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THE CENTRAL, POLAR SUN
Many threads of Greek and Roman astronomy appear to lead back to a priestly astronomy arising in Mesopotamia some time in the first millennium B.C.
The Babylonians were apparently the first to develop systematic observations of the planets, and they recorded the celestial motions with considerable skill. But in laying the foundations of later astronomy, they also preserved a crucial link with the past. Again and again they asserted a claim that could only appear preposterous to the modern translator. They declared that the distant planets were the "gods" of former times.
Sumerian myths, we noted earlier, say that the rites and standards of "kingship" descended from the central luminary An, founder of the Golden Age. In Babylonian myth the Sumerian An appears as Anu, first in the line of gods and kings. And according to the best authorities on Babylonian astronomy, the god Anu was mysteriously linked to "the planet Saturn". The association was stated most bluntly by the renowned expert on Babylonian astronomy, Peter Jensen, in Die Kosmologie der Babylonier: Anu was Saturn.
What makes this identity stand out is the degree to which one nation after another repeated the same connection. It's an interesting fact, not often noticed, that the ancient Hebrews regarded their race as having been "Saturnian" in the beginning, when they lived under the rule of the creator El. That is, the Hebrews honored the same ancestral tie to Saturn as did the Romans.
Indeed, the consistency with which early astronomies identity Saturn as the former creator-king is extraordinary. The Zoroastrians of ancient Persia knew Saturn as the heaven-sustaining Zurvn, "the King and Lord of the Long Dominion." The Iranian god-king Yima, a transcript of the Hindu Yama, founder of the Golden Age, was also linked to Saturn. The Chinese mythical emperor Huang-ti, first in a great dynasty of kings and mythical founder of the Taoist religion, was identified astronomically as the planet Saturn. Even the Tahitians recall of the god Fetu-tea, the planet Saturn, that he "was the King."
Many ancient nations commemorated the era before the fall, the harmonious condition of the "first time," by designating one day of the week as a holy day, the Sabbath. But is it significant that originally the Hebrew Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, was the day of Saturn? So was the seventh and most sacred day of the Babylonian and Phoenician weeks. For the Romans this commemorative day was Saturni dies, "Saturn's day." The same day passed into the Anglo-Saxon calendar as the "day of Seater [Saturn]," which, became our own Saturday.
When scholars today look back at this esoteric connection of the Sabbath and Saturn, they see little more than an oddity of minor significance. That is because historians as a whole have missed the ancient link of Saturn to kingship, to the origins of civilization, and to the roots of ancient myth and symbol.
But there is an even more significant aspect of the Saturn mystery.
Here is a remarkable fact: though numerous figures of the Universal Monarch are translated conventionally as the "sun" god, the celestial power invoked by the world's first religions is not the body we call sun today. In fact the star-worshippers specifically distinguished it from our Sun by calling it best sun, the primeval sun, the central sun.
Natives of Mexico recall that prior to the present age, an exemplary sun ruled the world, but this was not the sun of today. His name was Quetzalcoatl. The Maya maintained essentially the same idea, calling the primeval sun god Huracan. The Incas of Peru spoke of a former sun superior to the present sun. To the ancient Egyptians, the sun god Atum-Ra, the model ruler, reigned over the fortunate era for a time, then retired from the world. The Sumerian An, ruling with "terrifying splendor," was the central luminary of the sky, but not our sun, and later departed to a more remote domain.
When it comes to the well-known sun gods of early man, nothing in the mythical record seems to have unnerved the experts. As to the original solar character of the Greek Helios, Latin Sol, Assyrian Shamash, or Egyptian Ra, scholars have maintained an unwavering confidence. And surely you can see why: could it really be doubted that Helios, radiating light from his brow, is our sun?
In Egypt, countless hymns to the god Ra extol him as the divine power opening the "day." "The lords of all lands. . . praise Ra when he riseth at the beginning of each day." Ra is the "great Light who shinest in the heavens. . .Thou art glorious by reason of thy splendours..."
In the same way, Assyrian and Babylonian texts depict the god Shamash as the supreme light of the sky, governing the cycle of day and night. Such images would seem to leave no question as to the solar character of these gods.
And yet the profile of the great "sun" gods presents a fascinating dilemma. During the past century several authorities noticed that Greek and Latin astronomical texts show a mysterious confusion of the "Sun"—Greek Helios, Latin Sol—with the outermost planet, Saturn. Though the designation seems bizarre, the expression "star of Helios" or "star of Sol" was applied to Saturn! Of the Babylonian star-worshippers the chronicler Diodorus writes: "To the one we call Saturn they give a special name, 'Sun-Star.'"
Similarly, the Greek historian Nonnus gives Kronos as the Arab name of the "sun," though Kronos meant only Saturn and no other celestial body. Hyginus, in listing the planets, names first Jupiter, then the planet "of Sol, others say of Saturn." A Greek ostrakon, cited by the eminent classicist, Franz Boll, identifies the Egyptian sun god Ra, not with our sun, but with the planet Saturn. This repeated confusion of the Sun and Saturn seems to make no sense at all. Can you imagine any difficulty in separating the two bodies, or distinguishing the one from the other?
