Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
The Sun is our brightest celestial object, its fiery brilliance an absolute necessity for life. Little surprise, therefore, that sun deities consistently rank high in divine pantheons—if not considered leaders of the gods themselves.
With the Sun able to both nurture and destroy life, many sun gods and goddesses possess a war-like side too. Apollo, for example, is envisioned as graceful and beautiful. However, should he choose to, his golden arrows can effortlessly decimate an entire city.
A notable exception to the above is the Japanese Amaterasu. Benevolent and peaceful, almost fragile to the unfamiliar, she is a stark contrast to sun gods from the Near East and the West. In fact, her core myths seem to reiterate her delicateness. She is depicted as almost vulnerable in the face of her belligerent brother, the impetuous Shinto storm god.
This phenomenon could be due to the Japanese archipelago’s yearly struggles with typhoons throughout summer. It is also worth noting that in stark contrast, Japan’s huge neighbor, China, has no significant solar deity. In Chinese mythology, the “suns” were even shot down.
Sun Gods and Goddesses From Around the World
Apollo, the Greek God of the Sun, is the most famous solar deity from classic mythology. One of the most worshipped, complex, and historically significant ancient Greek gods, Apollo was also a god of the arts, healing, and prophecy. The Delphic Oracle, famous throughout the ancient world, was associated with him.
The love child of Zeus and the Titaness Leto, and twin brother of Artemis the Moon Goddess, Apollo was born on the sacred island of Delos, which Zeus raised from the sea to provide Leto with refuge after Hera cursed the Titaness to never find a place on Earth to give birth. Glorious and beautiful right from the moment of his birth, Apollo was immediately beloved by all.
According to the Homeric Hymns, upon tasting ambrosia, the young Apollo declared himself the master of the lyre and archery. He will also be the one to impart the will of his father to all humans.
While still a child, Apollo then slew the dreaded serpent Python with his mighty arrows, thus “inheriting” Python’s lair of Delphi. (The act also made the young god the new patron of the Delphic Oracle since the serpent was the previous guardian) Further down the road, the “Radiant” was also a key character in several major Greek myths.
For example, he assisted Zeus during the Titanomachy. He helped build the walls of Troy too, before fighting on the side of the Trojans.
During the Trojan War itself, the sun god rescued Aeneas from the battlefield just as he was about to be slain by Diomedes. Notoriously, Apollo was also the god who guided Paris’ lethal arrow. As in, the one that shot the mighty Achilles in the heel and killed him.
Even Apollo’s dalliances are legendary. In one episode, the god’s fervent wooing of the chaste Daphne forced the latter to beg for transformation into a tree. Her wish was granted and she transformed into a laurel tree, thus beginning Apollo’s inseparable relationship with the plant.
When Hyacinth, a beautiful prince beloved by Apollo, died, the sorrowful god used his lover’s spilled blood to create a flower to immortalize their romance.
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Even the irresistible Adonis was said to be a lover of the magnificent Greek sun god. In total, Apollo’s romances with both genders numbered well over 20. His same-gender relationships also resulted in some circles regarding him as a divine patron of homosexual love.
Apollo and Helios
Apollo was not the only sun god in Ancient Greece. The titan Helios was also a solar deity, responsible for ferrying the Sun across the sky each day. The two immortals are, however, considered separate and distinct by most.
The Shinto Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu, occupies a paramount but paradoxical position in Japanese mythology.
Unlike many of her western counterparts, she is neither a major creation goddess nor one of the eldest. Her key myth at the Amato-no-Iwato (Heaven’s Rock Cave) portrays her as somewhat meek and hapless too.
In that story, Amaterasu fled into a cave after a distressing quarrel with Storm God Susanoo, her disagreeable brother, an act that removed all sunlight from the world. To lure her out, the other gods then stage a rowdy festival outside the cave. They also decorated a nearby tree with jewels and a mirror.
Curious at the din, Amaterasu peeped and at the sight of her own dazzling reflection, was utterly mesmerized. On seeing that, the other gods seized the opportunity and tugged the goddess out of the cave, thereafter sealing the entrance with a boulder. The mirror and one of the jewels will subsequently form part of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.
Years later, Amaterasu’s grandson and several other heavenly gods descended to the mortal realm to claim rulership from earthly gods and spirits. An event referred to in Shintoism as the Tenson Korin, Amaterasu’s subsequent “descendants” then establish the Yamato Dynasty. The dynasty still rules Japan today and is the primary reason why Japan is known as the Land of the Rising Sun.
