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Helios’ Sacred Animals

October 6, 2013
Abrasax. Based off depictions of Helios, and considered likewise a sola deity, Abrasax is depicted with the head of a rooster and snakes for legs, which happen to be the most common greek solar symbols.

Abrasax. Based off depictions of Helios, and considered likewise a sola deity, Abrasax is depicted with the head of a rooster and snakes for legs, which happen to be the most common greek solar symbols.

While the level of respect that the public worship of the hellenes had for Helios is controversial, he was nonetheless a deity omnipresent in the obscure greek esoteric practises. Best demonstrating the notion of correspondences seen in hellenic magic, Helios was a associated with a number of animals, comparable to the number of species associated with the more popular hellenic gods. Some of these associations still survive in medieval magic, but many are rather surprisingly ignored by modern occultists.

The Rooster

Of all domestic animal species, if all animals, period, the rooster is probably the most unambiguously linked to the Sun god. The rooster was recognised as Helios’ sacred bird, and even when associated with other gods, like Apollo and Hermes, it’s always in a solar context, syncretising them with Helios; the exception is Selene, and even then this can be assumed as subtle syncretism, as Selene is described rather accurately as reflecting her brother’s light, and is described in her orphic hymn as “female and male”, implying that the rooster here is symbolising Helios’ influence on the Moon. This association is so strong that in Late Antiquity Helios is even occasionally depicted with a rooster head, no doubt under egyptian influence, a depiction style later passed to Abraxas/Abrasax. In mythology, the most blatant case is by his descendent Idomeneus, which bears a shield with a rooster emblazoned in it to display his parentage.

The reasons for this correspondence are obvious: the rooster’s crow heralds dawn and the Sun’s coming, and it kills pests like mice and grasshopers, symbolically reflecting Helios’ light driving off nocturnal spirits and bad luck. Male junglefowl, and as well as the roosters of many breeds, have a bright “mane” of golden feathers, which would defenitely be visually indicative of sunrays, and the rooster’s crest does resemble a crown. As egyptian artistic trends expanded, a reminder of the sun disc in solar deities’ heads would also probably have come into mind, the rooster now bearing the solar sphere on it’s head. In latter esoteric focus of the Sun as a symbol of masculinity, the rooster’s infamous virility would have also further strengthened this connection.

In public ritual, roosters appear to have been rather minor sacrifices, but we do know that in theurgical practise sacrificial killings of cocks not only were common, but also actually advised in regards to reaching henosis. In the 8th Book of Moses (PGM XIII), sacrificing two white roosters is a fundamental offering that starts the ritual, which focuses on worshipping Helios and his 365 subservient deities. Rooster body parts, such as feathers and feet, were placed inside statues of Helios used by theurgists, while rooster blood was used in medicinal spells. Less violent applications also existed, like icons of roosters or deities with rooster heads in solar amulets. Live roosters were kept by magicians, being among the few creatures without miasma and thus allowed to be familiars, much like cats are today with wiccans.

Medieval associations of the rooster with the Sun are surprisingly rare, with only Agrippa listing the rooster as a solar animal. In celtic tradition, the rooster is a sacrifice to Brighid, thought to be a solar goddess, implying that the rooster was a solar symbol even in european traditions where the Sun is female, and the rooster as a solar symbol also occurs both in Zoroastrianism, where the rooster not only wards off evil spsirits, but also is associated with Ahura Mazda’s more martial side. Christianity also bears the rooster as a solar symbol, largely due to Jesus’ syncretism with Helios. In mesopotamian religion, the rooster is more readily associated with Nergal than Utu/Shamash, but this god is considered frequently subservient to or an aspect of the Sun regardless. Even in Taoist esoterism, the rooster is associated with absolute Yang, which is the Sun.

