Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Mythology, Legend and Folklore of the Sky - Part Two - The Sun and Moon

'At a time when darkness covered the Earth, a girl was nightly visited by someone whose identity she could not discover. She was determined to find out who it could be. She mixed some soot with oil and painted her breast with it. The next time she discovered, to her horror, that her brother had a black circle of soot around his mouth. She upbraided him and he denied it. The father and mother were very angry and scolded the pair so severely that the son fled from their presence. The daughter seized a brand from the fire and pursued him. He ran to the sky to avoid her, but she flew after him. The man changed into the moon and the girl bore the torch and became the sun. The sparks flew from the brand became the stars. The sun is constantly pursuing the moon, which keeps in the darkness to avoid being discovered.' 
                                      An Eskimo Legend

The sun, moon, stars and planets have been a constant since the world began and is present in almost all mythologies.  The stories are numerous and vary tremendously.  They are included in the myths of creation and are used to explain the formations of stars.  These myths not only helped humanity to explain the unknown - they shaped the very culture and traditions of ancient civilisations.

Of Sun Gods and Heroes

'The sun is God.'  These are the reputed last words of the British painter J. M. W. Turner.  As a statement, it couldn't be more true.  The sun is light and heat and life.  Without it we would be doomed.  This knowledge goes back to ancient times and has influenced stories of gods and heroes throughout myths across the globe.

Shamash the Sun-god rising on the horizon, flames of fire ascending from his shoulder. The two portals of the dawn, each surmounted by a lion, are being drawn open by attendant gods. From a Babylonian seal cylinder in the British Museum.

The Sun is God

Many myths depict the sun as a god or goddess.  The Sumerians had Shamash, who they created more than 3,000 years ago.  The Celts had Lugh.  And the Egyptians had Ra, who was not only the god of the sun, but, according to to one myth, the creator of the world.

The Story of Ra

In the beginning, only the ocean existed.  Then Ra hatched from an egg that appeared on the surface of the ocean and brought forth four children: the gods Shu and Geb and the goddesses Tefunt and Nut.  Shu and Tefnut became the atmosphere and stood on Geb, who became the earth and who lifted Nut, who became the sky.  And over everything, Ra ruled.

Egypt's Ra
According to the Japanese religion Shinto, the sun was the goddess Amaterasu.  Amaterasu is believed to have sent her grandson Jimmu to Earth 3,000 years ago so he could be the first ruler of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have have begun the divine family of Japanese emperors.

The Sun goddess emerging out of a cave, bringing sunlight back to the universe

The Story of Amaterasu

Amaterasu became the ruler of the sky when Izangi, one of the celestial gods and a creator of the Japanese islands, gave her a holy necklace.  One day Amaterasu and her brother Susano had a competition but, when she was beaten, she refused to admit defeat.  This put her brother Susano into a rage in which he wreaked havoc throughout the heavens and the Earth.  Amaterasu fled to a cave where she hid herself away, causing darkness to fall upon Japan.  Crops died, the people suffered and the gods soon decided that Amaterasu needed to be returned to her place in the heavens.  So they sought the help of a number of deities and performed both rituals and sacrifices, and hung a mirror outside of the cave in which Amaterasu was hiding.  Amaterasu was soon disturbed by the commotion outside the cave and came out of hiding to find out what was going on.  The gods told Amaterasu that they had found a replacement who would become Amaterasu's replacement as the sun goddess.   Having never seen either a mirror or her own reflection, Amaterasu was drawn towards the mirror and  believed that she was looking at her replacement.  But, as she stepped closer, a god blocked the entrance to the cave while another god caught hold of Amaterasu and returned her to her place in the sky.  Her presence lit the land and life returned.

The Polynesian Hero Myth of Maui

The days were too short for Maui and his mother.  There never seemed to be enough time in the day.  Maui wanted to give his mother more time to make bark cloth and he though that if the sun could just slow down, the daylight would last longer.  So Maui cut off his wife Hina's sacred hair and made a rope that the sun would be unable to burn.  As the sun rose, Maui caught it with his rope and beat it with his grandmother's magive jawbone.  Weakened by the beating, the sun found it could no longer speed its way from horizon to horizon and was reduced to creeping its way across the sky.  And so the days lasted longer and more could be accomplished in a day.

