Category Archives: Gods[post_grid id="10041"]
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Written by Barry Ferst, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Serving as a “billboard” for the faithful, images sculpted on Roman-era marble coffins offer a visualization of the Gospel of Bacchus, a graphic stone bible especially meaningful to devotees contemplating death’s doorway. Since much about the cult of Bacchus remains a mystery, a beautifully-carved frieze on a sarcophagus can go a long way to prying open some of the cult’s secrets.
By 100 C.E. the Bacchus mythos (known alternatively as Dionysus or Liber) had become standardized, i.e., made socially acceptable (the earlier Greek version could instill terror). The story begins with a double birth, first from Semele whom Jupiter has inseminated, and then from Jupiter’s thigh where the infant has been hidden from Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno. The babe is brought by Hermes to woodland creatures to be tended by them.
There, the young Bacchus is taught by a centaur and recognized as a god. As a young adult he rides in a chariot pulled by panthers or centaurs. He travels to India, which he and his troupe conquer (known as the Indian Triumph). On return, he is given an emperor’s adventus, the circus-like processional proceeded by dancing maenads. When he totters, wine-intoxicated, he is held upright by one or more of his troupe. He marries Ariadne, and he retrieves his mother Semele from the land of the dead. His friends are satyrs, pans, and centaurs.
What is known of the Bacchic rituals are the manic dances of his followers, the bacchants and maenads who play cymbals, castanets, foot clappers, bells, tambourines, and pipes. There is the sacrifice of a goat’s head, and the viewing of a snake rising from a winnowing basket. Devotees carry the thyrsus (a staff decorated with ribbons and topped with a pine cone) and hand out honey-dipped hot cakes. Ritual symbols included the laurel tree, the grape vine, and the ivy leaf. The cult was easily absorbed into Christianity.
Here, then, is a small selection from the seventy-five Bacchus sarcophagi I have personally photographed (excluding the first), each displaying a part of the Gospel of Bacchus.
THE BIRTH OF BACCHUS
This sarcophagus lid pictures the birth and early years of Bacchus. The twice-born Bacchus (first from Semele) is being taken from Jupiter’s thigh. A Homeric hymn refers to Bacchus as “insewn”:
“Be favorable, O Insewn, Inspirer of frenzied women! We singers sing of you as we begin and as we end a strain, and none forgetting you may call holy song to mind.”
THE INFANCY OF BACCHUS
This frieze on this sarcophagus depicts moments in the infancy of Bacchus. At far left the infant Bacchus stands on a small hill and holds a fennel stalk in his left hand. He looks at seated Silenus, and he is being admired by three woodland divinities. At center left Silenus, a wine skin at his feet, has a hold on a young satyr. In the right half of the frieze nymphs are tending to the care of Bacchus. They are preparing him for his bath, filling the tub with water, and bringing food.
THE RELOCATION OF INFANT BACCHUS BY SAILORS
This frieze shows five sailors on a boat accepting the infant Bacchus from a centaur. One sailor has outstretched arms ready to receive the babe, while a second gestures with upraised forefinger. At the rear of the boat a third sailor is holding the handle of the steering rudder. Given the small size of the casket, it may have been for a child, parents imaging their child being carried far away to the Isles of the Blest. The boat carries Bacchus to a distant land where Juno cannot find him.
THE RECOGNITION OF BACCHUS AS A GOD
The sarcophagus depicts the preparation for the celebration of or the Roman Bacchanalia. At left the aged Bacchus in the form of a herm statue is being raised by four young men. At far right a statue of a young Bacchus, a symbol of youthful male virility is being decorated.
THE EDUCATION OF BACCHUS
In this frieze, twenty-four figures — both human and divine — sweep across the scene. At left sits an adolescent Bacchus, listening to the music played by his teacher, the centaur Chiron. Chiron is holding a lyre in his left hand and a plectrum in his right. According to the Byzantine writer Ptolemaeus Chennus of Alexandria, “Dionysius was loved by Chiron, from whom he learned chants and dances, the bacchic rites and initiations.” Between Chiron and Bacchus is a bacchante holding a thyrsus. At far right two female devotees watch his lesson.
