PANDANUS Project  
Pandanus Publications
 •   Pandanus Homepage  •   Database of Plants  •   Publications  •   Sanskrit E-texts  •   Seminar of Indian Studies  •

Pandanus is a biannual peer-reviewed international journal publishing original research papers in English on nature symbolism in Literature, Art, Myth and Ritual. It has a regional focus on South Asia but welcomes papers from other regions. The journal is the outcome of the Pandanus project, based at the Institute of South and Central Asian Studies, Seminar of Indian Studies, Philosophical Faculty, Charles University in Prague. Pandanus volumes started coming out in 1998 on an annual basis as a result of co-operation between three Universities ... please click here to read the full text of Pandanus Mission Statement.

Pandanus is indexed by ERIH PLUS.
Buy Pandanus online
Contact us
Pandanus ’10: Nature in Literature, Art, Myth and Ritual.
Volume 4, No. 2 (2010)
Special Issue: Sun Worship in the Civilisations of the World
Edited by Adalbert J. Gail, Freie Universität Berlin

Editor-in-chief: Jaroslav Vacek
Deputy Editor: Martin Hříbek
Members of the Editorial Board:
Giuliano Boccali (University of Milano, Italy)
Alexander Dubianski (University of Moscow, Russia)
Adalbert J. Gail (Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany)
Oldřich Král (Charles University in Prague)
Dagmar Marková (Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague)
Chettiarthodi Rajendran (University of Calicut, Kerala, India)
Danuta Stasik (University of Warsaw, Poland)
Lidia Sudyka (Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland)
Eva Wilden (EFEO, Paris, France)
Gyula Wojtilla (University of Szeged, Hungary)
Reviewed by Prof. Ulrike Niklas (Universität Köln a. R.)
and Prof. Oldřich Král (Charles University in Prague)

English correction: Dr. Mark Corner, formerly lecturer at Charles University, presently HUB University, Brussels
Institute of South and Central Asian Studies, Seminar of Indian Studies
Philosophical Faculty, Charles University in Prague
Celetná 20, 116 42 Praha 1, Czech Republic
Publisher: Stanislav Juhaňák - TRITON
First edition, Praha (Prague) 2010
ISSN 1802-7997
(Registration number of MK ČR) E 17677

The publication of this journal was financially supported by the Ministry of Education of the Czech Republic as a part of the Research Project No. MSM0021620824, “The Foundations of Modern World in the Mirror of Literature and Philosophy”, a project of the Faculty of Philosophy, Charles University in Prague.
Additional printing costs were covered by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Bonn, and by Freie Universität Berlin.


  • Introduction
  • Ursula Thiemer-Sachse: The sun god in Ancient Mexico: the birth of the fifth sun. From chieftain to sun god: Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war among the Aztecs
  • Alexandra von Lieven: “The soul of the sun permeates the whole world.” Sun cult and religious astronomy in Ancient Egypt
  • Widu-Wolfgang Ehlers: Helios, Sol and Sol Invictus. Cults of the sun in Greece and Rome
  • Andreas Hofeneder: Vestiges of sun worship among the Celts
  • Dominik Bonatz: “When Šamaš comes forth from the great mountain.” The sun cult and sun symbolism in Mesopotamia
  • Werner Sundermann: Sun worship in Old Iran
  • Adalbert J. Gail: “Let us think of this desired splendour of the sun god who should inspire our thoughts.” Sun worship in Vedic India
  • Adalbert J. Gail: Armed and booted. Sun god and sun cult in Hinduism
  • Lee-Kalisch: How and why did one shoot at the Nine Suns? Concepts and representations of suns in ancient China
  • Index of Select Subjects
  • List of authors


The nine chapters of this book formed part of a series of lectures (‘Universitäts-Vorlesung’) in the summer-term of 2006 sponsored by the Freie Universität Berlin on the occasion of my last official semester after 34 years of teaching.

