Sun Lore of All Ages, by William Tyler Olcott, , at sacred-texts.com
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THE distinction between mythology and folklore is an extremely fine one, and though there is such a distinction, still the two subjects are so essentially analogous it will not be strange if portions of the material in this chapter would, according to some authorities, seem misplaced, and more properly included in the chapter on Solar Mythology, and vice versa. In view of the difficulties of an absolutely correct classification, the author makes no claim that his is the correct one.
In the early stages of the history of man, every act of nature and the movements of the heavenly bodies was attributed to the machinations of some one, a mysterious personage, an all-powerful being, an unseen god. The sun, as the chief luminary, commanded man's attention from the earliest days, and it was but natural for primitive man to speculate on the phenomena of his daily appearance and disappearance in terms that seem to us now childish and puerile.
To men who looked to the west across a vast expanse of sea, the sun at nightfall seemed to sink directly into the waves, and, as they were confident that the sun was an extremely large and hot body they were convinced it would give out a hissing noise when the waters closed over it.
From the expression of the thought to the actual fact was but a step, and so we find Posidonius recording that the inhabitants of Cape St. Vincent, the westernmost point of Europe, claimed that the sun disappears each night into the sea with a great hissing noise.
We find the same idea current in the islands of Polynesia, in Iberia, and Germany, where the people claim to have heard the mighty hissing of the sea-quenched sun.
The Egyptians regarded the sun as a child when it was rising, and as an old man when it was setting in the evening. These ideas were also transferred to the annual motion of the sun. Macrobius states that the Egyptians compared the yearly course of the sun with the phases of human life; thus, a little child signified the winter solstice, a young man the spring equinox, a bearded man the summer solstice, and an old man the autumnal equinox. They also thought that Hercules had his seat in the sun, and that he travelled with it round the moon.
The Hindus often referred to the sun as "the eye of Mithra, Varuna, and Agni," and at sunrise or sunset, when the sun appeared to be squatting on the water, they likened it to a frog. This simile gave rise to a Sanscrit story, which is found also in German and Gaelic.
"Bhekî (the frog) was a beautiful maiden. One day when she was sitting near a well, a king rode by, and fascinated by her beauty, asked her hand in marriage. She consented on the condition that he would never show her a drop of water. He accepted, and they were married. One day being tired and thirsty she asked the king for a glass of water, and forgetting his promise, he granted her request, and his bride immediately vanished. That is to say, the sun disappeared when it touched the water."
The sun was also regarded as a well, and in the Semitic, Persian, and Chinese languages the words "well" and "eye" are synonymous. Considered as a well, the rays of the sun were likened to the moisture that flows from the well.
In different parts of Africa we find the sun variously regarded. In Central Africa, where it is extremely hot, the rising of the sun is always dreaded, and the orb of day is a common enemy. It was the custom, among certain tribes, to curse the sun at his rising for afflicting the people with burning heat.
In Southern Africa, on the contrary, the natives believed that they were descended from the Sun; and if, by chance, the rising of the sun was obscured by clouds, they thought the Sun purposely hid his face from them because their misdeeds offended him, and straightway they performed acts of propitiation. Work at once ceased, and the food of the previous day was given to the old women. The men of the tribe then went in a body to the river to purify themselves by washing in the stream. Each man threw into the river a stone from his hearth, and replaced it with a new one from the bed of the river. On returning to the village the chief kindled a fire in his hut, and the members of the tribe all gathered embers from it to light their individual hearth fires. The ceremony concluded with a dance in which the whole tribe joined. The idea seems to have been; that the lighting of the flame on earth would serve to rekindle the dead solar fire. When the sun set, these people said "The Sun dies."
The early inhabitants of Polynesia called the sun "Ra," which was also the Egyptian sun name. They believed that it was endowed with life, and the offspring of the gods. To account for its rise in the east each morning, after its disappearance in the west each night, they said that during the night it passed through a passage under the seas,
so as to rise in its appointed place in the eastern sky each day.
