Perhaps the oldest version of a god humans ever conceived, and the closest to the nourishing overlord in real world significance, the Sun has been an integral part of human life even before there were actual humans. With such an important part in our lives, the sun had quite a few myths and legends surrounding it.
So how did the ancients depict the fiery sphere that shines light upon our world?
From plagues to beasts
When the great Achilles got insulted by Agamemnon, he went to cry to his mommy who happened to be a goddess. To soothe her rather sensitive son, Tethys asked Apollo, the Greek sun god, to punish the Greeks. His punishment was a devastating plague, which shows us the first of the unusual attributes of this deity – rulership over health and diseases. In fact, Asclepius (Imhotep), the god of medicine and healing, was said to be Apollo’s son. Unfortunately for Apollo, his plague wasn’t enough to help the Trojans, whose side he was on during the Trojan war, nor were the walls he has built for them together with Poseidon.
Another interesting attribute of Apollo is a rather lackluster love life, with a myriad of rejections, heartbreaks, and even a betrayal by Coronis, Asclepius’s mother. In contrast, his ability to guide mortals with prophecies is clearly seen in him establishing the Oracle of Delphi. This was achieved through the slaying of Python, a draconic serpent residing below Delphi, in retribution for attacking his mother. Another way in which he guides mortals is through his muses that inspire art and creativity. In addition, he is also connected to hair, as the hair of youths was given as an offering to Apollo when it was cut.
Another solar divine in Greek mythology is the powerful Heracles, who strangled poisonous snakes while still in his diapers. His family life however, suffered a tragic turn when Hera, the wife of Zeus, drove him mad and made him murder his wife and sons. As penance for this deed, he was given 12 tasks, one for each month and each sign of the zodiac.
A rather interesting aspect of Heracles is his distinctly archaic weapon, even by bronze age standards – a wooden club. He is also depicted wearing the pelt of a lion as his clothing, making him appear less like a Greek god and more like a brute, primitive caveman. His appearance is rather deceiving however, as it signifies a lack of self control and not a lack of intelligence. Another quite interesting attribute is the fact that he had to die before becoming one of the Olympian deities, as despite his power he was actually born as a mortal human being.
A very biblical figure
So, what happen if you mix both Apollo and Heracles into one and strip them of all divinity? You get the biblical story of Samson, the superman of the ancient Israelite. As strong as Heracles himself yet far more human, Samson, whose name literally means “Strength of the Sun” was both a judge (tribal leader) and a type of ascetic.
To be honest, it is not exactly clear what being an ascetic meant in those days, because he certainly wasn’t celibate or a hermit, but he never shaved even a single hair on his head. This in fact was the source of his immense strength, while not being celibate was his greatest weakness. His most fatal flaw was his insatiable appetite for women, with a huge fetish for Philistines who also happened to be his enemies.
Sleeping with the enemy is never a good idea, and in Samson’s case it resulted in quite a few surreal incidents. One of them involved massacring his wedding guests with a donkey’s jawbone, one-upping his Greek counterpart in the primitive weapons department. Another involved him ripping apart the jaws of a lion that tried to attack him when he hid in the desert. Later on, he was the one to feast on the lion due to a colony of bees that made their home in his corpse, coining the phrase “from fierce came sweet”.
His most famous story however involved getting tricked by a lover named Dlilah (shallow\sparse), who was a Philistine honeytrap. When he revealed to her the source of his strength, she cut his hair and called in the troops who bound and blinded him to make sure he is no longer a threat. Bound as a trophy to two pillars in the temple of Dagon (Poseidon), he was able to show how much they underestimated him when his hair grew back, and he was able to bury all of their priesthood by pulling on his chains. His defiant last words being “perish my soul with the Philistines”.
The oldest of them all
If we were to ask the ancient Egyptians, one of the oldest civilizations on earth, who was the first god to be created, their answer would be the sun god Ra. In addition to him being the solar deity, he was also the creator god who had no creator of his own, thus being the origin of everything including himself. In the Egyptian creation myth, Ra created the first generation of gods through masturbation while humanity was formed through his tears.
He also had three distinct forms, with him being the herculean scarab beetle of resurrection at dawn, the lofty falcon god at midday and the goat headed, elderly and rather weak Atum at night. During his descent below the horizon, Ra was very prone to being attacked by Apep, the great serpent, and needed the protection of other deities like Set and Bastet to complete the journey. And while he was the first king of both gods and men, he was later usurped by Osiris, Set and eventually Horus.
