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Modern Myth Articles
THE CENTRAL, POLAR SUN
LANGUAGE OF THE POLE
In the sixth century B.C. Xenophanes of Colophon offered this definition of the true god: "There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals. He abides ever in the same place motionless, and it befits him not to wander hither and thither."
I think it will become clear to anyone who takes up this subject with any seriousness that Xenophanes was expressing, not a new abstract philosophy, but a very ancient tradition elevated to a philosophical principle.
A remarkable parallel occurs in the Hindu Upanishads:
"There is only one Being who exists
As more than one scholar has pointed out, such images arose from the idea that the ruler of the sky stood motionless at the polar center, while yet turning the heavens. Which is to say that the philosopher's Unmoved Mover had an ancient mythical prototype in the central sun, the founder of the Golden Age.
So one step in the reasoning here is simply to note the language applied by the first astronomers to the celestial pole and to compare that terminology to the earlier language applied to the great rulers of the sky.
Consider the image of the pole in Shakespeare—
"...I am constant as the northern star,
The speaker here is Shakespeare's Caesar—whom tradition regarded as the
supreme ruler on earth, a replica of the celestial power. Is it
significant that he locates this supreme power at the celestial pole?
Many centuries before Shakespeare, Hipparchus spoke of "a certain star
remaining ever at the same place. And this star is the pivot of the
Cosmos." That language turns out to be the very language used by the
ancient Chinese in describing the pole star as the "star of the pivot."
And this was anything but an abstraction, for Chinese astronomy insisted
with one voice that the pivot was the ancient location of the celestial
To the Polynesians the pole is the station of the "Immovable One." The
Pawnee call it "the star that stands still" and regard it as the
governor of the sky. This star, they say, "is different from other
stars, because it never moves." To the Hindus, the star is Dhruva,
The worldwide astronomical designations of the celestial pole become crucial pieces in a puzzle, for this reason: the language establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the pole is the remembered location of the archaic sun god Saturn. In modern astronomical terms, a planet at the celestial pole is a preposterous idea. All of the planets in our sky, together with the Earth, move on a common plane around the Sun, so that from Earth we see the planets moving on roughly the same arc across the sky as the Sun. The paradox is glaring.
No planet today approaches Earth's celestial pole! And yet the ancient tradition of the polar sun confronts us everywhere.
In ancient Egyptian cosmology, possibly the oldest known thought-system,
one finds a mystifying connection of the sun god Atum with the pole.
The French scholar Jacques Enel, in his study of Egyptian imagery, for
example, assures us that the Egyptians remembered Atum's station as "the
single, immovable point around which the movement of the stars
Much the same language is used by the eminent Egyptologist, T. Rundle Clark, who tells us the pole was the place par excellence. Atum, according to Clark, is "the arbiter of destiny perched on the top of the world pole." So when the text declare that "the great god lives, fixed in the middle of the sky," the reference is to the polar station, according to Clark.
Clark writes that "the celestial pole is 'that place,' or 'the great city.' The various designation show how deeply it impressed the Egyptian imagination. If god is the governor of the universe and it revolves around an axis, then god must preside over the axis."
That the Egyptians would remember a former sun god at the celestial pole
may seem hard to digest. And yet the preeminence of the celestial pole
as the resting place of Atum is both emphatic and unequivocal. Clark
writes: "No other people was so deeply affected by the eternal circuit
of the stars around a point in the northern sky. Here must be the node
Atum, the first form of the sun god Ra, was thus the 'Unmoved Mover" described in Egyptian texts many centuries before Aristotle offered the phrase as a definition of the supreme power. The Egyptian hieroglyph for Atum is a primitive sledge, signifying "to move." To the god of the cosmic revolutions, the Book of the Dead proclaims "Hail to thee, Tmu [Atum] Lord of Heaven, who givest motion to all things." But while moving the heavens Atum remained em hetep, "at rest" or "in one spot." Throughout all of Egypt this "resting place" of Atum was remembered as the site of the First Occasion, the drama of cosmic beginnings.
