The myth of Ixion

King Ixion, pictured on an Ancient Greek vase. He is tied for ever to a rolling fiery wheel. Here he is measured against a 22° halo*.

Image ©Paolo Colona, shown with permission
The punishment of ixion
Paths of Mercury (Eρμάων) relative to a fixed sun from 1990 - 2016. The average greatest elongation happens to be 22.4 degrees, the radius of the halo.

*In this image and likely the top one the brightest halo is actually a circumscribed halo. At high sun this halo shrinks to an oval close in size to the 22 degree halo. The sun gets high in Greece!

The Myth of Ixion

Ixion was the mythical king of Thessaly and something of a bad lot.

He married Dia, daughter of Eioneus, but conveniently overlooked payment of the promised bridal gifts to his new father-in-law. A feud resulted with Ixion throwing Eioneus into a pit of burning coals and wood. The first murderer and Cain of Greek legend. None of the nobles would purify him of the crime and eventually Zeus himself took pity and invited him to Mount Olympus for purification.

One crime was not enough Ixion. On Olympus he rewarded Zeus' generosity with an attempted dalliance with his wife Hera. Zeus, understandably less than pleased, transfigured a cloud, Nephele, into a resemblance of Hera. The resulting union with Ixion produced Centaurus (pokewind) the sire of the Centaurs.

Ixion’s punishment, having proven his intentions towards Hera, was dire. Zeus instructed Hermes to tie his hands and feet to a winged and fiery wheel on which he now rolls for all eternity.

The 22° halo and others are common appearances in Greece, at least during the more rainy seasons.

It is therefore puzzling that halos have little or no place in Ancient Greece’s rich mythology. Perhaps there is now one for the 22° halo.

Archeoastronomer and astrophysicist Paolo Colona has published a paper in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry where he interprets the myth of Ixion and argues that the Greeks saw the 22° halo as the fiery wheel.

Paolo argues:

The 22 degree halo follows the sun and is sometimes visible for hours. With its red inner edge it might be thought of as a ring of fire. OPOD comment: A high sun circumscribed halo is often even brighter with more saturated colours and would also fit this requirement.

The halo is well associated with Nephele, the cloud. The scene of ixion’s union with Nephele is in the skies (the home of Zeus) and in earlier tradition his punishment was also sky bourne. The wheel is often described as flying or winged.

The myth is also linked with rain and the halo if often the forerunner of a warm front with heavy rain.

The 22° halo matches greatest elongations of Mercury - Ancient Greek, Eρμάων or Eρμής. Zeus tasked Hermes (the Roman Mercury) to bind Ixion to the wheel. The Greeks might have imagined Hermes darting back and forth across the wheel to tie Ixion in place.