Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life

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In the grand tradition of the scholar-adventurer, acclaimed author Richard Cohen takes us around the world to illuminate our relationship with the star that gives us life. Whether floating in a skiff on the Ganges as the Sun descends behind the funeral pyres of Varanasi, interviewing psychologists in the Norwegian Arctic about the effects of darkness, or watching tomato seedlings in southern Spain being hair-brushed (the better to catch the Sun’s rays), Cohen tirelessly pursues ...
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Overview

In the grand tradition of the scholar-adventurer, acclaimed author Richard Cohen takes us around the world to illuminate our relationship with the star that gives us life. Whether floating in a skiff on the Ganges as the Sun descends behind the funeral pyres of Varanasi, interviewing psychologists in the Norwegian Arctic about the effects of darkness, or watching tomato seedlings in southern Spain being hair-brushed (the better to catch the Sun’s rays), Cohen tirelessly pursues his quarry.

Drawing on more than seven years of research, he reports from locations in eighteen different countries, including the Novolazarevskaya science station in Antarctica (the coldest place on Earth); the Arizona desert (the sunniest); the Pope’s observatory-cum-fortress outside Rome (possible the least accessible); and the crest of Mount Fuji, where—entirely alone—he welcomes the sunrise on the longest day of the year.

As he soon discovers, the Sun is present everywhere—in mythology, language, religion, sciences, art, literature, and medicine; in the ocean depths; even atop the Statue of Liberty. Ancient worshippers believed our star was a man with three eyes and four arms, abandoned by his spouse because his brightness made her weary. The early Christians appropriated the halo from sun imagery and saw the cross as an emblem of the Sun and its rays. Galileo was the first to espy blemishes on the solar surface—sunspots—but hid his discoveries for fear of persecution. Einstein helped duplicate the source of the Sun’s power to create the atomic bomb; while the “Sun King” Louis XIV, Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler, and the Japanese emperors all co-opted the Sun to enlarge their authority. Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes declare that even thinking about the solar system took up too much space in his brain, while Richard Wagner had Tristan inveigh against daylight as the enemy of romantic love.

Packed with interesting figures (the Sun is responsible for 44 percent of the world’s tidal energy, and when aligned with the Moon, as at high tide, makes us all minutely taller); extraordinary myths (in India, just a few years ago, pregnant women were still being kept indoors during an eclipse, for fear their babies would be born blind or with cleft palates); and surprising anecdotes (during the Vietnam War, a large number of mines dropped into Haiphong harbor blew up simultaneously in response to a large solar flare), this splendidly illustrated volume is erudite, informative, and supremely entertaining. It not only explains the star that so inspires us, but shows how complex our relations with it have been—and continue to be.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The sun is one topic we can't ignore. Not only does this blinding bright star provide the heat that sustains us; it is so huge that it accounts for nearly 99.9% of our solar system's mass. Richard Cohen's Chasing the Sun doesn't just stun us with "wow" scientific details; it draws on seven years of research in eighteen countries to explain what we are still learning about this brightest object in the sky. Just as significantly, Cohen demonstrates the sun is virtually omnipresent in the world's mythologies, religions, literature, and art. Highly readable and lavishly illustrated, this book lifts the shadows on an unavoidable subject.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Cohen (By the Sword) visited 18 countries to gather information for this ambitious and unusual literary opus, including Peru, where he witnessed the reenactment of an Inca ceremony welcoming the summer solstice, and Japan, where he climbed a snow-covered Mt. Fuji. He hunted the mythology embedded in the works of Shakespeare, Nabokov ("I must be the only person to have read Lolita for its Sun images"), Dante, Chaucer, and other authors, and personally examined the orientation of the Egyptian Pyramids and European cathedrals. This vast effort touches on the modern age shepherded by Copernicus and Galileo, and the author labels 200 discoveries related to solar energy in the 1870s a "scientific revolution" which would lead directly to the hydrogen bomb. He goes on to sound a cautionary note on climate change extremism, warning that there is still no consensus on the influence of solar cycles on climate (he goes so far as to raise the possibility of another ice-age). Cohen was compelled to write "the sort of book I'd like to read," a risky position for a writer seeking a broad readership, but one that more than pays off.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From the Publisher
Advance praise for Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun is both a grand history of civilization and an irresistible account of an around-the-world odyssey in search of an elusive moving target. Richard Cohen collects fascinating stories with the exuberance and erudition of a Victorian explorer filling a curio cabinet with rare specimens. This is an amazing tour de force.”—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

Chasing the Sun is quite an extraordinary book, which I absolutely loved. I found it impossible to read in a few sittings, but sort of sat around regularly sunbathing in its information afterglow. It’s a dazzling solar encyclopedia but also a fabulously provoking history of discoveries, dreams, and delusions. I shall bask in its shimmering digressions, crazy cross-references, and dizzy overviews for many moons.”—Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder

Kirkus Reviews

A remarkably comprehensive and engrossing synthesis of the sun's influence on science, art, religion, literature, mythology and politics.