Despite the later obsolescence, he was briefly revived in the form of Aten to serve as the first monotheistic god in history by the father of Tutankhamun (originally Tutankhaten). He also gained new life in the form of Amun-Ra, a composite of the Egyptian Ra and the Semitic Amun who was equated with Jupiter. In this latter form he gained horns and a human face but was quite different when compared to the original sun disc of old.
From ancestor to vampire
In a story that seems to belong to the Saturn section instead of this one, a Sun god with many enemies that constantly threaten to end the world was fed a steady diet of human blood by his Mexica (Aztec) devotees. The god in question was Huitzilopochtli, the “flash in the southern sky”, that led the Mexica to the fertile south. He was also the creator god, but unlike his Egyptian counterpart he used his own blood which he drew by cutting his phallus, to fashion mankind.
Paralleling the gravestones of Spartans and to Odin’s Valhalla, Huitzilopochtli collected the souls of the bravest warriors and women who died in childbirth to his side. And indeed, his own ascent to power was through battling and defeating the Moon and the stars, making him the supreme war deity. In fact, this is exactly the reason he needed so many sacrifices- to maintain the ability to defeat the night.
Rivaled only by the child burning Baal, the cult of Huitzilopochtli was responsible for the sacrifice of up to 20 thousand people every year. The sacrifices themselves included fattening the victim while holding him in a cage, cutting open his chest and tearing out his still beating heart, and then eating his arms and legs. The head of the victim was often kept for display, with whole walls being studded with such severed heads.
From blood to gold
In stark contrast to the horror show of their northern neighbors, the Inca viewed the Sun as a far more benevolent force. Just like the Egyptians and the Aztecs, the Inca believed the Sun to be the creator deity, rising from a primordial lake. In contrast to the Aztecs, the Incan sun god Inti was the father of the moon and the stars, and the moon goddess Mama Killa was said to be his wife. Inti was also quite the handyman, using stone rather than blood or tears to create mankind.
Inti was also the progenitor of the Inca rulers, with his son becoming the first king. In addition, he was the main reason for the use of gold in Inca society, as gold had little monetary value but was considered to be a part of the Sun itself. Interestingly, they did have metal coinage, but it was actually made with bronze and not with gold. In addition to serving as religious ornamentation, gold was also used to decide where to build cities due to the belief that Inti planted golden rids to signify important sites.
The invincible one
While the Greeks gave the Romans plenty of solar deities, a cult that preceded Christianity as the state religion in the late Roman empire venerated the “Invincible Sun”, Sol Invictus. To be clear, Sol was far from a new god to the Romans and strongly connected to the even older Greek Helios. But the emperor Aurelian, like Akhenaten before him, made the Sun far more significant in the roman pantheon.
The real difference between the old Sol and this new version, however, is the cult of Mithras. As the name might suggest, Mithras was an evolution of the Indo-European god of friendship and daylight, but his new form was quite different from the original. It seems that on the very cusp of the age of Pisces, Aries had his last hoorah by morphing into the Taurus slaying hero who also became the patron of soldiers. And while the full relationship between Mithras and Sol is not very clear, the sun god is often depicted alongside his embodied sign of exaltation.
Too hot to handle
As can be seen in most of these myths, the Sun has a rather problematic relationship with women, who are sometimes yet to be created when he arrives, and the Hindu Surya is no exception. The heat of his rays was so intense that his wife had to get away and leave Chaya (shadow) as a substitute. This resulted in the birth of Shani (Saturn) and Yama (Pluto). In another incident, she transformed herself into a horse and when her husband did the same to chase her down the result was the birth of the Ashwins.
The bad luck with women didn’t spare even the solar incarnation of Vishnu – the heroic Rama. First, he lost his throne and had to go with his wife to a hut in the woods. Then his wife was kidnapped by a demon king. When he managed to rescue her, he forced her to set herself on fire to see that she whether she remained fateful, and that marred their future relationship. In fact, he is later forced to send her to exile because of rumors of her infidelity. And if that wasn’t enough, he also had to marry the rest of the women kidnapped by the demon to save their lives.
dying, Survived! Survived!
Dying, dying, Survived! Survived!
That man, the hairy,
Carried us forward,
Bringing the dawn!
Upwards, and upwards,
Upwards and upwards,
Risen the dawn!
Ka-mate haka – Te Rauparaha.