The Spiritual Significance of the Sun Throughout History

March 27, 2023
IONS Communications Team

Countless cultures and traditions celebrate the sun. Understandably so – without it, we wouldn’t survive!

In this article, we’ll look at the role of the sun in different parts of the world. 

The role of the sun in Japan

Shinto, meaning “the way of the gods”, is the ancient religion of Japan worshiping nature. They have a sun goddess, considered the personification of the physical sun and the Ruler of Heaven. The original Japanese name of the Sun-goddess is Ama-terasu no Oho-kami, “the Heaven-shining Great Deity” – sometimes abbreviated Ama-terasu.  

The legend says that Ama-terasu founded Japan 2700 years ago. All emperors of Japan are known as “Sons of the Sun” which indicates their status as direct descendants of the goddess. 

When referring to the actual sun, O tento sama is the name used by the lower-class Japanese, especially women and children. O tento sama is said to be conceived without sex or myth, not belonging to any cult. Rather, he is a moral being rewarding the good and punishing the bad. 

In modern Japan, there’s a custom called Sun-waiting or himachi. The people who participate stay awake the whole night of the fifth day of the tenth month. At sunrise, they worship the sun. It is imperial to follow the rules of religious purity from the day before himachi. 

Similarly, many people assemble at open places in Tokyo to worship the Sun on the first day of the year – “the First Sunrise” (hat su no hi no de). They use the characteristic Japanese sun salutation of bowing the head. Some people pilgrimage to the top of mountains to greet the sun. 

The Goddess of the Sun has many qualities: she is looked up to with gratitude for her warmth and the light she sheds on the world. She also allegedly grants physical stamina and business success to those who worship her. She is in charge of protecting Japan from invasion, and interestingly, also more concrete functions such as solar power. 

Japan has many stories and myths about the sun, for example, one explaining a solar eclipse and another why the sun and the moon never shine together. 

The Ainos, the aboriginal people of Japan, have their own rites around the sun. During eclipses, the Ainos think the sun deity is fainting or dying. They throw water into the air to bring him back to life, just as they squirt water in the face of a person being ill. 

The Ainos also believe that the sun is male and the moon female, while other Japanese cultures refer to the sun as female (a deity or goddess). They say, “When the Moon is invisible, it is because she has gone to visit her husband.” The sun has the best and brightest clothes made of white embroidery, while the moon is covered in dark and wide garments worn one over the other. 

The mystical Pantheon and the sun

Pantheon is an iconic temple in Rome, Italy. It consists of a dome with an 8.3m wide opening at the top. This only source of natural light is referred to as the oculus. Strangely, no sunlight can enter the door since it faces north – an uncommon architectural choice. This lack of light gives the building a dark and cold impression. 

It is believed that the sun and time were linked architecturally into Pantheon for the Romans to be able to read such things. Pantheon seems to be designed to illuminate the symbolic connection of the building with the path of the sun throughout the year.

Indeed, the dimension of the oculus is not random. During the equinoxes and April 21, the colossal bronze doors to the temple get perfectly lit up by the sunlight entering the oculus. 

Pantheon may be the only temple in the world worshiping the cult of a comet, specifically a comet appearing after Caesar’s death in 44 B.C. It is speculated that the unusual north-facing orientation of Pantheon came from the desire to commemorate this comet’s appearance over the northern horizon.

Christianism and the sun

Some sources, such as De Pascha Computus written in A.D. 243, argued that Creation began around the spring equinox (said to be March 25). The sun was created on the fourth day, or March 28. Based on this, they derived that Christ must have been born on March 28 as the new “Sun of Righteousness.”

The winter solstice on December 25 was consciously chosen because of its pagan celebration of the invincible sun. 

In early Christian literature, the sun was used as a metaphor for Christ. He is often referred to as “Sol verus” and “Sol Justitiae”. 

