Ancient Sun WorshipNo Comments | June 2010
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Divinely revealed religions across the world point to a single omnipotent deity. Even traditional faiths and mythology seem to point to the worship of a single deity in their origins. However, we can also observe polytheistic traditions that seem to have evolved from an erosion of monotheism. Man’s nature still yearned for the need for a powerful creator and found solace in deities created in his own mind.
As man observed eclipses, comets, meteorites and other phenomena, he sometimes related to these larger, more powerful elements as substitute deities. Some people before the time of Abraham(as) had begun to worship the sun and stars as a great power. Even today, 21st June marks the Summer Solstice and will be marked by pagan festivities in parts of the world.
Ancient Spirituality and the Sun
Many ancient spiritual traditions existed and flourished that incorporating many different understandings of the Creator and of celestial bodies.
Objects such as stars, planets, the moon, the sun, comets and meteorites would have commanded awe and wonder. Similarly, events such as eclipses and the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) would easily have led to marvel at the forces of nature. Whilst all these objects are still as awe-inspiring as they were in ancient times, huge advances in science mean we are constantly exposed to new research on celestial bodies. We are thus no longer astonished upon hearing that a new star or galaxy has been discovered, whereas ancient man would have looked into the sky and been perplexed at objects that he could neither reach nor comprehend.
Archaeology has unearthed many ancient structures with alignments to celestial bodies and the strong notion that those people worshipped stars, the sun and the moon. Examples include Stonehenge in the UK, which is an ancient stone circle with a spiritual history, and the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico.
The stones at Stonehenge show an alignment to the appearance of the sun on the horizon at the Summer and Winter solstices when looking from the centre of the site over the tip of the Heel stone with its top just at the height of the horizon. At that time five to six thousand years ago, the knowledge of the solar cycle and calendar would have been used by social leaders as a source of power and wealth, particularly if they could direct the masses on when to sow and when to harvest.
In Ancient Egypt, although it is likely that there was monotheism in the early dynasties of rulers, over time, the sun took on a huge significance in the religion of the Egyptians and the status of Pharaoh. Some of the hieroglyphs depict Pharaoh with the sun on his head, the great Amon-Ra. Amon, or Amun was considered as the supreme creator while Ra was the much older sun-god, so the two were combined as Amon-Ra.
The great temple complex of Karnak on the Nile appears to be oriented to the direction of the summer solstice through the hypostyle hall and the adjacent hall of festivals. Gerald Hawkins strongly claimed in his work that there is evidence that the temple had been aligned to the midsummer sun, and that the temple complex contained ‘hymns of praise to that god that appears at dawn’. (Devereux, p.164) Indeed, one of the temples on the Karnak site (near the modern town of Luxor) is named after Ra-Hor-Akhty, an ancient Egyptian name that can be translated as the ‘sun brilliant on the horizon’.
In Egyptian worship, Horus is the rising sun, Ra is the noon sun and then Osiris (god of the dead) is the dying or setting sun. Some commentators even link Horus, Ra and Osiris with the Christian Trinity concept (Gordon, p.657). One of the most well known of the Egyptian Pharoahs was Amenhotep IV who eliminated the many gods of the realm and told his countrymen to worship just one god, signified by the solar disc known as aten, and even changed his name to Akhenaten. After he died, Tutankhaten who had married one of his daughters succeeded him, and he reverted back to the old traditions and changed his name to Tutankhamun. (Hagen, p.47)
The Romans and Greeks had also set up their own pantheon of deities and traded gods with other cultures. So, perhaps as a political gesture of collaboration, Alexander the Great established Ammon-Zeus, a hybrid creator to cover the Greek and Egyptian cultures and their obsession with the sun. (Gordon, p.32)
In Central and South America, the ancient cultures of the Aztecs and Mayas also relied heavily on the worship of celestial bodies, and developed quite complex calendars. Their temples such as the famous Machu Picchu site in Peru, were also associated with an Incan religious cult dedicated to the worship of the sun. The site has several stones used as guide posts known as Intihuatana (lit. ‘hitching post of the sun’) which were used by the Incans to mark the winter solstice, the Incan festival of Inti Raymi. Some commentators describe this ancient festival as one observed to tie the sun to prevent it swinging further north resulting in even shorter days.
Near Mexico City, the ancient site of Teotihuacan seems to be aligned to the star cluster known as the Pleiades which heralded the day when the sun was at its highest point in the sky (zenith). Indeed, the two great pyramids at the site are named after the sun and the moon. The Aztecs also revelled in the worship and appeasement of the sun and happily performed human sacrifices to renew the failing energies of their sun god Huitzilopochtli. (Elaide, p.149)
Across Africa, many tribes adopted gods for natural features such as the river, mountain, moon and sun, but these were often considered to be manifestations of the great Creator god, and therefore this pantheon must be seen in a different context.
Many other cultures in Europe and Asia depicted their creator as the sun giving birth to the stars, for example the myths associated with Apollo, Baal, Marduk, Yhi and Phoebus.