Remember that the sun god Atum and the sun god Ra were one and the same, though the Egyptians insisted that the god himself evolved with the unfolding events. The god who was Atum became Ra in the course of his own unfolding, as the originally formless god began to acquire certain distinct attributes.
Thus Atum's counterpart Ra, according to the sources themselves, "rests on his high place." He does not roam about the sky. Like Atum, Ra is the pivot, with the lesser lights revolving around him. These are, as the texts say, the "stars who surround Ra." "These gods shall revolve round about him." "The satellites of Ra make their round." Again, the picture is of a stationary god serving as the pivot of celestial motions.
As I have already noted the ancient Sumerian counterpart of Atum was the creator-king An, the Akkadian Anu, whose "terrifying glory" was a repeated subject of the hymns and rites. This was "the terror of the splendour of Anu in the midst of heaven," and the star-worshippers did not mean by the "midst" of heaven some vague and unfamiliar metaphor. The "midst" (kirib sami, Kabal sami, meant, very concretely, the cosmic center), making the polar god, according to Robert Brown, Jr., a nocturnal sun. The words translated as the "midst" mean, according to Brown, "that central point where Polaris sat enthroned."
Both Sumerian and Akkadian texts are replete with references to the "firm" and "steadfast" or "motionless" character of the dominant gods. The great god Enki of Eridu is "the motionless lord," and god of "stability." A broken Sumerian hymn, in reference to Ninurash, a form of Ninurta, reads:
"Whom the 'god of the steady star' upon a foundation
[PLEASE NOTE: AS WE WILL SEE THE "POLAR" GODS INCLUDE NOT JUST THE SUN GOD SATURN, BUT OTHER FIGURES AS WELL. NO CONCLUSIONS SHOULD BE DRAWN HERE WITH RESPECT TO PLANETARY IDENTIFICATIONS, EXCEPT WHERE SUCH IDENTIFICATIONS HAVE BEEN STATED IN PRIOR NOTES.]
Failing to perceive the concrete meaning of such terms, solar mythologists like to think of the place of "repose" as a hidden "underworld" beneath the earth, a dark region visited by the sun after it has set. But the place of repose is no underworld. It is:
"The lofty residence...
What, then, of the famous Assyrian and Babylonian god Shamash, the sun god whom we now recognize as Saturn? A remarkable fact is that Shamash "comes forth" (shines) and "goes in" (declines, diminishes) at one spot, the "firm," "stable" or motionless station of supreme "rest".
This place par excellence was symbolized by the top of the ziggurats the famous Babylonian axis-towers constructed as symbolic models of the Cosmos. Hence, the uppermost level was deemed the "light of Shamash," and the "heart of Shamash," denoting (in the words of E.G. King) the pivot "around which the highest heaven or sphere of the fixed stars revolved.:"
The Babylonian tradition of the polar sun has been preserved up to the twentieth century in the tradition of the Mandaeans of Iraq. In their midnight ceremonies these people invoked the celestial pole as Olma l'nhoara, "the world of light." It is therefore not surprising to find that chroniclers of the Mandaean rituals call the polar power the "primitive sun of the star-worshippers."
The recurring concepts are these: a stationary location, the celestial place of rest, the place round which the heavens turn, and the cosmic center, the place where the myths begin. Firmness, stability, pivot, axis, center, and summit or zenith. The imagery is both archetypal and universal.
To the Hindus the sacred celestial spot, the province of the
creator-king, was the place of "supreme rest," called also "the
motionless site." The Hindu Dhruva, whose name means "firm," stands on
this very spot—"a Spot blazing with splendor...and which subsists
What remains to be explained by mythologists is that the sun god Surya
"stands firmly on this safe resting place." Surya, states the Sanskrit
authority V.S. Agrawala, "is himself at rest, being the immovable center
of his system." Just as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian sun gods "rise
and set" in one place, Surya occupies samanam dhama—"the same place of
Another name for the stationary sun, according to Agrawala, is Prajapati. "The sun in the center is Prajapati: he is the horse that imparts movement to everything,"
The motionless Dhruva, Surya, and Prajapati compare with the light of Brahma, called the "true sun." This is the ancient sun, the texts say, which "after having risen thence upwards ... rises and sets no more. It remains alone in the center." Here, too, center and summit are synonymous. Brahma, observes Rene Guenon, is "the pivot around which the world accomplishes it revolution, the immutable center which directs and regulates cosmic movement."