In some of the islands the sun was thought to be a substance resembling fire, and they regarded its disappearance each night as a falling of the orb into the sea, and, as we have seen, the inhabitants of the westernmost islands were confident that they had heard the hissing occasioned by the sun's plunge into the ocean.
The early tribes seemed to think they could control the light of the sun and s Lay or hasten its setting. "The Melanesians make sunshine by means of a mock sun," says Frazer. 1 "A circular stone is wound about with red braid and stuck with owl's feathers to represent the rays of the sun, or the stone is laid on the ground with white rods radiating from it to imitate sunbeams." A white or red pig is sacrificed in the sunshine-making ceremony, and a black one when rain is desired.
In New Caledonia they burnt a skeleton to make sunshine, and drenched it with water if they wished for rain. They also had a more elaborate ceremony for producing sunshine, which Frazer 2 thus describes: "When a wizard desires to make sunshine he takes some plants and corals to the burial ground, and makes then into a bundle, adding two locks of hair cut from the head of a living child
[paragraph continues] (his own child if possible), also two teeth, or an entire jawbone from the skeleton of an ancestor. He then climbs a high mountain whose top catches the first rays of the morning sun. Here he deposits three sorts of plants on a flat stone, places a branch of dry coral beside them, and hangs the bundle of charms over the stone. Next morning he returns to this rude altar, and at the moment when the sun rises from the sea, he kindles a fire on the altar. As the smoke rises he rubs the stone with the dry coral, invokes his ancestors and says: 'Sun: I do this that you may be burning hot, and eat up all the clouds in the sky.' The same ceremony is repeated at sunset."
The sun, according to many traditions of primitive man, spent a part of its time in the underworld, or in a submarine passage beneath the seas, and if it did not go of its own volition, it was carried there by some enemy. Thus in Servia a tale is told, that when the devils fell, their king carried off the sun from heaven affixed to a lance. This was a great calamity, and the Archangel St. Michael was selected to try to recover it. He therefore set out for the underworld and succeeded in making friends with the archfiend. As they stood together by a lake, St. Michael proposed to the devil that they engage in a diving contest. The latter consented, and thrusting the lance
which held the sun into the ground, he dived in. This was St. Michael's opportunity, and making the sign of the cross, he grabbed the lance and made off, hotly pursued by the Evil One. Being fleet of foot he outdistanced him, but his pursuer was so close to him at one time that he managed to scratch his foot. In honour of St. Michael and his valiant deed, men, from that time on, were destined to have indented soles.
The old Germans called the sun "Wuotan's eye," and there is a German legend that reveals the sun as the punisher of evil thinkers: It appears that a prisoner was once on his way to execution, an object of pity to all whom he passed, but one woman, who was engaged in hanging up her linen to dry in the sun, remarked that he well deserved his fate. Immediately her linen fell to the ground, nor was she able to hang it up in this drying-place thereafter. It is further related that, at her death, she was taken up to the sun to remain there as long as the world endures, as a punishment for her lack of pity.
The peasants in various parts of Germany call the Milky Way the "Mealway" or the "Millway," and say that it turns with the sun, for it first becomes visible at the point where the sun has set. It leads, therefore, to the heavenly mill, and its colour is that of the meal with which it is
strewed. This brings us to the Norse story of "The Wonderful Mill," 1 I an exceedingly interesting bit of folk-lore of solar significance. "The peasants of Norway to this day tell of the wondrous mill that ground whatever was demanded of it. The tradition is of great antiquity. The earliest version known is as follows: Of all beliefs, that in which man has at all times of his history been most prone to set faith, is that of a golden age of peace and plenty which has passed away, but which might be expected to return. Such a period of peace and plenty, such a golden time, the Norsemen could tell of in his mythic Frodi's reign, when gold, or Frodi's meal, as it was called, was so plentiful that golden armlets lay untouched from year's end to year's end on the King's highway, and the fields bore crops unsown. In Frodi's house were two maidens of that old giant race, Frenja and Menja. These daughters of the giant he had bought as slaves, and he made them grind his quern or hand-mill Grotti, out of which he used to grind peace and gold. Even in that golden age one sees there were slaves, and Frodi, however bountiful to his thanes and people, was a hard taskmaster to his giant handmaidens. He kept them to the mill, nor gave them longer rest than the cuckoo's note lasted, or they could sing a song. But that quern
was such that it ground everything that the grinder chose, though until then it had ground nothing but gold and peace. So the maidens ground and ground, and one sang their piteous tale in a strain worthy of Æschylus, as the other rested. They prayed for rest and pity, but Frodi was deaf. Then they turned in giant mood, and ground no longer peace and plenty, but fire and war. Then the quern went fast and furious, and that very night came Mysing the sea-rover and slew Frodi and all his men, and carried off the quern, and so Frodi's peace ended. The maidens, the sea-rover took with him, and when he got on the high seas he bade them grind salt, so they ground, and at midnight they asked if he had not salt enough, but he bade them grind on. So they ground till the ship was full and sank. Mysing, maids, mill, and all, and that's why the sea is salt."
