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

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

p. 203

p. 204 p. 205

Chapter VIII

Sun-Catcher Myths

IN the mythology of every land there may be found legends relating to the snaring of the sun, or the retarding of its daily course. The regularity and the steadfastness of the sun's apparent diurnal motion, and its undeviating and deliberate journey across the sky, was such a peculiar and obvious circumstance that it was a matter of conjecture and speculation at a very early date in the world's history. The cause of this phenomenon was naturally attributed to compulsion; for why should the sun mount the sky each morning with absolute regularity, and pursue the same path always unless compelled to do so?

Some time or other the Sun probably did as he liked, and doubtless he was caught in a trap, and beaten into submission; or, perhaps formerly he went rapidly across the heavens, but, being caught he was forced to proceed at a more leisurely gait. Thus the ancients speculated regarding the daily apparent movement of the sun, and these notions gave rise to a wealth of tradition, myth, and legend

p. 206

that have come down to us in many devious ways. The tales that relate especially to the snaring and trapping of the Sun have been termed by mythologists "Sun-Catcher Myths."

In a pass of the Andes there stand, on the cliffs that rise high on either side, two ruined towers. Into their walls are clamped iron hooks, which tradition relates held fast a net that was stretched across the pass to catch the rising Sun. According to an Indian legend, the Sun was once caught and bound with a chain which only permitted him to swing a little way to one side or the other.

It is said that Jerome of Prague, when travelling among the heathen Lithuanians, early in the fifteenth century, found a tribe who worshipped the Sun, and idolised a large iron hammer. The priests informed him that once the Sun had been invisible for many months because a powerful king had imprisoned him in a strong tower, but the signs of the zodiac had broken open the tower with this very hammer, and released the Sun, therefore they worshipped it.

A Japanese myth relates that in early times the Sun, displeased at men's misdeeds, retired into a cave, and left the world in darkness. 1 This caused

p. 207

great distress, but finally the wise men devised a plan to lure her from her retreat, which plan was successful. When the Sun discovered the ruse, she desired to forsake the world once more, but, before she could do so, she was bound by cords, and held fast by eight hundred thousand gods, who have ever since restrained her from leaving the world.

As we have seen, the worship of the Sun was abandoned for a time in Peru, as one Inca denied that the Sun was a supreme deity because he followed a circumscribed course. "If he were free," said the Inca, "he would visit other parts of the heavens where he had never been. As he follows one path, he must be tied like a beast who goes ever round and round in the same track."

Both in the Orient and Occident we find myths relating to the subjection of the Sun, but whereas the culture of the East invented the beautifully adorned legends of Phœbus Apollo, and the mighty Herakles, who, although all-powerful, was doomed to a life of servitude at the behest of another, in the West the crude imagination of the barbarians conjured up the mental picture of the snaring of the Sun by an artfully contrived net or trap.

The association of the Sun with cords or ropes in the myths is clearly derived from the phenomenon in evidence when the sun's rays filter

p. 208

through a broken mass of clouds; then the long streams of light that seem to radiate from the sun and touch the earth are in imagination not unlike strands of gold which, as the legend related, held the Sun fast bound to earth. Thus did they appear to the Polynesians, who call these rays of the sun the ropes by which the Sun is fastened. They say the Sun once drove swiftly through the sky, but a god subdued him, and now bound by ropes and cords he goes humbly along his daily appointed path.

The Polynesian myth 1 that tells of this snaring of the Sun is one of the most interesting legends in solar mythology, and it is therefore given in much detail:

Maui, the Polynesian hero god, after performing many great exploits, returned home to dwell with his brothers. He soon became restless, however, and, looking about for adventure, he decided that the Sun's daily course across the sky was altogether too rapid, and night-fall followed dawn too quickly to suit him.

