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February 2006

February Issue: Romance

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    February 2006
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    On Romance
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    Let There Be Light!
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  • Myths and Symbols:
    The Sun, Part 1

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  • The Sun, Part 1
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    The celestial bodies are among the oldest and most universal of symbols. Every culture and age has invested them with meaning, and sometimes those meanings blend and mix, or conflict with each other even within the same cultural milieu. For this reason any attempt to write about sun or moon symbols is by its nature sketchy and far from complete. What follows is simply meant as an introduction, and a stimulus to deeper personal research.

    In ancient Egypt, solar symbols appeared since pre-dynastic times, dating back at least to the Neolithic. In historic times, though, the physical sun and its religious and symbolic aspects were always kept clearly separated.

    As a god, the sun was worshipped in the whole of Egypt under many different guises and names, often related to the different times of sunrise, midday, and sunset. The main center of the solar cult, though, was Heliopolis ('Sun-city' in Greek, the name in Egyptian was Iunu) whose site is now, sadly, almost inaccessible under north-eastern modern Cairo.

    According to the Texts of the Piramyds, the temple of the Phoenix in Heliopolis (1) was also the place from where, at the birth of the universe, the sun first rose into the sky.

    O Atum the Creator (the Sun), You became high in the height. You rose up as the Benben Stone in the mansion of the Phoenix in Heliopolis (..) (2)

    Ra was the god more strongly connected to the sun, which was supposed to be the god's right eye (the moon being the left), but hardly the only one. Among the other Egyptian solar gods we find Horus, Khnum, and Atum, and all the gods derived from or connected to them, but all of these were seen not as much as separate (or rival) sun gods, but as gods of a phase of the sun in its daily travel through the sky. For instance, the morning sun was seen as a scarab and was the god Khepri, the sun at midday was Ra, while the sun at sunset could be Atum or a ram-headed form of Ra.

    Later on, in the so-called Late Dynastic Period (25th-30th dynasty 525-332 B.C.) a different symbol was created for the sun at each hour of the day. At the first and second hour the sun was seen as a child, in the seventh hour it was a monkey firing arrows (sun-rays), in the eleventh and twelfth hour the sun was represented as an old man, oft ram-headed.

    Besides the ram (ancient symbol of Amon), many animals were connected to the sun-cult: sacred bulls venerated in Heliopolis were seen as symbols of the solar life-energy, cows were venerated as cosmic mothers, the image of the sun rising at dawn was linked to the horns of the celestial cow. In this way Hator and Isis were also seen as solar goddesses, as somehow was Nut (the night) who every morning gave birth to the sun only to devour it at sunset.

    Since pre-historic times the hawk (either as Horus or Ra) was also venerated as a solar symbol. The scarab Khepri has hawk wings, and so does the winged sun-disk which was put on doors and stele as a protective sign after the beginning of the New Kingdom. When the sun god was represented as Horus it didn't appear only as a hawk but also with a lion's head as god of the morning sun, and soon assumed the shape of a creature with a lion's body and a human head: the sphinx.

    As in other cultures, the daily cycle of the sun was connected to the life cycle. Like the sun, what dies lives again, thus we find lion-shaped (or lion legged) funeral beds.

    Aspects of the sun were also represented by lion-goddesses: Mahes, who bore the sun-disk on her head, Mehit, also identified with Ra's eye, and Sekhmet, goddess of war and of medicine. The positive, beneficial faces of the sun were worshipped as Mut (in her lioness incarnation) and in Bastet (the cat-goddess).

    Other animals connected with sun worship were the giraffe and the crocodile (as the sun rising everyday from the celestial ocean), as were symbols like the ankh (Egyptian cross), the djed pillar (3), the two sycamores, and the lotus flower.

    In the New Kingdom the physical sun-disk acquired religious dignity per se, becoming known as Aton and reaching the peak of its importance in the XVIII dynasty under the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton, its prophet and the philosopher who most developed solar theology.

    Akhenaton's hymn to Aton is one of the most lyrical and passionate pages in world's literature:

    When thou risest in the eastern horizon of heaven,
    Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.
    When thou settest in the western horizon of heaven,
    The world is in darkness like the dead.
    Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon,
    When thou shinest as Aton by day.
    The darkness is banished, when thou sendest forth thy rays.
    How manifold are all thy works,
    They are hidden from before us,
    O thou sole god, whose powers no other possesseth,
    Thou didst create the earth according to thy desire
    While thou wast alone.
    The world is in thy hand,
    Even as thou hast made them.
    When thou hast risen, they live.
    When thou settest, they die.
    For thou art duration, beyond thy mere limbs.
    By thee man liveth,
    And their eyes look upon thy beauty
    Until thou settest.
    Thou makest the beauty of form. . . .
    Thou art in my heart. (4)

    Ancient Egyptian culture was incredibly rich in symbols, and that, I think, is part of its strong appeal. For those of you interested in examining it in more detail than I could possibly do in this space, a wealth of material is available either in libraries or on the Internet. In the next issue we will travel further East to other highly symbolistic cultures, examining solar symbols and myths in Japan and China.

    Notes

    (1) See my previous article The Two-headed Phoenix in the January issue. (Available to subscribers only.)

    (2) From:Labib Habachi, The Egyptian Obelisks, p. 5, The AUC Press, 1988 as quoted in http://www.eclipse-chasers.com/egypt5.htm

    (3) For an in-depth discussion of the symbolic meanings of the djed pillar (with illustrations) see http://www.pyramidofman.com/Djed

    (4) quoted from http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/eml/eml37.htm

    Notes

    (1) See my previous article The Two-headed Phoenix in the January issue.

    (2) From:Labib Habachi, The Egyptian Obelisks, p. 5, The AUC Press, 1988 as quoted in http://www.eclipse-chasers.com/egypt5.htm

    (3) For an in-depth discussion of the symbolic meanings of the djed pillar (with illustrations) see http://www.pyramidofman.com/Djed

    (4) quoted from http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/eml/eml37.htm

    Marina Bonomi
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