A solar deity (also sun god or sun goddess) is a sky deity who represents the Sun, or an aspect of it, usually by its perceived power and strength. Solar deities and sun worship can be found throughout most of recorded history in various forms.
The Neolithic concept of a “solar barge” (also “solar bark”, “solar barque”, “solar boat” and “sun boat”, a mythological representation of the sun riding in a boat) is found in the later myths of ancient Egypt, with Ra and Horus. Predynasty Egyptian beliefs attribute Atum as the sun-god and Horus as a god of the sky and sun. As the Old Kingdom theocracy gained power, early beliefs were incorporated with the expanding popularity of Ra and the Osiris-Horus mythology. Atum became Ra-Atum, the rays of the setting sun. Osiris became the divine heir to Atum’s power on Earth and passes his divine authority to his son Horus. Early Egyptian myths imply the sun is within the lioness, Sekhmet, at night and is reflected in her eyes; or that it is within the cow, Hathor, during the night, being reborn each morning as her son (bull).
Mesopotamian Shamash plays an important role during the Bronze Age, and “my Sun” is eventually used as an address to royalty. Similarly, South American cultures have a tradition of Sun worship, as with the Incan Inti. Svarog is the Slavic god sun and spirit of fire.
Proto-Indo-European religion has a solar chariot, the sun as traversing the sky in a chariot. In Germanic mythology this is Sol, in Vedic Surya, and in Greek Helios (occasionally referred to as Titan) and (sometimes) as Apollo.
During the Roman Empire, a festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun (or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) was celebrated on the winter solstice—the “rebirth” of the sun—which occurred on December 25 of the Julian calendar. In late antiquity, the theological centrality of the sun in some Imperial religious systems suggest a form of a “solar monotheism”. The religious commemorations on December 25 were replaced under Christian domination of the Empire with the birthday of Christ.
The Tiv people consider the Sun to be the son of the supreme being Awondo and the Moon Awondo’s daughter. The Barotse tribe believes that the Sun is inhabited by the sky god Nyambi and the Moon is his wife. Some Sara people worship the sun.
Even where the sun god is equated with the supreme being, in some African mythologies he or she does not have any special functions or privileges as compared to other deities. The Ancient Egyptian god of creation, Amun is also believed to reside inside the sun. So is the Akan creator deity, Nyame and the Dogon deity of creation, Nommo. Also in Egypt, there was a religion that worshiped the sun directly, and was among the first monotheistic religions: Atenism.
Sun worship was prevalent in ancient Egyptian religion. The earliest deities associated with the sun are all goddesses: Wadjet, Sekhmet, Hathor, Nut, Bast, Bat, and Menhit. First Hathor, and then Isis, give birth to and nurse Horus and Ra. Hathor the horned-cow is one of the 12 daughters of Ra, gifted with joy and is a wet-nurse to Horus.
From at least the 4th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, the sun was worshipped as the god Re (pronounced probably as Riya, meaning simply ‘the sun’), and portrayed as a falcon headed divinity surmounted by the solar disk, and surrounded by a serpent. Re supposedly gave warmth to the living body, symbolised as an ankh: a “T” shaped amulet with a looped upper half. The ankh, it was believed, was surrendered with death, but could be preserved in the corpse with appropriate mummification and funerary rites. The supremacy of Re in the Egyptian pantheon was at its highest with the 5th Dynasty, when open air solar temples became common. In the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, Re lost some of his preeminence to Osiris, lord of the West, and judge of the dead. In the New Empire period, the sun became identified with the dung beetle, whose spherical ball of dung was identified with the sun. In the form of the sun disc Aten, the sun had a brief resurgence during the Amarna Period when it again became the preeminent, if not only, divinity for the Pharaoh Akhenaton.
The Sun’s movement across the sky represents a struggle between the Pharaoh’s soul and an avatar of Osiris. Ra travels across the sky in his solar-boat; at dawn he drives away the demon Apep of darkness. The “solarisation” of several local gods (Hnum-Re, Min-Re, Amon-Re) reaches its peak in the period of the fifth dynasty.
