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

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Chapter IX

Solar Festivals

BECAUSE of the importance of Sun worship, and its widespread influence upon the primitive inhabitants of the world, there were instituted in honour of the solar deity, in many lands, great festivals and elaborate ceremonials, the traces of which have come down to us in modified form even to this day. Our most important ecclesiastical feast days in fact are but survivals of ancient solar festivals.

Twice in the year the sun apparently changes its course. In midwinter, having reached the lowest point in its path, it turns about and begins to mount the skies; in midsummer, conversely, having attained the highest point it reaches, the sun seems to turn about once more, and descend the steeps of the firmament. These two epochs, the winter and summer solstices as they are called, that mark the sun's annual course, were regarded as supremely important by the ancients and gave rise to great national festivals that were celebrated

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with pomp and ceremony throughout the ancient world.

At the feast of the winter solstice men testified their gladness at witnessing the return of the all-powerful sun. To the inhabitants of Greenland it meant the early return of the hunting season, and all nations regarded it as a sign that springtime and harvests were on the way, and the dormant life of the winter season was on the wane.

In many countries this festival season was known as "Yole," or "Yuul," from the word Hiaul, or Huul, which even to this day signifies "the sun" in some languages. From this we get our word "wheel," and the wheel is one of the ancient symbols of the sun, the spokes representing the sun's rays. As we shall see later this symbol was a prominent feature in one of the great solar festivals.

Procopius describes how the men of Thule climbed the mountain tops at the winter solstice, to catch sight of the nearing sun after their thirty-five days of night. Then they celebrated their holiest feasts.

Plutarch, referring to the solar festivals of Egypt, says, that "about the winter solstice they lead the sacred cow seven times in procession around the temple, calling this the searching after

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Osiris, that season of the year standing most in need of the sun's warmth."

In China, the Great Temple of the Sun at Pekin is oriented to the winter solstice, and the most important of all the State observances of China takes place there December 21st, the sacrifice of the winter solstice.

In our own time a number of Christian religious observances and festivals are of distinct solar origin. Notable among these feast days is Christmas. "The Roman winter solstice," says Tylor, 1 "as celebrated on December 25th (VIII Kal. Jan.) in connection with the worship of the Sun-God Mithra appears to have been instituted in this special form by Aurelian about A. D. 273, and to this festival the day owes its apposite name of 'Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.' With full symbolic appropriateness, though not with historical justification, the day was adopted in the western church where it appears to have been generally introduced by the fourth century, and whence in time it passed to the eastern church as the solemn anniversary of the Birth of Christ, Christmas Day. As a matter of history no valid or even consistent early Christian tradition vouches for it."

Many of the early dignitaries of the Church

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reveal in their writings the solar character of this festival. Augustus and Gregory discoursed on "the glowing light and dwindling darkness that follow the nativity," and Leo the Great denounced in a sermon the idea that Christmas Day is to be honoured, not for the birth of Christ, but for the rising of the new sun.

The solar origin of the great feast is attested in Europe by bonfires, and the burning of the Yule log, and in the Christmas service chant, "Sol novus oritur."

Even the sacrifices offered to the Sun in pagan times at the great solar festivals find their survival in the sacrifices of a lamb which we offer at Eastertide, and an ox at Christmas. The lighting of the Christmas tree is but the light to guide the Sun-God back to life, and the festival cakes of corn and fruit, made in honour of the Sun in ancient times, and laid on the sacred altars of the Persians as an offering of gratitude to the Lord of Light and Life, find their prototype in the plum pudding that graces the board at our Christmas feasts of rejoicing. Christmas is, therefore, nothing but an old heathen celebration of the winter solstice, the feast of rejoicing that a turning point in the sun's course has been reached, and that the life-giving orb has attained the end of its journey of dwindling hours of daylight, and has started back on a course that

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brings with it each day an increase of warmth and light.

