The Worship of the Sun Among the Ancient Greeks

Sir James Frazer

The Greeks personified and worshipped the Sun under his proper name of Helios, but in general they paid very little attention to him. To this rule the Rhodians were an exception, for they deemed their island sacred to the Sun-god and elevated him to a high, if not to the principal, place in their pantheon. But on the whole the solar deity under his proper name plays a very subordinate part in the religion, the mythology, and the art of ancient Greece. In the hymn-book which goes by the name of Homer, a short and not very enthusiastic piece is devoted to his praise. In it we read that his father was Hyperion, that is, He who goes on high; that his mother was Euryphaesia, that is, She who shines far and wide; and that his sisters were the rosy-armed Dawn and the fair-tressed Moon.

He himself is spoken of as splendid, unwearied, like the immortals; mounted on his golden-reined chariot, drawn by horses, he shines on mortals and the immortal gods. He wears a golden helmet; bright rays flash from him; bright hair floats about his temples and enframes his lovely beaming face; a glistening garment, finely spun, wraps him about and streams in the wind. This description of the resplendent Sun-god in human form, riding his horse-drawn car, answers to the general conception of him which the Greeks formed and embodied in works both of literature and art ... yet it is remarkable that no mention of the chariot and horses of the Sun occurs in the Iliad or Odyssey, though the car and the steeds are repeatedly mentioned in the Homeric hymns ... 

[The] personification of the Sun as a deity who knows everything and stands for righteousness is sometimes employed with fine effect by the Greek tragedians.

The cattle and sheep of the Sun-god have been variously interpreted in  ancient and modern times. Homer clearly thought of them as very substantial animals, whose flesh could furnish a hearty meal. But this interpretation is too gross and palpable to satisfy some mythologists, with whom it is a first principle that in mythology nothing is what it seems or what its name seems to imply. From observing that the total number ofcows was three hundred and fifty, since seven herds of fifty head apiece amount precisely to that sum, the sagacious Aristotle concluded that the cows stood for the days of a lunar year, which he appears to have calculated at three hundred and fifty and which, like the cows of the Sun, never vary in number but remain perpetually the same ... [This explanation] was accepted by Lucian in antiquity and by F. G. Welcker in modern times ... 

Others would see in the cows of the Sun the white and golden or red clouds that gather round the great luminary at his rising or setting ... But [this explanation] leaves the fixing of their number at three hundred and fifty quite unexplained ... 

However, many of the ancients, rejecting or ignoring both the astronomical and the nebular hypothesis, appear to have acquiesced in the plain view that the cows and the sheep of the Sun were cows and sheep and nothing else ... 

The great pride of Rhodes was the huge bronze statue of the Sun-god, which was executed by the sculptor Chares, a native of Lindus in Rhodes and a pupil of Lysippus. He spent twelve years in constructing it. The cost amounted to three hundred talents and was defrayed by the sale of the siege engines which Demetrius Poliorcetes left behind after his memorable but unsuccesful siege of Rhodes. The height of the statue is stated by Pliny to have been seventy cubits. Sixty-six years after its erection the statue was thrown down by an earthquake and remained prostrate in the time of Pliny, who, to give us an idea of its immense size, says that few men could encircle the thumb with their arms, and that the fingers were larger than most statues ... In falling the statue broke off at the knees, and the Rhodians, in consequence of an oracle, refrained from attempting to set it up again, although Ptolemy, King of Egypt, promised to contribute no less than three thousand talents to its restoration. 

Dali's Colossus of RhodesThe image, popularly known as the Colossus, was reckoned one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The date of its erection is believed to have been about 284 B.C. Often as the Colossus is mentioned by ancient writers, not one of them has told us where exactly the image stood or in what attitude the Sun-god was represented.  The story that the image bestrode the mouth of the harbour, and that ships sailed under its straddling legs, is a modern fancy. But from a passage of Lucian we may infer with some probability that the god was represented, not in his chariot, but as a single standing figure, as indeed is almost implied by the statement of Strabo that, in falling, the image broke off at the knees ... [Image: Salvador Dali's Colossus of Rhodes.]