Historians, in turn, have long noted the socio-political importance of these sun-based myths, which are mainly narrated in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. Simply put, the myths justify the Japanese royal family’s rule by emphasizing their divine lineage. The stories were also extremely effective as the Yamato dynasty remains the longest-ruling dynasty in human history. It has never been disrupted despite numerous internal strifes.
Today, Amaterasu continues to be widely venerated throughout Japan. Her chief shrine at Ise is arguably Japan’s most important and mysterious, mostly out of bounds even to native Japanese. The mirror that once beheld the goddess’ reflection is enshrined here.
The great sun goddess stands at the very heart of the modern Japanese flag too. The big red disc on the flag represents the sun is thus her.
In 2019, before his coronation, Emperor Naruhito visited Ise Shrine to pay homage to his mythical ancestor.
Surya is the Hindu God of the Sun and historically, one of the most widely worshipped gods in Hinduism. Vedic in origin and typically portrayed as majestic and riding a chariot drawn by seven horses, one for each color of visible light, Vedic hymns celebrate him as a dispeller of darkness and a giver of knowledge. Historians furthermore believe that Surya absorbed attributes of other Vedic deities with solar characteristics over the centuries.
Within Hindu mythology, Surya is the father of several notable heroes and gods too. These include Manu, the progenitor of the human race, Yama, the God of the Dead, and the Ashvins, the twin divine physicians. With Kunti, mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, Surya also fathered Karna, the greatest but tragic rival of the heroic archer Arjuna.
Even the weapons of the gods are said to be forged from Surya’s brilliance. For example, Shiva’s trident, one of the most powerful weapons in the Hindu cosmos, is said to be made from Surya’s solar essence. The same goes for Preserver God Vishnu’s signature Chakra.
Religiously, Surya is one of the five primary deities of the Smarta tradition, the quintet considered as equivalent and a means to achieve ultimate reality. (The other four gods are Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, and Shakti) Worship of the solar god has much declined in recent centuries but at its peak, temples dedicated to Surya were found all over India. Some of these, such as the Sun Temple of Konark, still stand. In modern times, Hindu festivals such as Pongal still venerate the sun god too.
Lastly, Surya appears in both Buddhist and Jain literature. Early artistic depictions of him also reflect Persian and Greek influences. As the Hindu/Vedic personification of the Sun, Surya is naturally an important name in Hindu astrology too.
Huitzilopochtli is the Aztec God of War and the Sun, the patron deity of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan too. For modern generations, the “Hummingbird” is probably one of the scariest Mesoamerican gods as well.
As the Sun, Huitzilopochtli requires constant sustenance in the form of human blood and hearts. Human sacrifices were thus regularly performed in the god’s temples.
The reason for this terrifying need is stated in one of the god’s origin stories. The goddess Coatlicue became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli after she passed by or held a ball of Hummingbird feathers. Mortified by this pregnancy, the goddess’ many adult children, which included the Moon Goddess Coyolxāuhqui, then conspired to kill her.
However, Huitzilopochtli sprang forth from his mother’s womb in full armor and defeated his disapproving siblings. He also chased them into the sky, decapitating his sister Coyolxāuhqui.
The defeated then became the stars and the Moon. As for Huitzilopochtli, he never relinquished his chase. To sustain his pursuit and war, the sun god requires constant sustenance too, with potent human blood and hearts the best choices for this.
In Aztec beliefs, should Huitzilopochtli be defeated, the world will end.
The Founding of Tenochtitlan
Historically, the Aztec Empire lasted slightly less than a century and was a triple alliance of three city-states. Among this trio, Mexico-Tenochtitlan i.e. the tribe of Huitzilopochtli was the dominant Mesoamerican military power.
So the story goes, Tenochtitlan itself was founded on the sun god’s command. He instructed his believers to look for an eagle perched on a rock while devouring a snake. Ultimately, his people located this “sign” on a small, rocky island in what was once Lake Texcoco.
Today, the coat of arms at the heart of the modern Mexican flag prominently features this divine sign.
There are several ancient Egyptian gods with solar attributes. However, there is only one “full” sun god.
The giver of life. The creator. The eternal enemy of the dreaded Apep serpent.
