Sacred Texts  Sky Lore  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at
Buy this Book on Kindle

Sun Lore of All Ages, by William Tyler Olcott, [1914], at

p. 265

p. 266 p. 267

Chapter XI

Solar Significance of Burial Customs.

NOWHERE in the study of ancient rites and customs is the sun's influence on human affairs in greater evidence than in the ceremonials attending the burial of the dead.

The funeral rites of all people reveal the universal belief that the east is the source of all that men hold dear, light, life, warmth, and happiness, while the west, on the contrary, is said to be the abode of darkness, death, cold, and sorrow. The worship of the Sun cultivated and strengthened this idea, and down through the ages the influence of this belief has swept, retaining even to-day much of its ancient force and vigour.

According to Tylor 1: "It seems to be the working out of the solar analogy on the one hand in death at sunset, on the other in new life at sunrise, that has produced two contrasted rules of burial

p. 268

which agree in placing the dead in the sun's path, the line of east and west."

It is said that the body of Christ was laid with the head toward the west, that the risen Lord might face the eastern realm of eternal life and glory, and the Christian custom that sprang from this belief led to the usage of digging graves east and west, which prevailed through mediæval times, and is common with us to-day.

In the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Matthew's gospel we read: "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." Prom the literal interpretation of these words there arose the belief that Jesus would, at the resurrection, appear from the east, and hence that those buried with their faces upward and their heads to the west, would be in readiness to stand up with their faces toward their Judge.

Swift alludes to this custom in the account of Gulliver's voyage to Lilliput, where he says: "The inhabitants bury their dead with their heads directly downward because they hold an opinion, that in eleven thousand moons they are all to rise again, in which period the earth, which they conceive to be flat, will turn upside down, and by this means they shall at their resurrection be found ready standing on their feet."

p. 269

Sir Walter Raleigh referred to this superstition when he stood on the scaffold, and was about to be executed. After forgiving his executioner, there was a discussion as to the way he should face, some saying he should face the east. Raleigh then remarked: "So the heart be straight it is no matter which way the head lieth."

The east and west burial custom was practised by the ancient Greeks, and by the natives in some districts of Australia, although the latter people as a rule regarded the west as the abode of departed spirits, and therefore buried their dead facing that quarter.

The native Samoans and Fijians follow the same custom, believing that if the dead are buried with head east and feet west, the body at the resurrection would be in a position to walk straight onward to the abiding-place of the soul.

According to Schoolcraft, the Winnebago Indians buried their dead in a sitting posture with the face west, or at full length with the feet west, in order that they may look toward the happy land in the west. Other Indian tribes, notably the Indians of Kansas, practised this custom.

It was the Peruvian custom to bury the dead huddled up in a sitting posture with their faces turned toward the west, and in the funeral ritual of the Aztecs there is found a description of the

p. 270

first peril that the shade encountered on its journey to the abode of the dead, which they believed was illuminated by the sun when night enveloped the earth.

On the contrary, the Yumanas of South America were accustomed to bury their dead in a sitting posture facing the east, as they believed that in the east was the home of their supreme deity, who would one day take unto himself all true believers in him. The Guayanos have a similar belief and custom. The modern Ainus of Yezo bury their dead lying robed in white with heads to the east, because that is where the sun rises. The mediæval Tartars raised a great mound over their graves, and placed therein a statue with its face turned eastward.

The Siamese believe that no one should sleep with his head to the west, as that is the position in which the dead are placed at burial. Lady Wilde calls attention to the curious customs, practised at the wake of the Irish peasants, which are derived from the ancient funeral ceremonies of the Egyptians. Particularly is this the case where, during the wake, a man and a woman appeared, one bearing the head of an ox, the other that of a cow. This strange custom is thought to represent the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris waiting to receive the soul of the dead.

p. 271

In Wales the east wind is called the "wind of the dead men's feet," and the eastern portion of a churchyard was always regarded as the most honoured part. South, west, and north were next in favour, in their order, and suicides were buried with their heads to the north, as, in taking their own lives, they had forfeited the rights of the orthodox to a burial with face to the east. In rural parts of England it was the custom in ancient times to remark at the funeral service: "The dead ay go wi’ the sun."

