I look upon the sunrise and sunset, on the daily return of day and night, on the battle between light and darkness, on the whole solar drama in all its
details that is acted every day, every month, every year, in heaven and in earth, as the principal subject of early mythology.
Oxford professor who
transformed the study
of solar mythology1
Man has weav'd out a net,
And this net throwne
Upon the heavens,
And now they are his owne.
Donne's awed yet mocking lines were written in the early years of the Copernican revolution, but they could apply just as easily to man's attempt to make sense of the heavens-to make them "his owne"-by telling stories. Because all societies have myths about the Sun, their sheer variety is glorious-here it is a magician or trickster, there a ball of fire some figure must carry, another time a canoe, a mirror, or an amazing menagerie of beasts. In Peru and northern Chile, many tribes knew the Sun as the god Inti, who descended into the ocean every evening, swam back to the east, then reappeared, refreshed by his bath.3 As soon as the horse became domesticated (early in the second millennium b.c.) the Sun was portrayed as guiding a chariot drawn by four flaming steeds. In ancient India, these were termed arushá, Sanskrit for "Sun-bright" (the Greek word "eros" shares that meaning, having evolved from the same root as "sun horse"). Birds are often invoked-a falcon, or an eagle, and of course the phoenix, which dies and is reborn from its own ashes. In Africa and India, the tiger and lion are solar animals, sunrise being represented by a young lion, noon by one in its prime, sunset by one in old age. Where lions are absent, local communities adapt: in the pre-Conquest Americas, the eagle and jaguar are the chosen beasts.
Several cultures described the Sun in more than one way: to the Egyptians, the solar gods numbered not only Ra but Khepri, "the Self- Transforming One," and Harakhty, "the Far One." The Aztecs employed Huitzilopochtli (from huitzilin, a hummingbird) to mean both the rising Sun and the star at its zenith, and Tezcatlipoca, "Smoking (or Shining) Mirror," for twilight or evening. The Sun is continually reborn; so that in all they had a jaguar sun, a wind sun, a rain sun, a rain-of-fire sun, and the god Nanahuatzin ("Full of Sores") who became a fifth solar force, that of the earthquake. Yet whatever form the Sun takes-an eye, a wing, a boat, a dragon, a fish, a bird-there is a common core, a similarity to these tales that spring up in cultures often hemispheres, and millennia, apart.
Sometimes the Sun is seen as so overwhelming a threat that it must in some way be tamed. In ancient Chinese mythology, for instance, the goddess Xihi gives birth to ten suns, which rise simultaneously into the heavens, burning the harvests and all plant life-bar one huge mulberry bush, the fusang, on which the suns perch. Every morning the goddess bathes one of them, letting it fly up to her on the back of a crow. One day all the suns escape, and life on Earth becomes unbearable. A variety of monsters scour the land: the ogre Zuochi, with long teeth; Quiying, who kills with water and fire; a giant bird that unleashes the wind, Dafeng; the giant boar Fengxi; and the great serpent Xisushe. The wretched people below endlessly beg the suns to come down, but they refuse. Total destruction impends, until Houyi, a young archer, slays the ogre, the monster, and the giant bird, cuts the serpent in two, captures the boar and-his crowning act-shoots down nine of the suns. Ever since, the story concludes, there has been only the one last sun.
Aesop's fable "The Sun Gets Married" has a different plot but the same threat. One hot summer, word comes that the Sun is to marry. All the birds and beasts rejoice, especially the frogs, until a wise old toad calls for order. "My friends," he tells them, "you should temper your enthusiasm. For if the Sun alone dries up the marshes so that we can hardly bear it, what will become of us if he should have half a dozen little suns in addition?" Two stories, both teaching that one can have too much of a good thing.
Almost all ancient civilizations believed the universe to have existed for unknown ages without benefit of any human intervention. The same did not hold true for the Sun, which in a host of mythologies exists only by virtue of man's nurture. The Hopi of northeast Arizona, for instance, claimed they made the Sun by throwing up a buckskin shield along with a fox's coat and a parrot's tail (to make the colors of sunrise and sunset). But whatever form or character it took, the Sun was rarely cast as fully invulnerable (an old German custom forbade pointing at the star lest one do it harm), and it has been variously depicted as having been freed from a cave, or stolen, or having sprung into life through the self-sacrifice of a god or hero. Among the Inuit of the Bering Strait, all creation is attributed to a Raven Father, who is so annoyed at man's rapacity that he hides the Sun in a bag. The terrified people offer him gifts until he relents, but only to a degree, holding the Sun up in the sky for a time before removing it again.