"So at last one day he said to his brothers: 'Let us now catch the sun in a noose, so that we may compel him to move more slowly, in order that mankind may have long days to labour in to procure subsistence for themselves.' But they

p. 209

answered him: 'Why, no man could approach it on account of its warmth and the fierceness of its heat.' But nothing daunted, Maui persisted that he could snare the sun, and with the aid of his brothers spun and twisted ropes to form a noose. After they had sufficient ropes with which to bind the sun, Maui and his brothers journeyed a long distance eastward to the very edge of the place out of which the sun rises. Then they set to work, and built on each side of this place a long high wall of clay with huts of boughs of trees at each end to hide themselves in. When these were finished, they made the loops of the noose, and the brothers of Maui then lay in wait on one side of the place out of which the sun rises, and Maui himself lay in wait upon the other side.

"The young hero held in his hand his enchanted weapon, the jaw bone of his ancestress, and said to his brothers: 'Mind now, keep yourselves hid, and do not go showing yourselves foolishly to the sun, if you do you will frighten him; but wait patiently until his head and forelegs have got well into the snare, then I will shout out, haul away as hard as you can on the ropes on both sides, and then I'll rush out and attack him, but do you keep your ropes tight for a good long time (while I attack him), until he is nearly dead, when we will let him go, but mind now, my brothers, do not let

p. 210

him move you to pity with his shrieks and screams.'

"At last the sun came rising out of his place like a fire spreading far and wide over the mountains and forests. He rises up, his head passes through the noose, and it takes in more and more of his body until his fore-paws pass through, then are pulled tight the ropes, and the monster began to struggle and roll himself about, whilst the snare jerked backwards and forwards as he struggled. Then forth rushed that bold hero Maui with his enchanted weapon. Alas, the sun screams aloud, he roars; Maui strikes him fiercely with many blows; they hold him for a long time. At last they let him go, and then weak from wounds the sun crept slowly along its course. Then was learnt by men the second name of the sun, for in its agony the sun screamed out: 'Why am I thus smitten by you? Oh man: Do you know what you are doing? Why should you wish to kill Tama-nui-te-ra?' Thus was learnt the second name. At last they let him go, and the sun went very slowly and feebly on his course.

"Maui, however, took the precaution to keep the ropes on him, and they may still be seen hanging from the sun at dawn and eve."

It is also related that in snaring the Sun, Maui injured it, and thus deprived it of half its light,

p. 211

and since then the days have been longer and cooler and men have been able to work in peace.

The following Sun-catcher myth 1 refers more to a temporary staying of the Sun in its daily course, than to a permanent change in its rate of speed such as Maui effected:

"There was once a man who, like the white people, though it was years before pipes, muskets, or priests were heard of, never could be contented with what he had. Pudding was not good enough for him, and he worried his family out of all heart with his new ways and ideas. At last he set to build himself a house of great stones to last forever. So he rose early and toiled late, but the stones were so heavy, and so far off, and the sun went around so quickly, that he could get on but very slowly. One evening he lay awake, and thought, and thought, and it struck him that as the sun had but one road to come by, he might stop him, and keep him till the work was done. So he rose before the dawn, and pulling out in his canoe, as the sun rose, he threw a rope around his neck, but no, the sun marched on, and went his course unchecked. He then put nets over the place where the sun rose, he used up all his mats to stop him, but in vain, the sun went on, and laughed in the hot winds at all his efforts. Meanwhile the house stood still,

p. 212

and the builder fairly despaired. At last the great Itu, who generally lies on his mats, and cares not at all for those he has made, turned round and heard his cry, and because he was a good warrior sent him help. He made the facehere creeper grow, and again the poor man sprang up from the ground near his house, where he had lain down in despair. He took his canoe, and made a noose of the creeper. It was a bad season when the sun is dull, and heavy, so up he came half asleep and tired, nor looked about him, but put his head into the noose. He pulled and jerked, but Itu had made it too strong. The man built his house, the sun cried and cried till the island of Savai was nearly drowned but not till the last stone was laid was he suffered to resume his career. None can break the facehere creeper. It is the Itu's cord."

