By Ed Neumann, June 20, 2010
Over the ages, ancient star gazers did not merely observe the movements of celestial bodies in the heavens but personified them and told stories about their lives on earth.
The sun, considered the “savior of the world” as it brought light and life to our planet, figured into the stories of virtually every culture worldwide. Though usually considered the lord and king of the heavens, with the moon being his queen, sister or mother, the solar hero in his “earthly life” has a divine father and a virginal mother.
The sun dies annually at the winter solstice on Dec. 22. The word solstice literally means “the sun stands still,” indicating that its risings and settings do not appreciably move from their southern most points. Then, after being “dead” for three days, the lord of the sky is reborn on Dec. 25. At the vernal equinox when daylight overcomes night, the solar savior, often depicted as piercing or crushing the serpent of darkness underfoot, is said to be “resurrected” like the vegetation in the fields.
The esteemed mythologist Joseph Campbell notes, “Modern scholarship has found just about everywhere legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are resurrected. Peoples of all the great civilizations have been prone to interpret their own symbolic figures literally and to regard themselves as favored by their gods.” Though the names change and the legendary lives vary from place to place and time to time, in many respects the sun gods in human form follow a universal archetypal pattern and therefore bear a striking similarity. Upon examining their characteristics, the commonality becomes apparent and the perennial solar myth emerges.
A general outline of solar attributes can be listed as follows:
- The sun is born on Dec. 25 in a cave (the womb of the earth) or manger.
- He is of royal descent, his father a god and his mother a virgin – the latter symbolizing the moon (i.e. Isis), the dawn (Eos) or the earth mother (Demeter).
- His birth is heralded by a star in the east (typically Venus or Sirius) and is attended by three kings or wise men (the stars in Orion’s Belt were the three kings at the birth of Horus).
- At age 12, he teaches in the temple (Horus, Buddha, Zoroaster) and at 30, he is baptized.
- He is presented with “sun gifts” of gold, frankincense, and myrrh oil (Arabian magi would leave such gifts at altars to the sun).
- The sun has 12 followers – assumed to symbolize the 12 signs of the zodiac through which the sun moves (Horus/Osiris and Mithra).
- He performs miracles, exorcises demons and raises the dead (Horus and Krishna).
- He is tempted by or battles the “evil one” or “prince of darkness” (Horus and Krishna).
- The solar luminary is the “light of the world” who “cometh on clouds and every eye shall see him.”
- He wears a corona or halo on his head (or basket of grain if a cultivation deity like Adonis).
- He walks on water (Horus and Buddha).
- He is crucified or hung on a tree at the spring equinox for our salvation (Attis).
- The sun is then buried for three days in a tomb or cave, and then rises again.
It is important to understand that these gods were invented and worshiped hundreds to thousands of years before the common era and that over time there came to be many versions of the myths. For instance, Dionysus turned water into wine at a wedding feast in one story but not in others. In one ancient legend, the Buddha fed 500 people with a small basket of cakes, though that won’t be found in the standard history of Siddhartha Gautama. The Persian god Mithra had a virginal mother, Aditi (the inviolable dawn), retained from an older Indian god, Mitra, whence he is derived. But in a later version, Mithra is born of a rock in a cave. The Roman Emperor Constantine worshiped him as Sol Invictus, the invincible sun. At his eucharist, Mithra says, “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, shall not know salvation.” Interestingly, the wafer was stamped with a solar cross. Many later gods acquired certain traits or deeds by “borrowing” them in an attempt to out-compete earlier gods, often becoming more miraculous each time. The stories would grow in the telling – the proverbial fish story.
In the study of mythology, one must recognize the archetypal patterns in the “lives” of these solar saviors, and instead of taking them as literal history, enjoy them for what they are: tales of the personified sun. The Roman scholar Macrobius asserted that the predominant religions of his time constituted heliolatry, or sun worship. So if one should hear of a “sun of righteousness” whose life bears a suspicious resemblance to the mythical motifs mentioned, know that there is nothing new under the sun.