THE WORSHIP OF BACCHUS
This frieze depicts a processional honoring of Bacchus. A youthful Bacchus with feminine breasts and his hair in curls — an androgynous portrayal — receives devotees while slouching royally on a chair. Euripides called him “This effeminate stranger”. Silenus kneels before Bacchus.
BACCHUS DISCOVERS ARIADNE
This masterfully-carved panel of a sarcophagus shows Bacchus stepping from his chariot to gaze at the sleeping Ariadne. In this depiction, Bacchas is an old, bearded man dressed like a woman, again indicating the androgynous character of Bacchus.
ARIADNE, WIFE OF BACCHUS
By the time this sarcophagus was carved in the second half of the second century C.E., Dionysian rituals and mythos had softened. Hence this exquisite frieze, referring to when Bacchus “fell in love with Ariadne, and kidnapped her, taking her off to Lemnos where he had sex with her, and begat Thoas. Straphylos, Oinopio, and Peparethos” (Pseudo-Apollodorus), shows no kidnapping or raw sexual contact, but rather the happy wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne.
BACCHUS IN HADES
This “Bacchus in Hades” cinematic frieze creatively embellishes the story of Bacchus retrieving Semele from the Underworld.
BACCHUS TRAVELS TO INDIA
This frieze has quite the story. In 1885, a cemetery was excavated just north of Rome on the Via Saleria. During the excavation, the tomb of the family of Calpurnii Pisones was uncovered and found to contain ten large sarcophagi. One large coffin entitled the “Indian Triumph”, presents a grand procession marking Bacchus’s victory over the Indians. The scene mimics a Roman emperor’s adventus after a victory.
A BACCHUS PROCESSIONAL
This sarcophagus frieze presents a parade in which devotees would have dressed in costumes to imitate their god and his companions. Could it not also be viewed as a scene of victory over death?
RITES AND RITUALS
The frieze of this large linos sarcophagus completely covers all four sides, showing a raucous Bacchic religious ceremony and Dionysian sacrificial ritual.
The scene on this lenos sarcophagus displays a rapturous gathering of men and women in a vineyard. Symbols like vineyards, vines and wine form a key part of the intoxication-driven ecstasy of the Bacchus gospel.
A GOD FOR ALL SEASONS
This frieze shows a drunken Bacchus standing with the help of a satyr at center. Called the “Seasons Sarcophagus”, Spring is represented by the two figures to Bacchus’ immediate left: one holds a rabbit and the second holds a cornucopia above which, on the figure’s shoulder, sits is a baby. With a sheaf of wheat in his left hand and basket of fruit in the other, Summer stands at Bacchus’ right. Fall is represented by the next two figures. One holds a basket of grapes in his left hand while in his right he has a grape vine. An erote (winged god representative of love) is collecting grapes from the vine. The second figure is in the “good shepherd” pose with a sheep on his shoulder. At the far left is a man in a heavy tunic and hood, symbolizing Winter. He holds a brace of geese.
Taken together, these sarcophagi are a veritable gospel carved in marble. Tracing the miraculous double birth, infancy, education, early and late travels of Bacchus, his love affair, marriage, rites and rituals, they point to the recognition of a “world-wide” and “for-all-seasons” divinity.
Only jubilant stories are found on sarcophagi. The sheer number of Bacchus sarcophagi is proof of the great number of adherents to the cult. Its popularity shouldn’t surprise us — like any deity, Bacchus was believed to have divine powers. He shifts attention away from problems, work and worries and towards the simple act of enjoyment — be it wine, song or passion — reminding us that we, too, have the capacity to surrender to joy.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Many ancient civilizations had fertility goddesses that played a crucial role in their religion. Rome was no exception. Perhaps the best-known fertility goddess in ancient Italy was Flora. She was an exceedingly popular goddess and every year a major festival, the Floralia, was held in her honor.
The Goddess Flora
The name Flora ultimately derives from the Indo-European word for flower. It appears that the name Flora was a combination of ancient Latin and Oscan, a tongue native to southern Italy. There is also clear Greek influence in the development of this fertility deity. Some scholars believe that Flora’s true origin is a very ancient Italian fertility goddess.
There is some evidence that the Romans incorporated the worship of the goddess prior the foundation of the Republic. This was quite common, as the Romans tended to adopt gods and deities whom they believed would be useful.
