By Caylie Warkentin
The sun that we pull our visor down for as we drive towards the low September light is the same sun that ancient civilizations turned their faces towards, the same sun that Icarus’s wings melted under so insatiable was his desire to be near the cosmos, the same sun that in the biblical Genesis is delineated as the life-giver, a semicolon upon which everything else rests:
Let there be light.
It has been said that there are only seven stories in the entire world. Though the shape and colour of these narratives are ever-shifting, all of our stories are woven from the same tapestry and can be distilled down into one of these seven core tales. The story of sunlight is a story of veneration, of adoration, of love. Poets may write that sunlight is warmth or burning. Astronomers quantify our relationship with the sun by the distance in which we are apart from it - an average of roughly 150 million kilometres, a near unimaginable number – and yet despite the distance we can still feel the heat. Every one of these stories, every way of seeing the sun is striking, personal, and uniquely human.
Canadian poet and singer Leonard Cohen famously wrote that
there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in
And so it is with sunlight: that when the sun sunk below the horizon we loved the light it gave us so much that we learned to cultivate it - first through the control of fire 1.6 million years ago, and then through the invention of artificial light, so that as we loved, feared, were vulnerable, we could look into each other's eyes and know.
The Sun In Ancient Practice
Navigating a chariot across the sky with golden rays of sunlight emanating from behind his head, Helios, the Greek word for sun, is a Greek God whose devotees only continued to grow as Classical Greece transitioned into late antiquity. Helios is not the only sun god who was purported to have drawn a chariot across the sky from East to West, and then through the underworld as the sun bled from the sky - the Egyptian sun god Re (Ra), the god Surya in Hindu traditions, and Sol of Norse mythology all navigated the sky as we remained steadfast and rooted to the earth.
Nearly all cultures that predate the modern era had deities that represented the movement and force of the sun. Some cultures not only had a singular deity, but practiced solar worship, a belief system that dominated every aspect of the lives of those who practiced it including the Egyptian, Indo-European, and Meso-American cultures. Some cultures expressed their worship of the sun and celestial bodies through physical monuments like Stone Henge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, in which text about the suns rays is inscribed on a stone ramp within the pyramid that leads the reader closer to the sky. Other cultures, like Hindus in Northern India 4000 years ago, revered the sun through prayer and worship practices that we are still familiar with in our yoga classes as the sun salutation sequence.
The Sun in History and in Science
In 1543 Rennaisance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus first posited that the planetary orbits were reversed to what the general public understood - rather than orbit the earth, he proposed that the earth orbited the sun. This revelation in astronomy and discovery spurred on social and scientific revolutions and transformed and informed our present understanding of the physical space we occupy within the universe.
Some have said that to know something is to define it, and as our understanding of the sun expanded from mythology and folklore to quantifiable and proven scientific data, our relationship with the sun shifted. This can be traced in the etymology of the language we use to speak about the sun. In the past three hundred years, we began to define the sun and our relationship with it in clear, precise terms. In 1738 sunscreen referred not to a cream that mitigated the effects of sun rays but to a physical screen that blocked the sun. By the early twentieth century, SPF, short for sun protection factor, was coined by Swiss student Franz Grieter who invented the first successful sun block. The term sunbather is noted as being used in colloquial conversation as early as the 1940s.
The Sun in Present
In many ways we have gravitated towards sunlight with a reverence parallel to that of our forebearers – watching the shadow of the moon eclipse the sun, capturing the sun in poetry and in paintings. In other ways, we have begun to distance ourselves. Intentionally, much of the time, with layers of clothing, shuttered blinds, and SPF that both mitigates damage from sun rays and simultaneously create a barrier between ourselves and the sun. 150 million kilometres away and we have somehow found ways to extend this distance. In literature, the sun is often presented as analogous to something, sun whose rays fall dappled across the floor, sun whose heat is like love, like anger, like beauty. We are seemingly unable to face the sun directly, even in writing. And so we obscure it, write of its warmth as we stand in the shade.
