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March 2006

March 2006: Celtic Fey

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    The Sun, Part II

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

    As we have seen in the last issue, in Egypt both gods and goddesses were associated to the sun. In Italy, as in many Mediterranean countries, the sun is male. It felt very strange to me when I discovered that not a few other cultures referred to it as a feminine entity or a goddess (1). So it is for many of the Turkish-Mongol tribes of Central Asia as it was for the ancient Norse; the same is true for the mountain people of Vietnam and for such different cultures as t Malinese Dogon (who see her as a red-hot vase surrounded by an eight-turn copper spiral) and Latvian.

    Latvian solar symbols are countless: from the simplest circle to an egg, from a golden acorn to a cube to a polygonal, vaguely flower-like design; all of them are widely used. Often they may be seen on tools, women’s clothing or jewellery. When repeated in a row they refer to rituals for bounty and warmth. The sun-goddess herself, Saule, was seen as a motherly woman, clothed in gold and travelling through the sky in a cart pulled by two yellow colts.

    The best known among the sun-goddesses, though, is without any doubt, the Japanese Amaterasu.

    Born from the left eye of primordial god Izanagi (2), Amaterasu became the ruler of the High Celestial Plain. She is credited with teaching men to cultivate rice and raise silkworms. One day, it is said, the goddess’ brother, Susano-o, god of storms, ran amok and left his sister’s paddy fields and gardens in shambles. The goddess was so embarrassed that she hid in a cave, closing the entrance with a boulder and refusing any plead to come out. The world was abandoned to darkness and cold.

    Luckily the goddess Ama-no-Uzume had an idea: She hung a mirror and a necklace of magatama jewels to a tree growing in front of Amaterasu’s cave, then performed an erotic dance in front of the gathered gods. The gods’ laughter sparked Amaterasu’s curiosity, so, as she peeked out of the cave to see what was happening , she was startled by her own reflection in the mirror and her surprise allowed the gods to catch her by a wrist and pull her out.

    The mirror and the jewel, together with the sword Kusanagi (3) (a peace-offer gift to Amaterasu from Susano-o), were later brought to Japan by the goddess’ own grandson, whose son became the first emperor. The three are known as the Sacred Treasures of Japan, and each stands for a specific virtue (the sword for valour, the mirror for wisdom and the jewel for benevolence). They are located in three different temples and are brought together only for the enthronement ceremony of a new emperor.

    Since the ceremony isn’t public and only the emperor and a restricted group of Shinto priests have seen the Three Treasures, no photograph or drawing of them is known to exist.

    In China, according to the ancient myth of the archer Hou Yi, ten sun-birds lived on the cosmic tree, taking turns in flying to shine upon the world, but at one point the ten started to fly together, bringing about a terrible draught: fields burned, wells and rivers dried up and people were starting to die. Desperate, they called for help from the infallible archer, who, escorted by his groom, journeyed to the shores of the cosmic ocean from whose depths the tree on which the suns used to perch rose. Once there he aimed carefully and, one by one, shot nine of the birds. The myth says he was so taken by his mission and oblivious to anything else that, if his groom hadn’t stopped him, Hou Yi would have shot all the suns, leaving the world in darkness.

    The Chinese myth is very complex and has grown to have many different versions, in some Hou Yi is an immortal sent by the Queen Mother of the West to save humanity, in at least another he is a man, obsessed by the thought of his own mortality at the point that he steals the gods’ own immortality pill (or elixir). The story goes on explaining how Hou Yi’s wife, Chang E, became the ‘woman in the moon’. Some sources add that the archer afterwards was pardoned by the gods and built for himself a palace on the sun (4).

    It may be noted that in Mandarin Chinese the word for ‘sun’ is taiyang (or ‘supreme yang’), yang being the active, dry, hot, light, masculine principle of Chinese cosmology, while a poetic name for the moon is taiyin or supreme yin, the passive, damp, dark, feminine principle (there is absolutely no moral value of good and evil applied to yin and yang).

    In another Chinese myth, the Taoist cosmogony of the dwarf-turned-giant Pan Gu, whose life’s work separated the Earth from the Sky and whose body, after his death originated the universe, sun and moon are the two eyes of the giant. Some scholars dispute the authenticity of the Pan Gu story as myth, due to the fact that the oldest known version of it appears only as recently as the third century B.C. in a text by philosopher Xu Zheng and no independent contemporary or older sources are known—a fact that seems to indicate that the story is, in truth, a philosophical allegory created by Xu Zheng himself. Others think the legend is Indo-Chinese and later was accepted into the Chinese system of belief, yet another school of thought find traces of the Pan Gu story as far back as the Neolithic age, claiming for it the dignity of ‘true indigenous myth’(5).

    Next month, the last devoted to solar symbols and myths, we will travel back to Europe to examine Greek and Roman traditions.

    Notes:

    (1)It may be noted that the gender of the word for ‘sun’ and the gender of the divine being associated it are not always the same. For instance it is known that in the Celtic languages ‘sun’ was a feminine word, but her divine persona was the male god Lugh (the bright one) also called Sun-face.

    (2)At the best of my knowledge this is the only case in which the sun corresponds to the left eye of a primeval deity, the usual correspondence is right eye-sun, left eye-moon.

    (3)Kusanagi means ‘grass-cutter’ (according to tradition) or ‘serpent sword’ (according to the scholars), Susano-o found the sword in the body of a many-headed serpent he slew and called it Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi (Sword of the heaven of the clustering clouds), later on the warrior Yamato Takeru renamed it. Kusanagi is supposed to be a straight, double edged sword in the style of the bronze age. For some images of magatama jewels go to http://homepage2.nifty.com/daiitoku/magatama.htm

    (4) Conflicting details clearly show the antiquity of the myth: at the beginning the ten suns are imagined as birds, but at some point the sun changes into a celestial body on which a palace can be built. Similar legends (with varying number of suns and having as a protagonist either a god or a human hero) are registered in Central Asia, India and Sumatra.

    (5) The Pan Gu story will be treated in full in a future issue.

    Illustration credits:

    Bonomi-sunillo2 : Latvian solar symbol from: http://www.skyforger.lv/eng/stasti/stasti_zimes.htm
    Bonomi-sunillo3: view of the Shinto temple in Ise, from J.E. Kidder Jr., L’arte del Giappone , Arnoldo Mondadori Editore 1985, p.37
    Bonomi-sunillo4:back of Japanese bronze mirror, Kofun period, from J.E. Kidder Jr., L’arte del Giappone , Arnoldo Mondadori Editore 1985, p.35

    Marina Bonomi
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