Every early society personified the cycles of nature, but where the Sun is concerned, cultures have differed on its gender. In the Romance languages the star is male, but in the Germanic and Celtic it is feminine and the Moon masculine: in upper Bavaria the Sun is still spoken of as "Frau Sonne" and the Moon as "Herr Mond." For the Rwala Bedouin of Arabia, the Sun is a mean and destructive old hag who forces the handsome Moon to sleep with her once a month and so exhausts him that he needs another month to recover.4 Other groups, such as the Eskimo, Cherokee, and Yuchi, also regard the Sun as female, while in Polish the Sun is neuter, the Moon male. These variations may have arisen from climatic differences: in some areas the day is mild and welcoming, hence the Sun tends to be termed feminine, whereas the Moon, ruling the chill, stern nighttime, is male. In equatorial regions, where daytime is searingly forbidding and the night mild and pleasant, the genders reverse. There are exceptions: on the Malay Peninsula, Sun and Moon are both regarded as female and the stars as the Moon's children.5
Most creation accounts cast the Sun as paramount, both over the Moon and over the heavens. The Book of Genesis declares: "God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night."6 The Egyptians referred to Sun and Moon as "the two lights," the right and left eye, respectively, of Ra-the left being described as weaker, because damaged. In Central and South America and among the Mundas of Bengal, Sun and Moon are man and wife. The Bengalis charmingly call the Sun "Sing-Bonga," believing him a gentle god who does not interfere in human affairs. Another myth of the same region fashions the star as a man with three eyes and four arms who is abandoned by his wife because his dazzle wearies her. She installs Chhaya (Darkness) in his place, but the Sun wins her back by reducing his effulgence to seven-eighths of its original brilliance (an interesting example of the spirit of compromise making companionship possible). Many stories are told about such marital troubles, it being a given that Sun and Moon can never live happily together.
It occurred to some of the more sophisticated ancient cultures to wonder why, if the Sun were indeed so powerful, he had to abide by strict laws rather than roam at will. Surely only a slave would perform so repetitively? Numerous legends were devised to explain this thralldom. The Sun was portrayed as erratic, sometimes hurrying too fast, at other times dawdling, coming too close to Earth one moment, the next moving too far away. The sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the first bicultural Spanish Americans, tells the following story about Huayna Capac, greatest of Inca conquerors:
One day this ruler stares directly into the rays of the Sun, and
his high priest has to remind him that their religion forbids this. Huayna Capac replies that he is his king and pontiff. "Is there any amongst you who would dare command me to rise and undertake a long journey?"
The high priest answers that this would be unthinkable.
Huayna Capac continues: "And would any of my chieftains, no matter what his power or worldly estate, refuse to obey me if I should command him to travel to far-away Chile?"
The high priest acknowledges that no chieftain would.
"Then," says the Inca, "I tell you that this our Father the Sun must have a master greater than he, who thus commands him to journey across the sky day after day with never a respite, for if he were the Supreme Lord he would surely sometime cease traveling and rest."7
The Greeks, too, put the Sun in a somewhat less than exalted position; Homer does not even grant Helios a place among the Olympians. Nor is the Sun seen as always beneficent: in Mesopotamian myth, the solar god Nergal brings plague and war, his weapons being heat, parching winds, and lightning. Throughout history there remains a deep ambivalence: humanity cannot do without the Sun's power, but still wishes to tame or seduce it, to limit its hold over us.