Believed to be the creator of all life in the ancient Egyptian faith, with his very name also the word for “sun,” Ra was envisioned as both the qualities of the Sun and the Sun itself. Each day, he rides across the day sky in a barge while accompanied by other gods.
At night, he travels beneath the Earth and is constantly attacked by the giant serpent Apep, the embodiment of chaos. However, Ra will always triumph, partly because of the divine entourage that defends him.
Ra is furthermore considered “arguably Egypt’s most important deity” by Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson, an opinion that stems not just from beliefs about Ra’s unmatched might, ability to nurture life, or status as a principal god. The solar god was mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, the world’s oldest known religious texts, and through inference, assumed to have already been widely worshipped during 2400–2300 BC. The texts even described the sun god as the deity who escorts worthy souls to the paradisiacal Field of Reeds.
Throughout Ancient Egypt’s millennia-long history, Ra was also merged with numerous other gods, all of whom were prominent. Amun, originally the patron deity of Thebes, was merged with the sun god to form Amun-Ra. This “new” god was venerated as the chief deity of the New Empire.
Atum-Ra was another composite. Atum himself was an important “self-created” god in the Egyptian pantheon. Considered by some traditions to be the father of Air (Shu) and Moisture (Tefnut).
As a major creator deity, Ra expectedly fathered/created several major gods too. For example, Bastet, Sekhmet, and Hathor.
On another note, several myths describe Ra as having an unpleasant side. Nut, the sky goddess, was cursed by Ra to be unable to give birth on any day of the year. The sun god did so as he was jealous of Nut’s love for her husband, the Earth God Geb.
The goddess Hathor was supposedly created by Ra because the sun god worried about humans plotting against him, and couldn’t rest. Hathor then entertained Ra constantly to guard against his depression.
In his book Egyptian Myths: The Legendary Past, Egyptologist George Hart repeatedly highlighted Ra’s preference for the aggressive Seth when Horus fought the Storm Deity for dominance of the pantheon.
Do these myths highlight Ancient Egypt’s recognition of the deadlier aspects of the Sun? Possibly.
Lugh is more accurately, the Celtic God of Light. However, the “many skilled” is associated with so many disparate attributes, from warfare to smithing, to arts and oaths, the Victorians equated him with Apollo. His name moreover means “light” and “brightness.”.
Also nicknamed “the long arm,” Lugh is legendary for his mastery of the spear and sling too. The legend goes that he possesses a magical spear that never misses and a deadly sling stone. He also supposedly invented horse racing and the Celtic board game Fidchell.
Described as a youthful and fair warrior, Lugh’s military victories are, without surprise, legendary as well. Most famously, as the new chief of the godly Tuatha Dé Danann tribe, Lugh defeated the rivaling Fomorian tribe. The latter is described in several Celtic myths as monsters with one arm, one leg, and one eye.
During this war, Lugh even personally defeated his maternal grandfather Balor; the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians were previously at peace and even inter-married. Balor had a gigantic eye that could immobilize. Using his spear, Lugh beheaded his grandfather and placed the monster’s head on a pole so that the deadly eye would gaze at the Fomorians and weaken them.
Victory was immediately assured for the light god’s faction.
The Magical Armaments of Lugh
Lugh is famous for his otherworldly armaments, all of which are nowadays popular names or inspirations for magical weapons in pop culture.
His spear, Gae Assail, always hits and returns to his hand. Celtic myths also describe the weapon as being so fiery that it needs to be held in a cauldron of water, least it sets the surroundings on fire.
Lugh’s sling stone, or tathlum, is said to be made from the blood of various animals and mixed with sand from the Armorian and Red Seas. Presumably, it is way more powerful than a typical sling stone.
The god even owns a legendary sword. Before his battle with the Fomorians, Lugh was given the magical sword Fragarach by Nuada, the previous Tuatha Dé Danann chief. It is, however, unclear whether Lugh used this sword during the war.
Mithra is the ancient Indo-Iranian God of Light, Oaths, Justice, and the Sun.
A deity with a complex history, worship of Mithra began sometime before the 3rd millennium BC in Iran and Northern India. The Indian Mitra, mentioned in Vedic texts as a god of contracts and sunrises, is very likely a variation of the same deity.
Zoroastrianism then embraced the deity as part of a triad that included creator Ahura Mazda and Apam Napat. The Persian faith further describes Mithra as one of three judges that a soul meets before entering the land of the dead. One who is impossible to lie to as he thoroughly understands the hearts of men. In other words, a force of justice.
