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What Are the Different Types of Sun Mythology?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sun mythology, or solar mythology, is an important part of the mythology of diverse human cultures. Many cultures perceive, or have perceived, the sun as a divine being. Given the sun's prominence in the sky and importance in everyday life, the role it plays is often significant. Many cultures have or had some form of sun mythology attempting to answer basic questions about the sun. For example, the question of where the sun goes at night is a common subject, as is the issue of how it moves across the sky.

Sun mythology is more central to some religious systems than others. In ancient Egypt, for instance, many deities had solar attributes, and the sun god, Ra, was a central figure. When king Akhenaten attempted to reform Egyptian religion in the 14th century BC, he instituted the worship of a new god, Aten, the sun's disk. Similarly, in later Roman paganism, solar deities became more and more important, with the cult of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, becoming one of the most prominent faiths. Early Christianity drew on the symbolism of Sol Invictus.

In other areas, solar mythology is less prominent. Archaeological finds from Bronze Age Denmark seem to suggest that the image of the sun being pulled across the sky in a wagon by horses was important, but the limited written records describing Norse religion in the early medieval period give limited importance to solar deities, focusing instead on the deeds of Odin, god of kingship and magic, and Thor, god of thunder.

Sun mythology was also important in the Americas. The Inca empire of Peru had Inti, the god of the sun, as its patron deity. Similarly, in Aztec cosmology, Tonatiuh, god of the sun, was the ruler of heaven, a powerful deity who demanded sacrifices in exchange for his continued patronage.

The presence of sun mythology in so many cultures around the world led anthropologists and folklorists, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to look for examples of sun gods in all cultures. Some claimed that many religions, including Christianity, were based on the fundamental story of the sun descending into the underworld at sunset and returning at dawn. This view is now widely regarded as an incorrect generalization. Similarly, the pattern of a male sun god, like the Greek god Apollo, and a female earth goddess was believed to be fundamental to religion, despite the fact that many cultures, including Japan and pre-Christian Scandinavia, have female solar deities.

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Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Feb 06, 2015

@umbra21 - It's difficult to categorize those kinds of myths though because they exist in time as well as space. They change depending on different influences and it's the rare culture that hasn't been influenced by others.

So the myth of a male sun god might have simply spread from a single point rather than originating in multiple cultures at the same time because of a similar thought pattern.

By umbra21 — On Feb 06, 2015

@browncoat - That might be one explanation, but I can't help but think that it's more likely the sun is associated with masculine traits in patriarchal societies simply because it's seen as strong and powerful.

You're also assuming that all cultures acknowledge the Earth as being an entity similar to the sun, which can act as it's "opposite" in myths. I think it's probably more common for the moon to be seen in that way, since it can actually be seen as a whole.

I do think it would be interesting to see a study on whether or not notions of how masculine the sun is seen to be compare with how patriarchal the culture and how prominent the sun is in their sky. The sun wouldn't be equally important to every culture, after all, since in some places it would be often covered by clouds, or perhaps wouldn't rise during the winter and so forth.

By browncoat — On Feb 05, 2015

I do find it interesting that so many cultures give masculine traits to the sun. I always thought of it as being linked with the feminine moon rather than with the Earth as a female, but that probably makes a lot of sense, even from a biological standpoint. The sun nourishes from a distance and the Earth nourishes with her own body.

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