Rituals to the god Amun who became identified with the sun god Ra were often carried out on the top of temple pylons. A Pylon mirrored the hieroglyph for ‘horizon’ or akhet, which was a depiction of two hills “between which the sun rose and set”, associated with recreation and rebirth. On the first Pylon of the temple of Isis at Philae, the pharaoh is shown slaying his enemies in the presence of Isis, Horus and Hathor. In the eighteenth dynasty, the earliest-known monotheistic head of state, Akhenaten changed the polytheistic religion of Egypt to a monotheistic one, Atenism of the solar-disk and is the first recorded state monotheism. All other deities were replaced by the Aten, including Amun-Ra, the reigning sun god of Akhenaten’s own region. Unlike other deities, the Aten did not have multiple forms. His only image was a disk—a symbol of the sun.
Soon after Akhenaten’s death, worship of the traditional deities was reestablished by the religious leaders (Ay the High-Priest of Amen-Ra, mentor of Tutankhaten/Tutankhamen) who had adopted the Aten during the reign of Akhenaten.
In Aztec mythology, Tonatiuh (Nahuatl: Ollin Tonatiuh, “Movement of the Sun”) was the sun god. The Aztec people considered him the leader of Tollan (heaven). He was also known as the fifth sun, because the Aztecs believed that he was the sun that took over when the fourth sun was expelled from the sky. According to their cosmology, each sun was a god with its own cosmic era. According to the Aztecs, they were still in Tonatiuh’s era. According to the Aztec creation myth, the god demanded human sacrifice as tribute and without it would refuse to move through the sky. The Aztecs were fascinated by the sun and carefully observed it, and had a solar calendar similar to that of the Maya. Many of today’s remaining Aztec monuments have structures aligned with the sun.
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In Buddhist cosmology, the bodhisattva of the Sun is known as Sūryaprabha (“having the light of the sun”); in Chinese he is called Rigong Riguang Pusa (The Bright Solar Bodhisattva of the Solar Palace), Rigong Riguang Tianzi (The Bright Solar Prince of the Solar Palace), or Rigong Riguang Zuntian Pusa (The Greatly Revered Bright Solar Prince of the Solar Palace), one of the 20 or 24 guardian devas.
Sūryaprabha is often depicted with Candraprabha (“having the light of the moon”), called in Chinese Yuegong Yueguang Pusa (The Bright Lunar Bodhisattva of the Lunar Palace), Yuegong Yueguang Tianzi ( The Bright Lunar Prince of the Lunar Palace), or Yuegong Yueguang Zuntian Pusa (The Greatly Revered Bright Lunar Prince of the Lunar Palace). Together with Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha (Chinese: Yaoshi Fo) these two bodhisattvas constitute the Dongfang San Sheng (Three Holy Sages of the Eastern Quarter).
Pure Land Buddhism also features lots of Solar imagery, focused on Amitābha Buddha, (“the Buddha of Infinite Light”). This Buddha is often portrayed wearing a solar crown, and visualizing the setting sun is one of the common practices to reach the Sukhāvatī, his Pure Land.
In Chinese mythology (cosmology), there were originally ten suns in the sky, who were all brothers. They were supposed to emerge one at a time as commanded by the Jade Emperor. They were all very young and loved to fool around. Once they decided to all go into the sky to play, all at once. This made the world too hot for anything to grow. A hero named Hou Yi shot down nine of them with a bow and arrow to save the people of the earth. He is still honored this very day. In another myth, the solar eclipse was caused by the magical dog of heaven biting off a piece of the sun. The referenced event is said to have occurred around 2,160BCE. There was a tradition in China to make lots of loud celebratory sounds during a solar eclipse to scare the sacred “dog” away. The Deity of the Sun in Chinese mythology is Ri Gong Tai Yang Xing Jun (Tai Yang Gong / Grandfather Sun) or Star Lord of the Solar Palace, Lord of the Sun. In some mythologies, Tai Yang Xing Jun is believed to be Hou Yi. Tai Yang Xing Jun is usually depicted with the Star Lord of the Lunar Palace, Lord of the Moon, Yue Gong Tai Yin Xing Jun (Tai Yin Niang Niang / Lady Tai Yin). Worship of the moon goddess Chang’e and her festivals are very popular among followers of Chinese folk religion and Taoism. Similar to Santa Claus and Christmas in the West, the goddess and her holy days are ingrained in Chinese popular culture.
Those whom practice Dievturība, beliefs of traditional Latvian culture, celebrate the Sun goddess, Saulė and known in traditional Lithuanian beliefs as Saulé. Saule/Saulé is among the most important deities in Baltic mythology/traditions.