Maybe I would have ceased my interest in sun worship in India after an article in the ZDMG (see Ch. 7), that intrinsically was a review of two books on Sun-worship in Ancient India that appeared with the same title in the years 1971 by L.P. Pandey and 1972 by V.C. Srivastava but argued in diametrically opposed directions: one of them accepting, one denying that the sun cult of the Sauras originated from the Iranian Magas.

There was, however, an experience in India that almost tied me to the sun and instigated other publications on the subject (see references of Ch. 8). On one of my journeys through India I came in 1976 to the magnificent temple-town of Osian in the desert of Rajasthan, 60 km north of Jodhpur. Since lodges were not (yet) available in those years I had to spend the night on the bare ground in the surroundings of the Sacchia Mata temple crowning a hill.

In the morning I woke up early before sunrise, was served with some tea and chapati, and turned my eyes towards the line of the horizon in the east. Then, little by little, the grey shade vanished in favour of an orange colour, the horizon became brighter and brighter. In the words of the Vedic poet: Dawn, the beautiful maiden, was running in front, followed by her lover, the Sun, first appearing as a small segment that already diffused a mass of yellow light. Within two minutes, however, an outburst of light inflamed earth and sky and turned the ensemble of tiny temples beneath the hill from grey silhouettes into colourful bodies of textured and figured stone.

This miraculous experience, this fascinating spectacle has preserved my interest in the sun, its physical1 as well as metaphysical impact on human beings to this day. While I am writing these lines, the earliest location of the sun cult on the Indian subcontinent – preserved by its name Multan (= mūlasthāna in Sanskrit, meaning primeval place), a large city in Pakistan’s Punjab, is suffering heavier floods than at any time in recorded history. The destruction of the magnificent sun temple and its golden image happened long ago (11th century A.D.), and the sun god seems unwilling to come back for a while in order to dry away the devastating waters. The spectacular disc of Nebra, discovered in the year 1999 (Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany), is about 3.600 years old and is considered to be the oldest artistic rendering of the night-sky, depicting sun and moon, the Pleiades with other stars, and the sun’s boat, as well as other astronomical data.

This wonderful bronze reminds us of the fact that rather early and most probably in most civilizations of the world, the sun not only played a vital role in the daily experience of human beings, but was also taken to be a heavenly body of the utmost religious importance. So a collection of just nine articles on sun worship in various regions of the inhabited world and regarding different periods of history signifies only a small segment of ideas and beliefs connected with the most impressive of all heavenly bodies, called divākara (Sanskrit: ‘maker of the day’) in Indian tradition. But even this relatively small section of sun worship in the history of mankind, presented here, leaves no doubt about the fact that the actually simple phenomenon on the sky, a disc shining and warming in mostly yellow colour, set in motion a tremendous amount of creative imagination and sometimes fundamentally determined whole societies.

In the older history, of course, the outstanding singularity of the sun compared with other stars was no matter of debate. Nowadays, however, we have learned the lesson that billions more suns of a comparable type are scattered throughout the universe, a piece of information that is apt to mark the limits of our comprehension. When the Chinese enlarge the number of suns from one to ten, one would almost assume that the myth represents an early glance beyond our one-sun solar system (Ch. 9). In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, the fifth sun does not mean an enlargement of the solar bodies, but represents the fifth, contemporaneous aeon of a cyclical pentad (Ch. 5). Sun and moon, according to Chinese thought also reflect the basic dualism of yang and yin (Ch. 9).

The different names of the sun, indeed a wide spectrum, might be explained in terms of ethnicity, as convincingly attested in Mesoamerica (Ch. 1), or else they refer to actual observations and functions leading to a multitude of names in India (Chs. 7 and 8).

Unique importance was attributed to the worship of the sun in Rome of the pre-Constantine period by the cult of Sol Invictus whose traces are still preserved in the German Sonntag, a name that is replaced by the Christian Dies Domenica (dimanche etc.) in the countries of Latin-based languages.

