As the light dwindled in the sky and the days grew shorter, the ancients wondered what was happening to the sun. Their shamans and storytellers supplied the answers. Gods and goddesses were fighting for the survival of all life, playing games in the sky or battling each other for supremacy.
Ancient peoples worked to be in balance with the forces of nature as they understood them. Many cultures carefully watched the sun so that they would know when to plant, when to harvest and when to batten down the hatches for winter.
What people do not know or understand, they make up stories to explain.
What the ancients feared, they named so that they could understand it in some way.
There are common patterns with Deities representing the sun or the light as the central theme. At latitudes where the tilt of the earth causes the sun to dip very low, tales are told where the threat to the sun is mortal so the people must come forward in the sun's defense. Closer to the equator, we will sometimes see the sun as simply losing interest or a diminishing of its capacity to perform its duty so the festivals and ceremonies are to remind of, or bind it to, its task
These days, most people think back on the mythical explanations that forces of nature were gods and goddesses as quaint legends. We know better.
We have forgotten what it is to huddle in a fire-lit cave while thunder splits the night sky with sound and shakes the earth around us, so we no longer need know the names of the thunder gods to assure us there is some kind of order in the universe
Babylonian- Ishtar Descends to the Underworld
In Babylonia, there are a series of myths about their warrior goddess, Ishtar, who was also a goddess of fertility.
Tiamat, the dragon of chaos, had captured the god of all growing things, Tammuz. Unless he was returned crops would die and eventually so would all the humans.
Ishtar descends into the underworld, Irkalla, where she found the gates are shut to her. Her threats to tear them down were so impressive to Ereshkigal, Queen of the underworld, that ishtar is allowed admittance. But the goddess is required, at each of the seven gates into the underworld, to divest herself of representations of her status. First, her clothing must be left and then all ornamentation until Ishtar stood naked before Ereshkigal . Her courage and devotion so impressed the Queen of the Underworld that her wish was granted
She re-emerged slowly through the gates of darkness with her beloved by her side returning fertility to the Earth for one more year.
Polynesian- Maui Captures The Sun
When the ancient Polynesians saw the sun beam forth in rays that touched the ground, they thought they were seeing the legs of the sun.
The great God Maui could not help but notice that the sun hurried across the sky so quickly that there was barely enough time for work to be done. The fishermen had just arrived to toss out their nets and already the setting of the sun warned it was time to return home. The plants did not have time to ripen before the light was gone.
Maui announced he would remind the sun of its duties. His mother sent him to receive the assistance of his grandmother, who cooks the sun’s breakfast. Grandmother laughed at Maui’s daring when he claimed he would trap the sun. She gave him sixteen ropes, one for each of the sun’s legs, and a net, and showed him the tree he must hide in. Enlisting the help of his reluctant brothers to take up the ropes to capture the sun, Maui, the trickster, withstood the threat of the sun’s heat to move in and use his magic club to break eight of the sun’s sixteen legs.
So, for half the year the sun moves swiftly across the sky and the days are short for the sun is on its good legs. The other half the year the sun is slower across the sky because he’s limping and we have Maui- trickster to thank for our long days of enjoying the warmth and glory of the sun.
Inuit- Raven Steals the Sun
The Inuit of North America and Greenland tell the tale of the trickster, Raven, who, in this case, was instrumental in returning the light to the sky.
The evil wizard, Tupilak, had a pair of magic shoes that allowed him to move a great distance with one single step. These shoes allowed him to walk up the sky and cut a hole in it. He moved his wife into that hole so they could have privacy. His wife disliked their new home in the sky because she had no neighbours so he gave her a child to care for. Still she was unhappy because she there was no light and it was always cold. So, tupilak returned to this side of the sky where he captured the sun and the moon, tied them into bags and knotted them with strong sinew.
At first, this darkness suited the raven for he liked to nap. Eventually, the lack of light made the people of the earth weak for no food would grow in the darkness. The people came to the raven and beseeched his assistance. Once he understood what was happening, he knew it was the work of his old foe, tupilak.