A depiction of Maui catching the sun

Worshippers of the Sun

While the sun is a common motif in many cultures, the worship of the sun is actually relatively rare and only a small number of cultures developed a religion based entirely around the sun.  The worship of the sun is mostly limited to Egyptian, Indo-European and Meso-American cultures.

In Peru, the Incas considered themselves to be the 'Children of the Sun' and all social and religious events were focused on the sun temple which stoof in the center of Cuzoo.  The Palace of Gold was a shrine meant to honor Inti - 'the sun from whom all riches flow' - and was decorated extravagently with gold.  The temple was positioned so the rising sun would light a golden solar disc which illuminated the entire interior with yellow light.

'To the entire world I give my light and my radiance;
I give men warmth when they are cold: I cause their
fields to fructify and their cattle to multiply: each
day that passes I go around the world to secure a
better knowledge of men's needs and to satisfy
those needs.  Follow my example.'
- An Incan Myth, recorded in 16th Century Spanish Royal Commentaries of Garcilaso de la Vega

The Aztecs of Mexico, who had a similar solar calendar to the Mayan people, believed there were a series of Suns.  Each sun was thought to be a god which ruled during its own cosmic era and the god which ruled their civilisation was Tonatiuh, the fifth sun in the cycle.
Tonatiuh as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

The Creation of the Fifth Sun

With the great flood came the destruction of the sun goddess Chalchiuhtlicue and the end of the fourth cycle.  The world had been plunged into darkness.  The gods gathered to decide who would take Chalchiuhtlicue's place in the sky.  The god Tecucuzetecatl was quick to volunteer, but the other gods favoured Nanahuatzin so both gods were put forward as potential candidates.
 A great fire was built and two gods were told to jump over the fire.  However, Tecuciztecatl bulked at the last moment and failed to jump and, when Nanahuatzin jumped the fire without hesitation, Tecuciztecatl was filled with jealousy and jumped over the fire, followed by an eagle and jaguar. 
Two suns started to rise in the east but it was too bright.  So, to dim the light, the gods threw a rabbit into the face of Tecuciztecatl, who transformed into the moon.  However, Nanahuatzin was weak and motionless in the sky.  To give Nanahuatzin the energy to travel across the sky, the gods had to sacrifice their blood to him.  And so Nanahuatzin became the fifth sun god and was given the name Tonatuih. 

The Aztecs believed, as written in this creation myth, that their sun would refuse to move across the sky or to even rise unless it was appeased with the sacrifices of both humans and their blood.  As a consequence, the Aztecs partook in ritual bloodletting and the sacrifices of around 20,000 people a year to Tonatiuh and other gods a year.

The Moon

Unlike the sun, who shows the world the same face day after day, the moon is eve moving and ever changing - waxing and waning and sometimes seeming to vanish altogether. This constant cycle of growing and shrinking and disappearing inspired moon goddesses who represented the cycle of life with the ability to control the growth and fertility of nature, and myths to explain the reasons for the waxing and waning of the moon.

The following story from Native American portrays the moons phases beautifully:

How the Moon Regained Her Shape

The Moon was once full and bright,  and would dance across the sky in a proud display of the pale light that lit the world below.  But one day, the Moon dared to dance over the face of the Sun and, as the earth gre dark, the Sun became angry.  The Sun told the Moon that it was interupting the growth of the people's crops and that it wasn't needed.  'Get out of my way!' The Sun demanded.  The Moon stopped its dancing and drifted away, so sad that it became to shrink until the Moon was but a sliver of its former self.  The dwindling of the Moon was noted by a comet, who went to visit the Moon.  Upon discovering the reasons for the Moon's shrinkage, the comet told the Moon about a woman who had the skill to restore the Moon to its former glory.  So the Moon went to the mountain where the woman, Round Arms, lived.  By the time the Moon reached its destination it was olmost invisible.    Round Arms greeted the Moon and invited it into her home where she gave it some tea.  The Moon told Round Arms about the Sun and his cruel words.  Round Arms told the Moon that the Sun was wrong and took the Moon to meet the ones who loved it.  The Painted Deer, who was an artist, was trying to draw a picture of the nighttime forest and missed the Moon for its light, which gave the forest a beautiful, dreamlike quality.  Mother rabbit missed the Moon because the moonbeams made it safe for the rabbits to play and to find the food left by the Painted Deer.  With each compliment, the Moon became brighter and larger.  And in a field a hundred women danced and sang for the Moon:

We sing to the moon, our sister,
Who pulls the seas to the sands,
Who changes her shape like a magician,
Who lights our paths at night.
Return to the sky, our sister,
For we miss your gentle beams
And your loving smile.

