We all like to sit in the sun, we like it’s warmth upon our skin. We appreciate how it is needed to ripen our fruit and our crops. We also know its danger, it can burn, ignite wild fires, cause drought and induce deserts. To the ancients its nightly disappearance, and gradual loss of power during the course of a year, were sources of mythological tales. The sun is a life-giver, life sustainer, it embodies both strength and protection. To dance or proceed widdershins (clockwise in the direction of the sun) was deemed to bring fortune and luck.
|Helios, 4th c. BC, Ilion|
For example, in Greek mythology Helios is the sun, himself the offspring of Titans ( his father Hyperion - means the High One - and his mother Theia - means wide shining light). His sisters are Eos (the dawn) and Selene (the moon). Helios was portrayed wearing a crown of sun rays and he drove the chariot of the sun across the sky everyday. His cult was most prolific in the Greek Island of Rhodes (The mighty Colossus was dedicated to his honour).
|Trundholm Sun chariot, dated to between 1800-1600 BC though dates are contested, others believe it to date between 1100-550 BC.|
In Hellenic times Apollo becomes associated with the sun, and the Romans named it Sol. However to the Bronze-Age Scandinavians Sòl was a female deity. Sometimes she was called Sunna and her brother was Maní, the moon. Her husband, Glenr, drove the horses of the sun across the sky - although in early myth the wagon or chariot was actually a boat. Some say this 'sun-boat' myth points to an Egyptian origin, but that is not necessarily true.
Surviving fragments of a Gallo-Romano calendar from Coligny in France seem to indicate that the moon was more relevant to the Celts (at least in terms of their time telling). The amazingly detailed calendar, itself based on earlier models, it pictured above.
We know that ancient peoples aligned many of their sacred sites with the midwinter sun, and that many henges were astrologically aligned, pointing to a deep understanding of the celestial bodies, the constellations and movements of sun and moon. Surely some of this knowledge was inherited from the times of the megalith builders.
|Stonehenge by Alan Sorrel|
Pomponius Mela, a geographer of the 1st c. AD, wrote that the druids “claim to know the size and shape of the earth and universe, the motion of the stars and the sky and the will of the gods…”
Caesar mentions that Apollo was amongst the gods venerated by the Gauls. Apollo was associated with solar and healing properties (of course, Caesar used a Roman name to describe a foreign deity).
|Solar Crosses from 1500 BC - pic by Radan Haenger.|
|Scandinavian Bronze-Age carvings - the solar boat|
Many myths make reference to a solar disc being drawn through the sky. Often myths make reference to the solar god/goddess being drawn, or carried. It is possible that images of the solar wheel come from this idea. Indeed the symbol is used as the wheels of chariots in ancient art (see the sun chariot above).*
The solar wheel was developed in the Carpathian region about 3000 BC and spread across Europe. In often appears on gold items, strengthening its solar association. In Bronze-Age Scandinavian artwork it appears being drawn by horses, borne in boats or chariots (tying in with the whole sun-boat imagery and ancient mythology regarding the rise and fall of the sun). There is even archaeological evidence that Iron Age Gauls offered solar wheel images at shrines and also (more importantly) cast them into water - perhaps as a symbolic gesture representing the sun’s departure into the ocean (the Underworld).
|Scandinavian rock carving from the Bronze-age|
Another sun god worshipped across the continent and in Britain during the Roman invasion was that of Mithras, who enjoyed something of a cult following (though not an especially populous one - its adherents being drawn from a select cadre of Roman society and by the military). In many ways Mithraism shared common ideas with Christianity: born of a virgin, an ultimate sacrifice, his followers addressed each other as ‘brother’ and temples were run by a ‘pater’ (father). Unlike Christianity Mithraism was tolerant of other faiths.
|Mithras born from the rock.|
Mithras’ roots reach far back into antiquity; having his origins in the Middle-east, a Hellenised form of the deity was worshipped in Europe with the spread of the Roman Empire. Temples were even erected along Hadrian's Wall in his honour (one at Housesteads dedicated to Sol - with whom Mithras was also associated). There is also some speculation whether Ogmios, a Celtic deity associated with the Ogham alphabet and also a solar god, was perhaps mingled with elements of this exotic deity (maybe even sharing certain root similarities). There is also speculation whether the 6th century bard Taliesin was knowledgable in the ‘mysteries’ of Mithraism.
|Alchemical sun by Robert Fludd 17th c. AD|
In the middle-ages Alchemists viewed the sun as an active agent, as ‘gold prepared for the work’, and ‘philosophical Sulphur’. There was also 'Sol in homine' which was the invisible essence of celestial sun that nourished the inner fires of mankind. From such aspersions Jung, the master of symbolism and its interpretation, considered the sun as wholeness (especially when unified with the moon like a king for a queen).
There is something particularly enigmatic about some of these Alchemical and medieval images of the sun. To those versed in their layers of meaning surely the images evoked a sense of the deeper mysteries and spiritual insights Hermetic Alchemy professed.
For example, the sun as life-giver, protector offering salvation seems to me a natural, instinctive symbolism. Archaeological records show that burial mounds and stone circles of the megalithic period were possibly involved in the veneration of both sun and moon. In a generalisation of myth into single, easy principles the sun could be seen to reflect the masculine principle, while the moon the feminine. Equally the sun could be said to encompass the hero, passion. In its yearly progression from the summer solstice, through the seasons toward mid-winter it represents re-birth. A cycle of hope, which surely ancient pastoral and pre-pastoral peoples clung to for the basic, pressing necessity of their survival.
|Sun horse from Balken -|
*curiously the sun-wheel image pre-dates the invention of the wheel - thus it may be that the sun wheel's spokes are in fact sun rays.