Even in our own country we see a survival of the universal belief in the proper orientation of a deceased person. Examination shows that the headstones in the old burial-grounds of Plymouth, Concord, and Deerfield, face the west, so that, at the resurrection, the dead will rise to face the Son of Man as He comes from out the east with great power and glory.


The subject of orientation is an extremely interesting one, and plays a prominent part in many of the customs and practices of the present day. In acknowledgment of the divinity of the Sun the Pagans turned to the east in prayer, and so constructed their temples that even the buildings themselves should pay homage to the rising sun.

p. 272

We learn from Josephus that as early as Solomon's time the temple at Jerusalem was oriented to the east with great care. It was open to the east, and closed absolutely to the west.

"In plan," says Keary, 1 "it was like an Egyptian temple, the light from the sun at the equinox being free to come along an open passage to reach at last the Holy of Holies. There is evidence too that the entrance of the sunlight on the morning of the spring equinox formed part of the ceremonial; the high priest being in the naos, the worshippers with their backs to the sun could see him by means of the sunlight reflected from the jewels in his garments."

"Temples, with pillars that represented the trees of the sacred groves, had their chief portal almost universally looking toward the east. It is thought that this is due to the fact that the groves, and the temples which represented them, were both indicative of the Garden of Paradise. Again, the portals of Eden where God stationed the Cherubim to keep the way of the tree of life, was on the eastern side of the sacred grove. Not infrequently the approach to these temples was guarded by the figures of the compound sphinx." 2

The orientation of the Egyptian temples formed

p. 273

the basis first of the Greek, and later of the Latin temples of worship. Tylor 1 tells us: "It was an Athenian custom for the temple to have its entrance east, looking out through which the divine image stood to behold the rising sun," but for the most part the Greek temples were oriented to the stars that heralded the sunrise, rather than to the orb of day itself.

In India, orientation plays an important part in the daily acts of worship of the Brahman. On rising each day he pays his devotion to the Sun. Standing on one foot, and resting the other against his ankle or heel, he faces the Sun, and stretches out his arms to it. At noon he again worships the Sun, and, sitting with his face to the east, reads his daily portion of the Veda. It is while looking toward the east that his offering of barley and water must be presented to the gods, and in consecrating the sacred fire and sacrificial implements, the east has a holy significance.

On the contrary, the worshippers of Kali, the Death Goddess, the murderous Thugs, regarded the west as sacred, and the Jews, in order that they might not seem to imitate the Pagans in their rites of orientation, placed the sanctuary of their temples toward the west.

It is in Egypt, however, that we find the custom

p. 274

of orientation most rigidly practised, and a conspicuous feature of temple architecture. The main idea of the builders seems to have been so to arrange them that the chief dates in the year from a solar standpoint should be clearly marked by the orientation of the building, i.e., the solstices and equinoxes.

The temples at Heliopolis and Abydos were unquestionably solstitial temples. The Pyramids of Gizeh were oriented to the equinoxes. Perhaps the most elaborate and important of all the Egyptian solar temples was the magnificent edifice erected at Karnak to the worship of the Sun-God, Amen-Ra. Sir J. Norman Lockyer has given us the following splendid description of this temple. 1 Because it is a typical case of orientation, and one of the most interesting ruins in the world, the author takes the liberty of quoting it in full:

"The solar temple of Amen-Ra at Karnak is the finest Egyptian solar temple which remains open to our examination. It is beyond all question the most majestic ruin in the world. It covers about twice the area covered by St. Peter's at Rome, so that the whole structure was of a vastness absolutely unapproached in the modern ecclesiastical world. It is one of the most soul-inspiring temples which have ever been conceived

p. 275

or built by man. There is a sort of stone avenue in the centre giving a view towards the north-west, and this axis is something like five hundred yards in length. The whole object of the builder of the great temple at Karnak was to preserve that axis absolutely open, the point being that the axis should be absolutely open straight and true. The axis was directed towards the hills on the west side of the Nile where are located the tombs of the kings. From the entrance pylon the temple stretches through various halls of different sizes and details until at last at the extreme end what is called the Sanctuary, Naos, Adytum, or Holy of Holies is reached. The end of the temple at which the pylons are situated is open, the other closed.