Raven took to wing soaring across the dark freezing sky until he found hole in the sky that Tupilak had gone through. The sun was blazing bright on the other side of the sky. Raven found tupilak enjoying the heat and called him out. Tupilak laughed at the trickster, saying it took one thief to find another. The old wizard refused to give the sun over and told the Raven to return to the darkness.
The direct route was not going to work So Raven watched tupilak's little world until one day he saw Tupilak’s daughter out walking. Knowing what he must do to gain access to tupilak's home, He balled up his raven cloak and turned himself into a feather, casting himself into the stream where she drew forth her drinking water. Some time later, she birthed a strong baby boy who was, of course, the raven himself.
His grandparents and mother doted on the child, refusing him nothing except the bags that contained the sun and the moon. Every time he reached for one of these bags which hung from the rafters, He was denied. Eventually, the baby would not take no for an answer. Finally the daughter of Tupilak, talked her own mother into letting the baby play with the bags. So, when tupilak went out, the baby`s mother brought down the bag containing the moon and gave it over for her son to play with. Mother and daughter enjoyed the sweet silence of the contented child but The minute their attention was withdrawn, the Raven released the moon which bumped along the sky until it found Tupilak’s hole and then it escaped back to the world.
Tupilak returned for he had seen the moon escape. He was angry, but then the baby greeted him with such a happiness at the sight of the old man, tupilak was uanble to stay angry. Raven waited until Tupilak was snoring in sleep before he demanded the bag containing the sun.
The women were not careless this time, they double knotted the bag before handing it over. The Raven was unable to open it with his uncoordinated little baby hands. It was time to steal away, gather up his Raven feather cloak and return to his true form. He escaped through the hole in the sky where the humans had started to get used to being in the light of the moon once more.
They say Tupilak re-emerges occasionally and steals the sun back - but Raven is always successful in its return.
Celtic- The Oak King Slays the Holly King
For the Druids and the Celtic peoples, the forest was the cathedral of the holy. Each tree became known to hold a type of power, to represent a certain constant, to have influence over certain areas. Seasonally, certain trees gained prominence while others faded away until their time returned. The Oak tree, significant for its towering height and its magnificent strength became the symbol of long life and wisdom- a tree of kings… The stretching of its mighty branches over the lesser trees of the forest was seen as protective. The Oak was considered to represent the season of growth. Alongside the Earth Mother- the Oak King ruled the land as crops and flowers and livestock flourished under the summer sun.
The Oak King and the Holly King are brothers. They are twins and it is not an uncommon theme in myth that twins cannot both flourish at once. As in the case of the Oak and Holly Kings, only one can be in his prime at a time. Each represents the missing half of the other, they are one but not the same- they are light and mystery… one reaching up and one in decline
At midsummer, the summer solstice, the brightest moment of the year- the Oak King is slain by the Holly King, the dark king representing the decline of the sun and the return of the world into dormancy and darkness. From that day onward the year is dying.
The evergreen nature of the Holly is particularly significant in the Winter months. When the leaves drop from the great Oak and strip it barren to the icy winds, the Holly is still fully cloaked in its coat of sharp and thorny green leaves. Thus, the holly tree represents immortality and victory beyond death, beyond the darkness but, in the form of the Holly King, it also represents the dying side of the year .
At Winter Solstice the Oak King rises once again from slumber and slays the Holly King. Now with the Oak King once more in reign there will be the guarantee of the fertility of the growing year, the promise of days getting longer and longer and the knowledge that the forests will once more flourish and be filled with the rustling of the leaves of the trees.