The Snake

After the rooster, the snake is the animal most often associated with Helios. Snakes are frequently used in greek literature as representing solar rays, and Helios is occasionally described as riding a chariot pulled by draconic beings instead of horses. Helios himself lends two winged serpents to his grandaughter Medea, allowing her to escape danger as well as to once again proudly display her parentage. Indeed, it possible that Apollo’s association with snakes actually comes from Helios: Apollo’s titles as “lord of the fiery serpents” and “charioteer of dragons” are all exclusive to a solar context, and given Helios’ own associations with medicine and prophecy, even snakes used in this context may actually had originally been part of Helios’ cult.

Snakes, while often a chthonic symbol, especially in greek paganism, are not alien as symbolic of the Sun. In Egypt, Wadjet is the Eye of Ra who burns Apophis and his demons every night, while levantine seraphs are draconic angels made of fire and light. More directly, Saulé and other northern european sun goddesses have snakes as their sacred animal, implying that the association of snakes with the Sun dates in Europe at least as back as Proto-Indo-European times, and so is Shamash/Utu. In all these cases, the snake is associated with either purification or protection, particularly in regards to the Sun’s more destructive side, burning away the wicked spirits or people just like the snake’s poison burns the flesh. When snakes are directly associated with Helios, this destructive side seems to be implicated, being described more ominously than his usual horse-driven chariot, and the fact that they aid Medea, who is by no means seen as a positive figure, further strengthens the more primal, more feared side of the Sun, of the fiery rays that cause suntrokes, droughts and death.

In theurgical texts, Helios’ daimones are described as having the heads/faces of serpents. The Mithras Liturgy lists seven of these divine beings, which are said to be snake faced virgins wearing golden staffs, which sing adorations to the Sun god, perhaps in a way not too dissimilar from abrahamic seraphs; the gnostic Sun Archon, Adonaios/Iao, is described as a seven headed serpent. Serpents are discussed frequently as metaphors for enlightment in philosophical books, being representative of the rays of Helios that illumine the soul. The icon of a lion-headed serpent with rays coming out from the head is omnipresent in mystery religions, and latter apropriated as the symbol of Ialdabaoth by the gnostics.

The Horse

This should come across as a no-brainer, considering that Helios is classically depicted in a chariot pulled by four divine horses, the “fire-darting steeds” as Pindar puts it. These horses are occasionally given individual names, Pyrois (“fire”), Aeos/Eous (“dawn”), Aethon (“blaze”) and Phlegon (“flame”), though rarely does this individuality actually mean something in narrative and cult practise alike. The divine horses of the Sun are occasionally depicted as winged-horses like Pegasus, being reffered as winged horses by Ovid, in some cases the wings stylised in the likeness of sun rays.

White horses in general were considered sacred to Helios, and they were sacrificed victims to the Sun god in special occasions; Pausanias and Philostratus alike describe that white horses killings were practised in homage of Helios even outside of Rhodes on some festivals. Horses are associated with stamina and speed, both traits said to be had by Helios, who is described as untiring and fast in his daily flight. Horses are obviously also sacred to Poseidon, reflecting thus the intricate interactions of both gods in mythology, and to Ares, which may be a relic from the war god’s speculated status as a Pelasgian solar deity.

The Wolf [?]

The wolf’s association with Helios is only known from one source, Aelianus’ “On the Nature of Animals”, in which the wolf is stated to be “beloved to Helios”, and that the hellenic year is called Lykaba precisely due to this connection (“Lykaba” is similar to “lykos”, “wolf”).

Given the otherwise utter absence of wolves in other sources and cultic worship alike, this claim is at best the subject of extreme controversy. Other european and middle eastern mythologies actually hold wolves as enemies of the Sun, representing the forces of darkness that seek to devour the light giver, most notably in Sunna’s war against the devilful Sköll, the Etruscan chthonic wolf-headed demons, and the middle eastern association of wolves with Ahriman, the god of darkness and lies. This doesn’t invalidate the possibility of a connection, however, as many animals have similar dichotomous, seemingly contradicting connatations: in egyptian mythology, for instance, snakes both represent Wadjet and Apophis, the gods of light and darkness respectively, while lions may genuinely be both sacred and enimical to the Sun, as we will see below.