Though traditionally gods like Lugh and Belenos have been considered to be male sun gods, this assessment is derived from their identification with the Roman Apollo, and as such this assessment is controversial. The sun in Celtic culture is nowadays assumed to have been feminine, and several goddesses have been proposed as possibly solar in character.
In Irish, the name of the sun, Grian, is feminine. The figure known as Áine is generally assumed to have been either synonymous with her, or her sister, assuming the role of Summer Sun while Grian was the Winter Sun. Similarly, Étaín has at times been considered to be another theonym associated with the sun; if this is the case, then the pan-Celtic Epona might also have been originally solar in nature, though Roman syncretism pushed her towards a lunar role.
The British Sulis has a name cognate with that of other Indo-European solar deities such as the Greek Helios and Indic Surya, and bears some solar traits like the association with the eye as well as epithets associated with light. The theonym Sulevia, which is more widespread and probably unrelated to Sulis, is sometimes taken to have suggested a pan-Celtic role as a solar goddess. She indeed might have been the de facto solar deity of the Celts.
Even the Gayatri mantra, which is regarded as one of the most sacred of the Vedic hymns is dedicated to Savitr, one of the principal Ādityas. The Adityas are a group of solar deities, from the Brahmana period numbering twelve. The ritual of sandhyavandanam, performed by Hindus, is an elaborate set of hand gestures and body movements, designed to greet and revere the Sun.
The sun god in Hinduism is an ancient and revered deity. In later Hindu usage, all the Vedic Ādityas lost identity and metamorphosed into one composite deity, Surya, the Sun. The attributes of all other Ādityas merged into that of Surya and the names of all other Ādityas became synonymous with, or epithets of, Surya.
The Ramayana has Rama as a descendant of the Surya, thus belonging to the Suryavansha or the clan of the Sun. The Mahabharata describes one of its warrior heroes, Karna, as being the son of the Pandava mother Kunti and Surya.
The sun god is said to be married to the goddess Ranaadeh, also known as Sanjnya. She is depicted in dual form, being both sunlight and shadow, personified. The goddess is revered in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The charioteer of Surya is Aruna, who is also personified as the redness that accompanies the sunlight in dawn and dusk. The sun god is driven by a seven-horsed Chariot depicting the seven days of the week.
In India, at Konark, in the state of Odisha, a temple is dedicated to Surya. The Konark Sun Temple has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surya is the most prominent of the navagrahas or nine celestial objects of the Hindus. Navagrahas can be found in almost all Hindu temples. There are further temples dedicated to Surya, one in Arasavilli, Srikakulam District in AndhraPradesh, one in Gujarat at Modhera and another in Rajasthan. The temple at Arasavilli was constructed in such a way that on the day of Radhasaptami, the sun’s rays directly fall on the feet of the Sri Suryanarayana Swami, the deity at the temple.
Chhath (Hindi: छठ, also called Dala Chhath) is an ancient Hindu festival dedicated to Surya, the chief solar deity, unique to Bihar, Jharkhand and the Terai. This major festival is also celebrated in the northeast region of India, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Chhattisgarh. Hymns to the sun can be found in the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism. Practiced in different parts of India, the worship of the sun has been described in the Rigveda. There is another festival called Sambha-Dasami, which is celebrated in the state of Odisha for the surya.
The Gurjars (or Gujjars), were Sun-worshipers and are described as devoted to the feet of the sun god Surya. Their copper-plate grants bear an emblem of the Sun and on their seals too, this symbol is depicted.
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Solar gods have a strong presence in Indonesian mythology. In some cases the Sun is revered as a “father” or “founder” of the tribe. This may apply for the whole tribe or only for the royal and ruling families. This practise is more common in Australia and on the island of Timor, where the tribal leaders are seen as direct heirs to the sun god.
Some of the initiation rites include the second reincarnation of the rite’s subject as a “son of the Sun”, through a symbolic death and a rebirth in the form of a Sun. These rituals hint that the Sun may have an important role in the sphere of funerary beliefs. Watching the Sun’s path has given birth to the idea in some societies that the deity of the Sun descends in to the underworld without dying and is capable of returning afterward. This is the reason for the Sun being associated with functions such as guide of the deceased tribe members to the underworld, as well as with revival of perished. The Sun is a mediator between the planes of the living and the dead.
