IF I SEEK US
Modern Myth Articles
THE CENTRAL, POLAR SUN
Our next step is particularly vital because it will bring us to the threshold of a reconstruction, a concrete way to begin re-envisioning the past.
In any investigation of the ancient sun god you will inevitably run into a theme of profound influence on ancient thought: You will confront the myth of the central sun—the motionless sun, the sun that did not rise or set, but stood firmly in one place. There is, in fact, a decisive difference between the great luminary celebrated as the king of the world, and the body we call the Sun today: Unlike our rising and setting Sun, the original sun-god did not move.
Perhaps the idea of a giant but visually stationary body in the sky will seem not just bizarre but impossible to visualize in any practical sense, given a rotating earth. There is an answer to that issue, arising from the ancient traditions themselves, but that answer will only raise other questions, so we've reached a point at which we have to be most attentive to the witnesses themselves.
From the first stirrings of civilization in the Nile Valley, all of the tribes of Egypt celebrated the memory of Atum or Ra, father of kings, founder of the Tep Zepi or Golden Age.
Without exception Egyptologists have identified Atum-Ra as the rising and setting sun. And that's the first challenge we must meet, because there's a world of difference between the literal meanings of the texts and the familiar translations.
In the Egyptian religious system, the ruler of the sky occupies a designated place, presiding over what the priests remembered as "the age of the primeval gods." The Egyptian sun god gives motion to the heavens, but he does not himself move. It is said of Atum, for example, that he "gives motion to all things." But his domain is, emphatically, the cosmic center, a place of motionlessness or "rest." The texts say of Atum—
The Great God lives
Atum occupies, and is the cosmic center, the "place par excellence," to use the expression of one of the most perceptive Egyptologists, the late T. Rundle Clark.
Thus one text proclaims Atum to be the "Firm Heart of the Sky." Other sources describe this cosmic center as the celestial "resting place" achieved by Atum. In the Egyptian chronicles this place of rest, the motionless center and summit of the sky, becomes the focus of the great celestial events of the First Time.
Nothing misrepresents original meanings more profoundly than the common translations of Egyptian texts relative to the daily cycle of the sun god. In the language of the Egyptians themselves, the god does not rise and set, but grows bright and dims. He shines brightly, then his light recedes.
The most frequently-used Egyptian words for the this occasion are uben. and pert. The first word, uben, means "to grow bright." The second, pert, means "to come forth." Now the truth of the matter is that neither these, nor any other Egyptian words translated as the sun rising on the eastern horizon actually carry such a meaning.
When Egyptian sources speak of the sun god coming out, or coming forth, the meaning is precisely what you would intend in saying that "the Moon comes out at night", or "the stars come out." You would not mean that the moon or stars rise. You would mean that they "grow bright." And that is the literal meaning of the Egyptian words usually translated as "to rise": Related hieroglyphs mean to grow strong, to awaken, to come to life, and so on.
It is the resting, stationary god who comes forth at the beginning of the day. But remember what we've already learned. The ancient day began at sunset, as the sky darkened. So we need to be very clear on this. The planetary components were vastly more dramatic and unlike anything appearing in the sky today. It was the planetary bodies that occupied the center stage in the mythmaking era. As the sky darkened, the large planetary bodies—extremely close to the earth—began to put on a spectacular display. Then, at sunrise, as the sky lightened, the radiance of these planetary bodies began to recede. That's the fundamental character of the ancient daily cycle, and the mythmakers endlessly recorded images of the contrasting phases, as we will see.
One of the most common Egyptian expressions combined with words for "growing bright" or "coming forth" is the phrase em hetep. The sun god "comes forth em hetep." As usually translated the words mean "in peace." Now in what sense might we say that "Ra comes forth in peace."? Well, the root meaning is far more concrete. The words mean "to be at rest," or what is the same thing, "to stand in one spot." In other words, the phrase em hetep directly complements the idea of the creator-king occupying his "resting place" in the sky. Literally, the Egyptian sun god "comes forth" or "grows bright" at the stationary resting place—again, the center and summit of the sky.
[A note of caution, however, is needed here,. There is also a great deal of evidence suggesting that the great sphere revolves through phases and that these phases are inseparably tied to the cycle of day and night. A sphere turning in the sky is much different than a rising and setting sphere. ]
The principles of the central sun appear to hold far beyond Egypt—even in cases where scholars have never doubted the god's solar identity.
No cuneiform specialist has questioned the identity of the Babylonian "sun" god Shamash. Yet the texts describe Shamash "suspended from the midst of heaven." "Like the midst of heaven may he shine!" they say. "O Sun-god, in the midst of heavenI" His place in the sky is "the summit house," called also "the fixed house" and the "house of rest." In the cuneiform language these are not abstract phrases, but designations of very specific attributes and a very specific place in the sky. Center and summit (or "zenith" in many translations) are one and the same place: "In the center he made the zenith," states one text.
The language makes clear that Shamash was a precise Assyrian and Babylonian counterpart of the Egyptian sun god Ra. The equation of center and summit—the cosmic place from which the sun god ruled in both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian systems—points to an archetypal idea. We will find that the idea pervades the myths of India, of China, the great native cultures of the Americas, and numerous other cultures as well. The conclusion is revolutionary: the first stargazers did not care about the body we call Sun today, while there was nothing in the world they cared about more than the exemplary life of the primeval, central sun.
How could people on a rotating earth see a huge planetary body as stationary in the sky?
For an earthbound observer, there is only one stationary spot in the revolving sky. It is the celestial pole—for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the north celestial pole, roughly identified in our night sky today with the star Polaris. Close by you see the constellation of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, most familiar to us as the Big Dipper.
When you look at the northern sky at night, the stars you see are actually cutting a circle around a motionless point. This wheeling of circumpolar stars around the visual center is, of course, due to the rotation of the Earth. As the earth rotates, the Great Bear will revolve visually around the motionless Polaris. [Since the Earth wobbles very slowly over thousands of years, the celestial pole has not always been Polaris, of course.]
You can see this motion through a time lapse photograph of the circumpolar region. That stationary point, in the ancient religious and astronomical systems, is the sacred center and summit.
Resting place, motionless site, axis, pivot, still place, silent region, the fixed or stable center of the turning heavens, the zenith, summit, top of the world—a rigorous, comparative approach will leave no doubt that this very spot is the remembered station of the primeval sun.
Of course from the vantage point of modern astronomy the entire idea is outrageous. So our next step must be to look carefully at the language of the cosmic center in the different cultures.