Sun Lore of All Ages, by William Tyler Olcott, , at sacred-texts.com
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THERE is much of interest in the study of the symbolic forms of the sun, derived as they are from the mythology and worship of the ancients. Many of the solar symbols enter into designs that embellish works of art of ancient and modern production, but, as symbolism and worship are closely correlated, it is in the study of ecclesiastical architecture, and the structural and artistic adornment of edifices dedicated to worship, that we find a fertile field for tracing these emblems and symbols to their sources.
A knowledge of the origin and true significance of symbolic forms lends interest to many emblems common in the everyday life of the present time, and, in some cases, reveals the curious fact and incongruity of the combination of pagan symbols of worship and anti-pagan ritual. This state of affairs is in evidence in practically all of the
modern church edifices. The meaning of these symbols was lost sight of as the wave of Christianity swept onward, and yet so great was the power that these mute forms at one time possessed over men, that, in spite of the decline and the utter extinction of the worship that created them, they continued to live throughout the ages, and many of them in the light of modern times have attained an altered significance, and are as greatly revered and adored to-day as in the ancient days of heathendom.
Although the Canaanite symbol for the sun was an upright stone, the most ancient and popular solar symbol seems to have been the eye. This symbol was naturally suggested by, and in conformity to, the ancient idea that the sun was an all-seeing god, whose penetrating gaze revealed everything that was visible to man. The sun, in short, possessed to primitive minds all the attributes of a great eye gazing down upon the earth.
To the Persians the sun was the eye of Ormuzd. To the Egyptians it was the right eye of Demiurge, and in the Book of the Dead the sun is often represented as an eye provided with wings and feet.
To the ancient Hindus the sun was the eye of Varuna. To the Greeks it was the eye of Zeus, and the early Teutons regarded it as the eye of Wuotan, or Woden. Greek mythology, in fact,
shows us a race of sun people, the Cyclops, huge giants possessing but one great eye in the centre of their foreheads.
Not only was the sun regarded as a symbol of the eye of the Supreme Being, but in some cases it was thought to represent his full face and countenance.
Vieing in importance with the eye symbol of the sun was the wheel symbol. This was a very ancient conception, and, in this case, the rays of the sun were represented by the spokes of the wheel. As the sun's motion was a matter of great concern to the ancients, its motive power was a subject of much conjecture, and there emerged the fancy that the sun was drawn across the sky by a number of spirited steeds. According to Hindu myth these steeds of the sun were appropriately red or golden in colour.
The symbol of the sun at Sippara was a small circle with four triangular rays, the four angles between being occupied by radiating lines, and the whole circumscribed by a larger circle. The same symbol occurs repeatedly upon the shell gorgets of the ancient Mound-Builders of the western continent. 1
In Greece the symbols of Helios, the Sun-God, were horses' heads, a crown of seven rays, a cornucopia, and a ripened fruit; while the symbols of Apollo were a wolf, swan, stag, dolphin, laurel, and lyre. The ancient Chinese solar symbol was a raven in a circle.
Given the symbol of a wheel, and that of the Sun drawn by dashing steeds, we find in the combination of these symbols the image of the chariot of the Sun, around which so many ancient myths and legends cluster. From the vehicle it was but a step of the imagination to regard the Sun as the charioteer, the supreme deity, driving his flaming car each day across the firmament. The warlike propensities of primitive man were responsible for another very early symbol of the sun, that of a highly burnished shield, while, in a passage of the Persian national epic by Firdusi, the sun is regarded as a golden key which is lost during the night, and the lighting up of the sun each morning was looked upon as an unlocking of the imprisoned orb of day.
Egypt has probably given us more symbols of the sun than any other country. This is doubtless because the Egyptians had a more elaborate form of Sun worship than existed in any other land, in that the different aspects of the sun were, as we have seen, deified. The best-known Egyptian
solar symbols were the scarabæus, hawk and globe, lion, and crocodile.
Taking them up in order, the scarabæus or beetle was, according to Pliny, worshipped throughout the greater part of Egypt. It was a symbol particularly sacred to the sun, and is often represented in a boat with wings extended, holding in its claws the globe of the sun. Horapollo claims it was chosen as a solar symbol, owing to the fact that the creature had thirty toes, which equals the number of days in the ordinary solar month. Frequently the claws are represented as clasping a globe, emblematic of the action of the Sun-God Ra at mid-day.