This wonder-working mill once stood in heaven, it is said, for Frodi its owner was no other than the Sun-God Freyr. The flat circular stone of Frodi's quern is the disk of the sun, and its handle is the pramantha with which Indra or the Aswins used to kindle the extinguished luminary.
To explain the circular motion of the sun, the Incas of Peru believed that it was hung in space by a cord, and that each evening it entered the sea, and being a good swimmer it pierced through the
waves, and reappeared next morning in the east.
The Incas claimed that the Sun was their own elder brother, and ruled over the cohorts of heaven by divine right. Their legends relate that the Sun took pity on the children of men, who, in primitive times, lived in a state of savagery, and he therefore sent his son and daughter to enlighten them, and teach them to live properly. They are said to have risen from the depths of Lake Titicaca, that marvellous sheet of water twelve thousand feet above the sea. They taught the Peruvians the essentials of culture and education.
According to another tradition, the Peruvians traced their origin from the first Inca, the Sun and his wife, who came from the island of the sun in Lake Titicaca, and founded the city of Cuzco, the sacred city of the sun. This island in the lake is therefore sacred to the Peruvians, and many ruins of the Incas are to be found there.
The Peruvians paid particular attention to the daily meridian passage of the sun, and observed that when it was in the zenith, it cast no shadow.
The early natives of Brazil believed that the sun was a ball of light feathers, which some mysterious being exhibits during the day, and covers at night with a pot.
The folk-lore of the North American Indian
tribes is rich in legends respecting the sun. The Indians believed that the sun was an animated being endowed with human attributes. The following tales are related by the Thompson River Indians:
There was once a most mischievous and incorrigible youth who one morning strolled away from his home. On his return, he found that his parents had deserted him, but his old grandmother, who was unable to travel, was left behind. She taught the boy how to make a bow and arrows, and with these he was able to provide a daily supply of food. She also made blankets for him out of the skins of many coloured birds. These were of such beauty that they attracted the attention of the Sun. It had always been the custom of the Sun to travel about naked during the day, and clothe himself only in the dark hours. 1 But when the Sun saw these beautiful blankets, he purchased them from the boy, and wrapped them about his body, and soon disappeared, so that at set of sun you may see the gorgeous colouring of these robes in the western sky, especially the blue tint of the blue-jay blanket.
Another tale relates that originally the Sun lived much nearer the earth than now, 2 and preyed
upon mankind. It was his custom to kill people every day on his travels, and carry them off to his home at night-fall to eat. His son lived quietly at home clad in fine garments of many colours. There was once an Indian who in gambling was most unlucky. One day, while much depressed, he set out on a journey in search of adventure, and finally came to the Sun's abode in the absence of the owner. The son received him kindly, but fearing that his guest would be discovered by his cannibal father, he hid him under a heap of robes. The Sun arrived in the evening carrying a man on his back, and as he came near the house, he said: "Mum, Mum, Mum. 1 There must be a man here," but his son persuaded him that he was mistaken. The next day the Indian was glad to leave this dangerous locality, and returned to his home laden with gifts from his benefactor. Out of gratitude he returned later to the Sun's house and made his friend the present of a wife and one for his father. This pleased the Sun so much that he gave up the killing and eating of human beings. In the foregoing legend we find expressed the idea, current in the traditions of many primitive people, that celestial beings feed on human bodies.