Former publishing executive Cohen (By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, 2002) will not be confined in this study of all things that have been touched by the sun. After more than eight years of research and visits to nearly 20 countries, he ranges about in gleeful fascination, marching through the rich, ancient history of stargazing, from the Babylonian and Egyptian astronomers to Pythagoras, Aristotle, Chinese cosmology, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. The author discusses the story of sunspots, the art of navigation and the art of nudism, the breathtaking presence of Stonehenge, medicine wheels and the Dancing Stones of Namoratunga in Kenya. He traces the evolution of the calendar, the advent of solar power and the daystar's effect on the writing of Euripides, Shakespeare, Nabokov and Styron, and the paintings of Turner and Hockney—though these just touch the surface of Cohen's breadth and depth. "Sometimes it is the direct subject of their creations," he writes, "sometimes a symbol of what they have wanted to convey, infusing their work with an authority, even majesty, that no other force could match." Finally, the author turns to the death of the sun, a brilliant story unto itself. After billions of years of evolution, in its "final stage" it will "simply dwindle away, a dark nuclear waste drifting in the vacuum, its life-giving journey done." Ever enthusiastic, Cohen provides illuminating personal anecdotes, but he includes just the right amount of detail, never allowing the material to sprawl untethered.

Apollo, Ra, Inti or Huitzilopochtli—all would rock with delight at Cohen's sweeping endeavor.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400068753
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/9/2010
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 7.46 (w) x 11.80 (h) x 1.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Cohen is the former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton and the founder of Richard Cohen Books. The acclaimed author of By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, he has written for The New York Times and most leading London newspapers, and has appeared on BBC radio and television. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Telling Stories

I look upon the sunrise and sunset, on the daily return of day and night, on the battle between light and darkness, on the whole solar drama in all its

details that is acted every day, every month, every year, in heaven and in earth, as the principal subject of early mythology.

-Max Müller,

the nineteenth-century

Oxford professor who

transformed the study

of solar mythology1

Man has weav'd out a net,

And this net throwne

Upon the heavens,

And now they are his owne.

-John Donne2

Donne's awed yet mocking lines were written in the early years of the Copernican revolution, but they could apply just as easily to man's attempt to make sense of the heavens-to make them "his owne"-by telling stories. Because all societies have myths about the Sun, their sheer variety is glorious-here it is a magician or trickster, there a ball of fire some figure must carry, another time a canoe, a mirror, or an amazing menagerie of beasts. In Peru and northern Chile, many tribes knew the Sun as the god Inti, who descended into the ocean every evening, swam back to the east, then reappeared, refreshed by his bath.3 As soon as the horse became domesticated (early in the second millennium b.c.) the Sun was portrayed as guiding a chariot drawn by four flaming steeds. In ancient India, these were termed arushá, Sanskrit for "Sun-bright" (the Greek word "eros" shares that meaning, having evolved from the same root as "sun horse"). Birds are often invoked-a falcon, or an eagle, and of course the phoenix, which dies and is reborn from its own ashes. In Africa and India, the tiger and lion are solar animals, sunrise being represented by a young lion, noon by one in its prime, sunset by one in old age. Where lions are absent, local communities adapt: in the pre-Conquest Americas, the eagle and jaguar are the chosen beasts.

Several cultures described the Sun in more than one way: to the Egyptians, the solar gods numbered not only Ra but Khepri, "the Self- Transforming One," and Harakhty, "the Far One." The Aztecs employed Huitzilopochtli (from huitzilin, a hummingbird) to mean both the rising Sun and the star at its zenith, and Tezcatlipoca, "Smoking (or Shining) Mirror," for twilight or evening. The Sun is continually reborn; so that in all they had a jaguar sun, a wind sun, a rain sun, a rain-of-fire sun, and the god Nanahuatzin ("Full of Sores") who became a fifth solar force, that of the earthquake. Yet whatever form the Sun takes-an eye, a wing, a boat, a dragon, a fish, a bird-there is a common core, a similarity to these tales that spring up in cultures often hemispheres, and millennia, apart.