In the great temple at Thebes, a scarab has been recovered with two heads, one of a ram, the symbol of Amen or Ammon, the god of Thebes, the other of the hawk, the symbol of the
Pliny avers that the claim of the scarab as a solar symbol rests on the fact that in this insect there is some resemblance to the operations of the sun, as one species forms itself into a ball and rolls
itself along. The sculptures indicate clearly that the scarabæus represents the orb of the sun. The earliest scarabs date back to about 3900 B.C., and they were regarded as a sacred symbol for a period of over three thousand years. Inasmuch as the scarab was a solar symbol, it was likewise an emblem of immortality, and thus this symbol in its day closely resembled in its true significance the Christian symbol of the cross. The scarab was especially sacred to the Sun-God Amen-Ra, and further symbolised creative and fertilising power: It was the first life appearing after the annual inundation of the river Nile.
Of equal importance to the beetle as a symbol of the sun in Egypt was the hawk, or the hawk and globe, sacred as the emblem of the solar deity. The Sun-God Ra was generally represented as a man with a hawk's head surmounted by a globe or disk of the sun from which an asp issued, and the hawk was particularly known as the type of the sun, worshipped at Heliopolis as the sacred bird, and the representative of the deity of the place.
The winged disk was likewise a solar symbol, and highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians, who considered it an emblem of divine protection. It typified the sun's light and power, transported to the earth on the wings of a bird (possibly the hawk), and the emblem appears on many of the
temple walls and over the doorway of numerous dwellings in Egypt.
Porphyry says the hawk was dedicated to the sun, being the symbol of light and spirit, because of the quickness of its motion, and its ascent to the higher regions of the air. Horapollo thinks that it was chosen as a type of that luminary from its being able to look more intently towards its rays than any other bird, whence also under the form of a hawk they depicted the sun as the Lord of Vision.
Macrobius, Proclus, Horapollo, and others state that the lion was a symbol of the sun, and this is substantiated by the sculptures. Macrobius claimed further that the Egyptians employed the lion to represent that part of the heavens where the sun was in its greatest force during its annual revolution, the zodiacal sign Leo being called the "abode of the Sun."
The Egyptians, Hindus, Chaldeans, Persians, and Celts all regarded the lion as a solar symbol. Brown 1 tells us: "In the inscriptions of Daryavush I. at El-Khargeh, the oasis of Ammon, in the Libyan desert, the great god Amen-Ra, the Invisible god revealed in the sun god, is addressed as 'the Lion of the double lions.' These two lions, two brothers, the two lion gods, are two solar
phases, as diurnal and nocturnal, Har and Set, Shu and Tefuut, and as there is but one solar orb, so he is the lion of the double lions. In the funeral ritual the Osirian, or soul seeking divine union and communion with the sun god, prays: 'Let me not be surpassed by the Lion god: Oh, the Lion of the sun, who lifts his arm in the hill [of heaven]' and exclaims: 'I am the Lions, I am the sun. The white lion is the phallus of the sun.'"
The lion and sun form the familiar national standard of Persia, and a Persian coin by Tavernier shows the sun, horned and radiate, rising over the back of a lion.
In many parts of Egypt, in ancient times, the crocodile appears to have been worshipped. This worship was intimately connected with Sun worship, and rested on the analogy between the natural habits of the crocodile and the course of the sun;—as the crocodile spends its days on the land, and at night-fall seeks the water, so the sun, after running its daily course, sinks at evening into the sea. The crocodile, therefore, came to be regarded as a solar symbol, and so figures on the sculptures.
The cat was a conspicuous solar symbol in Egypt. The female of the species was emblematic of Bast or Bubastis, a solar deity, and the male symbolised the great Sun-God Ra.
The Egyptians also represented the sun by the figure of a man sailing in a ship upon the ocean. Sometimes the ship was supported on the back of a crocodile, and again the man appeared floating in the ship, but at the same time seated upon the aquatic lotus, and often the ship was omitted, and the man was supported simply by the lotus. Sometimes the man's place in the calyx of the lotus plant is occupied by the figure of a child, and in the Bembini table, a frog is figured squatting on the floating lotus leaf in place of the man or child.