Following the defeat of the Persians by Alexander the Great, worship of Mithra expanded throughout the Hellenic world, evolved, and eventually grew to a point when it became a major rival to Christianity.
As the worship of “Mithras,” Mithraism was favored by Roman emperors such as Commodus, Julian, and Diocletian. The cult was also especially popular among soldiers, officials, and slaves, and famous for several iconographies. For example, Mithra’s birth/emergence from a rock as a youth while holding a dagger and torch. And his ceremonial slaying of a bull.
Mithraism remained widely embraced till the official endorsement of Christianity by Constantine I.
Mithra and Jesus, and the Future Buddha
Two 18th-century French academics, Charles Francois Dupuis and Constantin Francois Chasseboef de Volney, claimed Mithraism was the prototype for Christianity. Their claims are part of the Christ Myth Theory.
Some historians also suggest that Maitreya/Miroku, the Future Buddha, is an alternate form of Mithra. Speculations in this form were proposed as early as 1912 by theologian Cornelis Tiele. If true, it means worship of Mithra historically extended across the width of the Eastern Hemisphere. From the Roman Empire to Japan.
Mexico is not the only modern nation whose flag is inspired by mythology. Further south in the Western Hemisphere, the flags of Argentina and Peru also honor a solar deity.
Specifically, Inti, the Incan God of the Sun.
The patron of the Incan state, the brother of Moon Goddess Mama Killa, and in some traditions, the progenitor of the Inca people through Manco Cápac, Inti is said to be created by Viracocha, the supreme Incan creator deity. Acting as Viracocha’s intermediary, Inti then oversaw the founding of the Inca civilization. This includes establishing the Inca capital at Cusco.
Within the Incan Empire, and much like the Japanese across the Pacific Ocean, the Sapa Inca was considered a descendant of Inti and a living representative. Historically, the ninth Sapa Inca, Pachacuti, significantly expanded the worship of Inti. After the Sapa Inca, the Willaq Umu, or the High Priest of the Sun, wielded extensive power in the empire too. These are clear evidence of the importance of Inti in Incan society and politics.
Coming back to symbolism, Inti is “represented” throughout modern South America. As mentioned above, he is part of the Argentinan and Peruvian national flags. The Inca Sun God also appears on the coats of arms of Argentina and Ecuador.
While the Incan Empire ended centuries ago, its mythical founder lives on throughout South America.
When the Sun Goes Dark …
Inti is overall, a benign and peaceful god. However, when an eclipse occurs, this means the sun god is deeply unhappy over something. Priests would then rush to offer sacrifices.
9. Xihe and Other Chinese Solar Deities
Despite being a dominant culture of East Asia, there are no prominent Chinese sun gods or goddesses. At least, none that are as widely worshipped or as culturally important as the above names.
Ancient Chinese creation myths and historical compilations such as the Shanhaijing describe Xihe, one of the wives of supreme god Di Jun, as a sun goddess. She resides in the Southeastern ocean and is the birth mother of the ten suns of antiquity. Nine of these ten suns, or sons, were then shot down by the mythical archer Houyi after they unthinkingly scorched the world. This event formed the basis of the Mooncake Festival myth.
Following the founding of Taoism in China and the spread of Buddhism, the epithet of “Chinese sun god” came to be associated with two other gods. The first is the Taoist Taiyang Xingjun, or “Star Lord of the Sun.” The administrator of the Sun, Taiyang Xingjun is typically displayed with his counterpart Taiyin Zhenjun (the Moon) in Taoist temples. His birthday, i.e., his festival, is on the 19th day of the third lunar month.
The other is Ritian or Riguang Pusa. Very simply, this is Surya in his Chinese Buddhism form. As Ritian, Surya is also one of the 24 Protective Devas of Chinese Buddhism.
Some traditions further associate Doumu, the Taoist Big Dipper Goddess, with Marici, the Buddhist Goddess of Light and the Sun, thus designating Doumu as a solar deity too. However, Doumu is more commonly regarded as a celestial goddess rather than a solar one.
Beyond the above names, there are no other prominent Chinese sun gods. In fact, even Xihe, Ritian, etc, are not commonly worshipped in the Chinese world. Outside of the legend of Houyi, no major Chinese myth prominently features the sun too.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ced Yong