In the grand tradition of the scholar-adventurer, acclaimed author Richard Cohen takes us around the world to illuminate our relationship with the star that gives us life. Whether floating in a skiff on the Ganges as the Sun descends behind the funeral pyres of Varanasi, interviewing psychologists in the Norwegian Arctic about the effects of darkness, or watching tomato seedlings in southern Spain being hair-brushed (the better to catch the Sun’s rays), Cohen tirelessly pursues his quarry.
Drawing on more than seven years of research, he reports from locations in eighteen different countries, including the Novolazarevskaya science station in Antarctica (the coldest place on Earth); the Arizona desert (the sunniest); the Pope’s observatory-cum-fortress outside Rome (possible the least accessible); and the crest of Mount Fuji, where—entirely alone—he welcomes the sunrise on the longest day of the year.
As he soon discovers, the Sun is present everywhere—in mythology, language, religion, sciences, art, literature, and medicine; in the ocean depths; even atop the Statue of Liberty. Ancient worshippers believed our star was a man with three eyes and four arms, abandoned by his spouse because his brightness made her weary. The early Christians appropriated the halo from sun imagery and saw the cross as an emblem of the Sun and its rays. Galileo was the first to espy blemishes on the solar surface—sunspots—but hid his discoveries for fear of persecution. Einstein helped duplicate the source of the Sun’s power to create the atomic bomb; while the “Sun King” Louis XIV, Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler, and the Japanese emperors all co-opted the Sun to enlarge their authority. Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes declare that even thinking about the solar system took up too much space in his brain, while Richard Wagner had Tristan inveigh against daylight as the enemy of romantic love.
Packed with interesting figures (the Sun is responsible for 44 percent of the world’s tidal energy, and when aligned with the Moon, as at high tide, makes us all minutely taller); extraordinary myths (in India, just a few years ago, pregnant women were still being kept indoors during an eclipse, for fear their babies would be born blind or with cleft palates); and surprising anecdotes (during the Vietnam War, a large number of mines dropped into Haiphong harbor blew up simultaneously in response to a large solar flare), this splendidly illustrated volume is erudite, informative, and supremely entertaining. It not only explains the star that so inspires us, but shows how complex our relations with it have been—and continue to be.
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Richard Cohen is the former publishing director of Hutchinson and Hodder & Stoughton and the founder of Richard Cohen Books. The acclaimed author of By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, he has written for The New York Times and most leading London newspapers, and has appeared on BBC radio and television. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I look upon the sunrise and sunset, on the daily return of day and night, on the battle between light and darkness, on the whole solar drama in all its
details that is acted every day, every month, every year, in heaven and in earth, as the principal subject of early mythology.
Oxford professor who
transformed the study
of solar mythology1
Man has weav'd out a net,
And this net throwne
Upon the heavens,
And now they are his owne.
Donne's awed yet mocking lines were written in the early years of the Copernican revolution, but they could apply just as easily to man's attempt to make sense of the heavens-to make them "his owne"-by telling stories. Because all societies have myths about the Sun, their sheer variety is glorious-here it is a magician or trickster, there a ball of fire some figure must carry, another time a canoe, a mirror, or an amazing menagerie of beasts. In Peru and northern Chile, many tribes knew the Sun as the god Inti, who descended into the ocean every evening, swam back to the east, then reappeared, refreshed by his bath.3 As soon as the horse became domesticated (early in the second millennium b.c.) the Sun was portrayed as guiding a chariot drawn by four flaming steeds. In ancient India, these were termed arushá, Sanskrit for "Sun-bright" (the Greek word "eros" shares that meaning, having evolved from the same root as "sun horse"). Birds are often invoked-a falcon, or an eagle, and of course the phoenix, which dies and is reborn from its own ashes. In Africa and India, the tiger and lion are solar animals, sunrise being represented by a young lion, noon by one in its prime, sunset by one in old age. Where lions are absent, local communities adapt: in the pre-Conquest Americas, the eagle and jaguar are the chosen beasts.