The Egyptians also represented the sun and moon, Osiris and Isis, as the ox and the cow, and Lady Wilde 1 tells us that these were used at the Irish wake ceremonials until very recently. "There is perhaps," says Faber, 2 "no part of the Gentile world in which the bull and the cow were not highly reverenced, and considered in the light of holy and mysterious symbols. Among the Chinese, the great father Fohi, whose whole history proves him to be the scriptural Noah, is feigned to have had the head of a bull. In the neighbouring empire of Japan, this ancient personage is venerated under the title of 'ox-headed prince of heaven,' and his figure is here again that of a man having the horns of a bull."
Bearing in mind the nature and meaning of these solar symbols, the Egyptian sculptures have, for those who study them, a significance that renders them doubly interesting.
The Sun-Gods of the Hindus were represented as seated on the sacred lotus, or floating on the surface of the great deep, either on a leaf, or a huge serpent coiled up in a boatlike form.
In Greece there were legends of the voyage of the solar deity over the ocean, borne in a golden cup, originated, we are told, from the circumstance of the yellow or golden cup of the lotus being employed to represent the ship of the Sun. Indeed, in Hindustan, the cup of the lotus and the ship of the Sun-God Siva mean the same thing. "So strongly," says Faber, 1 "was the idea of a mariner sun impressed upon the minds of the ancient Pagans, that they even transferred it to the sphere. Not content with making the sun sail over the ocean in a ship, they considered the whole solar system as one large vessel in which the seven planets act as sailors, while the sun as the fountain of ethereal light presides as the pilot or captain.
"These eight celestial mariners who navigate the ship of the sphere are clearly the astronomical representatives of the eight great gods of Egypt, all of whom, including the sun as their head, were
wont, according to Porphyry, to be depicted not standing on dry land, but sailing over the ocean in a ship."
The natives of Central America represented the sun by a human head, encircled by diverging rays, and with a great open mouth. This solar symbol was widely spread in all that region. In this representation the tongue is protruding, which signifies that the sun lives and speaks. This is clearly evidenced in the famous Aztec Calendar Stone (Calendario Azteco), also called "Stone of the Sun," which was recovered about the middle of the seventeenth century in the subsoil of the Plaza Major, Mexico City. Terry's Guide-Book on Mexico thus describes this interesting relic of antiquity:
"A huge rectangular parallelopipedon of basaltic porphyry, twenty-two feet in diameter, by three feet thick, which weighs twenty-four tons is one of the most interesting of the Aztec relics . . . . This immense specimen, which resembles an irregular mill-stone with a disk carved on it in low relief, evidently served the Aztecs as a calendar stone, and sun-dial. The face is carved with chronological and astronomical signs in geometrical order. The central figure, with a protruding tongue, represents the sun 'Tonatiuh'; the segments radiating toward the edge of the disk are symbolic of its rays.
"Encircling this central figure are seven rings of unequal widths; from the third to the seventh they are incomplete. The inner ring represents two groups of signs, each group containing four symbols. Above the face is an arrowhead, symbolic of the wind, and beneath it a cluster of balls and hieroglyphs. In the rectangles above and below the eagle claws at the right and left are symbols representing the four elements, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. The symbols on both sides of the upper arrowhead are supposed to represent the years. Five ornamental disks fill the spaces between the symbols. The rectangles of the second ring contain the names of the days of the Aztec month, they begin above the point of the arrowhead and continue toward the left. . . . The third ring contains forty small squares each with five balls supposed to represent days—two hundred in all. Crossing this ring and extending to the sixth are four large arrowheads. The latter ring is the largest of all, and is formed by two huge serpents whose tails terminate in arrowheads ornamented with feathers. The chronological figures between the ends of the tails are thought to correspond to the year 1479 of our era. The human heads ornamented with feathers, eagle claws, disks, ear pendants, and what not represent the gods, (at the left) Tonatiuh, the sun, and (at
the right) Quetzalcoatl, god of the air. The rim of the huge stone is adorned with conical glyptics, half stars and balls symbolic of the worlds and stars. . . . By means of this Calendario the priests kept their own records, regulated the festivals and seasons of sacrifices, and made their astronomical calculations. The symbols show that they had the means of settling the hours of the day with precision, the periods of the solstices and equinoxes, and that of the transit of the sun across the zenith of Mexico."