(FYI: The companion bird of the Oak King is the robin- which is why the sight of the first robin of spring is significant. It means the Oak King is returning to prominence)
Japanese- Amaterasu Retreats to the Cave
The sun goddess Amaterasu was one of three siblings alongside the Moon (Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto) and the Storm (Susa-nowo). So magnificent was she, so brilliant, that the father god, Izanagi, gave her a place in the Plain of the Heaven, allowing her dominion of the sky. Susa-nowo, the storm, dark and moody, was given dominion over the seas but he was unhappy with this so began to rage and howl without cease. The sound was so terrible that the mountains began to shrink and the seas ran dry to escape his lamenting. So, Izanagi banished Susa-nowo, who insisted that before he left, he must make a farewell to his sister, the Sun. The turbulence of the visiting approaching storm alarmed Amaterasu, who took up her bow to defend against an enemy. Susa-nowo was amused, he assured her that he had simply come to make a farewell. But her guest did not leave. He stayed on in the hospitality of her home, this uninvited guest, and the storm made trouble by breaking down the divisions in people's rice fields, filling in irrigation ditches and making life generally unpleasant for all around him.
Amaterasu made excuses for him until the day he flayed a horse and threw the body through the window into the chamber where the sun-goddess and her ladies were weaving. The bloodied horse sent looms and shuttles flying and hurt some of Amaterasu's companions. Infuriated by his dishonourable behaviour, Amaterasu took herself away to the Cave of Heaven and locked herself away so that she could have some peace.
The world was plunged into darkness. There was no longer a day and a night.
It had become night without end.
Many spirits and gods arrived at the cave to attempt to coax the sun goddess out but she would not respond to their entreaties. They brought exquisite nocturnal birds to lure her out with their songs, they hung a string gems on a nearby tree, they offered her a mirror, they offered streaming white cloth of the finest weave...
Finally, the goddess of mirth and laughter, Ama-No-Uzume, stepped to the mouth of the cave and started to dance for the absent goddess. A foot stomping, breast baring, skirt lifting, lewd and lascivious dance that so entertained the gathered gods that they started to laugh. It was this merry laughter that drew the curiosity of the sullen sun goddess. Amaterasu peeked out of the cave to see what was so funny.
Immediately the gods rushed to shove the mirror up to the mouth of the cave. Amaterasu had never seen her own reflection in a mirror, this sight drew her forth from the cave. A rope was stretched across the mouth of the cave to prevent her from going back in.
African - Sunman Grows Old
There is a tale from the Bush Men of Africa about the Sun Man, who was born in a time of total darkness, with the sun in one of his armpits.
Every time he lifted an arm, the world was flooded with warmth and light, things started to grow.... so it very quickly became his job to stand in the middle of the village all day with his arms up in the air. Eventually, as he aged, he would no longer stand but sat on the ground so that the sun never rose very high in the sky. He napped a lot, and the children started to sneak up and lift his arm while he slept so that they might feel the sun on their faces.
Finally, a neighbouring tribe, whose light was even more limited than theirs, requested that the children of the tribe throw the Sunman into the sky so all might share in his benevolence.
And so all the children went to the snoozing Sunman and gently lifted him into the air, high over their heads... very slowly they passed him hand to hand and started to spin him... slow at first but soon fast enough to propel him into the sky where he remains to this day
Chumash- Celestial Sport
For the Chumash people, each night was an event in a year long drama played out in the sky. There above the desert, the Moon kept score over a ball game called Peon, which was ever in process between two celestial teams.
One team was the Sun and Slo’w (Golden Eagle aka Venus as the Evening Star). The other team is that of the Sky Coyote (Polaris/ The North Star) and Morning Star (aka Venus rising before the Sun).
The stakes were high and the final tally of the scores was made on the night of the Winter Solstice. On this night, the Chumash knew that the Sun was particularly dangerous to them. If his team lost to the Sky Coyote (again) he could be very angry with the humans.
When the Sky Coyote won the game, he would enter the Sun's pantry and distribute all the goodies to the humans. Wild game such as geese and deer, as well as flora such as acorns would be available to the people. The Sky Coyote's victory ensured that there would be rain and food for the next year. If the Sun lost, his temper might impact them in some way but if he and Slo’w won the game, there would be drought which would be the death of the Chumash way of life. If the Sun won the Peon game on the night of Winter Solstice, the price he extracted was human lives.
