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April 2006

April 2006: Seeds



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    The Sun, Part 3


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  • The Sun, Part 3
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    In Greece and in Rome, like Japan (but, as we saw in the last issue, not in China), the sun was a deity in its own right.

    Son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Leto, the radiant god Apollo was the twin brother of Diana, goddess of the moon and of the hunt (1).

    Mentions of the god, as early as the fist book of Homer's Iliad, link him clearly to lunar imagery: He is the god of the silver bow, the shining one who appears in the night. This very complex figure, mixing northern, Asian and Aegean influences, absorbed portfolios and characters of quite a few minor gods, thus metamorphosing into a solar deity while still maintaining a darker, nocturnal side.

    He was seen as a defender of the fields and of the cattle against rats and wolves. Oxen were sacred to him. It was said that during his time of exile from Olympus, in the land of the Hyperboreans (2) he worked as a cowherd, caring for twelve white oxen (a rather transparent symbol for the twelve months of the solar year), entertaining himself on the pastures by playing his golden lyre.

    Although not per se a hunting god, the weapon more strongly associated with Apollo was his silver bow, the arrows of which brought the plague to man and beast alike. He was a patron of the arts, protector of the Muses. His temple in Delphi was the seat of the most renowned oracle of the classic world and he was also a god of medicine (as we saw, a plague bearer, but being on his good side was a sure way to be kept safe). Asclepius, the greatest god of medicine, was Apollo's son, but another of the god's sons by mortal women was the cause of great tragedy; his name was Phaeton, and Ovid narrates his story in the second book of the Metamorphoses.

    Phaeton's mother told him his father was the sun-god, but the youth wanted to have proof of this and travelled to Apollo's palace where the god recognized him as his son and, somewhat unwisely, swore to grant whatever thing Phaeton would ask for. The youth asked to be allowed to drive the sun-chariot for one day. Apollo found no way to change the boy's mind, and, having sworn, could not back off. The following day, with many words of counsel on the right way to drive the chariot and an already heavy heart, the god let his mortal son drive his four-horse chariot.

    At the beginning, Phaeton minded his father's words and the horses kept their course, but after a while the youth, both exhilarated and dismayed by a task not set for mortals, began to waver, and the horses, realizing he wasn't their master, would not obey him. The legend details the ruin sown by Phaeton's mad race: in Africa whole countries once fertile turned into desert, whole rivers boiled, disappearing for ever, countless lives were lost that day, until, not far from the gates of the sun, in the country the Greeks called Hesperia, (3) Zeus, king of the gods, hit Phaeton and the chariot with one of his lighting bolts, lest more ruin befell the world. The boy fell into the river Eridanus (nowadays the river Po) and there drowned.

    Phaeton' sisters, mad from grief, would not leave the river where their brother died and, changed into poplar trees, are still there, weeping their loss with amber tears. (Amber itself is a strong solar and celestial symbol.) (4)

    Much later, the Scandinavian people also saw Sun and Moon as a pair of siblings. According to their legend, Sun is a woman, driver of the sun-chariot, and Moon is her brother and precedes her across the sky driving the moon-chariot. They were chosen for the task as a punishment for their father, who dared to name his children after the gods' own handwork, the luminaries of the sky. Servants of the gods, but not gods themselves (a rare occurrence, at least in European traditions), at the end of the world they'll be devoured by the two wolves who are constantly chasing them across the sky.

    Although the different pre-Christian religions either divinized the sun or at the very least gave it an important place in their myths, the advent of Christianity did not result, as it might have been expected, in disappearance of the ancient symbols; on the contrary, many of those were willingly absorbed and adapted to the new religion. The sun itself became one of the symbols more strongly associated with the Christ. Not by chance, Christmas is celebrated on December the 25th, near the winter solstice, in place of the ancient Roman feast of Sol invictus (unvanquished sun).

    A similar fate was in store for many of the symbols we shall encounter later on: the moon, the stars, the mountain and the tree and so on. It is yet more proof (if any was needed) of both the strength and vitality of symbols and humanity's inherent need for them.


    (1) Diana was the name given in Rome to the Greek goddess Artemis. A well known male fantasy character by R.A.Salvatore notwithstanding ‘Artemis' is classically a feminine name. Apollo himself is the only foreign god who entered the Roman pantheon without being given a Latin name

    (2) A mythical land the Greek located in the far North.

    (3) Land of sunset, one of the Greek names for today's Italy.

    (4) For the first ever English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses go to this site.

    Illustration credits:

    Bonomi-sunillo5 : Apollo Sauroctono (hitting the lizard), Roman copy of an original by Praxiteles showing the adolescent god in an unguarded moment.

    From: Storia dell'Arte Vol.2 Istituto Geografico De Agostini Novara 1982, pag. 123

    Marina Bonomi

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