"Every part of the temple was built to subserve a special object, viz., to limit the light which fell on its front into a narrow beam and to carry it to the other extremity of the temple into the sanctuary so that once a year when the sun set at the solstice the light is passed without interruption along the whole length of the temple finally illuminating the sanctuary in most resplendent fashion, and striking the sanctuary wall. The wall of the sanctuary opposite to the entrance of the temple was always blocked. The ray of light was narrowed as it progressed inward from the opening toward the sanctuary by a series of doors ingeniously

p. 276

arranged, that acted as the diaphragms of the telescope tube in concentrating the light rays. The reason for this was that the temple was virtually an astronomical observatory, and the idea was to obtain exactly the precise time of the solstice. The longer the beam of light used, the greater is the accuracy that can be obtained. The darker the sanctuary the more obvious will be the patch of light on the end wall, and the more easily can its position be located. It was important to do this two or three days near the solstice in order to get an idea of the exact time at which the solstice took place.

"We find that a narrow beam of sunlight coming through a narrow entrance some five hundred yards away from the door of the Holy of Holies would, provided the temple were properly oriented to the solstice, and provided the solstice occurred at the absolute moment of sunrise, or sunset, according to which the temple was being utilised, practically flash into the sanctuary, and remain there for about a couple of minutes, and then pass away.

"We may conclude that there was some purpose of utility to be served, and the solar temples could have been used undoubtedly among other things for determining the exact length of the solar year. The magnificent burst of light at sunset into the

p. 277

sanctuary would show that a new true solar year was beginning. If the Egyptians wished to use the temple for ceremonial purposes, the magnificent beam of light thrown into the temple at the sunset hour would give them opportunities and even suggestions for so doing; for instance, they might place an image of the god in the sanctuary, and allow the light to flash upon it. We should have a 'manifestation of Ra' with a vengeance, during the brief time the white flood of sunlight fell on it. Be it remembered that in the dry and clear air of Egypt, the sun casts a shadow five seconds after the first little point of it has been seen above the horizon, so that at sunrise and sunset in Egypt the light is very strong, and not tempered as with us."

An extremely interesting feature of Egyptian temple orientation, although it only pertains to temples dedicated to star worship, is found in the fact that the precession of the equinoxes necessitated an alteration of the axis of the temple at long intervals to accommodate the change of direction of the star to which the temple was originally oriented.

At Luxor, and many other places in Egypt, there are to be seen evidences of this change, a later axis having been constructed to meet the new requirements.

In the western world, in ancient times, we find

p. 278

the same rites of orientation observed and practised as prevailed in the Orient. Among the Sun-worshipping Peruvians the villages were so laid out that they sloped eastward so that the people when they rose each day might behold first of all the deity they worshipped. In the temple of the Sun at Cuzco, the great golden disk that represented the sun was so placed that it received the rising rays of the orb of day, and reflected its light through the edifice erected to its worship.

In ancient Mexico the inhabitants faced the east when they knelt in prayer, as their brother worshippers did in the far east, and though the doors of their temples faced westward, the altar itself was situated in the east. Even the Christianised Pueblo Indians face the east when rising, a survival of their ancient Sun worship. The Sun chief of the Natchez Indians of Louisiana always smoked toward the Sun each morning. The Comanche Indians, when about to take the warpath, present their weapons to the Sun, that their deity may bestow his blessing upon them. The ancient cave temples of the Apalachees of Florida faced eastward, and on festival days the priest waited till the rays of the sun had entered the temple before beginning the ceremonial chants.

According to Tylor, 1 the ceremony of orientation

p. 279

was unknown in primitive Christianity, but it developed within its first four centuries. It became an accepted custom to turn in prayer toward the east as the auspicious and mystic region of the Light of the World, the Sun of Righteousness, not for the Pagan purpose of adoring the sun itself, and even to-day the boy choristers face the east when they chant the "Gloria."

Orientation played an important part also in the rite of baptism. In ancient times he who was about to embrace the faith faced the west and renounced Satan, with gestures of abhorrence. Then, turning to the east, he acknowledged his faith in Christ, and declared his allegiance to Him. From the fifth century to the time of the Renaissance, the orientation of Christian churches was generally carried out. According to St. John of Damascus, the mystical reasons for this practice were that the crucified Saviour of Mankind faced westward, hence it is fitting that Christians in paying their devotions to Him should face eastward. Again, in the sacred writings, Jesus is called "the east" (oriens ex alto) and the hope is expressed that Christians at the last day will see Christ descending in the east. Finally, Christians, when turning to the east during prayer, establish a difference between themselves and the Jews and

p. 280

heretics, for the Jews when praying face west, and certain heretics south, and others north.

