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Helios on a Greek krater


On the surface of a classical Greek calyx krater above we see Helios, the sun god, driving his four-horse chariot across the sky at dawn. Shown as a beardless youth, the shining aureole of the sun crowns his head. The gods of the planet stars, or "Astra Planetae," dive into the sea beneath his chariot. A krater was a Greek vase used to mix wine and water, often placed in the center of a room at Greek symposia, and too large to easily move. A calyx krater is a krater in the form of a calyx: a flower’s sepals considered altogether. Symposia were Greek male coming-out parties, and served a function similar to, but more debauched than, that of debutante balls.

At Greek parties the host was responsible for how drunk his guests would get, and how fast. In a play by Euboulos, Dionysus/Bacchus, god of wine, inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy, tells us his rule for hosts: "For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more—it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness."

The Sun, its planets, asteroids, comets, and other gravitationally held bodies are collectively known as the solar system, or the system of "Sol," the Roman god of the Sun similar to the Greek god Helios. In Scandinavia Sol was the goddess of the Sun and the daughter of Mundilfari, a giant who also fathered Mani, god of the Moon (In Scandinavia, North Germany and England the Sun is considered feminine and the Moon masculine). One of Saturn’s natural satellites discovered in 2000 was named Mundilfari. Like Apollo, Sol rode through the sky every day on her chariot drawn by the horses Alsvid ("all-swift") and Arvak ("early-riser"). Whereas the Sun itself gave off heat, it was the horses’ manes that gave off light.

In Norse mythology Sol and Mani, the Sun and the Moon, were chased by the wolf brothers Skoll and Hati. Solar eclipses were thought to occur when Skoll almost caught up to Sol. It was in fact fated that Skoll would one day catch and eat Sol, at which time her daughter would replace her. Skoll and Hati were the son’s of Fenrir, a wolf-shaped monster who in turn was eldest child to Loki, the malicious trickster god responsible for the death of Baldur the Beautiful, Odin’s son and god of Light. The gods believed in a prophecy that Fenrir and his sons would bring about their doom and the end of the world. Known as Ragnarok, their doom would follow a severe ice age in which humanity would perish. Then Odin would lead the warrior gods of Asgard against the forces of evil led by Loki and including the giants, Fenrir, and his sons. After a terrible battle the universe itself would be destroyed and a new golden age ruled by the surviving gods, including Baldur, would ensue. In German, Ragnarok translates into "Götterdämmerung" (Twilight of the Gods), the last of Wagner’s four operas that comprise "Der Ring des Nibelungen," The Nibelungen Ring.

Although the Norse god Sol was also called Sunna or Sunne, the Sun itself was known as Alfrodull, or "Glory-of-Elves." The ancient Viking poems prophesy that on or after doomsday the Sun will bear a daughter who will be the new Sun, the luminous world to come. The poetic and oral literature of Iceland and our primary knowledge of ancient Norse paganism, the Eddas, say "One beaming daughter the bright Sun bears before she is swallowed by Fenrir; so shall the maid pace her mother’s way when the gods have gone to their doom."

The personification of the Sun in early Greek history was Helios, sometimes referred to as Helios Panoptes, the "all seeing." Like the Norse god Sol, Helios also drives a fiery chariot across the heavens. Helios had a son, Phaëton (or Phaëthon), whose friends didn’t believe him when he bragged that his father was the sun god. To prove it, Phaëton asked Helios to let him borrow the car (his chariot, the Sun) for a day. Because Helios had promised to give his son anything he asked for (talk about spoiled!), he eventually agreed. On the fateful day Phaëton panicked and lost control of the chariot. When it went too high the Earth began to freeze, and when it went too low the Earth was burned—supposedly how Africa got its deserts and the skin of its inhabitants became black. Finally Zeus had to intervene, striking the chariot with a lightning bolt, whereupon Phaëton was killed and fell into the River Po.

Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto and twin to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and Moon, was the later Roman Olympian Sun god. A multi-faceted deity with dominion over light, reason, truth, prophecy, medicine, healing, archery, dance, poetry and the arts, he also led the nine Muses. For more on Apollo as the Sun god, click here.

This Helios-Apollo-Hyperion-Sol-Sun page and much of this 600-page resource website are taken from You and the Universe.

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