Three theories exercised great influence on nineteenth and early twentieth century mythography, beside the Tree worship of Mannhardt and the Totemism of J. F. McLennan, the “Sun myth” of Alvin Boyd Kuhn and Max Müller.
R. F. Littledale criticized the Sun myth theory when he illustrated that Max Müller on his own principles was himself only a Solar myth, whilst Alfred Lyall delivered a still stronger attack on the same theory and its assumption that tribal gods and heroes, such as those of Homer, were mere reflections of the Sun myth by proving that the gods of certain Rajput clans were really warriors who founded the clans not many centuries ago, and were the ancestors of the present chieftains.
Solar barge and sun chariot
A “solar barge” (also “solar bark”, “solar barque”, “solar boat” and “sun boat”) is a mythological representation of the sun riding in a boat. The “Khufu ship“, a 43.6-meter-long vessel that was sealed into a pit in the Giza pyramid complex at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2500 BC, is a full-size surviving example which may have fulfilled the symbolic function of a solar barque. This boat was rediscovered in May 1954 when archeologist Kamal el-Mallakh and inspector Zaki Nur found two ditches sealed off by about 40 blocks weighing 17 to 20 tonnes each. This boat was disassembled into 1,224 pieces and took over 10 years to reassemble. A nearby museum was built to house this boat.
Other sun boats were found in Egypt dating to different pharonic dynasties.
- Neolithic petroglyphs which (it has been speculated) show solar barges
- The many early Egyptian goddesses who are related as sun deities and the later gods Ra and Horus depicted as riding in a solar barge. In Egyptian myths of the afterlife, Ra rides in an underground channel from west to east every night so that he can rise in the east the next morning.
- The Nebra sky disk, which is thought to show a depiction of a solar barge.
- Nordic Bronze Age petroglyphs, including those found in Tanumshede often contains barges and sun crosses in different constellations.
A “sun chariot” is a mythological representation of the sun riding in a chariot. The concept is younger than that of the solar barge, and typically Indo-European, corresponding with the Indo-European expansion after the invention of the chariot in the 2nd millennium BC.
Examples include these:
- In Norse mythology, the chariot of the goddess Sól, drawn by Arvak and Alsvid. The Trundholm sun chariot dates to the Nordic Bronze Age, more than 2,500 years earlier than the Norse myth, but is often associated with it.
- Greek Helios riding in a chariot, (see also Phaëton)
- Sol Invictus depicted riding a quadriga on the reverse of a Roman coin.
- Vedic Surya riding in a chariot drawn by seven horses
The sun itself also was compared to a wheel, possibly in Proto-Indo-European, Greek hēliou kuklos, Sanskrit suryasya cakram, Anglo-Saxon sunnan hweogul (PIE *swelyosyo kukwelos).
Male and female
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Among modern English speakers, solar deities are popularly thought of as male counterparts of the lunar deity (usually female); however, sun goddesses are found on every continent (e.g. Amaterasu in Japanese belief) paired with male lunar deities. Among the earliest records of human beliefs, the early goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon carried a sun above their head as a symbol of dignity (as daughters of Ra). The sun was a major aspect of Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphs, all the lunar deities of that pantheon were male deities. The cobra (of Pharaoh Son of Ra), the lioness (daughter of Ra), the cow (daughter of Ra), the dominant symbols of the most ancient Egyptian deities, carried their relationship to the sun atop their heads; they were female and their cults remained active throughout the history of the culture. Later a sun god (Aten) was established in the eighteenth dynasty on top of the other solar deities, before the “aberration” was stamped out and the old pantheon re-established. When male deities became associated with the sun in that culture, they began as the offspring of a mother (except Ra, King of the Gods who gave birth to himself).
Some mythologists, such as Brian Branston, Patricia Monaghan and Janet McCrickard, contend that sun goddesses are as common as, or even more common, worldwide than their male counterparts. They also claim that the belief that solar deities are primarily male is linked to the fact that a few better known mythologies (such as those of late classical Greece and late Roman mythology) rarely break from this rule, although closer examination of the earlier myths of those cultures reveal a very different distribution than the contemporary popular belief. The dualism of sun/male/light and moon/female/darkness is found in many (but not all) late southern traditions in Europe that derive from Orphic and Gnostic philosophies.