what is that hold? In the latter half of the nineteenth century a remarkable scholar would make the Sun the focus of his research: Friedrich Max Müller. He would argue that the Sun lay at the root of language, and thus of all major myths, not just the obviously solar ones. Müller was born in 1823 in Dessau, then the capital of a small state within the German Confederation, the son of a poet. Initially he studied Sanskrit, which kindled an interest in philology and religion. He embarked on a translation of the Rig Veda, the sacred hymns of Hinduism, and in 1846 traveled to Britain to research the archives of its Indian empire, supporting himself by writing fiction- his first novel, German Love, becoming a bestseller. He stayed on, and in 1854 was appointed professor of modern languages at Oxford. Fourteen years later, he was made professor of comparative philology as well, and later yet the university's first professor of comparative theology. The breadth of his knowledge, along with the fact that he spent years preparing a massive fifty-volume English translation of The Sacred Books of the East, may well have made him the model for George Eliot's Dr. Casaubon-the pedant engrossed in his never-ending lifework The Key to All Mythologies-in her novel Middlemarch, published in 1871, when Müller's reputation was at its height.
In his time this German-born Oxford academic was a truly famous figure, his friends and acquaintances spanning two generations of the British intellectual elite: Macaulay, Tennyson, Thackeray, Ruskin, Browning, Matthew Arnold, Gladstone, and Curzon, among many others. Queen Victoria twice offered him a knighthood, which he declined as inappropriate. When he died, his widow received condolences from kings and emperors. In all, he wrote more than fifty books. His last words were, unsurprisingly, "I am tired."8
In his masterwork, On the Philosophy of Mythology (1871), he set about showing that the same kinds of stories, the same traditions and myths, could be found worldwide, and that the appearance and disappearance of the Sun and its worship as the source of life were the basis of most mythological systems. From the earliest times, man constructed his understanding of the world around the Sun.
What we call the Morning, the ancient Aryans called the Sun or the Dawn. . . . What we call Noon, the Evening, and Night, what we call Spring and Winter, what we call Year, and Time, and Life, and Eternity-all this the ancient Aryans called Sun. And yet wise people wonder and say, how curious that the ancient Aryans should have had so many solar myths. Why, every time we say "Good morning" we commit a solar myth. . . . Every "Christmas number" of our newspapers- ringing out the old year and ringing in the new-is brimful of solar myths.9
More than a century on, we tend to take the validity of Müller's main arguments for granted. In his own time, however, he seriously overreached: his insistence that every myth derives from the Sun, as well as his emphasis on the primacy of Aryan mythology and his eagerness to converge all languages back toward a single common root, provoked a bitter battle between his camp and those who took different paths. The cause of solar panmythology lost its leading light with his death in 1900. Though Müller's work is now known to only a few, he remains a major figure in our understanding of solar myths.
the sun's place in the world's mythologies was taken up once again in 1923 by William James Perry (1887-1949), a cultural anthropologist at University College, London, and the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) when that year they coauthored Children of the Sun, which argued that during mankind's early history there were groups of people on most continents who believed themselves to be the progeny of a sun god. Unrepentant heliocentrists, Perry and Smith contended that "the importance of this fact in the history of civilization, and especially in the study of mythology and tradition, cannot be exaggerated."10
They dated the first appearance of self-proclaimed descendants of the gods to around 2580 b.c. Claiming to be the actual progeny of Ra, the members of the pharaonic dynasties believed that at some point the Sun had come down to take the place of the king on Earth, thus making them his descendants. The subjects of the king were taught never to look directly at him; rain or sunshine were his to summon; he was master of magic and giver or withholder of the harvest.11 The Egyptians took the divine nature of kingship further than any other society-although it was the Roman emperor Vespasian (a.d. 9-79) who joked on his deathbed, "Damn, I think I'm turning into a god."
Perry and Smith discerned similar belief systems among the Asuras
of India, the Timurids of Indonesia, the Abarihu of San Cristobal in the Solomons, the inhabitants of many parts of Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Eastern Pacific, the Inca, the Mayans, and several North American tribes, and concluded, "Wherever it is possible to examine the ruling classes of the archaic civilization, it is found that they were what are termed gods, that they had the attributes of gods, and that they usually called themselves the Children of the Sun."12 Like Müller, they finally pushed a valuable insight too far (the countries where such Children of the Sun held sway show up on a world atlas only in particular areas), yet they did identify a remarkable cultural pattern, which enjoyed preeminence for thousands of years.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard Cohen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.