The following tale is told of the Sun and his daughter: 1
Originally the Sun was an eminent chief, possessed of great power and wealth. He was also blessed with a beautiful daughter, and the fame of her beauty spread afar. A powerful magician, entranced with the maiden, sought her hand, and though at first repulsed, finally won the Sun's favour and married his daughter. The Sun implored his daughter to visit him frequently. This, however, she neglected to do, and, finally, when she did go to her father with her two children, he transformed her into the present Sun. This is why the Sun travels each day from east to west in search of her father. Her children are occasionally seen as sun-dogs closely following their mother.
The Indians of Northern California relate the following story:
Once the sun fell by accident down from the sky just about sunrise, but the quick little mole was watching, and caught it before it touched the earth, and succeeded in holding it up until others arrived, when, by exerting all their strength, they
succeeded in replacing it where it belonged in the sky, but ever thereafter the mole's hands were bent far back to show how he had worked to hold up the sun.
As evidence of the Indian belief in the Sun's solicitude in their affairs, and his protecting and saving influences, the Cheyenne tale of "The Eagle Hunter" is told:
There was an Indian who once set out to catch an eagle. Digging a hole in the ground he crept in, covered it over with brush, and cleverly baited it with a skinned buffalo calf. Presently an eagle espied the prey, flew down, and began to eat of it, when the Indian laid hold of its feet, and held it captive; but he had underestimated the power of the bird, which had strength enough to carry the man up to a mountain crag, where it was impossible for him to descend. The Indian realising his desperate plight, prayed to the Sun for deliverance, and the Sun, taking pity on him, sent a great whirlwind which swept the hunter from his lofty perch, and safely deposited him on the ground.
In a Maidu legend it is related that the Sun dwells in an impregnable house of ice into which she retreats after killing people on the earth. Once she abducted the Frog's children, and was closely pursued by their angry mother, who finally overtook the Sun and swallowed her, but the Sun
burst her open and transformed her into a Frog again.
There are many Indian tales wherein the sun figures as a target. The Shoshone Indians believed that, in the beginning, the sun did not shine till the Rabbit shot at him with his magical arrow (the fire drill).
In the following Mewan Indian legend, 1 the sunlight is extinguished by the arrow shot: "There was once a poor worthless Indian boy who got his living by begging. At length, finding people loath to assist him, he threatened to shoot out the sun, and as this had no effect, he made good his threat, and shot the sun, thus letting its light out, and the whole world became dark. It was dark for years, and every one was starving for want of light, when the Coyote-Man discovered a dim light a long distance off, and sent the Humming-bird to investigate. The bird, finding its way to the sun, pecked off a piece, and returned with it under its chin, and making repeated trips finally succeeded in restoring the full light of the sun, and to this day you can see the marks of its burden beneath the chin of the Humming-bird." This association of the Humming-bird with the sun is found in the traditions of the Aztecs. In their temples was enthroned a deity known as "the Humming-bird
to the left," and this bird was considered by them to be a divine being, the emissary of the sun. In the Aztec language it is often called "Sunbeam," or "Sun's hair."
Among the Indians there seems to have been an almost universal tradition that originally men lived in a world of darkness, or semi-darkness, before the sun was placed in the heavens. A Mewan legend relates that, in the early days, the land was shrouded in fog, and was cold and dark. It was such a poor place to live in that Coyote-Man was not satisfied with the conditions, and set out on a journey to seek some way to better it. He finally came to a pleasant land of sunshine, and, charmed with it, returned to tell his people of the delightful land he had visited. They suggested that he offer to buy the sun, so he returned to the land of light and made this proposition, but it was rejected, so Coyote-Man resolved to steal the sun as his people were in sore need of it.
This was a difficult matter as the sun was carefully watched by the Turtle, who slept with one eye always open. Coyote-Man, resorting to magic, took the form of a big oak log, and the Turtle, when out seeking for wood, took him and threw him on the fire. But the fire did not even singe him, and seeing the Turtle asleep, he resumed his form, seized the sun and ran off with it to his own land.