In Germanic mythology the Sun is female and the Moon is male. The corresponding Old English name is Siȝel [ˈsɪjel], continuing Proto-Germanic *Sôwilô or *Saewelô. The Old High German Sun goddess is Sunna. In the Norse traditions, every day, Sól rode through the sky on her chariot, pulled by two horses named Arvak and Alsvid. Sól also was called Sunna and Frau Sunne, from which are derived the words “sun” and “Sunday“.
Other cultures that have sun goddesses include: The Lithuanians and Latvians (Saule), the Finns (Päivätär, Beiwe) and the related Hungarians . Sun goddesses are found around the world; in Arabia (Al-Lat), Australia (Bila, Walo), India (Bisal-Mariamna, Bomong, Kn Sgni) and Sri Lanka (Pattini); among the Hittites (Wurusemu), Egyptians (Sekhmet) and Babylonians (Shapash); in Native America, among the Cherokee (Unelanuhi), Natchez (Wal Sil), Inuit (Malina) and Miwok (Hekoolas).
It appears that the original Proto-Indo-European solar deity was female. Accordingly, most of the unambiguous solar deities in the Indo-European paradigm are feminine, with masculine ones being mostly a product of Hellenic and Hindu derivations, as well as syncretism of originally unrelated deities like Apollo with the sun.
- Abram Smythe Palmer
- Black Sun (deity)
- Black Sun (disambiguation)
- Canticle of the Sun
- Fire worship
- Five Suns
- Giza Solar boat museum
- Golden hat
- July Morning
- Konark Sun Temple
- List of solar deities
- Lunar deity
- Nature worship
- Order of the Solar Temple
- Solar calendar
- Solar symbol
- White horse (mythology)
- Winged sun
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- Patricia Monaghan, The Encylopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, page 433.
- Koch, John T., Celtic Culture: Aberdeen breviary-celticism, page 1636.
- Dexter, Miriam Robbins (Fall–Winter 1984). “Proto-Indo-European Sun Maidens and Gods of the Moon”. Mankind Quarterly 25 (1 & 2): 137–144.
- MacKillop (1998) pp. 10, 70, 92.
- Delamarre, Xavier, Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, Errance, 2003, p. 287
- Zair, Nicholas, Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals in Celtic, Brill, 2012, p. 120
- Nicole Jufer & Thierry Luginbühl (2001). Les dieux gaulois : répertoire des noms de divinités celtiques connus par l’épigraphie, les textes antiques et la toponymie. Editions Errance, Paris. pp. 15, 64.
- Simon Andrew Stirling, The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion, 2015
- Lālatā Prasāda Pāṇḍeya (1971). Sun-worship in ancient India. Motilal Banarasidass. p. 245.
- Powell, A.E. The Solar System London:1930 The Theosophical Publishing House (A Complete Outline of the Theosophical Scheme of Evolution). Lucifer, represented by the sun, the light.
- William Ridgeway (1915). “Solar Myths, Tree Spirits, and Totems, The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races”. Cambridge University Press. pp. 11–19. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
- Siliotti, Alberto, Zahi Hawass, 1997 “Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt” p. 54-55
- “Egypt solar boats”.
- “Helios”. Theoi.com. Retrieved 22 September 2010.
- “Helios & Phaethon”. Thanasis.com. Retrieved 18 September 2010.
- Probus Coin
- Dexter, Miriam Robbins. Proto-Indo-European Sun Maidens and Gods of the Moon. Mankind Quarterly 25:1 & 2 (Fall/Winter, 1984), pp. 137–144.
- Azize, Joseph (2005) The Phoenician Solar Theology. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-59333-210-6.
- Olcott, William Tyler (1914/2003) Sun Lore of All Ages: A Collection of Myths and Legends Concerning the Sun and Its Worship Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 0-543-96027-7.
- Hawkes, Jacquetta Man and the Sun Gaithersburg, MD, USA:1962 SolPub Co.
- McCrickard, Janet. “Eclipse of the Sun: An Investigation into Sun and Moon Myths.” Gothic Image Publications. ISBN 0-906362-13-X.
- Monaghan, Patricia. “O Mother Sun: A New View of the Cosmic Feminine.” Crossing Press, 1994. ISBN 0-89594-722-6
- Ranjan Kumar Singh. Surya: The God and His Abode. Parijat. ISBN 81-903561-7-8