Helios - Sun God and Cattle Man!
Helios appears in one critical event of Homer's Odyssey - the disaster which ultimately destroys the last remainders of Odysseus' crew. After many adventures, Odysseus and his men finally arrive at the island of the witch Kirke. There, they learn that, to return to Ithaka, they must journey to the Land of the Dead and receive a prophesy from blind Tiresias. When our hero finally confronts Tiresias' spirit, he is warned that his crew will be destroyed utterly should they eat the kine (cattle) of the god Helios. After leaving the Land of the Dead and returning to Kirke's island, she too makes the same warning.
As the men sail onwards, they eventually come to Helios' island. At first, they agree easily to Odysseus' demand that they not eat the sacred cattle. However, as the days drag on, and unfavorable winds prevent them from taking sail again, the fear of starvation grows. Little by little, the resources that the men brought with them dwindle away into nothing. Finally, when Odysseus is asleep, the mutinous Eurylokhos approaches them and pleads with them to slaughter and eat some of the cattle.
"It is better to die of our own choosing than to waste away," he says, "And surely, we can offer some of the cattle as sacrifices to the gods. They will be pleased with our offering and spare our lives. Even if they don't, even if we are doomed, it is a preferable death to the other torment that awaits us in starvation."
|The men bow to Eurylokhos' will, sacrifice some of
Helios' cattle, and begin a feast. By the time Odysseus awakes, it
is too late. He can already smell the burning fat on the air.
Distraught, he races to the beach and rallies the men to their ships.
Ominously, the winds which have prevented the men from sailing, have
died out completely.
As Odysseus' crew sets sail, Helios sees what has happened to his herd and complains to the mighty Zeus. By right, he asks Zeus to punish severely Odysseus and his men. Zeus knows that Odysseus is fated to return home to Ithaka, some day, but his men have no such assurances. The God of Thunder raises a mighty storm and shatters the fleet with his lightning bolts. One by one, Odysseus' crew men perish as the ships are obliterated, finally disappearing into the maw of the monster Charybdis, to which they have been driven back. Odysseus is left alone, floating in the winedark sea, a victim of Helios' rage and his men's weak wills.
Odysseus' men eat Helios' cattle
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Archetypes and Hero Journey:
One clear idea behind the story of Helios' cattle is the concept of the "forbidden fruit". Just as Adam and Eve are told by God in the Christian Bible not to eat from the tree of knowledge, so too are Odysseus' men warned not to eat a sacred food. And, temptation exists as well, in both instances - the snake tempts Eve and Eurylokhos tempts Odysseus' crew. In both stories, the "hero" is out of action when the crucial decision is made - Adam is not present as the snake arrives and Odysseus is asleep when his men succumb to hunger. It is only after he awakes and smells the "savory odors of burnt fat [that] eddied around [him]" that he understands that his fate has been sealed. (XII, 472-474) Still, despite his new awareness, he cannot save his crew. One the forbidden fruit has been consumed, there is no going back.
Often in a heroic journey, the hero goes through a phase called "Woman as Temptress", where he must choose between pressing on and giving up. This phase has some similarities to the Helios' story. It is not Odysseus who tires, but his men and Eurylokhos, who complains, "Are you flesh and blood, Odysseus, to endure more than a man can? Do you never tire? God, look at you, iron is what you are made of." (XII, 358-360) While Odysseus will not give up his quest, his crew's weakness nearly forces him to do so instead.
Finally, Helios' punishment of the men - the vicious storm sent by Zeus - corresponds to the archetypal "water/fire" event. The men have been corrupted by eating the cattle and therefore must be cleansed. The cleansing comes in the form of a mighty tempest. As fair retribution for Helios' suffering, "Zeus let fly a bolt against [Odysseus'] ship, a direct hit, so that she bucked, in reeking fumes of sulphur, and all the men were flung into the sea." (XII, 527-529) What's most interesting is that both water and fire are present - the rain provides the water reference and the heat of the lightning is equivalent to the fire. Unlike what is typical though, the men are not cleansed but destroyed; Helios' vengeance is permanent and lethal.
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|Beyond the Odyssey, the most common story about Helios involves his mortal son Phaeton. When Phaeton learns that his father drives the chariot of the sun, he becomes envious and asks his father if he too can drive. Helios realizes this decision is disastrous, but can deny his son nothing. So Phaeton takes to the sky. At first he is delirious with excitement, but quickly he realizes that the chariot is out of his control. The fiery horses rear and buck and eventually drive the chariot into the sea, drowning poor Phaeton. Alas, mortals should never seek to attain the power of the gods!|
|Helios is also referenced in the story of the nymph
Clytie. In love with Helios, Clytie begged for his attention, and
yet he would not respond. Day after day, Clytie watched Helios
rise in the East, journey across the vault of the sky, and set in the
West. Eventually, in her pining, she turned into a flower and can
be seen today, her blossoms and petals turning always to follow Helios'
Helios plays a smaller part in a few myths as well. He is the one who discovers the affair between Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, and Ares, God of War. When Demeter's daughter Persephone is taken to the Underworld, it is Helios who sees the kidnapping take place.
Helios has been referenced in several classical texts. James Joyce discusses Helios and his cattle in his novel Ulysses. The recurring cow motif in the Cohen brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? also refers to Helios' herd. Finally, Helios is briefly mentoned in Goethe's famous play Faust.
The nymph Clytie
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The Pantheon of the Gods: Helios (General biography)
Pantheon.org: Helios (General biography)
Helios Homework Page (The story of Helios and Phaeton)
Mythography: Helios and Clytie (The story of Helios and the nymph Clytie)
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