Of equal importance to the solar Christmas festival celebrated at the winter solstice was the great celebration of the summer solstice recognised throughout Europe. This was preeminently a fire festival, for the ceremonies featured the lighting of huge bonfires on the hilltops, leaping through the flames, and rolling blazing wheels of fire from the summits of the hills, indicating the sun's descending course in the heavens.

According to Tylor, 1 "These ancient rites attached themselves in Christendom to St. John's eve. It seems as though the same train of symbolism which had adapted the midwinter festival to the nativity, may have suggested the dedication of the midsummer festival to John the Baptist, in clear allusion to his words, 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'"

Durandus, speaking of the rites of the Feast of St. John the Baptist, informs us of the curious custom that prevailed of rolling fire wheels down from the hills. This practice was common in France, and many North German examples of it are on record. The following is an account of one of these festivals, which took place at Conz on the Moselle, in 1823, as described by Grimm:

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"Every house delivers a sheaf of straw on the top of the Stromberg, where the men and lads assemble towards evening, whilst the women and girls gather about the Burbacher fountain. A huge wheel is now bound round with straw in such a manner that not a particle of wood remains visible; a stout pole is passed through the middle of the wheel, and the persons who are to guide it lay hold on the ends of the pole, which projects three feet on either side. The rest of the straw is made up into a great number of small torches. At a signal from the mayor of Sierk (who, according to ancient custom, receives a basket of cherries on the occasion), the wheel is kindled with a torch and set rapidly in motion. Everybody cheers and swings torches in the air. Some of the men remain above, others follow the burning wheel down hill in its descent to the Moselle. It is often extinguished before it reaches the river, but if it burns at the moment it touches the water, that is held to be prophetic of a good vintage, and the people of Conz have a right to levy a fuder of white wine upon the surrounding vineyards. Whilst the wheel is passing before the female spectators, they break out into cries of joy, the men on the hilltops reply, and the people from the neighbouring villages who have assembled on the banks of the river mingle their voices in the general jubilee."

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There is a striking analogy between the St. John fire celebrations and the Vedic legend of Indra's fight with the midsummer demons.

"In this legend," says Keary, 1 "the demon Vritra possessed himself of the sun wheel and the treasures of heaven, seized the women, kept them prisoners in his cavern, and laid a curse on the waters until Indra released the captives and took off the curse."

The significance of the ceremony lies in the details that enter into it, the key to which is found in the following passage from a Vedic hymn: "With thee conjoined, O Indu (Soma), did Indra straightway pull down with force the wheel of the sun that stood upon the mighty mountain top, and the source of all life was hidden from the great scather."

The German custom is therefore seen to be nothing but a dramatic portrayal of the great elemental battle as depicted in the sacred books of the ancient Hindus. The wheel of fire on the hilltop represents the sun resting on the crest of the cloud mountain. Both the wheel and the sun descend from their positions of prominence and are extinguished, the wheel by the waters of the stream at the base of the hill, the sun by the sea of clouds.

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The elements of strife and warfare enter into the scene. The descending wheel is pursued to the water's edge by a crowd of men brandishing torches; Indra and his hosts wage successful warfare against the army of the demon Vritra. The fact that women are excluded from the ceremonies emphasises the idea of a combat, for it is their province solely to watch the battle as spectators and cheer the victors.

Another notion associated with this rite of the blazing wheel was that, as the wheel went rolling away from them in its descending course, it symbolised a wheel of fortune, and the ill luck of the people went rolling away, a signal for great rejoicing.

This ceremony of the descent of the wheel was anciently observed on St. John the Baptist's Day at Norwich, England, and even to this day it is the custom to light huge bonfires on the hilltops in Ireland, according to the ancient pagan usage when the Baal fires were kindled as part of the ritual of Sun worship. Around these fires the peasants dance, and when the fire burns low, it is the custom to lift children across the glowing embers to secure them good luck during the year, which is similar to the custom practised by worshippers of Baal and Moloch in ancient times of passing children through the fire

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that burned at the feet of the cruel and insatiable god.