In the ninth century there was a strong protest against orientation, but the custom revived later, and to-day all our churches are more or less oriented, particularly those of the Romish and English branches of the Christian Church.

"Any church," says Keary, 1 "that is properly built, will have its axis pointing to the rising of the sun on the Saint's day, i.e., a church dedicated to St. John should not parallel a church dedicated to St. Peter.

"In regard to St. Peter's at Rome, we read that so exactly due east and west was the Basilica, that on the vernal equinox the great doors of the porch of the quadriporticus were thrown open at sunrise, and also the eastern doors of the church itself, and as the sun rose, its rays passed through the outer doors, then through the inner doors, and penetrating straight through the nave, illuminated the High Altar."

There is little doubt that the stones at Stonehenge were so arranged that at sunrise at the summer solstice the shadow of one stone fell exactly on the stone in the centre of the circle, indicating to the priests that the new year had begun. It is thought that fires were lighted on

p. 281

this occasion to flash the important news through the country.

Orientation plays an important part in many games and customs in vogue to-day. In the ring games of children, particularly, we see survivals of ancient Sun worship; as, for instance, in the games where the children sing, as they circle round, "Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow," and "Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush." The people of early times held that going sunwise was good and lucky, while to move in the contrary direction was inauspicious. The lama monk whirls his praying cylinder in one direction on this account, and fears that some one will turn it contrariwise, in which case it would lose its virtue. These monks also build up heaps of stones in the road, and uniformly pass them on one side as they proceed in one direction, and on the opposite side in returning, in imitation of the sun's circuit.

In India and Ceylon the same circumambulatory customs were practised. As we have seen, it was an old Irish and Scotch custom to go "deazil" or sunwise round houses and graves, and to turn the body in this way at the beginning and end of journeys for luck, as well as at weddings and various ceremonies.

The Irish and Scotch peasants always went westward round a holy well, following the course of the

p. 282

sun, and creeping on their hands and knees, as did the ancient Persians when offering homage at sacred fountains. In the mystic dances performed at the Baal festivals the gyrations of the dancers were always westward in the track of the sun, for the dance was part of the ancient ritual of Sun worship. To turn the opposite way, that is against the sun, was considered very unlucky, and was supposed to be an act intimately connected with the purposes of the evil one. Witches were said to dance that way.

In a religious observance called "paying rounds," much practised by the Irish peasantry when they essayed to cure diseases or bodily ailments, one finds an interesting instance of the custom of going sunwise to produce auspicious results.

It is a general popular belief throughout the United States that in making cake the eggs, or indeed the whole mixture, must be stirred or beaten from beginning to end in the same direction in which the stirring began, or the cake will not be light, and that a custard will curdle if the stirring motion is reversed. Often it is said that the stirring must be sunwise, the popular expression for this motion being "with the sun." The same notion is found in Newfoundland and Scotland.

Some matrons in Northern Ohio say that, to

p. 283

insure good bread, the dough should be stirred with the sun, and that yeast should be made as near sunrise as possible to secure lightness. In New Harbour, Nova Scotia, it is customary in getting off small boats to take pains to start from east to west, and, when the wind will permit, the same custom is observed in getting large schooners under way.

The idea of sunwise movement often appears in the common household treatment of diseases. Before the days of massage, in rubbing for rheumatic or other pains, it was thought best to rub from left to right. It is also said that a corn or wen may be removed by rubbing "with the moon," if by night, and "with the sun," if by day. It is thought that the sun or moon, as the case may be, will draw away all pain and enlargement.

Doubtless a close study of local customs prevailing in different parts of the world will reveal many similar examples and survivals of Sun worship. The subject is an exceedingly interesting one, and reveals above all else the great hold that Sun worship once held on the peoples of the earth.


267:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.

272:1 The Dawn of History, C. F. Keary.

272:2 The Origin of Pagan Idolatry, G. S. Faber.

273:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.

274:1 The Dawn of Astronomy, Sir Norman Lockyer.

278:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.

280:1 The Dawn of History, C. F. Keary.

Next: Chapter XII. Emblematic and Symbolic Forms of the Sun