Sometimes the Sun is seen as so overwhelming a threat that it must in some way be tamed. In ancient Chinese mythology, for instance, the goddess Xihi gives birth to ten suns, which rise simultaneously into the heavens, burning the harvests and all plant life-bar one huge mulberry bush, the fusang, on which the suns perch. Every morning the goddess bathes one of them, letting it fly up to her on the back of a crow. One day all the suns escape, and life on Earth becomes unbearable. A variety of monsters scour the land: the ogre Zuochi, with long teeth; Quiying, who kills with water and fire; a giant bird that unleashes the wind, Dafeng; the giant boar Fengxi; and the great serpent Xisushe. The wretched people below endlessly beg the suns to come down, but they refuse. Total destruction impends, until Houyi, a young archer, slays the ogre, the monster, and the giant bird, cuts the serpent in two, captures the boar and-his crowning act-shoots down nine of the suns. Ever since, the story concludes, there has been only the one last sun.

Aesop's fable "The Sun Gets Married" has a different plot but the same threat. One hot summer, word comes that the Sun is to marry. All the birds and beasts rejoice, especially the frogs, until a wise old toad calls for order. "My friends," he tells them, "you should temper your enthusiasm. For if the Sun alone dries up the marshes so that we can hardly bear it, what will become of us if he should have half a dozen little suns in addition?" Two stories, both teaching that one can have too much of a good thing.

Almost all ancient civilizations believed the universe to have existed for unknown ages without benefit of any human intervention. The same did not hold true for the Sun, which in a host of mythologies exists only by virtue of man's nurture. The Hopi of northeast Arizona, for instance, claimed they made the Sun by throwing up a buckskin shield along with a fox's coat and a parrot's tail (to make the colors of sunrise and sunset). But whatever form or character it took, the Sun was rarely cast as fully invulnerable (an old German custom forbade pointing at the star lest one do it harm), and it has been variously depicted as having been freed from a cave, or stolen, or having sprung into life through the self-sacrifice of a god or hero. Among the Inuit of the Bering Strait, all creation is attributed to a Raven Father, who is so annoyed at man's rapacity that he hides the Sun in a bag. The terrified people offer him gifts until he relents, but only to a degree, holding the Sun up in the sky for a time before removing it again.

Every early society personified the cycles of nature, but where the Sun is concerned, cultures have differed on its gender. In the Romance languages the star is male, but in the Germanic and Celtic it is feminine and the Moon masculine: in upper Bavaria the Sun is still spoken of as "Frau Sonne" and the Moon as "Herr Mond." For the Rwala Bedouin of Arabia, the Sun is a mean and destructive old hag who forces the handsome Moon to sleep with her once a month and so exhausts him that he needs another month to recover.4 Other groups, such as the Eskimo, Cherokee, and Yuchi, also regard the Sun as female, while in Polish the Sun is neuter, the Moon male. These variations may have arisen from climatic differences: in some areas the day is mild and welcoming, hence the Sun tends to be termed feminine, whereas the Moon, ruling the chill, stern nighttime, is male. In equatorial regions, where daytime is searingly forbidding and the night mild and pleasant, the genders reverse. There are exceptions: on the Malay Peninsula, Sun and Moon are both regarded as female and the stars as the Moon's children.5

Most creation accounts cast the Sun as paramount, both over the Moon and over the heavens. The Book of Genesis declares: "God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night."6 The Egyptians referred to Sun and Moon as "the two lights," the right and left eye, respectively, of Ra-the left being described as weaker, because damaged. In Central and South America and among the Mundas of Bengal, Sun and Moon are man and wife. The Bengalis charmingly call the Sun "Sing-Bonga," believing him a gentle god who does not interfere in human affairs. Another myth of the same region fashions the star as a man with three eyes and four arms who is abandoned by his wife because his dazzle wearies her. She installs Chhaya (Darkness) in his place, but the Sun wins her back by reducing his effulgence to seven-eighths of its original brilliance (an interesting example of the spirit of compromise making companionship possible). Many stories are told about such marital troubles, it being a given that Sun and Moon can never live happily together.

It occurred to some of the more sophisticated ancient cultures to wonder why, if the Sun were indeed so powerful, he had to abide by strict laws rather than roam at will. Surely only a slave would perform so repetitively? Numerous legends were devised to explain this thralldom. The Sun was portrayed as erratic, sometimes hurrying too fast, at other times dawdling, coming too close to Earth one moment, the next moving too far away. The sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the first bicultural Spanish Americans, tells the following story about Huayna Capac, greatest of Inca conquerors:

One day this ruler stares directly into the rays of the Sun, and

his high priest has to remind him that their religion forbids this. Huayna Capac replies that he is his king and pontiff. "Is there any amongst you who would dare command me to rise and undertake a long journey?"

