Category Archives: Sun

The Sun! The Sun! Ra, Ra, Ra!


You know those things that seem like a good idea at the time? “I’ll do a set about the sun” I said. “ The research will be easy” I said. “There’s Amaterazu from Japan, Apollo from Greece, Ra from Egypt, I’ll just read up on them, find one or two more, job done!” I said.

With a legendary character, say Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, there is a natural starting point with their birth and an obvious chronological order for the events of their life to unfold in, providing a generally consistent narrative thread. Their story mostly is presented as just that, all neatly packaged up in one place from beginning to end and helpfully titled with their name.

The problem with the Sun is that its birth is not the beginning of its own story but merely a passing event in the great story of creation from which the teller swiftly moves on. Other parts of their development are often tied in to the workings of the cosmos in a similar way and are found amongst the stories of their parents, creators or siblings. Sun goddesses are particularly beset with pushy Moon gods, usually their brother or husband, or both. This means that the Sun’s story is often scattered, like the shards of a broken pot in an archaeological site, through the episodes of a mythology.

In several countries their mythology is only preserved in a corpus of songs or poems which never actually tell the story as it was, but only allude to a now forgotten narrative in deliberately obscure ways. Here it goes beyond archaeology and becomes detective work. One is no longer trying to assemble fragments of broken pot but solve a mystery… using a cryptic crossword in a foreign language.

Even where scholars have gone before and collated the disparate elements it isn’t always easy going. Each author has their foibles. One will try to illustrate every deity by comparison to their Greek counterpart, another to the Egyptians, yet another with chapter and verse references to the bible. None of these are useful unless you have studied the mythology they are clearly obsessed with in as much detail as they have. In addition their various anecdotes, comparisons and academic diversions, though fascinating to the casual reader, have the same effect to the storyteller as if the ceramics expert, having glued the pot back together, smashed it up again and handed it to the historian in a bag full of other random bits of pot from completely different digs.

It should be simpler in Egypt. Ra is the creator of all things as well as being the sun and there is only one sun isn’t there? Maybe, but there would appear to be more than one spirit of the fiery orb. Horus also lays claim to the title, as does Osiris. Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast are just three of the goddesses that go by the name “The Eye Of Ra” which makes them the sun too. It seems that most cities or areas had their own divine wrangler of the heavenly yellow orb and to avoid (or settle) conflict a fair number of them were absorbed in to the official versions of how things were. The end result of this is that Hathor, Horus and several others work with Ra as specialists in a sprawling department of solar affairs. There are so many of them that they dispense with the traditional chariot and use a barge to get across the sky. Horus and Sekhmet handle security while Osiris takes over completely for the night shift as they make their way through an underworld full of giant snakes hell bent on having them as hot, hydrogen flavoured snacks. Poor Ra. “I’ll create a world” he said, “I’ll be the sun” he said. I expect it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Have You Got A Light?


Mostly, when I am researching a new subject, it is the similarities between religions, which are separated by miles and years measured in the thousands, that leap out. In the last two days however, it is the extraordinarily wide array of variations that is striking. One might think that the creation of the sun would be an event of sufficient significance to rank alongside the existence of primordial chaos as a pretty much constant component of the worlds disparate creation stories. Likewise one would probably imagine the status of any solar deity to be high enough to make them one of the best cards to hold in a game of Divine Top Trumps. By this point I expect the regular reader will have worked out that in both cases one would be wrong.

In Ancient Egypt it was Ra, the sun himself, who first rose out of the void and made all the other stuff, but he is far from typical. On the other side of the Sahara, in south west Nigeria, we find the Yoruba mythology. Here Oloron, the chief sky god of a quite large and established pantheon, sends Obatala down from heaven to the marshes on a golden chain. After Obatala has made land in the waters, built himself a home, planted the palm nut that he brought with him and moved in with his cat, it occurs to him that it is a bit grey and dull so he asks Oloron for some light. In answer to this request Oloron knocks up the sun and Obatala is able to get on with the important business of making humanity and palm wine.

A little to the east of Egypt, Yahwey has the good sense to invoke some photons at step one, day one, but takes until day four to come up with the source for them. In these and several other instances the celestial lamp is completely devoid of personality or divine spark.

Sidling to the north before turning back west gets us to Greece, where chaos brings forth Gaia (Earth), Erebus, (Darkness), Tartarus (an abyss) and Nyx (Night). Nyx has a prodigious number of children including Sleep, Pain, Death and Day. Gaia gives birth to Uranus (Sky) who then becomes her husband and together they begat the numerous Titans including Theia (Brightness). Following her mother’s example for keeping it in the family, Theia marries her brother Hyperion (The High One). It is only at this point, not the fourth day but the fourth generation, that Helios (The Sun) is finally born, and two generations further on he has to give up the post to his grand nephew, Apollo. Turning east again and skipping over most of a continent brings us to the Land of the Rising Sun where Amaterasu (The Great Divinity Illuminating Heaven) is held in high regard, for when she goes away the world is plunged in to darkness and all things die. Despite her exalted position, she is an eighth generation goddess brought in to being by her father wiping water from his eye at the end of a story that has seen him married, widowed and divorced (yes, in that order) by his sister. Along the way they created the earth, oceans, mountains, plants, animals, humans, death and the underworld; presumably by touch. I could go on: the sun is variously the child of night, earth, day, the sky, the moon, the reed marshes, the great void, the realm of fire, or is a lantern carried in to the sky by a woman looking for her lost child.

One oddly counter intuitive element that does seem to be consistent is that day and night almost always exist before the sun does. Why would the sun arrive so late in our mythologies? I wonder if, in the mesolithic world of hunter gathering, when the great majority of habitable land was covered by a near continuous forest, anyone really saw the sun that much. Day and night would come and go, but it is only when the neolithic people cut down the trees and started growing crops that the sun became sufficiently obvious and important to get a deity of its own. With the exception that might prove the rule being the desert dwelling Egyptians, for whom an all-seeing, all-powerful, solar creator makes total sense.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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