Several cultures described the Sun in more than one way: to the Egyptians, the solar gods numbered not only Ra but Khepri, "the Self- Transforming One," and Harakhty, "the Far One." The Aztecs employed Huitzilopochtli (from huitzilin, a hummingbird) to mean both the rising Sun and the star at its zenith, and Tezcatlipoca, "Smoking (or Shining) Mirror," for twilight or evening. The Sun is continually reborn; so that in all they had a jaguar sun, a wind sun, a rain sun, a rain-of-fire sun, and the god Nanahuatzin ("Full of Sores") who became a fifth solar force, that of the earthquake. Yet whatever form the Sun takes-an eye, a wing, a boat, a dragon, a fish, a bird-there is a common core, a similarity to these tales that spring up in cultures often hemispheres, and millennia, apart.
Sometimes the Sun is seen as so overwhelming a threat that it must in some way be tamed. In ancient Chinese mythology, for instance, the goddess Xihi gives birth to ten suns, which rise simultaneously into the heavens, burning the harvests and all plant life-bar one huge mulberry bush, the fusang, on which the suns perch. Every morning the goddess bathes one of them, letting it fly up to her on the back of a crow. One day all the suns escape, and life on Earth becomes unbearable. A variety of monsters scour the land: the ogre Zuochi, with long teeth; Quiying, who kills with water and fire; a giant bird that unleashes the wind, Dafeng; the giant boar Fengxi; and the great serpent Xisushe. The wretched people below endlessly beg the suns to come down, but they refuse. Total destruction impends, until Houyi, a young archer, slays the ogre, the monster, and the giant bird, cuts the serpent in two, captures the boar and-his crowning act-shoots down nine of the suns. Ever since, the story concludes, there has been only the one last sun.
Aesop's fable "The Sun Gets Married" has a different plot but the same threat. One hot summer, word comes that the Sun is to marry. All the birds and beasts rejoice, especially the frogs, until a wise old toad calls for order. "My friends," he tells them, "you should temper your enthusiasm. For if the Sun alone dries up the marshes so that we can hardly bear it, what will become of us if he should have half a dozen little suns in addition?" Two stories, both teaching that one can have too much of a good thing.
Almost all ancient civilizations believed the universe to have existed for unknown ages without benefit of any human intervention. The same did not hold true for the Sun, which in a host of mythologies exists only by virtue of man's nurture. The Hopi of northeast Arizona, for instance, claimed they made the Sun by throwing up a buckskin shield along with a fox's coat and a parrot's tail (to make the colors of sunrise and sunset). But whatever form or character it took, the Sun was rarely cast as fully invulnerable (an old German custom forbade pointing at the star lest one do it harm), and it has been variously depicted as having been freed from a cave, or stolen, or having sprung into life through the self-sacrifice of a god or hero. Among the Inuit of the Bering Strait, all creation is attributed to a Raven Father, who is so annoyed at man's rapacity that he hides the Sun in a bag. The terrified people offer him gifts until he relents, but only to a degree, holding the Sun up in the sky for a time before removing it again.
Every early society personified the cycles of nature, but where the Sun is concerned, cultures have differed on its gender. In the Romance languages the star is male, but in the Germanic and Celtic it is feminine and the Moon masculine: in upper Bavaria the Sun is still spoken of as "Frau Sonne" and the Moon as "Herr Mond." For the Rwala Bedouin of Arabia, the Sun is a mean and destructive old hag who forces the handsome Moon to sleep with her once a month and so exhausts him that he needs another month to recover.4 Other groups, such as the Eskimo, Cherokee, and Yuchi, also regard the Sun as female, while in Polish the Sun is neuter, the Moon male. These variations may have arisen from climatic differences: in some areas the day is mild and welcoming, hence the Sun tends to be termed feminine, whereas the Moon, ruling the chill, stern nighttime, is male. In equatorial regions, where daytime is searingly forbidding and the night mild and pleasant, the genders reverse. There are exceptions: on the Malay Peninsula, Sun and Moon are both regarded as female and the stars as the Moon's children.5
Most creation accounts cast the Sun as paramount, both over the Moon and over the heavens. The Book of Genesis declares: "God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night."6 The Egyptians referred to Sun and Moon as "the two lights," the right and left eye, respectively, of Ra-the left being described as weaker, because damaged. In Central and South America and among the Mundas of Bengal, Sun and Moon are man and wife. The Bengalis charmingly call the Sun "Sing-Bonga," believing him a gentle god who does not interfere in human affairs. Another myth of the same region fashions the star as a man with three eyes and four arms who is abandoned by his wife because his dazzle wearies her. She installs Chhaya (Darkness) in his place, but the Sun wins her back by reducing his effulgence to seven-eighths of its original brilliance (an interesting example of the spirit of compromise making companionship possible). Many stories are told about such marital troubles, it being a given that Sun and Moon can never live happily together.