There was a magnificent temple dedicated to Flora in the Circus Maximus, testifying to her importance and influence in the Roman world. She was regarded as one of the fourteen most important gods and goddesses and one of the few with her own flamen (priests or priestesses).
Flora was associated with vegetation and flowering plants. The Romans honored her in order to ensure her continued blessing on their lands. This was crucial for an ancient people dependent on agriculture. The goddess was worshipped throughout the Roman Republic and into the Roman Empire, until the coming of Christianity.
The Greek equivalent of Flora was Chloris. Her importance to the Romans can be seen in the many coins that bear her image. The goddess’ name has been used as the botanical term flora and is also a popular girl’s name.
Myths About Flora
There are a number of myths about Flora. Most are recorded in the work of the first-century poet Ovid, who wrote that originally the goddess was a nymph who transformed into Flora after being kissed by Zephyrus, the God of the West Wind. She was depicted as having the power to make both nature and humans more fertile.
In one account, she helped Juno to become pregnant with a child in revenge for Jupiter giving birth to Minerva from his head. Flora did this with a magical plant. In some myths, the goddess Flora was associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of desire and love.
The festival of Floralia was established around 250 BC and soon became one of the most popular in the Roman calendar. The festival was a five-day affair that fell, in our calendar, in late April and lasted until May.
According to legend, the festival was first instituted on the advice of the Sibylline Books, which were considered prophetic. For the Romans, the festival symbolized the cycle of life, birth, and death. It honored Flora and was a time of dancing, gathering of flowers and the wearing of colorful clothes.
The festival was also an occasion to hold Public Games, which were paid for from fines levied throughout the year. These Games lasted six days. The Games and the festival were both administered by the Roman magistrate, the aedile.
Generally, the Floralia opened with theatrical performances, often mimes that could even include a naked actress. Then came the first day of the Games and at night, a ceremonial sacrifice to Flora. There were great efforts made to make the theatrical events around the festivities enjoyable and in 69 AD a tightrope-walking elephant was part of the celebrations!
The festival gained popularity, prompting Julius Caesar to proclaim the Floralia an official holiday. It is considered an important social event in ancient Roman society, as it fostered a sense of community and allowed people to enjoy themselves after the hardships of winter.
Some scholars believe that the Floralia was the inspiration for the May Day Festival, which is still popular in many Northern European countries. The goddess Flora was also reverenced by humanists in Renaissance Europe, who featured her in paintings, sculptures, and poetry.
The figure of Flora has been painted by some of the greatest painters in the Western tradition, such as Botticelli and Poussin.
Flora was an important Roman goddess. The worship and cult of Flora are testament to the importance of the natural life cycle for the ancient Romans. The festival of Floralia help unite ancient Roman society as they came together to celebrate the magnificent of nature and the joy of Spring through art and sport.
Berrens, D., 2019. The meaning of flora. Humanistica Lovaniensia. Journal of Neo-Latin Studies, 68(1), pp.237-249.
Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In the Ancient World, the most powerful forces that shaped human destiny were personified by polytheistic religions in the form of Gods. In this way, the ancients believed that they could influence impersonal forces and powers. One of these was war. In the past, conflict was a constant fact of everyday life, and peace was rare. This is what made the Greek God of War, Ares, so influential in mythology and religion.
The origin of the myth of Ares
Ares was the son of Zeus and Hera, was regarded as one of the Twelve Olympians, and was one of the major deities of the Greek world. The etymology of the name Ares means curse or ruin. Unlike many other religions, such as Roman mythology, the Greeks did not worship war. They were very ambivalent about the God who personified for them the power and bravery needed for victory in war. For the Greeks, he represented the worse in war and conflict.
Ares was worshipped, it appears, by the Mycenaean Greeks from at least 1200 BC. In some sources he was born in Thrace, which was an area populated with fearsome, war-like people. This god was never popular and there were very few temples and shrines to him. He was mainly worshipped by armies who obviously needed his support in battle and on campaigns. There were some archaic practices and rituals associated with this god, such as the sacrifice of a dog in the night.