There was also practised in Ireland, in connection with the midsummer festival which celebrated the turning-point of the sun at the summer solstice, a strange dance which was religious in its character, and solar in its origin. The Greeks called this "the Pyrrhic dance" from "pur" meaning fire, and practised it from the most ancient times. The feature of the dance was its serpentine character, as the dancers circled about in a long line simulating the coils of a serpent. In Ireland the dance had the same characteristics, and though the esoteric meaning of the dance had been lost, it was in all probability a mystic rite symbolic of the course of the sun, for the dancers invariably circled from east to west.

In Wales, the custom of lighting bonfires on Midsummer Eve is still kept up in many villages, and the peasants gather about them dancing and leaping through the flames. The leaping through the flames is supposed to ward off evil spirits, prevent sickness, and bring good luck.

The connection of the ceremony of the bonfires with the old worship of the Sun is indisputable. Its practice was general among nearly all European nations, and in not very remote times, from Norway to the shores of the Mediterranean,

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the glow of St. John's fires might have been seen.

In Brittany, the custom of the Baal fires is still preserved, and the peasants dance around them all night in their holiday attire. It is said that the maid who dances round nine St. John's fires before midnight is sure to be married within the year. In many parishes the curé himself goes in procession with banner and cross to light the sacred fire, and all the ancient superstitions connected with the festival are kept alive with unabated zeal.

The Scandinavians believed that when midsummer came the death of their Sun-God Balder took place, and to light him on his way to the underworld they kindled bright fires of pine branches, and when, six months later at the winter solstice, he regains his life and mounts to greet them, they burn the yule log and hang lights on the fir-trees to illuminate his upward course.

Frazer tells us 1 how the fern seed, the oak, and the mistletoe are closely associated as symbols with the solar festivals celebrated at the winter and summer solstices:

"The two great days for gathering the fabulous fern seed, which is popularly supposed to bloom like gold or fire on Midsummer Eve, are Midsummer Eve and Christmas, that is, the two solstices. We

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are led to regard the fiery aspect of the fern seed as primary, and its golden aspect as secondary and derivative. Fern seed, in fact, would seem to be an emanation of the sun's fire at the two turning-points of its course, the summer and winter solstice. This view is confirmed by a German story, in which a hunter is said to have procured fern seed by shooting at the sun on Midsummer Day at noon. Three drops of blood fell down, which he caught in a white cloth, and these blood drops were the fern seed. Here the blood is clearly the blood of the sun from which the fern seed is thus directly derived. Thus it may be taken as certain that the fern seed is golden because it is believed to be an emanation of the sun's golden fire.

"Now, like the fern seed, the mistletoe is gathered either at midsummer or Christmas, that is, at the summer and winter solstice, and, like the fern seed, it is supposed to possess the power of revealing treasures in the earth. Now if the mistletoe discovers gold, it may be in its character of the Golden Bough, and if it is gathered at the solstices, must not the Golden Bough, like the golden fern seed, be an emanation of the sun's fire? The primitive Aryans probably kindled the midsummer bonfires as sun charms, that is, with the intention of supplying the sun with fresh fire. But as the fire was always elicited by the friction

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of oak wood, it must have appeared to the primitive Aryan that the sun was periodically recruited from the fire which resided in the sacred oak. In other words, the oak must have seemed to him the original storehouse or reservoir of the fire which was from time to time drawn out to feed the sun. Thus, instead of saying that the mistletoe was an emanation of the sun's fire, it must be more correct to say that the sun's fire was regarded as an emanation of the mistletoe."

The Christian festival of Easter has its solar characteristics. "The very word Easter," says Proctor, "is in its real origin as closely related to sun movements as the word East," and the notion that the Sun dances on Easter morning as it rises is firmly believed to-day by superstitious people. In Saxony and Brandenburg the peasants still climb the hilltops before dawn on Easter day to witness the three joyful leaps of the Sun, as our English forefathers used to do.