The great Greek god Apollo has often been identified with the Sun-god both in ancient and modern times, but the identification would appear to have been the fruit of philosophic thought rather than an article of popular faith. Thus the early philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles seem to have explained Apollo as equivalent to the Sun. It is said that Orpheus did not honour Dionysus, but that he regarded the Sun, which he identified with Apollo, as the greatest of the gods, and he used to rise by night and ascend Mount Pangaeum that he might catch the first glimpse of the rising luminary. Hence Dionysus was angry with him, and sent the Bacchanals, who tore him limb from limb and scattered his mangled remains. 

The Cynic philosopher Crates also identified Apollo with the Sun. The speculative poet Euripides, who loved to resolve the traditional Greek gods into natural phenomena, puts into the mouth of Clymena the saying, that he who knows the secret names of the deities is aware that the true name of the Sun is Apollo, in the sense of the Destroyer (Apollyon), since he had been the undoing of her and of Phaethon, the ill-fated son whom she had borne to  the Sun-god. The philosopher Cornutus, who wrote a compendium of Greek mythology in the first century of our era, announced, without hesitation or beating about the bush, that Apollo was the sun and Artemis the moon. 

The identification of Apollo with the Sun-god is repeatedly mentioned by Plutarch as an ancient and popular doctrine; in a passage of a dialogue he reports a remark that "all the Greeks, so to say, hold Apollo to be identical with the Sun." A contemporary of Plutarch, the eloquent rhetorician Dio Chrysostom, in a speech addressed to the Rhodians, remarks that "some people say that Apollo and the Sun and Dionysus are the same, and you think so too." In the dreary welter of confused thought and mystical aspiration which passed under the name of Orphism in later ages the identification of Apollo with the Sun was inevitable, and the solar deity might even be thankful if he did not find himself in worse company. One poet of this rhapsodical school declares that Apollo is a name of the Sun, and that the Sun is all the same with the leach Aesculapius. 

In the second century of our era the Greek antiquary and traveller Pausanias tells us that in the sanctuary of Aesculapius at Aegium in Achaia he met a Phoenician from Sidon who engaged him in a theological discussion. The stranger maintained that his countrymen the Phoenicians had juster views of the divine nature than the Greeks, and as a case in point he cited the Phoenician legend that Aesculapius had Apollo for his father, but no mortal woman for his mother. "For Aesculapius," said he, "is the air, and as such he is favourable to the health, not only of mankind, but of every living thing; and Apollo is the sun, and most rightly is he called the father of Aesculapius, since by ordering his course with due regard to the seasons he imparts to the air its wholesomeness." "Agreed," replied Pausanias, "but that is just what the Greeks say too. For at Titane, in the land of Sicyon, the same image is named both Health and Aesculapius, clearly because the sun's course over the earth is the source of health to mankind." 

The conversation is probably typical of much crude rationalism which, in the later ages of classical antiquity, sought to find a basis for the traditional religion in natural philosophy or in what passed for such. From loose and vague speculations of that sort no inference can be drawn as to an original identity of Apollo with the Sun.  Yet in modern times that identity has been maintained by some mythologists of repute, such as F. G. Welcker, L. Preller, and W. H. Roscher.

On the other hand, it was denied by the brilliant antiquary and historian, K. O. Muller, whose too early death was one of the heaviest losses suffered by Greek studies in the nineteenth century. Labouring with consuming zeal and tireless energy at the excavation, decipherment, and copying of inscriptions, in front of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, bare-headed under the fierce blaze of a July sun, this great scholar was suddenly struck down in the height of his intellectual powers and carried back unconscious to Athens to die. In his death superstitious fancy might be tempted to see the vengeance of the archer Apollo, shooting down at his own temple the impious mortal who dared to deny his identity with the Sun. 

However, the tragic end of Karl Otfried Muller has not deterred later scholars from following in his footsteps and rejecting the solar myth of Apollo. Among those bold spirits are numbered Wernicke in Germany, and Dr. Farnell and Dr. Rendell Harris in England. In an essay by the last of these learned men Apollo appears, not only shorn of his sunbeams, but reduced to the level of a common apple-tree and bearing in his name to the last the unmistakeable trace of his humble origin. But we are not here concerned with the intricate problem of detecting the original nucleus out of which the fertile Greek imagination evolved the complex but splendid figure of Apollo; it is enough for our present purpose to conclude that his fusion with the Sun came rather at the end than at the beginning of his long mythical career. 

From J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, 1911ff).


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