A study of North American mythology reveals in the traditions of the Ojibways a myth similar in many respects to the Polynesian Sun-catcher myth. This legend 1 relates that in primitive times the animals ruled the earth, having killed all of humankind except a girl and her small brother. They lived in fear and seclusion:

"The boy never grew bigger than a little child, and his sister used to take him out with her when she went to get food for the lodge-fire, for he was

p. 213

too little to leave alone. A big bird might have flown away with him. One day she made him a bow and arrows, and told him to hide where she had been chopping, and when the snow birds came to pick the worms out of the wood, he was to shoot one. That day he tried in vain to kill one, but the next, toward night-fall, she heard his little footsteps on the snow. He brought in a bird, and told his sister she was to take off the skin, and put half the bird at a time into the pottage, for till then men had not begun to eat animal food, but had lived on vegetables alone. At last the boy had killed ten birds, and his sister made him a little coat of the skins. 'Sister,' said he one day, 'are we all alone in the world? Is there nobody else living?' Then she told him that those they feared, and who had destroyed their relatives, lived in a certain part, and he must by no means go that way, but this only made him more eager to go, and he took his bow and arrow and started. When he had walked a long while, he lay down on a knoll, where the sun had melted the snow, and fell fast asleep, but while he was sleeping the sun beat so hot upon him, that his bird-skin coat was all singed and shrunk. When he awoke and found his coat spoilt, he vowed vengeance against the sun, and bade his sister make him a snare. She made him one of deer's sinew, and then one of

p. 214

her own hair, but they would not do. At last she brought him one that was right. He pulled it between his lips, and as he pulled it became a red metal cord. With this he set out a little after midnight, and fixed his snare on a spot just where the sun would strike the land as it rose above the earth's disk, and sure enough he caught the sun, so that it was held fast in the cord, and did not rise. The animals who ruled the earth were immediately put into a great commotion. They had no light. They called a council to debate upon the matter, and to appoint some one to go and cut the cord, for this was a very hazardous enterprise, as the rays of the sun would burn whoever came so near. At last the dormouse undertook it, for at this time the dormouse was the largest animal in the world. When it stood up, it looked like a mountain. When it got to the place where the sun was snared, its back began to smoke, and burn with the intensity of the heat, and the top of its carcass was reduced to enormous heaps of ashes. It succeeded, however, in cutting the cord with its teeth, and freeing the sun, but it was reduced to a very small size, and has remained so ever since."

In this myth we have the Sun-catcher myth of the South Sea Islands combined with part of our own fairy tale of Jack-and-the-Bean-Stalk. In this latter tale it is related that Jack, in spite of

p. 215

his mother's prayers, goes up the ladder that is to take him to the dwelling of the Giant who killed his father; so the boy of the Indian legend will not heed his sister's persuasion, but goes to seek the enemies who had slain his kindred.

In these myths the loosing of the imprisoned Sun is told in a story of which the European fable of the "Lion and the Mouse" might be a mere moralised remnant.

We have another version of the foregoing myth, which was told by the Wyandot Indians to the missionary Paul Le Jeune:

"There was a child whose father had been killed and eaten by a bear, and his mother by the Great Hare. A woman came and found the child and adopted him as her little brother, calling him 'Chakabech.' He did not grow bigger than a baby, but he was so strong that the trees served as arrows for his bow. When he had killed the destroyers of his parents, he wished to go up to heaven, and climbed up a tree. Then he blew upon it and it grew up and up till he came to heaven and there he found a beautiful country. So he went down to fetch his sister, building huts as he went down to lodge her in, brought her up the tree into heaven, and then broke off the tree low down, so that no one can go up to heaven that way. Then Chakabech went out, and set his snares for

p. 216

game, but when he got up at night to look at them, he found everything on fire, and went back to his sister to tell her. Then she told him he must have caught the sun. Going along by night he must have got in unawares, and when Chakabech went to see, so it was, but he dared not go near enough to let the sun out. By chance he found a little mouse, and blew upon her till she grew so big that she could set the sun free, and the sun released from the trap went again on his way, but while he was held in the snare, day failed down here on earth."