Tylor 1 tells us that "the solar rite of the New Fire, adopted by the Roman Church as a Paschal ceremony, may still be witnessed in Europe with its solemn curfew on Easter Eve, and the ceremonial striking of the new holy fire."

The two great festivals of the ancient Irish were La Baal Tinné, or May Day, the day of the Baal

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fires, sacred to the Sun, and La Samnah, or November Eve, sacred to the Moon. The May festival was the most important, as then it was that the Druids lit the fire of Baal, the Sun-God, and a portion of the ceremony at this festival consisted in driving cattle along a narrow path flanked by two fires, singeing them with the flame of a torch, and sometimes bleeding them, the blood being then offered as a sacrifice to the Sun-God.

Plutarch relates that among the Egyptians there were several festivals in honour of the Sun. A solar sacrifice was performed on the fourth day of every month, and so important was the deity that, as propitiatory offerings, they burnt incense three times a day, resin at its first rising, myrrh when on the meridian, and a mixture called "kuphi" at sunset. A festival in honour of the Sun was held on the thirtieth day of Epiphi, called the "birthday of Horus’ eyes," when the sun and moon were supposed to be in the same right line with the earth. On the twenty-second of Phaophi, after the autumnal equinox, there was a similar ceremonial to which, according to Plutarch, they gave the name of the "nativity of the staves of the sun," intimating that the sun was then removing from the earth, and as its light became weaker and weaker, that it stood in need of a staff to support it.

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The most important date of the Egyptian year was the twentieth of June, that marked the summer solstice, but more especially the rise of the all-fertilising Nile. This was the New Year Day in Egypt. The greatest solar festival of the Egyptians, however, was the festival of Osiris, and the special feature of this occasion was the procession in which the sacred ox Apis appeared.

The following description of this festival is taken from Mythology and Fables by the Abbé Banier:

"The ox whom the priests nourished with so much care, and for whom all Egypt had such a veneration, was looked upon as a god. To gain some credit to this superstition, they said he represented the soul of Osiris. Herodotus tells us that this ox was to be black over all the body, with a square white mark upon the forehead. Upon the back he was to have the figure of an eagle, a knot under the tongue in the figure of a beetle, the hairs of the tail double, and according to Pliny a white mark upon the right side, which was to resemble the crescent moon. Porphyry says that all these marks had reference to the sun and moon, to whom the ox Apis was consecrated, that the black hair which was to be the colour of his body in general represented the scorching influence of the sun upon bodies, and that the white spot which he had in his forehead, and the crescent

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which he bore upon the side, were symbols of the moon. The eagle and beetle were also symbols of the sun.

"The festival of Apis lasted seven days. The people went in crowds to bring him from the place where he was found, the priests led the procession, and every one was desirous to receive him into his home. On the day of the Osiris festival the priests conducted the ox Apis to the banks of the Nile and drowned him with great ceremony. He was then embalmed and interred at Memphis. After his death the people mourned and made lamentation as if Osiris had been now dead. The priests cut off their hair, which in Egypt was a sign of the deepest mourning, and this mourning lasted till they got another ox to appear resembling the former in the same marks, when they began to make merry as if the Prince himself had arisen from the dead. The superstition of the Egyptians in relation to the ox Apis was carried to great excess. They honoured him as a god, and consulted him as an oracle; when he took what food was offered to him it was a favourable response, and his refusing it was looked upon as a bad presage."

In Greece there were many solar festivals inaugurated in honour of the Sun-God Phœbus Apollo. In Sparta an annual festival, known as "Carneia," was held in August. It was a religious ceremony,

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the purpose of which was to appease the dreaded god. This festival was celebrated in Cyrene, in the islands of Rhodes and Sicily, and in many of the Greek cities in lower Italy.

In September a festival was celebrated at which the Sun-God was invoked as an aid in battle, and in October the first-fruits were presented as a sacrifice.