Into the reign of Constantine, around A.D. 320, the sun god Sol Invictus remained one of the main deities in the Roman pantheon. He was introduced to the Roman empire from oriental cultures by Elagabus from Syria. The position as sun god was vacant – the ancient ones had disappeared, and many people are unfamiliar with Sol Invictus’ exotic origins.

The deities Sol and Luna represent the sun and the moon. Their corresponding cosmic bodies are in constant flux – the moon either waxing toward or waning from full moon, and the sun changing the time it rises and sets every day. Sol and Luna symbolize eternity and show how cosmic stability can be sustained despite fluctuations in time. 

This symbolic use of Sol and Luna was common in a wide range of religious contexts in the Roman Empire. 

The cult of Helios in the Seleucid east 

Seleucus acknowledged a solar god similar to that of Babylonian and Iranian cultures. There is very little written information on the topic – most is found as scripts on five tablets in Persepolis, of which one mentions Helios, the sun god. 

There are also bronze coins from the epoch revealing valuable information and the existence of a solar cult. One such coin showed a solar god seeming to be a fusion of Helios and Apollo.

Alexander the Great allegedly credited Helios for his victory in the Hydaspes battle. He dedicated all his post-battle offerings to the sun god alone. 

Ancient Greek art depicts The Vergina Sun, also known as the Star of Vergina. It is a rayed solar symbol first seen between the 6th and 2nd centuries B.C. The Vergina Sun has 16 triangular rays. The number 16 stands for totality and completeness – and to many Greeks, it represents the 12 gods and the four elements. 

Indigenous Americans and the Sun

Although Native American cultures differ from one another, they all share the common view that the universe originates as thought or mental process. All things are connected, including Mother Earth who is a living being, and the Sun. 

Native American traditions have a strong connection to and respect for nature. The agents of creation are often depicted as “wakan” (holy), animals (like coyote, jaguar, or eagle), or forces of nature (such as wind or breath).

Or, in the words of Winona LaDuke, a contemporary leader from White Earth Anishinabe land:

“Native American teachings describe the relations all around – animals, fish, trees, and rocks – as our brothers, sisters, uncles, and grandpas. . . .

These relations are honored in ceremony, song, story, and life that keep relations close – to buffalo, sturgeon, salmon, turtles, bears, wolves, and panthers. These are our older relatives – the ones who came before and taught us how to live.”

Native American writer, scholar and political activist Jack D. Ford wrote in his book A World Ruled by Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Aggression, Violence, and Imperialism

“For us, truly, there are no “surroundings.”

I can lose my hands and still live. I can lose my legs and still live. I can lose my eyes and still live… But if I lose the air I die. If I lose the sun I die. If I lose the earth I die. If I lose the water I die. If I lose the plants and animals I die. All of these things are more a part of me, more essential to my every breath, than is my so-called body. What is my real body?

We are not autonomous, self-sufficient beings as European mythology teaches…  We are rooted just like the trees. But our roots come out of our nose and mouth, like an umbilical cord, forever connected with the rest of the world… 

Nothing that we do, do we do by ourselves. We do not see by ourselves. We do not hear by ourselves… We do not think, dream, invent, or procreate by ourselves. We do not die by ourselves… 

I am a point of awareness, a circle of consciousness, in the midst of a series of circles. One circle is that which we call “the body.” It is a universe itself, full of millions of little living creatures living their own “separate” but dependent lives…  But all of these “circles” are not really separate—they are all mutually dependent upon each other… ”

According to this worldview – or cosmic vision – the Sun is a living being, just like the waters and the Earth. So our “surroundings” include the whole universe, with the sun and the stellar bodies that are behind so much of our human yearnings and dreams. 

Some Final Words

The sun is not only a source of life, but also of inspiration and devotion. While there are many other cultures we haven’t covered here, these ones give an idea of how important the sun has been – and continues to be – in spiritual practices and traditions. And, as previously stated: to shine a light on our dreams.

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