Wolves are however well established as sacred to Apollo, the god of light, largely due to his epiphet as Lykeios, interpreted as to come from “lykos”, but also possibly relating to “lykê” (“light”) or the land of Lycia instead – regardless of the etymology, the association with wolves is taken to represent Apollo’s more destructive, violent side, or his role as the god of twilight. Since Apollo is most famously associated with Helios, it’s possible that Aelianus was attempting a syncretic approach, giving Helios’ Apollo’s attributes, much in the same way Apollo came to be associated with snakes thanks to syncretism with Helios.

However, there is no evidence that the author considered both to be the same god or even directly associated, as equating Apollo and Helios/Sol was not commonly practised even in Late Antiquity, and indeed in the time of the work’s publication the classical sun god, Sol Invictus, was considered a well distinct deity from Apollo. Indeed, the association of the Lykaba with the wolf seems exclusive to this text, and it most likely relates etymologically to “lykê”.

While it’s entirely possible that wolves were associated with Helios, evidence thus far seems to suggest that they were at best not commonly used as a solar symbol.

The Lion

Although medieval grimoires usually point to the lion as the de facto “solar beast”, classical associations of the lion with the Sun are exceedingly rare, instead reffering to the animal as a symbol of primal goddesses like Artemis, Demeter, Reha and Cybele. Nonetheless, lions are indeed occasionally established as solar animals in greek sources, most notably in regards to the sign of Leo, both in art and in the Chaldean Oracles, which recommend the invocation of the constellation as a practise related to solar henosis. As stated above, the lion-headed serpent is a common esoteric symbol related to the Sun, adorned with the seven rays that cleanse the soul. Mithraic Mysteries, which syncretise Mithras with Helios/Sol, have as an common icon a strange figure with a human body and a lion head.

The lion is also associated with Helios in the Sun god’s syncretism with Herakles. More so than Apollo, the hero was often equated with Helios, with philosophers describing the hero and his journey as a metaphor for Helios fighting off the ills of the world. In this respect, the Nemean Lion, Herakles most iconic symbol, is thus associated with Helios not just as a sacred animal, as the solar hero wears his pelt as the symbol of his identity, but actually also as a representation of the very forces that are enemical to the Sun, the lion being a primordial abomination that threatens Helios/Herakles and is slain by him. This depiction is actually blatantly adressed in classical literature:

“Perhaps you fancy cities of gods are there and groves and temples rich with offerings. No! Wild beasts lie in wait and shapes of fear! And though you shall meet Taurus, must brave his horns, and face Arcus Haemonius [the Thessalian Archer, representing Saggitarius] and the ravening Leo, the long curved circuit of the Scorpio’s claws, Cancer whose claws in counter-menace wave.”

– Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.

Here, we see that the Zodiac’s signs are represented by ravenous beasts not unlike the norse Sköll, threatning to kill Helios but bravely warded off by the god. Leo here is placed in the rank and file of the zodiacal monsters, as another monster to be fought off, but being the king of the beasts and de facto ruler of the Zodiac, Leo most certainly stands out in religious thought, as the Nemean Lion represents it, and is not only the first labor, but also the one beast that defines Herakles, whose pelt is taken by the hero as his own armour. Leo, as the ruler of the Zoadiac, is thus Helios’ most fearsome opponent, but also the one sign that defines him, presiding over the Sun itself. In the original Zodiac dates, the time of Leo is during August, the end of the Sun’s apex, symbolically thus representing the lion striking at Helios and fatally wounding him, but in turn being slain by the god and having his pelt worn by the deity, in turn representing Leo’s intrinsic solar nature. Thus, the lion is directly tied to the notions of death and rebirth so common in european and middle eastern solar cults, but in this case with a twist, as the Sun’s greatest enemy is thus himself

In medieval grimoires, the lion is justified as a solar symbol largely due to his exuberant mane, which resembles solar rays, and that is restricted to the male, corresponding to the post-classical notion of the Sun as a masculine entity; the lion’s status as the king of the beasts is positted as a “egg or chicken” case, as the lion could easily have become the king because he is the Sun or the Sun because he is the king, a question that also springs to mind in hellenic religion, as Zeus and Apollo are associated with Helios because of their kingly status. The medieval associations are most likely also resultant of christian thought, as Jesus is most famously associated with lions; considering Christianity has effectively syncretised Jesus with Helios, apropriating most of the Sun god’s symbolism, iconography and worship practises into their messiah, one could posit that the lion is yet another stolen hellenic symbol, albeit one witnessing more use in the younger religion.