At Athens there was an annual festival, held in May, to commemorate the yearly tribute of youths and maidens to Crete as sacrifices to the Minotaur. At Thebes there was a festival in honour of Apollo Ismenius, held every eighth year, called the "Daphnephoria." At this celebration branches of olives hung with wreaths, and representations of the sun, moon, and stars, were carried in procession, a feature of the festival.

A festival in honour of "Hyacinthus," one of the titles of Apollo, was celebrated annually at Sparta, in July, and lasted nine days. It began with laments, but concluded with expressions of joy and gladness. In honour of Apollo, the Sun-God, a festival called "Thargelia" was held at Athens, in May, to celebrate the harvest yield. In August the Athenians celebrated a similar festival called "Metageitnia." These celebrations and festivals bear testimony to the importance of Sun worship among the ancient Greeks.

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Among the Peruvians there were four solar festivals of importance celebrated throughout the year with great pomp and display. Chief among these was that of the winter solstice, which fell in June. It was the festival of the diminished and growing Sun. It lasted nine days, the first three of which were given up to fasting. On the morning of the great day the Emperor himself officiated as high priest, and all the people gathered at dawn in the public square to await the coming of the supreme deity, the Sun. At sight of him great shouts of joy rose from the multitude, who threw kisses to the orb of day, and prostrated themselves. The chief priest then offered a libation to the Sun-God, drinking of the cup himself, and then passing it on to his retinue, an act of solar communion. All then marched to the temple of the Sun, where a black llama was sacrificed, and its entrails were carefully inspected for omens affecting the coming year. A fire, produced by the focused rays of the sun from a mirror, was then lighted on the altar, and from it fire was conveyed to all the Sun temples in the city. These fires were kept burning continuously until three days before the next solstice when they were allowed to burn out.

The second great solar festival of the Peruvians was known as the "feast of purification," and fell in September. The object of this ceremonial was

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to invoke the Sun's aid and beneficent influence to secure the prosperity, health, and security of the people. The third festival was held in May, and was a thanksgiving harvest celebration, while still a fourth festival took place in December known as the "festival of power."

The Hopi Indians of North America, in their elaborate festivals in honour of the Sun, impersonated the Sun-God. The impersonator wore a disk-shaped mask, surrounded with eagle-wing feathers, and this was fringed with flowing strands of red horsehair to represent the sun's rays. The sun masks were a prominent feature in the solar ceremonials of many of the Indian tribes.

The curious and interesting custom of "need-fires," although not exactly to be classed as solar festivals, may very properly be treated of in this chapter, owing to the solemnity of the ceremony, the implicit faith of the people in their efficacy, and especially owing to their solar significance.

The "need-fires," or "forced-fires" as they are sometimes called, were kindled at times of great epidemics among the cattle that threatened their total annihilation, and the custom of kindling these fires is still in vogue in certain countries. Keary 1 thus describes the custom:

"Wherever it can be traced among people of

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[paragraph continues] German or Scandinavian descent, the fire is always kindled by the friction of a wooden axle in the nave of a waggon wheel or in holes bored in one or two posts. In either case the axle or roller is worked with a rope, which is wound around it and pulled to and fro with the greatest possible speed by two opposite groups of able-bodied men. The wheel was beyond all doubt an emblem of the sun. In a few instances of late date it is stated that an old waggon wheel was used.

"In Marburger, official documents of the year 1605, express mention is made of new wheels, new axles, and new ropes, and these we may be assured were universally deemed requisite in earlier times. It was also necessary to the success of the operation that all the fires should be extinguished in the adjacent houses, and not a spark remain in any one of them when the work began. The wood used was generally that of the oak, a tree sacred to the lightning god Thor, because of the red colour of its fresh-cut bark. Sometimes, especially in Sweden, nine kinds of wood were used The fuel for the fire was straw, heath, and brushwood, of which each household contributed its portion, and it was laid down over some length of the narrow lane which was usually chosen as the most convenient place for the work. When the fire had burned down sufficiently, the cattle were forcibly driven through

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it two or three times in a certain order beginning with the swine, and ending with the horses or vice versa. When all the cattle have passed through the fire, each householder takes home an extinguished brand which in some places is laid in the manger. The ashes were scattered to the winds apparently that their wholesome influence may be spread far abroad. In Sweden the smoke of the need-fires was believed to have much virtue: it made fruit trees productive, and nets that had been hung in it were sure to catch much fish.