Ares had a sister named Eris, who was the divine personification of discord and disorder. The character of Ares was not an attractive one. He was touchy and quick to anger and was something of a bully. However, during the war, he always favored those who displayed the greatest courage on the field of battle. The Greeks believed that he provided soldiers with the courage and strength to win in a war.
However, the support of Ares did not always guarantee victory, as is shown in the Iliad. The god of war did not save the Trojans from their catastrophic defeat. While many Greeks were ambivalent about this deity, that was not always the case. In Sparta, which was a society dedicated to war, he was revered as the model soldier and a paragon of manly virtue.
The loves of Ares
The god of war was, like other Greek gods, a serial adulterer. He never married, but his consort was Aphrodite, the Goddess of War. This union was intended to demonstrate that both war and love were forms of strife and struggle. However, Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, a fact that would come back to haunt them.
The affair between Ares and the Goddess of Love was public, and the couple had six children. They had the attributes of one or both of their parents. For example, Eros, the God of Sex and Love, was their son and so was Phobos, the personification of fear.
Ares also had affairs with two of the Muses, a Titan, and one of the Furies with whom he had more children. Then he had several affairs and more offspring with semi-divine and human lovers. In one myth, Ares is the father of The Amazons, a race of warrior women, who were probably modeled on Scythian female warriors.
Stories of Ares
There are several tales related to Ares in Greek myths, often disrespectful of the deity of war and prowess in battle. In the Odyssey, Ares and Aphrodite are trapped in an iron net created by Hephaestus, enraged about his wife’s affair with a being he despised.
The Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with flowers …
how the two had first made love in Hephaestus’ mansion,
all in secret. Ares had showered her with gifts
and showered Hephaestus’ marriage bed with shame
but a messenger ran to tell the god of fire—
Helios, lord of the sun, who’d spied the couple
lost in each other’s arms and making love.
Hephaestus, hearing the heart-wounding story,
bustled toward his forge, brooding on his revenge—
planted the huge anvil on its block and beat out chains,
not to be slipped or broken, all to pin the lovers on the spot.
Also in Homer, Ares’ parents, Zeus and Hera, are shown as hating him, because of all the carnage that he caused. He also comes into conflict with Poseidon because his son had raped one of the God of War’s daughters.
Ares played an important role in the Trojan War, fighting alongside the Trojans—his intervention almost helped them to victory. However, Athena, the Goddess of military strategy, with the backing of Zeus, entered the fray on behalf of the Greeks and this forced Ares into a humiliating retreat.
They were not long about beginning, and Ares piercer of shields opened the battle. Sword in hand he sprang at once upon Athena and reviled her […] As he spoke he struck her on the terrible tasseled aegis—so terrible that not even can Jove’s lightning pierce it. Here did murderous Ares strike her with his great spear. She drew back and with her strong hand seized a stone that was lying on the plain—great and rugged and black—which men of old had set for the boundary of a field. With this she struck Ares on the neck, and brought him down. Nine roods did he cover in his fall, and his hair was all soiled in the dust, while his armour rang rattling round him. But Athena laughed and vaunted over him saying, “Idiot, have you not learned how far stronger I am than you, but you must still match yourself against me? Thus do your mother’s curses now roost upon you, for she is angry and would do you mischief because you have deserted the Achaeans and are helping the Trojans.” ~ Iliad, Book XXI
In another myth, Hades, the god of the dead, is outwitted by Sisyphus and imprisoned. With Hades in chains, nobody could die and war thus became meaningless. This, of course, directly affected Ares who rushed to set Hades free, delivering Sisyphus to him.
Ares and his influence
The Greek deity was very important even though he was not popular. For example, the Athenian court, the Areopagus, was built on a hill dedicated to this God. Ares was very influential in the Roman conception of Mars. Over time, the old Latin God of battle and valor in war became identical with the Greek God.
Ares was often depicted with a helmet and a lance, and his symbol was the dog. The lover of Aphrodite and the personification of war has become a popular figure, appearing in movies, television series, and even video games.
The Greek God of War was one of the most important of all the deities in the Pantheon. He was not a popular God and he represented the worst aspects of war. As a result, the myths are not respectful of this deity and this signifies the hatred the Greeks had for conflict and battle.
- Graves, Robert (1990). The Greeks Myths. London: Pelican.
- Homer (2000). The Iliad. London: Penguin