Odysseus and Helios

The oil lamp pictured below is part of the collection of the Antikensammlung in Munich. A date is not indicated, but it’s probably Roman. Odysseus is shown walking in from the left. To the right we see Helios. In the background the sun god’s livestock is depicted: two horses that belong to the team that pulls the chariot with which he travels across the firmament every day, as well as a cow.

We know the context for this scene. During his adventures, Odysseus arrived on the island where Helios kept his cattle. The hero told his companions under no condition to eat the animals, but they did it anyway, which ultimately cost them their lives. The story can be found in book 12 of Homer’s Odyssey. Missing from that account, however, is that Odysseus went to visit the sun god. That story obviously existed, because this scene illustrates it.

The Greeks and Romans – and naturally all peoples of the ancient world – told each other thousands of stories. Some of those were written down and some of those writings have come down to us. There must have been stories we don’t know about and this is one: a story in which Odysseus and the sun god met. As always, there’s more about the ancient world that we don’t know than what we do know. 

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