Euryphaessa “wide-shining”, her brother/consort is Hyperion, a Titan and god of the sun, and together they are the parents of Helios (the Sun), Selene (the Moon), and Eos (the Dawn).
4. Phoebe – She had two daughters, Leto, who bore Apollo and Artemis, and Asteria, a star-goddess who bore an only daughter, Hecate. Given the meaning of her name and her association with the Delphic oracle, Phoebe was perhaps seen as the Titan goddess of prophecy and oracular intellect.
5. Rhea – She is known as “the mother of gods” and therefore is strongly associated with Gaia and Cybele, who have similar functions. The classical Greeks saw her as the mother of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but not as an Olympian goddess in her own right.

Statue of Rhea

6. Themis – She is described as “[the Lady] of good counsel”, and is the personification of divine order, fairness, law, natural law, and custom. Her symbols are the Scales of Justice, tools used to remain balanced and pragmatic.
7. Oceanus – Believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be the divine personification of the sea, he is an enormous river encircling the world.
8. Hyperion – With his sister, the Titaness Theia, Hyperion fathered Helios (Sun), Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn).
Painting of Greek Deities

The three children, depicting different times of day.

9. Coeus – He played no active part in Greek religion and appears only in lists of Titans. Coeus was primarily important for his descendants.
10. Cronus – He was the leader and youngest of the first generation of Titans. He overthrew his father and ruled during the mythological Golden Age, until he was overthrown by his own son Zeus and imprisoned in Tartarus.
Painting of Cronus and Uranus

Cronus castrating his father Uranus

11. Crius – As the least individualized among the Titans, he was overthrown in the Titanomachy.
12. Iapetus – He was the father (by an Oceanid named Clymene or Asia) of Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. Iapetus is sometimes thought as the progenitor of mankind, similar to Japheth (יֶפֶת), the son of Noah, based on the similarity of their names and the tradition.

The All Seeing Greek but Overlooked God: Helios

by October 18, 2018

By Alicia McDermott, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
An unpunished second-generation Titan of Greek myth, 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, but Helios generally seemed to pass along in the background, seeing everything going on both on earth and in the heavens as he made sure to follow his daily routine.
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). He was born/created in what is called the Golden Age of Greek Mythology and was responsible for bringing light to the world as the god of the sun. That role would gradually be usurped.
The Greek god of sun at noon

‘Helios as Personification of Midday’ (1765) by Anton Raphael Mengs.

His lovers include the Oceanids Perseis (whom some sources call his wife) and Clymene as well as the nymphs Crete and Rhodes.
His daughters with Persis include the famed sorceresses Circe, a lover to Odysseus, and Pasiphae, King Minos of Crete’s wife. His two sons with Perseis were King Aietes (Aeete) of Kolchis (Colchis) and King Perses of Persia.
Phaethon was his son born from Helios’ relation with Clymene and he had three (or five) daughters with her, known collectively as the Heliades.
Painting of the four seasons

‘Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons’ (1635) by Nicola Poussin.

With Rhode, Helios had seven sons, the Heliadae, 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.
Two of his nymph daughters, Lampetia and Phaethusa, were in charge of overseeing his cattle on Thrinacia.
Helios in Art – How Did the Ancients Depict the Greek Sun God?
Helios appeared in all kinds of Greek art. He’s 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 and he’s 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.”
Sculpture of the Greek Sun god

Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany.

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.
His image 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 420 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.
Pottery of the Greek sun god

Helios on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC.

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.
Bust of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great as Helios. Marble, Roman copy after a Hellenistic original from 3rd–2nd century BC.

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 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 as his sister Eos (as dawn) threw open the gates of his beautiful eastern palace. He set off with his four winged horses (Aethon, Aeos, Pyrois, and Phlegon). The long travel had a steep ascent, peaked around mid-day, and then steeply descended towards his western palace, where his nephew, Hesperus (evening) awaited him.
Painting of the Gods

Three paintings 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.

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.
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, then far 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.
Picture depicting Phaeton's fall

‘The Fall of Phaeton’ (1531-1535) by Giovanni Bernardi.

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.
Helios also 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.
Painting of Helios the Greek God

Helios (as Sol) shows the other gods Venus and Mars (Aphrodite and Ares), Vulcan (Hephaestus) stands at the front of the painting. (1540) by Maarten van Heemskerck.

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. He 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 Helios
In Classical Greece, Helios was openly worshipped in Rhodes, where he was considered their patron deity since 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’ 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.
Illustration of the Colossus of Rhodes

‘The Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbor’ (1886) painting by Ferdinand Knab.

Helios vs Apollo and Sol – Who was the Real Sun God?
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. Apollo and Helios had become almost synonymous.
The Romans transformed Helios/Apollo into their sun god, Sol, and decided it was time for the deity to take a more important cult role. The Circus Maximus of Rome even had a temple dedicated to Sol and Luna (the Moon) from the 3rd century BC.