RA, SURYA, RANGI, ATEA MYTHS OF SUN GOD Sunil Deepak, 2003
Ra, Surya, Rangi and Atea are some of the names for the Sun God in the ancient myths from different continents.
Myths about the Sun God are one of most common feature of ancient myths about birth of life on earth. This is true for most of the ancient people from different continents. How do those myths compare with scientific knowledge and explanations about the birth of planets including the earth? In other words, do these myths reveal that even if our ancient progenitors lacked a "scientific understanding", they were aware of evolutionary paths of earth and other planets? If yes, how did they get this understanding? Personally, I am skeptical about theories concerning spaceships and higher-life forms coming to earth to share the secrets of universe with the mankind. However, I do believe that understanding, learning and "scientific" advancement can be approached through different social-cultural paradigms.
Comparing ancient myths from different parts of the world can be interesting for another reason - given the distances and isolation between different groups of people, finding common features in the myths can give an idea of common origin of and/or contacts between different groups.
This article considers ancient myths from different parts of the World and mainly focuses on two cultures - Indian and Egyptian.
Our ancestors thought that the earth was the center of the world, and the sun and the stars all revolved around it. At least, this was what medieval Europe believed till Galileo came up with his theories questioning this belief. However the myths of other cultures have many other explanations about the relationship between the sun and the planets.
Ra in Egyptian myths
Ra is the Sun God in the Egyptian mythology. Ra's mother was Neith and his wife was Mut. His children were Athor, Mu and Mat. Ra was also creator god, who created the divine pair Shu and Tefnut, the parents of Geb (earth god) and Nut (sky goddess).
"Ra is the Father of the Egyptian pantheon. He is the god of the Sun, and of kings and nobles. He rules the Ennead. His domain is the Sun and all that falls under it. Every morning he rises above Manu, the hill of sunrises, in his great boat Manjet, and looks down upon the Earth as his journey takes him across the sky. As he crosses the horizon, Manjet transforms into the great funeral barge Meseket, upon which he rides through the underworld (Tuat), to complete the cycle of the day...it is from Ra's own tears that the race of man was created.... Ra appears as a hawk-headed, powerful warrior. He carries a glowing ankh in his hand. He is portrayed wielding the power of the Sun and fire when his powers manifest. The temple priesthood of Ra is exclusively male." (Ra with the king in Luxor temple above right)
Ra is also considered as an incarnation of the Creator God Atum and is also the creator of mind and higher thinking. There is a story about Ra being unhappy with his children on the earth and asked Hathor to kill them all. After Hathor had killed many of them, Ra took pity on crying humans and asked Hathor to stop but Hathor was crazy with blood lust so he wouldn't stop. Thus to stop Hathor, Ra tricked him to get drunk and finally the killing was stopped.
Ra is also father of Pharoahs (Phrah is a derivative of Ra) and pyramids are symbolic representations of the pyramid shaped Ben Ben stone in Nun (infinite waters), from where Ra rises as Benu (white heron or phoenix) every morning. Even today in Egypt, the sun is often referred to as Ra.
In the hieroglyphics, sun is represented as a disk (below left). Solar disk is one of the most common symbols in Egyptian art, demonstrating the importance of Ra in the Pantheon. It seems to be revered first as Horus, then as Re, as combined Horus-Re and in later periods as Amun-Re. As Ra represents the eye of the sky, some times it is also shown as a disk on the head of a falcon or alone as a winged disk. In the picture of Ra in the Luxor temple above, he is depicted as warrior with hawk's head while the sun-disk above the head of the king wearing the crown of upper Egypt represents the divine origin of the King.
Considerations: In Egyptian mythology Sun is male and earth (Geb) born from Shu and Tefnut, can be considered as his grandson. His wife Mut and his daughter Mat have names which sound like the present day "mother" and like Mutt, the mother goddess of ancient people living in central Europe.
The story of Ra asking Hathor to kill humans can be a representation about some big natural calamity in the prehistoric times? For the ecologically minded, this can also be constructed as a warning to not to tamper with the nature.
Surya, the Sun God in Indian myths
According to Indian mythology Surya was married to Sanghya (Consciousness) and they had three children - Vasvat Manu, Yama and Yamuna. Sanghya loved her husband but his light was too strong for her eyes and thus when her husband came close to her, she closed her eyes. This greatly irritated Sun, who thought that his wife did not like him. One day Sanghya decided to go away from home, leaving in her place her body-double, Chaaya (shadow). For some time, Sanghya lived with her father and then hiding in the form of a mare, she went to the mountains to pray. At first Sun did not realize that the person living with him as his wife was not Sanghya but was Chaaya, but when he realized it he went to look for his wife. He saw his wife praying in the form of a mare and he turned in to a horse and went near her.
Sanghya told him that his light was too strong for her. So Sun decided to divide his light in to sixteen parts - the different parts of the Sun's light created Earth and other planets, while the Sun was left with one-sixteenth part of his original light. Sanghya came back to live with Sun and gave birth to twins, Ashwini Kumars.
While Sanghya had been away, Sun had other children with his wife's double Chaaya - one of their children was Saturn, who also found a place among the planets.
Vasvat Manu, Sun's first child is also the first man, at the same time the equivalent of Noah in the Hindu mythology, the person who would save the life forms at the top of Sumer mountain during the primordial floods. Yama, Sun's second born is the impartial lord of death, daughter Yamuna is the river and the twins, Ashwini Kumars, are the healers of the gods.
Considerations: The Indian mythology about the Sun and planets has both a wonderful and strong spiritual meaning as well as closeness to the scientific explanation about the birth of the life. In this story, sunlight together with Consciousness gave birth to life, death and water (River).