Feeling much better, the Moon joined the dance of the hundred women.  The women gave the Moon a gift of a beaded necklace and the Moon gave the women some tiny bells.  Then the Moon returned to the sky, vowing never to forget the lessons it had learned - that while the Sun was admired, so was the Moon.  Now, if the Moon is insulted, it dwindles until it remembers that it too is admired and regained both its strength and shape.

In the San mythology of Africa, the Moon is said to walk across the sky like the shoe he once was.  When the Moon is full, the Sun pierces him with his knife, causing the Moon to decay  until only his backbone is left.  As the creator /Kaggen promised, the Moon is slowly reborn until he reaches his full size and brightness.  The Moon once wanted to give the animal-people this same privilege, until the hare upset him, bringing about the reason for death:

'Just as the moon always rose again after his death, so the moon intended for people to return after their deaths.  The moon wished for people to do as he did, for allowing them to be reborn would bring them joy.
A human in the form of a hare was grieving for his dead mother.  'My mother is dead, and will never come back,' he lamented.  The moon said, 'Don't cry: she will come back.'  'No,' said the hare, 'she is dead and will never return.'  Because the hare would not agree with him, the moon flew into a rage.  He struck the hare, leaving a scar on his lip,  and cursed him.  The angry moon declared: 'As for men, now they shall die, and never return,' and with his words began death.'

According to Indian folklore, there was a time when the sun was in the sky constantly and the world never slept:

    In a time long ago, when the world was new, there was no moon and the sun shone all the time.  People worked and worked and never rested.  One day, the world's creator visited the men in the fields.  'When did you last water this field?'  He asked one man.  'Today,' replied the famer.  'When did you did this hole?' He asked another.  'Today,' was the man's response.  And for every question, the answer was always the same: Today, because it is always day and so everything was done today.  And the creator asked a woman, 'When was your son born?' And again the answer was today. 
    The creator began to understand that the people had no knowledge of time, or of night and day and thought he should do something about it.  So the creator told the sun to shine all day and to set in the evening, before rising one again in the morning so the people would see the difference between night and day and so they could rest.  The sun readily agreed and, when the evening arrived, it quietly set, plunging the world into darkness.  But the people were scared by the abrupt darkness and ran about, stumbling over one another and hurting themselves.  However, the leaders soon realised nothing could be done in the dark and told the people to rest until the world became bright again.  When the sun rose the next day, the people woke and started to work and night became the time of rest.
    While the people were happy that there was a time of rest, one problem persisted.  The darkness of night was so complete that it was as if they were blind.  The people would hurt themselves in the dark and things were broken.  When the creator again visited the people to see if they were happy, the people told him that the night was too dark.  The creator throught of this problem and son came up with a solution - the moon.  With its soothing, pale light the people found they could see enough in the night to keep them safe and were able to sleep peacefully.
Thus was the moon created.

Moon Worship

Worship of the moon has been known since the earliest recorded time and in the the oldest literature of Egypt, Babylonia, India and China.  It was founded on the belief that the moon's phaces and the life and death of plants, animals and humans are all interlinked.

A portrayal of the Mid-Autumn Festival

In China, the Mid-Autumn Festival is popular among the Dai people of Yunnan.  According to a Dai legend, the moon was the incarnation of Yan Jian, who was the third son of the god of heaven.  He is said to have led the Dai people in battle against their enemies and was greatly respected.  When he died, Yan Jian is said to have changed into the moon and rose into the sky to bring light to the Dai people in the darkest of nights.  During the Mid-Autumn festival the Dai people put moon cakes on each of the four corners of a table, each with a joss stick and, when the moon rises over the mountain, the joss sticks are lit.  Then the family begin to 'worship the moon', firing black powder gun shots into the sky as a way to pay tribute to Yan Jian before gathering around the table to each, chat and enjoy the moon.

Moon Cakes

Next time we will look at the myths, legends and folktales of the stars and their constellations.

Useful Resources

Our Sun: Biography of a Star by Christopher Cooper
Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky by Tamra Andrews
How the Moon Regained Her Shape by Janet Ruth Heller
DK Eyewitness Companions: Mythology by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip

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