The Chumash knew themselves to be interconnected with the inherent magic of their world, so they turned their attention to assisting the Sky Coyote's team with all the power they knew themselves to have. Chumash of all levels in the community would come forward to entreat the Sun for service, to make requests. Private and public rituals were performed to 'pull' the Sun back onto a northward trajectory and back into the cycle of the year
Greek- Persephone Stolen from the World
Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was so lovely she attracted the eye of Hades, King of the Underworld. One day as Persephone gathered flowers, a crack formed in the earth in front of her and drew her downwards to Hades.
Soon, Demeter, goddess of all living things, “Mother Nature” if you will, noticed her daughter was missing. She searched and searched until her quest so consumed her that vitality drained from the world. Leaves changed colour, starved for nutrients and fell from the trees, crops died off, animals were listless.
Still Demeter searched and the earth grew barren and cold.
Finally Demeter was told by Helios (who is a bit of a gossip, if you ask me) that Hades had taken her child for his wife. Demeter hurried to Zeus to demand he arrange for a rescue. Instead, she discovered that Zeus and his brother, Hades had an agreement not to intervene in each other's realm. Persephone was now part of the underworld so she was under the rule of Hades. To interfere would mean the Olympians would go to war with the underworld.
Zeus had to refuse Demeter. He told Demeter that Persephone's fate was decided.
Demeter was dissatisfied with this decision so she took her leave of Zeus to go forth where she withdrew all of her influence from the world. Snow fell, people and animals starved or froze. Until the day that Zeus came to her to demand she restore fertility and warmth to the lands. Demeter was quite clear that she would not obey until her daughter was in her arms once more.
Negotiations reopened with Hades. It was decided that for 6 months of the year, Persephone could live with her mother. During those months the Earth would be fruitful. On Winter Solstice, she returned to her husband in the Underworld. Demeter withdaws her grace from the world until Summer Solstice, when Persephone returns.
Norse- Baldr Returns from the Underworld
The Norse myth of the battle between light and dark has to do with the twin gods Baldr and Hodr. Baldr, the god of illumination, who is associated with the sun, is disturbed by a dream foreseeing his own death. When pressed on his melancholy he admits this seemingly prophetic dream to his mother, Frigga. The goddess of childbirth and mothers, Frigga was not about to stand around and do nothing so she went to Midgardh (Earth) where she extracted from all things (fire and water, iron and all metals, earth, stone, trees, poisons, birds, beasts, and sickness of all kinds) that they would do no harm to Baldr. This effectively rendered Baldr, the Beautiful, the god of light, invulnerable.
Quickly, the best entertainment for the confrontational and combative gods of Asgardh was the throwing of dangerous objects at Baldr so they could all share the enjoyment of watching things bounce off him harmlessly.
Loki, the Trickster, was holding a bit of a grudge with Odin over the treatment of his own children by the Mighty Allfather. He decides he cannot stand this game. His envy of Baldr becomes too much to bear. He shapeshifts himself into an old crone and pays a visit to Frigga extracting from her, in their afternoon of conversation, the secret vulnerability of the invulnerable Baldr. There had, indeed, been one thing on Midgardh that she had not approached with the entreaty to preserve her son. The seemingly harmless mistletoe. With this knowledge well in hand Loki skinks off to fashion, some say a spear, some a dart, but all myths agree that it was a missile weapon whose sharp tip was formed of mistletoe.