Still another version of the Sun-catcher myth is found among the Dogrib Indians, who dwell in the far North-west:

"When Chapewee after the Deluge formed the earth and landed the animals upon it from his canoe, he stuck up a piece of wood which became a fir-tree, and grew with amazing rapidity until its top reached the skies. A squirrel ran up this tree, and was pursued by Chapewee, who endeavoured to knock it down, but could not overtake it. He continued the chase however, until he reached the stars, where he found a fine plain, and a beaten road. In this road he set a snare made of his sister's hair, and then returned to earth. The sun appeared as usual in the heavens in the morning, but at noon it was caught by the snare

p. 217

which Chapewee had set for the squirrel, and the sky was instantly darkened. Chapewee's family, on this said to him: 'You must have done something wrong when you were aloft, for we no longer enjoy the light of day.' 'I have,' replied he, 'but it was unintentional.' Chapewee then endeavoured to repair the fault he had committed, and sent a number of animals up the tree to release the sun by cutting the snare, but the intense heat of that luminary reduced them all to ashes. The efforts of the more active animals being thus frustrated, a ground mole, though such a grovelling and awkward beast, succeeded by burrowing under the road in the sky until it reached and cut asunder the snare which bound the sun. It lost its eyes, however, the instant it thrust its head into the light, and its nose and teeth have ever since been brown as if burnt."

In the following Omaha myth of "How the Rabbit Caught the Sun in a Trap," 1 we find the Sun ensnared again unwittingly. These myths differ from the Polynesian Sun-catcher myths in this respect,—that there appears to have been no deliberate intention of catching the Sun, no deliberate plan to restrain his liberty, which is a characteristic feature of the South Sea Island myths.

"Once upon a time a rabbit dwelt in a lodge

p. 218

with no one but his grandmother. He was accustomed to go hunting early in the morning. Inevitably a person with very long feet had preceded him, leaving a trail. The rabbit desired to find out who this party was, and got up one morning very early, but even then he had been preceded, so he laid a snare that night so as to catch this early bird, laying a noose where the footprints used to be seen. Rising early the next morning he inspected his trap, and found he had caught the sun. Now he was very much frightened, and the sun said to him: 'Why have you done this? You have done a great wrong. Come hither and untie me.' Finally the rabbit mustered up courage and bending his head down rushed at the sun and severed the rope with his knife, but the sun was so hot that the rabbit scorched the hair between his shoulders, so that it was yellow, and from that time the rabbit has had a singed spot on his back between his shoulders."

In the legends of the Bungee Indians of Lake Winnipeg, we find again a reference to the state of dissatisfaction existing in early times with the Sun's vagarious method of lighting the world, and the schemes that were suggested to bring about a change of conditions. In the following myth 1 the Sun is ensnared as the result of a deliberate plan:

p. 219

"Before the Creation, the world was a wide waste of water, and there was no light upon the earth, the sun being only an occasional visitor to this world. Anxious to keep the sun from wandering away very far, the god Weese-ke-jak constructed an enormous trap to catch the sun, and the next time the sun came near the earth he was caught in the trap. In vain he struggled to get free, but the cords by which he was held were too strong for him. The near proximity of the sun to the earth caused such heat, that everything was in danger of being burned. Then Weese-ke-jak concluded to make some sort of a compromise with the sun before he would consent to give him his liberty. It was stipulated that the sun was only to come near the outer edges of the earth in the mornings and evenings, and during the day to keep farther away, just near enough to warm the earth without scorching it. But now another difficulty presented itself, the sun had not the power to unloose the band by which he was held, and the intense heat prevented either Weese-ke-jak or any of his creations from approaching the sun to cut the band and set him free. The beaver at that time was rather an insignificant creature, having only a few small teeth in his head, and being covered with bristly hair like a hog, his tail being only a small stump about two or three inches long. He