One fact beyond dispute is that the word Helios did become the Greek word for our Sun, just as the Latin Sol gave his name to our Sun. The same can be said for the older Shamash and Ra: the names of these gods became the names for the solar orb. But that's where the connection with our Sun ends and the mystery of Saturn, the Universal Monarch, begins.
In seeking to explain the curious confusion of the sun and Saturn, late nineteenth century linguists came up with a simple explanation: The confusion, they said, was the result of the similarity of the Greek name Helios to the Greek rendering of the Phoenician god El, a god identified with Kronos, the planet Saturn. So it was all just a misunderstanding of language.
But this explanation could not survive more than a few decades. For as the leading expert Franz Boll soon pointed out, the identification of the "sun" god as Saturn was more widespread and more archaic than previously acknowledged.
In the Epinomis of Plato (who lived in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), there is an enumeration of the planets, which, as customarily translated, entails this unstartling statement: "There remain, then, three stars (planets), one of which is preeminent among them for slowness, and some call him after Kronos."
Yet the original reading is not Kronos but Helios—which is to say that the original text gave the name Helios to Saturn. But later copyists, who could not believe that Helios was anything other than the sun, "corrected" the reading to "Kronos."
Moreover, as Boll discovered, this practice of "correcting" the name of Saturn, from Helios to Kronos, was quite common among later copyists. Based on his reading of the most original Greek manuscripts, Boll drew a startling conclusion: the sun god Helios and the planet-god Saturn were "one and the same god."
Now if this only seems to accentuate the puzzle, there is more. Hindu astronomical lore deemed the planet Saturn as Arka, the star "of the sun." And certain wise men of India often asserted that the "true sun" Brahma, the central light of heaven, was none other than Saturn. This in turn, reminds us of a rarely-noted teaching of the alchemists, preservers of so many ancient mysteries. The planet Saturn, they recalled, was not just a planet; it was "the best sun"! Such language—true sun, best sun—is strangely reminiscent of that language used by native Americans when describing the superior sun, who had presided over the era of peace and plenty.
Among the Assyrians and Babylonians, the "sun"-god par excellence was the well-known figure Shamash, the "light of the gods" In countless texts and symbolic representations Shamash is depicted as the ruling light and god of the day. Most familiar is the image of the god standing in the cleft of a mountain, a curved, notched sword in hand, introducing the dawn. Or, alternatively, he is shown holding or turning a great celestial wheel.
Apart from a few experts on Babylonian astronomy, historians and mythologists as a whole seem to be unaware that in Babylonian astronomical texts, the sun god Shamash and the planet Saturn merge in a most unexpected way. Where one would expect references to the Sun, one finds instead the name of the planet Saturn!
In the nineteenth century, the pioneering archaeologist and historian, George Rawlinson, noting that Shamash was repeatedly associated with the planet Saturn, put an exclamation point to the mystery. "How is it possible," Rawlinson asked, "that the dark and distant planet Saturn can answer to the luminary who 'irradiates the nations like the sun, the light of the gods?'"
In 1909, the leading expert Morris Jastrow brought this anomaly to the attention of others in a fascinating article entitled "Sun and Saturn." According to Jastrow, Babylonian astrological texts could not have presented the equation of Saturn and the sun more boldly: "The planet Saturn is Shamash," they say.
As strange as it may seem, as difficult as it may be to comprehend, the ancient sun god is not the body we call "Sun" today. But how could such a strange identity have attached itself to the now-distant planet.
It must be emphasized that we are not claiming our Sun was absent. What should become clear in the course of this investigation is that the Sun was simply not a subject of ancient myth, or the Age of the Gods. The celestial drama takes place at a particular location far removed from the path of the Sun.
A first, crucial step is to distinguish the original meanings of "day" and "night."
Many hymns to Shamash and Ra—the celebrated suns of Mesopotamia and Egypt—describe these gods coming forth at the beginning of the ritual day, and the terminology will appear to signify our sun rising in the East. One of the chapters of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, is "The Chapter of Coming Forth by Day." The sun gods of both Egypt and Mesopotamia turn darkness into day, inaugurate the day, appear as lord of the day, and so on. The language is "so strong" it may seem to make any interpretation other than the solar interpretation appear preposterous, since in our sky only the Sun could ever answer to such images.
But there is a profound enigma here. It turns out that the "day" actually began with what we would call the "night"—at sunset, with the darkening of the sky, and the coming out, or growing bright of other celestial bodies. It is widely acknowledged that the Egyptian day once began at sunset. The same is true of the Babylonian and Western Semitic days. We know the Athenians originally computed the space of a day from sunset to sunset, and the habit appears to have prevailed among northern European peoples as well.
Who, then, is the great god—the god of terrifying radiance—whose coming out or coming forth inaugurates the day? This god of the archaic day, beginning at sunset, is in fact called Shamash, Ra, Helios, and Sol—the very god explicitly identified with the planet Saturn.