The Many Names of the Sun: This week on the Storyteller's Night Sky

Mar 13, 2017

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's "Allegory of Planets and Continents" (1752) depicts Apollo embarking on his daily trek across the sky, surrounded by the planets and with the four continents on the cornices

Recently my sister sent me a picture of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s 18th century masterpiece “Allegory of the Planets and Continents”, which shows the Ancient Greek Sun god Apollo, about to embark on his daily trek across the sky. Since the Sun is about to make its annual return to the northern hemisphere, I thought I’d look into a few of the names given to the Sun. 

For the Ancient Egyptians, the Sun God was known as “Ra”, and he ruled all parts of the created world: the sky, the earth, and the underworld.

Several centuries later, the Ancient Greeks regarded the Sun as Apollo, a son of Zeus who rode his chariot of the Sun across the sky each day, while his father had dominion over the upper world, and his uncles divided between them the rulership of the Earth’s waters and the underworld.

Then we get to the ancient Romans, and the Sun god no longer shares the same authority or dominion as he did even for the Greeks. Known by the name Sol, the Roman Sun god may have been two different Sun gods, much less powerful than the Father God Jupiter.

This movement through the ancient world from Egypt to Rome shows a really interesting change in the relationship between humanity and the natural world as it moves through time. The Sun god was supreme ruler for the Egyptians, then for the Greeks, he became the son of the supreme ruler. For the Romans, the Sun god was a lesser deity worshiped in cults, rather than by the entire community.

By the time the Christian era begins, about 2000 years ago, there are references to the Sun as though entering all the way into the stream of earthly humanity. In the John Gospel we find the description: “I have come as a light into the world.” 

The Sun will make its return to the Northern Hemisphere at Equinox, on March 20, and until then, here’s a little bit of a ditty by Shakespeare about it all:

Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings

And Phoebus 'gins arise, 

His steeds to water at those springs 
On chaliced flowers that lies; 
And winking Mary-buds begin 
To ope their golden eyes: 
With every thing that pretty is, 
My lady sweet, arise: 
Arise, arise.