Prescott describes this stone in his Conquest of Mexico, and it is now on exhibition in the National Museum of the City of Mexico.
In the sculptures of the ancient Toltecs, the Sun- and Moon-Gods are represented by the symbols of the tiger and the hare respectively.
Akin to the solar symbols of the Canaanites, the primitive Mexicans erected columns of stone elaborately carved. These symbolised the sun, and as Réville puts it, "The sun traces each day the shadow of these monoliths upon the soil. He appears to caress and love them, regarding them as his fellow-workers in measuring time." 1
Many of the mystic signs common to pagan worship are in evidence to-day, "and the High Churchman decorates the edifice in which he
officiates with symbols similar to those which awed the worshippers of Ashur, Ishtar, or the sun." 1
Chief among these ecclesiastical solar symbols is the cross, symbol of the Christian faith, a symbol that antedated the birth of Christ, and one that found its origin in solar worship. It occurs upon the monuments and utensils of every primitive people, from China to Yucatan. It may be asked, how did the cross, symbol of the sun, originate? The following ingenious explanation has been offered:
"If any one will observe carefully a lamp, or other bright light, with partially closed eyes, the answer will be obvious. The rays which appear to proceed from the luminous point form a cross of some kind. This is due to the reflection from the eyelashes, and edges of the eyelids. The evolution of the sun symbol seems to have been as follows: He was first represented by a circle or disk as he appears when near the horizon. Observations made when he was shining brightly revealed the crossed rays. This led to a combination of the circle and cross. If this is correct the swastika is a modification of the circle and inscribed cross. Not the least remarkable feature of this subject is the fact that the most ancient and universal symbol of the physical sun should
for entirely independent reasons continue in use as the sign of the Sun of Righteousness, and the Light of the World."
The simple cross, with perpendicular and transverse arms of equal length, represents the nave and spokes of the solar wheel, sending forth its rays in all directions. In the ancient parish church of Bebington, Cheshire, England, there is to be seen to this day not only the solar wheel, as one of the adornments of the reredos, but deltas, acorns, and Maltese crosses (all of which are pagan symbols) enter profusely into the decorative features of the edifice.
One of the oldest and most widely occurring forms of the cross is the cross with crampons turned to right and left, commonly known as the "swastika,"
The halo depicted as encircling the heads of the saints, and those endowed with holy attributes, is clearly a solar symbol, and the wheel symbol suggested by the disk of the sun was often used as an emblem of God.
In the chancel of a church in New England to-day we see in the mural decorations symbols that typify the ancient deification of the Sun, and originated from that worship, such as the disk fringed
In another church in the same locality is the symbol of the six-pointed star, enclosing the all-seeing eye.
The strange part of this study of symbolism is that the significance of these heathen emblems should be utterly meaningless to the multitudes who worship in their sight, which indicates an indifference to a knowledge of symbolism not in accord with the desire oftentimes emphasised for it, and the great number of emblems which embellish and adorn modern ecclesiastical edifices.
The emblems of heraldry perpetuate the symbolism expressive of the solar worship of primitive times. We see the Royal Arms of England, supported by the solar lion and the lunar unicorn.
"These two creatures," says Brown, "are naturally antagonistic. In the ancient myth, the Unicorn, when rushing at the Lion, sticks his horn fast in a mythic Tree, behind which his opponent has taken refuge, and the Lion coming round devours him whilst thus defenceless. This is the explanation of the myth. The Lion-Sun flies from the rising Unicorn-Moon, and hides behind the Tree or Grove of the Under-world, the Moon pursues, and sinking in his turn, is caught in this mysterious Tree, and sunslain." 1
In many escutcheons are to be seen solar symbols already referred to, as, for instance, in the cut, the escutcheon of a Greek-letter fraternity shows the winged sun disk and the all-seeing eye.
In astrology also, solar symbolism plays an important part, such as "the rules which connect the sun with gold, with heliotrope and pæony, with the cock which heralds day, and with magnanimous animals such as the lion and bull."