However, aside from the egyptian goddesses Sekhmet and Bast, both depicted as lionesses, the lion is curiously not considered a solar animal anywhere else on earth, in spite of the abundant amount of cultures that interacted with lions and beared them as symbols. Thus, the male lion as a solar animal appears to be an hellenic invention with christian refinement.

The Eagle

While most often associated with Zeus, the golden eagle appears to have been occasionally linkened to Helios, most often in magical papyri, where incantations and spells calling for the god mention the bird, but also in actual mythology, where the mythical raptor Aethon shares the same name as one of Helios’ horses. Romans had less ambiguous connatations, outright depicting Sol Invictus in association with golden eagles, and the syncretised celtic-roman solar deities all beared eagles as their symbols. The association of the eagle with Helios is closely tied to the god’s own association with Zeus, symbolising their status as kingly gods and sky deities that provide mankind with light; being both also gods associated with justice and morality, the golden eagle also symbolises divine retribution, a connatation also seen in Sumeria with the solar and justice deity Shamash, also associated with golden eagles. Helios is also the god of eyesight, something that ressonates intuitively with the far sighted birds of prey.


Bulls and rams are common sacred animals for many greek deities, in no small part due to their associations with virility, strength and fertility, both sexual and in being effective sacrifices. Helios is among the several gods associated with bulls and rams – and possibly the only god truly associated with the latter, considering that the association of the ram with other gods is generally exclusive to a solar context -, white bulls and rams being the favoured and most common sacrificial victims to the Sun god. In the Odyssey, the association of Helios with rams and bulls is most iconic, where the island of Thrinacia is home to seven herds of oxen and red flocks of fleece, all belonging to Helios (here reffered as Hyperion) and appearently red furred, which are mercilessly slaughtered by Odysseus and his crew.

However, this connection is also expressed more subtly in other myths. In the story of the Minotaur, the abominatory union is caused by Pasiphae, a daughter of Helios, who copulates with a bull described as being white in colour. That he was going to be sacrificed to Poseidon also reminds one of the relationship between the Olympian and Helios: just as Helios married the sea god’s daughter, Pasiphae copulated with a creation of Poseidon, resulting in another union of light and water. The Minotaur himself, the beastial grandson of Helios, is a relic of Minoan solar worship, of which bulls were the local Sun deity’s symbol.

The myth of the Golden Fleece also involves another daughter of the Sun god, Theophane, bearing a child from Poseidon in a bestial form, this time a winged, radiant ram, who flies the boy Phrixus out of Boeotia to the house of Aeëtes, a King who also happens to be a son of Helios. The ram is sacrificed to Poseidon, and his fleece is placed on an oak sacred to Ares. This story has several times been interpreted as a solar myth, and the fact that Helios’ offspring play such a big role in the events is probably not a coincidence, nor is the placement of the fleece in a tree sacred to Ares.

Both the Minotaur and the Golden Fleece have been associated with Taurus and Aries, respectively. The two starting signs of the Zodiac, they were traditionally associated with the dawn prior to their Late Antiquity alignment with Venus and Mars respectively, representing the Sun’s rebirth and generative power. More importantly, they come right after Piscis, the Zodiac sign sacred to Poseidon, which coincides with the Fleece’s and the Minotaur’s aquatic parentage. Thus, both the ram and the bull symbolically represent the union of the fertile powers of sunlight and the waters resulting from Spring rains or melting snow, as well as the very dawn itself, which is born out of the night, the time of the day most associated with water.

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