"The earliest account of the need-fires in England is that quoted by Kemble from the Chronicle of Lanercost for the year 1268. The writer relates with pious horror how 'certain bestial persons, monks in garb but not in mind, taught the country people to extract fire from wood by friction, and set up a "Simulacrum Priape" as a means of preserving their cattle from an epidemic pneumonia.' This 'Simulacrum Priape' was unquestionably an image of the sun-god Fro or Fricco.

"Jacob Grimm was the first to make it evident that, for the Germans at least, the wheel was an emblem of the sun, and numerous facts which have come to light since he wrote, abundantly verify his conclusion.

"He mentions among other evidence that, in the Edda, the sun is called 'fagrahvel,' 'fair, or

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bright wheel, 'and that the same sign ☉ which in the calendar represents the sun stands also for the Gothic double consonant 'hw,' the initial of the Gothic word 'hvil,' Anglo-Saxon 'hveol,' English 'wheel.'

"In the need-fires on the island of Mull, the wheel was turned, according to Celtic usage, from east to west, like the sun. Grimm has also noticed the use of the wheel in other German usages as well as in the need-fire, and he is of opinion that in heathen times it constantly formed the nucleus and centre of the sacred and purifying sacrificial flame. There was a twofold reason for this use of the emblem of the sun, for that body was regarded not only as a mass of heavenly fire, but also as the immediate source of the lightning. When black clouds concealed the sun, the early Aryans believed that its light was actually extinguished, and needed to be rekindled. Then the pramantha 1 was worked by some god in the cold wheel until it glowed again, but before this was finally accomplished the pramantha often shot out as a thunderbolt from the wheel, or was carried off by some fire robbers. The word 'thunderbolt' itself like its German equivalents expresses the cylindrical or conical form

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of the pramantha. When the bolts had ceased to fly from the nave, and the wheel was once more ablaze, the storm was over."

From the foregoing, which treats merely of the more important solar festivals, it is clear that these products of paganism are as much in force at present from a symbolic point of view, as they ever were, and that Christianity countenances, and in many cases has actually adopted and practises, pagan rites whose heathen significance is merely lost sight of because attention is not called to the sources whence these rites have sprung.

In short, Sun worship, symbolically speaking, lies at the very heart of the great festivals which the Christian Church celebrates to-day, and these relics of heathen religion have, through the medium of their sacred rites, curiously enough blended with practices and beliefs utterly antagonistic to the spirit that prompted them.

The reason for the survival of many of the symbols of Sun worship and the practice of many customs peculiar to this ancient form of idolatry, lies in the fact that the early Christian teachers found the people so wedded to their old rites and usages, that it was vain to hope for the complete abandonment of these long-cherished practices. Hence a compromise was wisely effected, and the old pagan customs were deprived of the idolatry

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that was so obnoxious to the Christian, and transferred as mere meaningless symbols and empty forms to the Christian festivals. Old paganism died hard, and fought long and stubbornly in its struggle with Christianity, but time has fought for the Christian, and now even the meaning of symbols and forms that once played such an important part in pagan worship is lost sight of, and their former force and power is lost for evermore.


229:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.

231:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.

233:1 Curiosities of Folk-Lore, C. F. Keary.

236:1 The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer.

238:1 Primitive Culture, Edward B. Tylor.

244:1 Curiosities of Folk-Lore, C. F. Keary.

247:1 The pramantha was the handle of the mythical hand-mill of Frodé, the regent of the Golden Age. This hand-mill was a flat circular stone which represented the sun's disk, its handle was used by Indra and the Aswins to kindle the cloud-extinguished orb of day.

Next: Chapter X. Solar Omens, Traditions, and Superstitions