The high priest answers that this would be unthinkable.

Huayna Capac continues: "And would any of my chieftains, no matter what his power or worldly estate, refuse to obey me if I should command him to travel to far-away Chile?"

The high priest acknowledges that no chieftain would.

"Then," says the Inca, "I tell you that this our Father the Sun must have a master greater than he, who thus commands him to journey across the sky day after day with never a respite, for if he were the Supreme Lord he would surely sometime cease traveling and rest."7

The Greeks, too, put the Sun in a somewhat less than exalted position; Homer does not even grant Helios a place among the Olympians. Nor is the Sun seen as always beneficent: in Mesopotamian myth, the solar god Nergal brings plague and war, his weapons being heat, parching winds, and lightning. Throughout history there remains a deep ambivalence: humanity cannot do without the Sun's power, but still wishes to tame or seduce it, to limit its hold over us.

what is that hold? In the latter half of the nineteenth century a remarkable scholar would make the Sun the focus of his research: Friedrich Max Müller. He would argue that the Sun lay at the root of language, and thus of all major myths, not just the obviously solar ones. Müller was born in 1823 in Dessau, then the capital of a small state within the German Confederation, the son of a poet. Initially he studied Sanskrit, which kindled an interest in philology and religion. He embarked on a translation of the Rig Veda, the sacred hymns of Hinduism, and in 1846 traveled to Britain to research the archives of its Indian empire, supporting himself by writing fiction- his first novel, German Love, becoming a bestseller. He stayed on, and in 1854 was appointed professor of modern languages at Oxford. Fourteen years later, he was made professor of comparative philology as well, and later yet the university's first professor of comparative theology. The breadth of his knowledge, along with the fact that he spent years preparing a massive fifty-volume English translation of The Sacred Books of the East, may well have made him the model for George Eliot's Dr. Casaubon-the pedant engrossed in his never-ending lifework The Key to All Mythologies-in her novel Middlemarch, published in 1871, when Müller's reputation was at its height.

In his time this German-born Oxford academic was a truly famous figure, his friends and acquaintances spanning two generations of the British intellectual elite: Macaulay, Tennyson, Thackeray, Ruskin, Browning, Matthew Arnold, Gladstone, and Curzon, among many others. Queen Victoria twice offered him a knighthood, which he declined as inappropriate. When he died, his widow received condolences from kings and emperors. In all, he wrote more than fifty books. His last words were, unsurprisingly, "I am tired."8

In his masterwork, On the Philosophy of Mythology (1871), he set about showing that the same kinds of stories, the same traditions and myths, could be found worldwide, and that the appearance and disappearance of the Sun and its worship as the source of life were the basis of most mythological systems. From the earliest times, man constructed his understanding of the world around the Sun.

What we call the Morning, the ancient Aryans called the Sun or the Dawn. . . . What we call Noon, the Evening, and Night, what we call Spring and Winter, what we call Year, and Time, and Life, and Eternity-all this the ancient Aryans called Sun. And yet wise people wonder and say, how curious that the ancient Aryans should have had so many solar myths. Why, every time we say "Good morning" we commit a solar myth. . . . Every "Christmas number" of our newspapers- ringing out the old year and ringing in the new-is brimful of solar myths.9

More than a century on, we tend to take the validity of Müller's main arguments for granted. In his own time, however, he seriously overreached: his insistence that every myth derives from the Sun, as well as his emphasis on the primacy of Aryan mythology and his eagerness to converge all languages back toward a single common root, provoked a bitter battle between his camp and those who took different paths. The cause of solar panmythology lost its leading light with his death in 1900. Though Müller's work is now known to only a few, he remains a major figure in our understanding of solar myths.

the sun's place in the world's mythologies was taken up once again in 1923 by William James Perry (1887-1949), a cultural anthropologist at University College, London, and the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) when that year they coauthored Children of the Sun, which argued that during mankind's early history there were groups of people on most continents who believed themselves to be the progeny of a sun god. Unrepentant heliocentrists, Perry and Smith contended that "the importance of this fact in the history of civilization, and especially in the study of mythology and tradition, cannot be exaggerated."10

They dated the first appearance of self-proclaimed descendants of the gods to around 2580 b.c. Claiming to be the actual progeny of Ra, the members of the pharaonic dynasties believed that at some point the Sun had come down to take the place of the king on Earth, thus making them his descendants. The subjects of the king were taught never to look directly at him; rain or sunshine were his to summon; he was master of magic and giver or withholder of the harvest.11 The Egyptians took the divine nature of kingship further than any other society-although it was the Roman emperor Vespasian (a.d. 9-79) who joked on his deathbed, "Damn, I think I'm turning into a god."