At the same time, it explains that earth and the planets were once part of the sun's light and were born from it. The story about Saturn having a different origin - born from Sun and his wife's double Chaaya, seems to have some hidden meaning and perhaps one day science will be able to tell us if it is indeed true.
In India, the Moon is called Chanda mama, or "mother's brother". As earth is recognized as mother of mankind, this common usage also hints at some knowledge about Moon's origin from the same source.
Was all this knowledge just fruit of fanciful imagination of ancient story tellers or was based in some other system of understanding the universe? Perhaps, it would be difficult to be sure about the answer to this question!
Sun-worship is part of the Hindu practice for hundreds if not thousand of years. Surya Namaskar (Salutations to the Sun) is supposed to be the most important Yoga exercise composed of 12 different yoga-asan to be done every morning, facing the sun. In this exercise, while the persons move from one Yoga-asan to another, they are also expected to recite the 12 different names of Sun.
Like the Egyptian Pharaohs, even in India, the Hindu kings often claimed a direct link with the Sun (Suryavanshi) to justify their divine origin and claim to the throne. In the mythology, Aruna (Dawn) drives the chariot of Surya across the sky.
Myths of the Sun God in other cultures
The proto-Bulgarian horse breeders' god in central Europe was Tangra, made up of three elements - Tan (universe, sun), Nak (man) and Ra (god). Like the Hindu mythology, this is also a beautiful expression of the ancient people's understanding of unity and harmony between Sun, earth and life. Does it surprise you that their name for God was Ra? That the divine lake in Buddhist tradition in far-away Tibet is called Tengri? That Polynesians talk about their god, Tangaroa?
The Sky god of Maoris in New Zealand is Rangi and his wife Papa is the earth mother. The Maori mythology says that Rangi clasped his wife Papa so tightly that their children were suffocating and Tane, god of the forests helped to separate them. Separated from his wife, Rangi cried and his tears filled the oceans, rivers and the lakes.
In Greek mythology, Helios is the god of Sun. At the same time, he is another facet of the great god Apollo. Helios drives his sun-chariot over the sky. There is a story of Phaeton, son of Helios, who one day got permission from his father to drive the sun-chariot and lost control of it, causing wide-spread damage and was thus killed by Zeus. This story has many similarities with the story of Hathor killing humans in the Egyptian mythology.
For the Amerindian tribe in Mexico, Pueblo Zuni, the universal god was called Awonawilona. He created the Sun, which fecundated the primeval sea and formed green scum over it. Later, Awonawilone divided into the sky god called Apoyan Tachi and the earth mother, Awitelin Tsta, and they gave birth to all the life forms. This ancient myth also seems very clear explanation of birth of life in the universe, very similar to the scientific explanations given today.
For Navaho Amerindians, the Sun god is Tsohanoai. There is a story about Sun testing the strength of the two brothers Nayenzgani and Tobadzistsini and later accepting them as his sons. For Sioux, Ictinike is the deceitful son of the Sun God. For Aztecs, the original sun god was Tezcatlipoca, who was knocked out of the sky by Quetzalcoatl and turned him in to a tiger. For Mamaiurans, an Amazonian tribe, Kuat is the Sun god and his brother Lae, is the moon god.
For Incas, Viracocha was the supreme deity, reigning over Sun and storms. His tears form the rain. He made the earth, the stars, the sky and mankind. The first human beings that he created, he didn't like them, so he killed them with a flood and made new humans. He came to live on earth as a beggar and taught the humans the rudiments of civilization. After working different miracles, he disappeared over the Pacific.
The feathered serpent god is one of the great mysteries of ancient American cultures - Maya called him Kukulkan, Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl, Incas called him Viracocha. His other names are Gucumatz, Votan and Zamna.
In Mesopotamia, for Babylonians the Sun god was Shamash while the same god for Sumerians was Utu. Utu's pictographic sign appears in the earliest cuneiform records of Sumerian language. Utu is son of Nanna (Moon lord) and his wife Ningal, and is also the twin brother of Inanna, the great goddess of love and war. Utu and Inanna's younger brother is Ishkur, the god of weather and thunderbolts. For Babylonian's (Arkkadian), Shamash's wife was Aya (dawn) while for Sumerian, Utu's wife is Sherida (dawn). At night Utu/Shamash disputes the dead in the underworld. On the other hand, for Canaanites, the Sun is a goddess, Shapash.
In Papuan mythology, Dudugera, the son of a big fish and a woman, became the Sun and he burned down people, animals and plants. His mother, threw lime at him, which became the clouds and shaded the earth from Sun's rays. For inhabitants of Gilbert islands, Sun and the moon are the eyes of father of gods, Na Atibu.
In Africa, for Abaluyia of Kenya, Wele the supreme god created heavens and placed Sun and moon in it. Since the two were always fighting, so it was decided that sun would occupy the sky during the day and moon would occupy it during the night.
The mythologies of the ancient people is very rich, very different and yet very similar. Unfortunately, most of the rich diversity of ancient mythologies are lost to us. Some times, it is persons with narrow religious beliefs, who take away and destroy the ancient beliefs and cultures, thinking that only they know the correct path to God and salvation. The destruction of giant Budha statues in Bamyan in Afghanistan is just one example of this way of thinking.
Some times, it is the scientific advancement, which does not allow people to keep their cultural beliefs, as these become synonymous with ignorance and inferiority. Globalization, the advancing edge of McDonald-MTV culture also seems to be doing its bit in wiping out the rich diversity of stories and beliefs.
Yet, the same globalization with internet and information technology has given us an opportunity to salvage this ancient heritage for posterity. Perhaps, one day, these myths will no longer be alive and a part of social-cultural systems of communities, but rather they would be just museum artifacts, in an uniform scientific world. Only stories to be read for their curiosity value! We shall all be poorer for that.