Loki arrives at the game where the gods are hurling spears at Baldr. He discovers Hodr, the blind twin brother of Baldr, hovering nearby. Loki asks why he isn’t playing. When Hodr complains he has no weapon, Loki offers him the spear, (or dart) even kindly suggesting he will assist Hodr in lining up to throw. The projectile flies true. Baldr is struck dead, fulfilling his dreadful precognition. Baldr descends to the underworld where he is the guest of Hel, the Goddess of the Underworld. (Those who die in glorious battle are escorted up to Valhalla (and Sessrymnir). Those who are murdered, or die of illness, fall under the protection of Hel, in misty Niflheim, in the roots of the great tree, Yggdrasil)
So Frigga, Mother of the Gods, stood over her treacherously betrayed son's body. No mother could take such a senseless death lightly. She sent a messenger to the Queen of the Underworld requesting what price for her son’s life, for all that lives is in mourning over the loss. Hel requires proof of this claim, allowing that if every being on Midgardh would actually cry for the loss of the light, she would be convinced. If even one being did not cry, Baldr could not return. In the Yule version of this tale, all of the living beings, birds, bees, beetles, fish and human, call out for the return of the god of light. Baldr is thus rescued by his mother who, in her joy, kisses every man who stands beneath the mistletoe with her.
Chinese- Gong-Gong Headbutts the Pillar of the Sky
The Chinese myth of Kung-Kung (aka Gong-Gong) relates an epic battle between Zhuanxu, the Empr of the Sky, and the rebellious Kung-Kung for the Throne of Heaven. Kung-Kung was the god of floods, a massive black dragon in the form of a great serpent with the head of a red haired man.
So mighty was Kung-Kung that the Emperor could not vanquish him, only drive him off. The wounded and defeated dragon caused much damage as he was pursued in retreat to Mount Buzhuo, the pillar upon which sat the northeast direction of the sky itself.
In a fit of fury the dragon slammed his head against this Axis Mundi, shifting it off its base. So bad was the damage that it would no longer support the northeast direction of the sky. A hole was ripped in the sky as the pillar of the heavens shifted its alignment causing the sky to tilt northwest, forcing the earth to the southeast. On Earth there was tremendous flooding. The very heavens, sun, moon and stars were out of balance, people were fleeing for their lives.
The creator goddess, Nŭ Kua, returned from the sky to repair the damage to the Pillar but was unable to compensate for the damaged alignment of the sky. This tilted sky is the reason for the solstices and equinoxes
Sami- Beiwe Brings the Sun
The hearty Sami people live in the Arctic and subarctic areas of Scandinavia and Russia. Their home is so far North that on the day of Winter Solstice – the sun does not clear the horizon at all. In fact, the sun disappears for over a month at these extremes.
To call back the light, they looked to their sun goddess, Beiwe (aka Beaivi or Bievve) who pulls the sun across the sky in a structure like a wagon or chariot formed of reindeer bones. Not only does she return the light, but Beiwe's return means the greenery that feeds the reindeer will grow. Since the reindeer keep the Sami alive, Beiwe is considered the Mother of Humankind.
It was understood by their people that constant darkness was a strain on the soul, driving people to despair and madness. The goddess Beiwe was called upon to restore mental health to those who were afflicted by darkness. Thus this deity was a bringer of renewed life to people's souls as well as their environment.
Sacrifices of white animals (usually reindeer, as the Sami are interdependent with these) were made to entice Beiwe to return with the light. People painted butter around their doors to sustain the sun goddess, and her reindeer, on her journey.
Hungarian- Csodaszarvas The Miraculous Deer
On December 21st, the Csodasvarvas, the Miracle Stag, carries the sun in its horns across the river to begin the new year.
(Magyar folk song, translated by S.Tomory)
A whirling cloud rises in the distance,
Miracle Stag emerges from there...
Miracle Stag has a thousand branches
On thousand branches thousand shining candles
Flickering candle-lights are the shining stars of Heaven,
They begin to shine unlit, unblown do they die out.
Legend says that when the brothers Hunor and Magor set out to make their fortune, they came upon a magnificent hind. Unable to get close enough to make a kill, the brothers followed the beast to the land they would one day rule. Hunor was the forefather of the Huns, while Magor's descendants are the Magyars. There is evidence that the hind held a place of honour in Hungarian spiritual life before the coming of Christianity. (The deer is generally recalled in myth as a stag, though the term “szarvas” could refer to either sex.)