Perry and Smith discerned similar belief systems among the Asuras

of India, the Timurids of Indonesia, the Abarihu of San Cristobal in the Solomons, the inhabitants of many parts of Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Eastern Pacific, the Inca, the Mayans, and several North American tribes, and concluded, "Wherever it is possible to examine the ruling classes of the archaic civilization, it is found that they were what are termed gods, that they had the attributes of gods, and that they usually called themselves the Children of the Sun."12 Like Müller, they finally pushed a valuable insight too far (the countries where such Children of the Sun held sway show up on a world atlas only in particular areas), yet they did identify a remarkable cultural pattern, which enjoyed preeminence for thousands of years.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xiii

Preface xix

Sunrise: Mount Fuji xxv

Part I The sun Before Science

chapter 1 Telling Stories 3

Solar myths; Max Muller's discoveries; Children of the Sun; an Inca festival

chapter 2 Celebrating the Seasons 14

Solstices and equinoxes; worshipping through the seasons; North American sun dances

chapter 3 The Three Thousand Witnesses 28

The Earth's standing stones; Stonehenge; the Pyramids; Newgrange; and New York

chapter 4 Terrors of the Sky 42

Auroras and eclipses: their respective histories from 2000 b. c. to Shakespeare and Milton

part 2 Discoverimg the Sun

chapter 5 The First Astronomers 59

The earliest stargazers; the Sumerians; the Babylonians; the ancient Egyptians

chapter 6 Enter the Greeks 69

From Homer and Hesiod to Pythagoras, Plato, and Ptolemy

Chapter 7 Gifts of the Yellow Emperor 86

China's separateness; modes of thought: yin and yang, the "Way" and the Sun

Chapter 8 The Sultan's Turret 100

Arabia's great astronomers; India and Western Europe, a.d. 600-1543

Chapter 9 The Earth Moves 116

The great four: Copernicus: Tycho; Kepler; and Galileo

Chapter 10 Strange Seas of Thought 136

Newton on gravity and color; the transit of Venus; Newton's successors to 1850

Chapter 11 Bclipses and Enlightenment 153

From Captain Cook to Einstein's great moment; Antarctica 2003

Chapter 12 The Sun Dethroned 168

Solar physics, 1800-1950; the Copenhagen gang; making the atomic bomb

part 3 The Sun on Earth

Chapter 13 Sunspots 187

Their makeup explained; cycles, flares, and eruptions; their influence on weather

Chapter 14 The Qualities of Light 202

Light in war, in sport, in crime; shadows, sunsets, and twilight

Chapter 15 Beneath the Beating Sun 214

Heat and its effects; skin color fashions; from sun-avoidance to sunbathing

Chapter 16 Skin Deep 231

Skin cancers; how melatonin works; sungazing; seasonal affective disorder

Chapter 17 The Breath of Life 244

Photosynthesis and its discoverers; plants and the Sun; hibernation and migration

Chapter 18 The Dark Biosphere 259

Creatures of the deep; currents and tides

part 4 Harmessing the Sun

Chapter 19 The Heavenly Guide 275

Navigation and cartography as aided by the Sun

Chapter 20 Of Calendars and Dials 288

Reckoning the years from before Julius Caesar to after Gregory VII

Chapter 21 How Time Goes By 307

Greenwich Mean Time, the creation of Standard Time, and Daylight Saving Time

Chapter 22 The Sun in our Pocket 322

Solar energy, from Archimedes' mirrors to solar-powered cars

part 5 Inspired By a star

Chapter 23 The Vital Symbol 345

The Sun King; the metaphors of gold, blondes, and mirrors

Chapter 24 Drawing on the Sun 358

The Sun in art, from the Renaissance through Turner, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Hockney

Chapter 25 Negative Capabilities 376

The Sun in photography, film, and architecture

Chapter 26 Talk of the Day 388

The Sun as reflected in classical and pop music from Mozart to the Beatles

Chapter 27 Busie Old Foole 399

The Sun in literature: Homer and Dante, Chaucer and Donne, Lawrence and Nabokov

Chapter 28 The Rising Star of Politics 418

Solar imagery and the Nazis; Japan's divine emperor, the Sun of Mao and Benedict XVI

part 6 The sun and the future

Chapter 29 Over the Horizon 439

Solar astronomy, 1950 to the present; the coming "golden age" and what it may bring

Chapter 30 Under the Weather 460

The ozone layer; the Sun and global warming; will the Earth get too hot or freeze over?