p. 220

offered to release the sun, and succeeded in gnawing through the cords that held the sun before being quite roasted alive. The cords being severed the sun rose from the earth like a vast balloon. Weese-ke-jak in gratitude for his deliverance from the burning rays of the sun rewarded the beaver by giving him a beautiful soft coat, and fine sharp teeth of a brown colour, as if scorched by fire. This is how the beaver came by his hatchet-like teeth and furry coat."

A feature of these legends is the stress laid on man's indebtedness to a small and insignificant animal, which, in every case, at the risk of his own life, frees the Sun from the toils into which he has been brought by man's machinations. A moral seems to be drawn from these myths, that even the lowly may effect great things, and the despised of earth may rise to heights which even the mighty cannot attain.

We come now to a brief discussion of the myths relating to the temporary retarding or accelerating of the Sun's speed in order that man might accomplish a purpose. Chief among these traditions is the Biblical story of Joshua's command to the Sun to stay its course, related in the tenth chapter of the Book of Joshua: "And he [Joshua] said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people

p. 221

had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel."

This idea that man could stay the Sun's daily course is to be met with in the Fiji Islands, where, on the top of a small hill, a patch of reeds grew. Travellers who feared that they would not reach the end of their journey before the Sun set, were wont to tie the tops of a handful of these reeds together to detain the Sun from going down. It has been thought that by this act they may have imagined they could entangle the Sun in the reeds for a time and thus stay his course.

When the Australian blackfellow desired to prevent the Sun from going down till he reached home, he placed a sod in the fork of a tree exactly facing the setting Sun. Another Australian custom is to place stones in trees at different heights from the ground, in order to indicate the height of the Sun in the sky at the moment when they passed a particular tree. Those following are thus made aware when their friends in advance passed the spot. Frazer, 1 referring to this custom, considers

p. 222

that the natives who practised it may have imagined that "to mark the sun's progress was to arrest it at the point marked. On the other hand, to make the sun go faster, the Australians throw sand into the air, and blow with their mouths toward the sun."

South African natives in travelling will put a stone in a branch of a tree, or place some grass on the path with a stone over it, believing that this will cause their friends to keep the meal waiting till their arrival, as it would make the Sun go slower down the western sky.

The Indians of Yucatan, when journeying westward, placed a stone in a tree, or pulled out some of their eyelashes, and blew them toward the Sun to stay or speed the Sun's course.

The idea that the Sun's speed could be regulated may have arisen from the fact, that, under certain conditions, it really does appear to vary in its rate of motion in relation to its position in the heavens. During the first few hours succeeding sunrise, when the Sun is not far from the horizon, and can be compared with terrestrial objects, it really appears to move with greater speed than when it journeys across the meridian; and when at nightfall it seeks the west it seems in like manner to hasten with accelerated speed. From this optical illusion the fancy may have sprung born of the

p. 223

false reasoning that, if the Sun varied his speed to suit his will, man could also control his course, and hasten or retard his progress. This has doubtless given rise to the similarity of these legends that have come down to us from many different and widely separated lands, for primitive man the world over viewed the phenomena of nature from much the same standpoint, and wove his legends from the fabric of an imagination common to all men.


206:1 Here again we encounter in a land far distant the tradition common among the American Indians, that at one time the land they dwelt in was shrouded in darkness.

208:1 Polynesian Mythology, Sir George Gray.

211:1 Researches in the Early History of Mankind, Edward B. Tylor.

212:1 Researches in the Early History of Mankind, Edward B. Tylor.

217:1 Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1879-80.

218:1 Vol. xix., Journal American Folk-Lore.

221:1 The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer.

Next: Chapter IX. Solar Festivals