There is to be found in certain old brick houses in England a curious solar symbol. It consists of a flat piece of iron five or six inches in length, shaped somewhat like the letter "S,"
first and second stories. It is still used in Herefordshire. There, it is said that these irons are in the nature of talismans, and are supposed to protect the house from fire and collapse.
Brown tells us that "Masonic tradition is but one of the numerous ancient allegories of the yearly passage of the personified sun among the twelve constellations of the zodiac, being founded on a system of astronomical symbols and emblems, employed to teach the great truths of omnipotent God and immortality." 1 Its symbolism, therefore, is closely associated with solar symbolism and interesting to note in this connection. The word "Masonry" is said to be derived from a Greek word which signifies "I am in the midst of heaven," alluding to the sun. Others derive it from the ancient Egyptian "Phre," the sun, and "Mas," a child, Phre-mas, i.e., children of the sun, or sons of light. From this we get our word "Freemason."
Masons are instructed to travel eastward in search of light, as the sun rises in the east. The initiation into all the ancient mysteries was a drama founded on the astronomical allegory of the death and resurrection of the Sun, and impressed on the mind of the candidate the unity of God and the immortality of man. These facts are taught in the ritual of the Third Degree.
The Sun, overwhelmed by the three autumn months, returns to life at the vernal equinox, and is exalted at the summer solstice. In this drama the candidate was required to represent the Sun, and a solar significance characterises the whole ritual.
The following references to the symbolism of Masonry are taken from Stellar Theology by Robert Brown, Jr.
"The Lodge should be situated East and West, because the Sun, the glory of the Lord, rises in the East and sets in the West. A lodge has three lights situated in the East, West, and South. The Master's place is in the East, whence the sun rises, the Senior Warden's in the South, the point the sun occupies at mid-day.
"E.A.M. signifies the sun, F.C.M. the moon, and M.M. the sun, Benevolent God of Fire.
"O.G.M.H.A. is derived from two roots signifying the origin or manifestation of light, also he who was, and is. The source of eternal light, the sun taken as an emblem of Deity.
"O.G.M.H.A. represents the sun. The three steps delineated on the master's carpet have an obvious reference to the three steps or degrees by which the initiated becomes a Master-mason. They allude to the constellations Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer (emblematic of three steps), by means
of which the sun ascends to the summit of the Royal Arch.
"The emblem of the Blazing Star alludes to the Sun as a symbol of Deity. The rite of Circumambulation has a direct solar allusion, as it was always performed from right to left, in imitation of the apparent course of the sun from East to West by way of the South.
"Masons celebrate June 24th and December 27th. These dates have a purely astronomic significance, and refer to the summer and winter solstice, the periods of great festivals and celebrations throughout the ancient world.
"The symbol of the all-seeing eye is distinctly solar in its character. In most of the ancient languages of Asia, eye and sun are expressed by the same word. In like manner Masons have emblematically represented the omniscience of the great Architect of the Universe.
"The significance of the Pillars of the Porch is of interest. In every Lodge there are two pillars surmounted by globes. These represent the pillars in the porch of King Solomon's temple. The Egyptian temples always contained two such pillars, one called 'Boaz,' meaning the sun, on the north side, the other 'Jachin,' referring to the moon, on the south.
"The corner-stone of the Lodge is placed in the
[paragraph continues] North-East, as the sun on June 21st rises in the North-East."
According to Professor Worsaal, the ring cross
The subject of solar symbolism has been only briefly touched upon in the foregoing, and a close study of its many features affords a rich field for research that should prove of fascinating interest to scholars and antiquarians alike.
289:1 The Moqui Indian Symbol of the sun is a Greek cross with a small circle in the centre, in which are three marks to indicate the eyes and mouth of a face.
293:1 The Lion and the Unicorn, Robert Brown, Jr.
295:1 Ancient Legends of Ireland, Lady Wilde.
295:2 The Origin of Pagan Idolatry, George Stanley Faber.
296:1 The Origin of Pagan Idolatry, George Stanley Faber.
299:1 Native Races of Mexico and Peru, Albert Réville.
300:1 Ancient Faiths, Thomas Inman.
303:1 The Unicorn, Robert Brown, Jr.
304:1 Stellar Theology, Robert Brown, Jr.