Chapter 31 The Impossible and Beyond 476

Science fiction from ancient Rome to Swift, Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clark

Chapter 32 The Death of the Sun 490

Solar catastrophes; asteroids and meteors; what will happen when the Sun burns out?

Sunset: the Ganges 499

Acknowledgments 513

Notes 529

Index 533

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First Chapter

Chasing the Sun

The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life
By Richard Cohen

Random House

Copyright © 2010 Richard Cohen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781400068753

chapter 1

Telling Stories

I look upon the sunrise and sunset, on the daily return of day and night, on the battle between light and darkness, on the whole solar drama in all its

details that is acted every day, every month, every year, in heaven and in earth, as the principal subject of early mythology.

-Max Müller,

the nineteenth-century

Oxford professor who

transformed the study

of solar mythology1

Man has weav'd out a net,

And this net throwne

Upon the heavens,

And now they are his owne.

-John Donne2

Donne's awed yet mocking lines were written in the early years of the Copernican revolution, but they could apply just as easily to man's attempt to make sense of the heavens-to make them "his owne"-by telling stories. Because all societies have myths about the Sun, their sheer variety is glorious-here it is a magician or trickster, there a ball of fire some figure must carry, another time a canoe, a mirror, or an amazing menagerie of beasts. In Peru and northern Chile, many tribes knew the Sun as the god Inti, who descended into the ocean every evening, swam back to the east, then reappeared, refreshed by his bath.3 As soon as the horse became domesticated (early in the second millennium b.c.) the Sun was portrayed as guiding a chariot drawn by four flaming steeds. In ancient India, these were termed arushá, Sanskrit for "Sun-bright" (the Greek word "eros" shares that meaning, having evolved from the same root as "sun horse"). Birds are often invoked-a falcon, or an eagle, and of course the phoenix, which dies and is reborn from its own ashes. In Africa and India, the tiger and lion are solar animals, sunrise being represented by a young lion, noon by one in its prime, sunset by one in old age. Where lions are absent, local communities adapt: in the pre-Conquest Americas, the eagle and jaguar are the chosen beasts.

Several cultures described the Sun in more than one way: to the Egyptians, the solar gods numbered not only Ra but Khepri, "the Self- Transforming One," and Harakhty, "the Far One." The Aztecs employed Huitzilopochtli (from huitzilin, a hummingbird) to mean both the rising Sun and the star at its zenith, and Tezcatlipoca, "Smoking (or Shining) Mirror," for twilight or evening. The Sun is continually reborn; so that in all they had a jaguar sun, a wind sun, a rain sun, a rain-of-fire sun, and the god Nanahuatzin ("Full of Sores") who became a fifth solar force, that of the earthquake. Yet whatever form the Sun takes-an eye, a wing, a boat, a dragon, a fish, a bird-there is a common core, a similarity to these tales that spring up in cultures often hemispheres, and millennia, apart.

Sometimes the Sun is seen as so overwhelming a threat that it must in some way be tamed. In ancient Chinese mythology, for instance, the goddess Xihi gives birth to ten suns, which rise simultaneously into the heavens, burning the harvests and all plant life-bar one huge mulberry bush, the fusang, on which the suns perch. Every morning the goddess bathes one of them, letting it fly up to her on the back of a crow. One day all the suns escape, and life on Earth becomes unbearable. A variety of monsters scour the land: the ogre Zuochi, with long teeth; Quiying, who kills with water and fire; a giant bird that unleashes the wind, Dafeng; the giant boar Fengxi; and the great serpent Xisushe. The wretched people below endlessly beg the suns to come down, but they refuse. Total destruction impends, until Houyi, a young archer, slays the ogre, the monster, and the giant bird, cuts the serpent in two, captures the boar and-his crowning act-shoots down nine of the suns. Ever since, the story concludes, there has been only the one last sun.

Aesop's fable "The Sun Gets Married" has a different plot but the same threat. One hot summer, word comes that the Sun is to marry. All the birds and beasts rejoice, especially the frogs, until a wise old toad calls for order. "My friends," he tells them, "you should temper your enthusiasm. For if the Sun alone dries up the marshes so that we can hardly bear it, what will become of us if he should have half a dozen little suns in addition?" Two stories, both teaching that one can have too much of a good thing.