Sunlight is now cleverly manufactured. We have found ways to revel in its heat without ever stepping foot outside of our homes. Tanning beds offer summer heat year-round, no longer dependent on seasonality. Synthesized versions have not replaced natural sources of sunlight but complement it like Vitamin D supplements, a necessary way of boosting Vitamin D in a modern world where it can be difficult to maintain sufficient levels of the vitamin.
Many of us have become distanced from the sun, or simply lack the time to stand in its warmth. Much of modern life occurs indoors and studies detailing the damage incurred from excessive sun exposure have left many of us feeling as if it's safer to refrain from standing in the sun entirely. Literature and media on climate change also document the ways in which the sun and the thinning atmosphere have contributed to the intensity of the changing climate, adding to climate anxiety and for some a deep unease about what the future will hold.
When was the last time you allowed yourself to stand in the heat of the sun? To feel the warmth without worrying about premature ageing and lines and wrinkles like a map on your face of all of the times you were happy? To look into the sky and think not of the thinning atmosphere and instead of the light that allows plants to flourish around you, that guides insects on their migratory routes?
Veneration of the sun endured for millennia, and echoes of this adoration can be felt in practices today. Present-day sun worship may no longer take the form of altars or sacrifice – for some, adoration of the sun is expressed through curiosity and devotion to learning the mechanisms of the sun, like a group of astronomers who travel the globe to witness every solar eclipse. Eclipses that once instilled fear in the hearts of ancient civilizations for representing the wrath and power of gods are now being marvelled at in wonder. The sun, simply, is beautiful. We both capture that beauty and emulate it, through artwork, and poetry, and photography. On Instagram, the #sunset hashtag has over a quarter of a billion posts. Even when night falls we are only a click away from basking in the intense light in the sun. For those who practice yoga, their day begins by facing the sun and flowing through the sun salutation sequence. During the summer solstice, people gather together to celebrate a day filled with the most light of the entire year and come winter solstice, to mourn the light that has bled from the sky.
As our understanding of the sun changes, our ways of honouring the sun change. To look at the sun is to look into the past (eight minutes and twenty seconds, precisely, as that is how long it takes for sunlight to travel the distance to earth) and synchronously to look ahead into the future - of all the sunrises and sunsets we have yet to experience.
How oddly poetic to know that even when the sun dips below the horizon we can close our eyes and still see it - dark spots in our retina that burn and glow like scattered fireflies. How comforting to know that tomorrow the sun will rise again.
Here I come to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back,
its rays all silvered,
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave,
and every day on the balcony of the sea,
wings open, fire is born,
and everything is blue again like morning.
Sources and Further Reading
Betz, Eric. “Are the Egyptian pyramids aligned with the stars?” Astronomy, 26 February 2021. https://astronomy.com/news/2021/02/are-the-egyptian-pyramids-aligned-with-the-stars
“Gallery: Sun Gods and Goddesses.” Live Science, 18 May 2012, https://www.livescience.com/20404-gallery-sun-gods-goddesses.html
Jones, Matt. “Children of the Sun.” Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 57, no. 3, Summer 2018, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mqr/act2080.0057.317/--children-of-the-sun?c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=fulltext;xc=1;q1=sun+god
Leon, Jaroff, and Madeleine, Nash. “Fury on The Sun Once Worshiped as a God, Earth’s Star is Revealing the Secrets of Its Awesome Power.” Time Magazine, vol. 134, no. 1, 1989, https://eds.s.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=00b9beed-919a-470e-87a6-a7391ecd32e6%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=57899295&db=a2h
Moreton, Cole. “The Sun: Should we love it or fear it? Experts can’t agree. But how much do they really know?” Independent, 18 June 2006, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-sun-should-we-love-it-or-fear-it-experts-can-t-agree-but-how-much-do-they-really-know-6097900.html
“Sun Worship.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sun-worship
Such beautiful ponderings on sunlight and how our relationship with it has evolved. I love this piece!