It occurred to some of the more sophisticated ancient cultures to wonder why, if the Sun were indeed so powerful, he had to abide by strict laws rather than roam at will. Surely only a slave would perform so repetitively? Numerous legends were devised to explain this thralldom. The Sun was portrayed as erratic, sometimes hurrying too fast, at other times dawdling, coming too close to Earth one moment, the next moving too far away. The sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the first bicultural Spanish Americans, tells the following story about Huayna Capac, greatest of Inca conquerors:
One day this ruler stares directly into the rays of the Sun, and
his high priest has to remind him that their religion forbids this. Huayna Capac replies that he is his king and pontiff. "Is there any amongst you who would dare command me to rise and undertake a long journey?"
The high priest answers that this would be unthinkable.
Huayna Capac continues: "And would any of my chieftains, no matter what his power or worldly estate, refuse to obey me if I should command him to travel to far-away Chile?"
The high priest acknowledges that no chieftain would.
"Then," says the Inca, "I tell you that this our Father the Sun must have a master greater than he, who thus commands him to journey across the sky day after day with never a respite, for if he were the Supreme Lord he would surely sometime cease traveling and rest."7
The Greeks, too, put the Sun in a somewhat less than exalted position; Homer does not even grant Helios a place among the Olympians. Nor is the Sun seen as always beneficent: in Mesopotamian myth, the solar god Nergal brings plague and war, his weapons being heat, parching winds, and lightning. Throughout history there remains a deep ambivalence: humanity cannot do without the Sun's power, but still wishes to tame or seduce it, to limit its hold over us.
what is that hold? In the latter half of the nineteenth century a remarkable scholar would make the Sun the focus of his research: Friedrich Max Müller. He would argue that the Sun lay at the root of language, and thus of all major myths, not just the obviously solar ones. Müller was born in 1823 in Dessau, then the capital of a small state within the German Confederation, the son of a poet. Initially he studied Sanskrit, which kindled an interest in philology and religion. He embarked on a translation of the Rig Veda, the sacred hymns of Hinduism, and in 1846 traveled to Britain to research the archives of its Indian empire, supporting himself by writing fiction- hi...
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Book Description Random House, New York, 2010. Hard Cover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. Illustrated (illustrator). First Edition. New York: Random House, 2010. First edition, first printing. 8vo. Hard cover binding, 574 pp. An extremely interesting book that looks at the Sun in many different ways. Illustrated in color and black and white. New in new dust jacket, protected with an archival-quality mylar cover. Size: 8vo. Bookseller Inventory # 017496
Book Description Random House, New York, 2010. Hard Cover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. Illustrated (illustrator). First Edition. New York: Random House, 2010. First edition, first printing. 8vo. Hard cover binding, 574 pp. An extremely interesting book that looks at the Sun in many different ways. Illustrated in color and black and white. New in new dust jacket, protected with an archival-quality mylar cover. Size: 8vo. Bookseller Inventory # 017497
Book Description Random House, New York, 2010. Hard Cover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. Illustrated (illustrator). First Edition. New York: Random House, 2010. First edition, first printing. 8vo. Hard cover binding, 574 pp. An extremely interesting book that looks at the Sun in many different ways. Illustrated in color and black and white. New in new dust jacket, protected with an archival-quality mylar cover. Size: 8vo. Bookseller Inventory # 019589
Book Description Random House, 2010. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P111400068754