Almost all ancient civilizations believed the universe to have existed for unknown ages without benefit of any human intervention. The same did not hold true for the Sun, which in a host of mythologies exists only by virtue of man's nurture. The Hopi of northeast Arizona, for instance, claimed they made the Sun by throwing up a buckskin shield along with a fox's coat and a parrot's tail (to make the colors of sunrise and sunset). But whatever form or character it took, the Sun was rarely cast as fully invulnerable (an old German custom forbade pointing at the star lest one do it harm), and it has been variously depicted as having been freed from a cave, or stolen, or having sprung into life through the self-sacrifice of a god or hero. Among the Inuit of the Bering Strait, all creation is attributed to a Raven Father, who is so annoyed at man's rapacity that he hides the Sun in a bag. The terrified people offer him gifts until he relents, but only to a degree, holding the Sun up in the sky for a time before removing it again.

Every early society personified the cycles of nature, but where the Sun is concerned, cultures have differed on its gender. In the Romance languages the star is male, but in the Germanic and Celtic it is feminine and the Moon masculine: in upper Bavaria the Sun is still spoken of as "Frau Sonne" and the Moon as "Herr Mond." For the Rwala Bedouin of Arabia, the Sun is a mean and destructive old hag who forces the handsome Moon to sleep with her once a month and so exhausts him that he needs another month to recover.4 Other groups, such as the Eskimo, Cherokee, and Yuchi, also regard the Sun as female, while in Polish the Sun is neuter, the Moon male. These variations may have arisen from climatic differences: in some areas the day is mild and welcoming, hence the Sun tends to be termed feminine, whereas the Moon, ruling the chill, stern nighttime, is male. In equatorial regions, where daytime is searingly forbidding and the night mild and pleasant, the genders reverse. There are exceptions: on the Malay Peninsula, Sun and Moon are both regarded as female and the stars as the Moon's children.5

Most creation accounts cast the Sun as paramount, both over the Moon and over the heavens. The Book of Genesis declares: "God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night."6 The Egyptians referred to Sun and Moon as "the two lights," the right and left eye, respectively, of Ra-the left being described as weaker, because damaged. In Central and South America and among the Mundas of Bengal, Sun and Moon are man and wife. The Bengalis charmingly call the Sun "Sing-Bonga," believing him a gentle god who does not interfere in human affairs. Another myth of the same region fashions the star as a man with three eyes and four arms who is abandoned by his wife because his dazzle wearies her. She installs Chhaya (Darkness) in his place, but the Sun wins her back by reducing his effulgence to seven-eighths of its original brilliance (an interesting example of the spirit of compromise making companionship possible). Many stories are told about such marital troubles, it being a given that Sun and Moon can never live happily together.

It occurred to some of the more sophisticated ancient cultures to wonder why, if the Sun were indeed so powerful, he had to abide by strict laws rather than roam at will. Surely only a slave would perform so repetitively? Numerous legends were devised to explain this thralldom. The Sun was portrayed as erratic, sometimes hurrying too fast, at other times dawdling, coming too close to Earth one moment, the next moving too far away. The sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the first bicultural Spanish Americans, tells the following story about Huayna Capac, greatest of Inca conquerors:

One day this ruler stares directly into the rays of the Sun, and

his high priest has to remind him that their religion forbids this. Huayna Capac replies that he is his king and pontiff. "Is there any amongst you who would dare command me to rise and undertake a long journey?"

The high priest answers that this would be unthinkable.

Huayna Capac continues: "And would any of my chieftains, no matter what his power or worldly estate, refuse to obey me if I should command him to travel to far-away Chile?"

The high priest acknowledges that no chieftain would.

"Then," says the Inca, "I tell you that this our Father the Sun must have a master greater than he, who thus commands him to journey across the sky day after day with never a respite, for if he were the Supreme Lord he would surely sometime cease traveling and rest."7

The Greeks, too, put the Sun in a somewhat less than exalted position; Homer does not even grant Helios a place among the Olympians. Nor is the Sun seen as always beneficent: in Mesopotamian myth, the solar god Nergal brings plague and war, his weapons being heat, parching winds, and lightning. Throughout history there remains a deep ambivalence: humanity cannot do without the Sun's power, but still wishes to tame or seduce it, to limit its hold over us.