The people, however, did not understand it, and bade Coyote-Man make it go, and, as he was sorry for the people he had deprived of the sun, he arranged a plan so that the sun could light up both lands. He carried the sun west to the place where the sky joins the earth, and found the place for the sun to crawl through, and where it could go down under the earth, and come up in the eastern sky in the morning through the hole in the east. The sun did his bidding, and thus both lands thereafter rejoiced in the blessedness of sunshine.
The Natchez of Mississippi, the Apalachees of Florida, the Mexicans and Peruvians, all believed that the sun is the bright dwelling-place of their departed chiefs and warriors.
A primitive Mexican prayer offered in time of war embodies this idea: "Be pleased, O our Lord, that the nobles who shall die in the war be peacefully and joyously received by the sun and the earth, who are the loving father and mother of all."
It is said that General Harrison once called the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, for a conference: "Come here, Tecumseh, and sit by your father," he said. "You my father?" replied the chief with a stern air, "No, yonder sun [pointing toward it] is my father, and the earth is my mother, so I will rest on her bosom," and he sat upon the ground.
The Kootenay Indians speak of the sun as a
blind man who is cured by his father-in-law, Coyote-Man. Here we have another reference to the Coyote's service to mankind in bringing sunshine to his people.
Among the New Zealanders the sun is regarded as a great beast whom the hunters thrashed with clubs. His blood is supposed to be used in some of their incantations, and according to an Egyptian tradition, the sun's blood was kneaded into clay at the making of man.
We have seen how the sun was metaphorically regarded in India and other lands not merely as a human creature, but as the eye of a supreme and all-seeing deity. In like manner the inhabitants of Java, Sumatra, and Madagascar called the sun "the eye of day." This metaphor has been used extensively even in modern poetry.
When the astronomers Galileo, Scheiner, and Fabricius discovered the spots on the sun, the Aristotelians indignantly insisted that they were mistaken, and that the phenomenon was due to defects in the optical properties of their telescopes or eyes. They argued that it was quite incompatible with the dignity of the Eye of the Universe that it should be afflicted with such a common ailment as ophthalmia.
Tylor 1 tells us that the Rev. Tobias Snowden,
in a book published in the last century, proved the sun to be Hell, and the dark spots, gatherings of damned souls.
In Greece there was a general protest when the astronomers denied not only the divinity, but the very personality of the sun, and declared it to be nothing but a huge fiery globe. These statements were regarded as blasphemous, and, in fact, Anaxagoras was punished with death for having taught that the sun was not animated, and that it was nothing but a mass of iron, about the size of the Peloponnesus.
Such a state of affairs strikes us in this enlightened age as decidedly extraordinary, and yet in the history of the early settlers of this country we have in the trials for witchcraft an equally absurd and foolish state of affairs.
Every age, therefore, to be judged fairly on its merits, must be viewed in the light of its state of progress, and, grotesque as many of the foregoing legends related of the sun may seem, it behooves us to withhold our mirth, and endeavour to realise how much these traditions were a serious part of the lives of the people of unenlightened ages.
123:1 The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer.
126:1 From Dasent's Popular Tales from the Norse.
129:1 This may have been the Indian way of accounting for the invisibility of the sun at night.
129:2 It is strange that the nebular hypothesis conforms with this idea, that the sun and earth were close together at one time.
130:1 We are almost tempted to add, "I smell the blood of an Englishman," for here we have a tale identical in many particulars with the popular fairy tale of "Jack the Giant Killer," which some authorities claim is of solar origin.
131:1 This myth is typical of many that may well be styled Evaporation and Rainfall myths that are thus interpreted. The water is enamoured of the cloud, the beautiful daughter of the Sun. The Sun does not favour the suitor, and strives to kill him by subjecting him to a number of tests. The Water achieves success in all of these, and then receives the Sun's permission to marry his daughter.
133:1 The Dawn of the World, C. Hart Merriam.
136:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.