Moreover, this stationary and axial character of the greatest gods seems to be common to all of the primary celestial figures in Hindu myth, with its diverse pantheon gathered from so many cultural traditions. The god Varuna, "seated in the midst of heaven," is the "Recumbent," and called the "axis of the universe." "Firm is the seat of Varuna," declares one of the Vedic hymns. In him "all wisdom centres, as the nave is set within the wheel." One of Varuna's forms is Savitar, the "impeller." While the rest of the universe revolves, the impeller stands firm. "Firm shalt thou stand, like Savitar desirable."
Also occupying the stationary center is the popular god Vishnu—who
takes a firm stand in that resting place in the sky." The location is
the celestial pole, called "the exalted seat of Vishnu, round which the
starry spheres forever wander." Vishnu is the polar sun or central
To the Buddhists this is the center of the cosmic wheel, the throne of the Buddha himself. It is acalatthana, the "unmoving site," or the "unconquerable seat of firm stance." Thus, as noted by Coomaraswamy, the Buddha throne crowned the world axis.
Given the great variety of mythical figures pointing to the same underlying concepts, it is crucial that we recognize where Hindu and Buddhist myth located this cosmic center, the celestial resting place. It was, according to the most widely respected Sanskrit authorities such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the celestial pole, the axis of the turning heavens, a verdict repeated again and again by Rene Guenon, Mircea Eliade, and others.
According to ancient Chinese astronomy the revered Emperor on High, prototype of kings, stood at the celestial pole. Chinese astrologers, according to Gustav Schlegel, regarded the polar god as "the Arch-Premier I the most venerated of all the celestial divinities. In fact the Pole star, around which the entire firmament appears to turn, should be considered as the Sovereign of the Sky." It was thus proclaimed that the celestial pole was the seat of the supreme ruler Shang-ti, mythically, the first king of a great dynasty in the remote past. His seat was "the Pivot," and all the heavens turned upon his exclusive power.
Raised to a first principle, the polar power became the mystic Tao, the
motor of the Cosmos. The essential idea is contained in the Chinese
word for Tao, which combines the sign for "to stand still" with the sign
for "to go" and "head" The Tao is the Unmoved Mover, the supreme ruler,
who "goes," or "moves" while yet remaining in one place—revealing a
Chinese sources proclaim the Tao to be the "light of heaven" and "the heart of heaven." "Action is reversed into non-action," states Jung. "Everything peripheral is subordinated to the command of the centre." Thus the Tao, in the words of Erwin Pousselle, rules the "golden center, which is the Axis of the World."
Significantly, these same overlapping images of a polar sun or sovereign
luminary at the pole occur in the Americas. In southern Peru the Inca
Yupanqui raised a temple at Cuzco to the creator god who was superior to
the sun we know. Unlike the solar orb, he was able to "rest" and "to
light the world from one spot." As the pioneering Mesoamerican
scholar, Zelia Nuttal, noted many years ago, the only reasonable
position in the sky for fulfilling this requirement is the celestial
Pole. "It is an extremely important and significant fact," writes
It seems that the memory of the central sun established itself around the world. Other reflections of the polar power in the Americas are noteworthy.
Cottie Burland tells us that, among the Mexicans, "the nearest approach
to the idea of a true universal god was Xiuhtecuhtli, recalled as the
Old, Old One who enabled the first ancestors to rise from barbarism.
Xiuhtecuhtli appears as the Central Fire and "the heart of the
Universe." "Xiuhtecuhtli was a very special deity. He was not only the
Lord of Fire which burnt in front of every temple and in the middle of
every hut in Mexico, but also Lord of the Pole Star. He was the pivot
of the universe and one of the forms of the Supreme Deity." An apparent
counterpart of this central fire is the Maya creator god Huracan, the
The Pawnee locate the "star chief of the skies" at the pole. He is the "star that stands still." Of this supreme power they say, "Its light is the radiance of the Sun god shining through."