what is that hold? In the latter half of the nineteenth century a remarkable scholar would make the Sun the focus of his research: Friedrich Max Müller. He would argue that the Sun lay at the root of language, and thus of all major myths, not just the obviously solar ones. Müller was born in 1823 in Dessau, then the capital of a small state within the German Confederation, the son of a poet. Initially he studied Sanskrit, which kindled an interest in philology and religion. He embarked on a translation of the Rig Veda, the sacred hymns of Hinduism, and in 1846 traveled to Britain to research the archives of its Indian empire, supporting himself by writing fiction- his first novel, German Love, becoming a bestseller. He stayed on, and in 1854 was appointed professor of modern languages at Oxford. Fourteen years later, he was made professor of comparative philology as well, and later yet the university's first professor of comparative theology. The breadth of his knowledge, along with the fact that he spent years preparing a massive fifty-volume English translation of The Sacred Books of the East, may well have made him the model for George Eliot's Dr. Casaubon-the pedant engrossed in his never-ending lifework The Key to All Mythologies-in her novel Middlemarch, published in 1871, when Müller's reputation was at its height.

In his time this German-born Oxford academic was a truly famous figure, his friends and acquaintances spanning two generations of the British intellectual elite: Macaulay, Tennyson, Thackeray, Ruskin, Browning, Matthew Arnold, Gladstone, and Curzon, among many others. Queen Victoria twice offered him a knighthood, which he declined as inappropriate. When he died, his widow received condolences from kings and emperors. In all, he wrote more than fifty books. His last words were, unsurprisingly, "I am tired."8

In his masterwork, On the Philosophy of Mythology (1871), he set about showing that the same kinds of stories, the same traditions and myths, could be found worldwide, and that the appearance and disappearance of the Sun and its worship as the source of life were the basis of most mythological systems. From the earliest times, man constructed his understanding of the world around the Sun.

What we call the Morning, the ancient Aryans called the Sun or the Dawn. . . . What we call Noon, the Evening, and Night, what we call Spring and Winter, what we call Year, and Time, and Life, and Eternity-all this the ancient Aryans called Sun. And yet wise people wonder and say, how curious that the ancient Aryans should have had so many solar myths. Why, every time we say "Good morning" we commit a solar myth. . . . Every "Christmas number" of our newspapers- ringing out the old year and ringing in the new-is brimful of solar myths.9

More than a century on, we tend to take the validity of Müller's main arguments for granted. In his own time, however, he seriously overreached: his insistence that every myth derives from the Sun, as well as his emphasis on the primacy of Aryan mythology and his eagerness to converge all languages back toward a single common root, provoked a bitter battle between his camp and those who took different paths. The cause of solar panmythology lost its leading light with his death in 1900. Though Müller's work is now known to only a few, he remains a major figure in our understanding of solar myths.

the sun's place in the world's mythologies was taken up once again in 1923 by William James Perry (1887-1949), a cultural anthropologist at University College, London, and the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) when that year they coauthored Children of the Sun, which argued that during mankind's early history there were groups of people on most continents who believed themselves to be the progeny of a sun god. Unrepentant heliocentrists, Perry and Smith contended that "the importance of this fact in the history of civilization, and especially in the study of mythology and tradition, cannot be exaggerated."10

They dated the first appearance of self-proclaimed descendants of the gods to around 2580 b.c. Claiming to be the actual progeny of Ra, the members of the pharaonic dynasties believed that at some point the Sun had come down to take the place of the king on Earth, thus making them his descendants. The subjects of the king were taught never to look directly at him; rain or sunshine were his to summon; he was master of magic and giver or withholder of the harvest.11 The Egyptians took the divine nature of kingship further than any other society-although it was the Roman emperor Vespasian (a.d. 9-79) who joked on his deathbed, "Damn, I think I'm turning into a god."

Perry and Smith discerned similar belief systems among the Asuras

of India, the Timurids of Indonesia, the Abarihu of San Cristobal in the Solomons, the inhabitants of many parts of Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Eastern Pacific, the Inca, the Mayans, and several North American tribes, and concluded, "Wherever it is possible to examine the ruling classes of the archaic civilization, it is found that they were what are termed gods, that they had the attributes of gods, and that they usually called themselves the Children of the Sun."12 Like Müller, they finally pushed a valuable insight too far (the countries where such Children of the Sun held sway show up on a world atlas only in particular areas), yet they did identify a remarkable cultural pattern, which enjoyed preeminence for thousands of years.

Continues...

Excerpted from Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen Copyright © 2010 by Richard Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2013

    Apprentice's Den

    Apprentice's Den

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    This is the most comprehensive book about the Sun that I have re

    This is the most comprehensive book about the Sun that I have read. I was astounded at the wide range of subjects that are detailed in it. If you want to fully understand the Sun, this book is a good place to start.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2011

    Very Interesting Read

    I enjoyed this books weaving of art, science, and culture through out history in the depiction of our Sun. Very fun and good read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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