The Rays of the Sun God

There is some debate, largely academic, as to whether the emblem on the gold chests found in the royal tomb at Vergina (the "Sunburst" itself), represents a star or the sun. The Perdikkas legend discussed in the previous chapter, together with evidence which will be briefly outlined in this chapter, strongly point to the latter.

 

The god Helios  / Sun riding his solar chariot which is drawn by four winged horses. From an ancient Greek vase.

Helios, the sun god of the ancient Greeks, was usually represented riding a chariot which was drawn by four, often winged, horses (see picture below). His chariot rose daily into the heavens from the east and after blazing across the sky plunged into the western sea, thus bringing on the night. The sun's brilliant light emanated from the fiery crown that adorned Helios's head.

The sun god made the frits of the earth ripen - fertility being a common and obvious symbol logical association of the sun. When swearing an oath Greeks would often call upon Helios as a witness, as they believed he "saw and heard everything".

Although originally distinct deities, Helios was confused, as early as the fifth century BC, with Apollo (originally the god of music, the arts, archery, healing and prophecy - and later of light), so that Apollo frequently took on the function of the sun god himself. The epithets Phoebus 'the brilliant", Xanthos "the fair" and Chrysokomes "of the golden locks" used to describe Apollo, point to this solar connection.

The liveliest cult of Helios in the ancient Greek world existed on the island of Rhodes. Each year during the Halieia festival which was celebrated with much splendor and with athletic contests, the Rhodians threw a team of four horses into the sea as a sacrifice to him. In honor of what was effectively their national deity and to commemorate their heroic defense against Demetrius Poliorcetes's array, the people of Rhodes commissioned the celebrated sculptor Chares of Lindos to create a huge statue of Helios.

This statue, which is known to us as the 'Colossus of Rhodes", was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was completed in 292 BC, twelve years after work began on it. It stood at the entrance of Rhodes's harbor and was over 35 meters tall. Helios was represented with a crown of sun-rays, a spear in his left hand and a flaming torch held aloft in his right, as depicted in the illustration by Roger Payne (below). Descriptions of this ancient statue inspired the design of France's gift to the people of the USA in 1884 - the Statue of Liberty as the inscription at the base of this New York landmark acknowledges.

Less than a century after its completion (in 224 BC), an earthquake destroyed the statue and it was never again erected. The metal was finally sold for scrap in 653 AD.

The rays emanating from the sun god's head, as they must have appeared on the Rhodian statue's crown, and as we know them to actually be depicted on surviving works of art, reinforce the conviction that the inspiration for the Sunburst derives from the traditional representation of the Greek sun god Helios. It is not difficult to see that stylized rays emanating from a fiery core is in fact a shorthand reference to this solar deity rather than to a star.

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