Ancient civilisations across many parts of the world marvelled at the sun, moon and stars because of their distance, power and regular cycles. However, scholars such as Bastian in the 19th century and then Frazer in the early 20th Century, cautioned that sun-worship was not a global phenomenon, but was more prevalent in Mexico, Peru, Egypt, Asia and primitive Europe. (Eliade, p.124)
Abraham(as) and Heavenly Signs
The Prophet Abraham(as) grew up in a polytheistic society and his people sought their Creator in the nature around them, but without satisfaction as we read in the Qur’an:
And when the night darkened upon him, he saw a star. He said: ‘This is my Lord!’ But when it set, he said: ‘I like not those that set.’ And when he saw the moon rise with spreading light, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘If my Lord guide me not, I shall surely be of the people who go astray.’ And when he saw the sun rise with spreading light, he said: ‘This is my Lord, this is the greatest.’ But when it set, he said, ‘O my people, surely I am clear of that which you associate with God. I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, being ever inclined to God, and I am not of those who associate gods with God.’ (Ch.6:Vs.77-80)
These verses illustrate the extent to which society at that time (around 4000 years ago) had fallen into the worship of celestial bodies. The insight that he was given showed his understanding that bodies that set below the horizon could not exert their influence continually over man, whereas the Creator was (and is) omnipresent. The verses show how Abraham(as) used his arguments to show his people the futility of their ancient beliefs as he had been the recipient of direct revelation; it was not the case that Abraham(as) himself had been groping to find his Creator through this process,. This is reinforced in a later verse in the same chapter:
And that is Our argument which We gave to Abraham against his people. (Ch.6:V.84)
It is from the lineage of Abraham(as) that the Jews and Muslims trace their origins. Having served under the Egyptians for generations, even after the advent of Moses(as) to free them from slavery, the Jews still reverted back to idols and images. Gradually, however, monotheism was reinstated through the strong line of prophets.
The Jewish calendar is called a lunisolar calendar in that it is based on the lunar calendar shorter than a 365-day solar calendar. Their calendar is filled with key events from Jewish history which are associated with particular seasons, for example Pesach, or Passover, is celebrated in the Spring (Christian Easter is meant to coincide with Passover) and so corrections are applied every few years to ensure that the Lunar and Solar calendars can be synchronised.
Christianity and the Sun
Christianity emerged out of Judaism and therefore all of the early Jewish Christians (Jews who had accepted Jesus(as) as their Messiah) were monotheistic. However, they lived in the context of other civilisations such as the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Persians, all of whom had strong cultures of their own. As Christians tried to politically distance themselves from the Jews, and also tried to gain acceptance in Europe, their theology sometimes became merged with local culture to the detriment of Christianity.
A key example of this was the interaction of Christianity in the Roman Empire with traditional Roman beliefs. The Romans had been persecuting Christians and despised the Jews whom they had defeated in Jerusalem around 70 CE. They wanted all races in their empire to pay tribute to the Emperor and the Roman gods and goddesses. Over three centuries, gradually Christians began to associate Jesus(as) with the Roman god Sol Invictus by depicting Jesus(as) as having a solar halo around his head just like Sol Invictus, and by adopting the holy day of their god, December 25th, as the key date for Christianity, erroneously celebrated as the birthday of Jesus(as).
In the early 17th century, Christianity had to debate the place of the sun in the universe with scientists such as Galileo. The Orthodox view of the Church at that time was that man was central and therefore the earth must be at the centre of the universe and the universe must revolve around the earth. Galileo was condemned for his ‘scientific’ beliefs that were seen to be at odds with Orthodox religious beliefs. Modern science has proven the scientific view to be correct.
The long-term impact of Christian use of a Solar calendar is that its festivals are associated more with the seasons when they occur than the events they signify. Also, the legacy of the association with Sol Invictus is that the birthday of Jesus(as) is celebrated on December 25th, which used to be the winter solstice 2000 years ago. It is important to note that Jesus(as) himself would not have recognised some of the innovations that later became part of Christianity, as he was a practising Jew.
June 21st marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, after which the days start getting shorter.
At sites such as Stonehenge in the UK, pagans hold an annual celebration in which they chant hymns to the earth and sky, and it would be easy to assume that the site has hosted such druidic practices for thousands of years, but in actual fact, druid worship of midsummer at Stonehenge can only be traced back to 1905.
Islamic View of the Sun
The message of the Qur’an and Islam was revealed to man just over fourteen centuries ago and clearly set a monotheistic context in which celestial bodies had been created and followed the paths set for them by God.
Prayer times are set such that man is in prayer before sunrise, after midday and after sunset rather than having any connotation of praying ‘to’ the sun. The actual period when the sun is rising, is overhead at noon and in setting, are each avoided to remove any semblance of sun worship. Equally, the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar calendar, which is ten days shorter than the Solar calendar. On the face of it, this may seem insignificant, yet the impact of festivals such as ‘Eid and Ramadan being at different times of the year in different periods prevents any association of them with a season, and maintains the focus on the meaning and significance of the festival itself. There is no regular seasonal association with ‘Eid as there is with Christmas in some cultures.
In Islam, the celestial bodies are recognised in the context of the creation of the universe, and therefore the worshipper shifts attention from the visible celestial beings, to the Creative force that put them there and set them on their orbital paths, something that some earlier peoples would have misin-terpreted out of ignorance.
The sun has been given an extraordinary position in early human culture, possibly as social leaders used their knowledge of seasons to maintain their own power and status through the ignorance of the masses.
It is Divine religion that has always given man the proper context for his place in the universe and in relation to his Creator. It is religion that confirmed to mankind that all of the powerful features and forces observed on earth, in the sky and as events, all originate from that same Creator and all observe the same laws of nature (science). Through religion, man no longer relies upon relics and idols or on proxies for God and more on a direct relationship with their Creator through prayer.
- Patterns in Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade, Sheed & Ward 1993.
- The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, Stuart Gordon, Headline Books 1993.
- Secrets of Ancient and Sacred Places, Paul Devereux, Brockhampton Press, London 1993.
- Ancient Cities, Scientific American Special Issue, 1994.
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead, E. A. Wallis Budge, Cassel & Co, London 2001.
- Egypt – people, gods, Pharaohs, Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen, Taschen, Koln, 2002.