One revolutionary act was Echnaton’s attempt to replace Egyptian polytheism by the worship of the sun god Aton exclusively, an attempt that completely failed and was later brutally and totally reversed in favour of the inherited gallery of gods (Ch. 2). A careful reading of the nine chapters will make clear that the respective civilizations are no isolated entities. The Neareastern documents regarding the sun are intermeshed with those from Old Iran (Šamaš) and Mithra in Chs. 5 and 6), and the well-known affinities between the Avestan and the Vedic tradition is here witnessed by the relationship between Mithra and Mitra (Chs. 6 and 7).

An obvious reason made it necessary to discuss the Indian testimonies in two chapters. Disregarding the fact that there are numismatic proofs of worshippers of the Greek Helios in the time of the Kushans (1st/2nd century A.D.) in north-west India, both the Vedic tradition of nonpictorial sun worship as prayer to the sun on the one hand, and a sun cult rich in imagery that is comparable with the average Hindu cult on the other hand, can be observed in India to this day. The latter cult was, to my opinion, originally inspired by Iranian sun priests (Ch. 8).

The Hindu temple cult preserves two fictitious ideas about the planets, persistent as are many other concepts that have long since been scientifically refuted.

1. The eighth planet, according to this tradition, is Rāhu who – by swallowing these heavenly bodies from time to time – is responsible for the eclipses of sun and moon.

2. The group of nine planets, assembled as tiny figures on a square board in almost every South Indian temple, is guided by the sun as their first and foremost member.

Andreas Hofeneder had to do with diametrically opposed judgements about a possible sun cult among the Celts (Ch. 4). He presents a careful evaluation of all available sources and comes to the conclusion that a clear identification of a sun cult is not possible. Caesar attributes the sun to the Germanic, not to the Gallic pantheon. European thinking about the sun has, beginning with the Greeks, evolved an idea that is not at all attested in non-European civilisations, as far as I can see: the music of the spheres. The movement of the fixed stars and of the individual planets generates musical sounds that cannot be perceived by human ears. Jointly these sounds compose a harmonious accord.

In Goethe’s Prolog im Himmel, introducing Faust, archangel Raphael proclaims:
Die Sonne tönt nach alter Weise
in Brudersphären Wettgesang,
und ihre vorgeschriebne Reise
vollendet sie mit Donnergang.

The connection of the luminous body of the sun with music is breath-taking. As if the visual harmony of the stars and their movement would have called for an acoustic correlate in order to complete that harmony or to bestow upon it an absolute shape.

The nine contributions to this book are by no means homogeneous. Their different appearance is caused not only by the individuality of the authors, but also by the divergent nature of the subject-matter. Original sources, for instance, can only be quoted (hymns, prayers, descriptions), if their reference to the sun does not allow room for any doubts. Even if such doubts can be ruled out, in some cases a survey of the material without too many citations appeared more recommendable. I have left it up to the authors whether they want to embellish their essays with illustrations or not. The individual chapters are arranged in such a way that they deal with the various cultures on a roughly West-to-East basis. It is also important to emphasise that the range of topics discussed in the book is determined by the specialisations of the participating colleagues. We hope that this volume may also inspire interest in the role of the sun in other cultural areas of the world, no matter how widespread that role may have been (e.g. the Slavonic or Germanic traditions).

Finally I would like to thank the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Bonn and the Freie Universität Berlin for a considerable grant towards the printing costs. My thanks go to Brigitte Werner who protects the ‘ring-lectures’ of the Freie Universität Berlin and who encouraged me when I started thinking about the realization of the present book. Any delay is my responsibility.

I warmly thank my friend and colleague Prof. Dr. Jaroslav Vacek who not only accepted the manuscript for the Pandanus periodical but also invested much time and suffered many troubles before getting the text to the publisher TRITON who also deserves my cordial thanks.

Berlin, August 2010         Adalbert J. Gail

Marble altar (ara) dedicated to Sol and to the gods of Palmyra (Rome, Musei Capitolini, 2nd half of 1st century A.D.) Marble altar (ara) dedicated to Sol and to the gods of Palmyra (Rome, Musei Capitolini, 2nd half of 1st century A.D.)


The sun god in Ancient Mexico: the birth of the fifth sun. From chieftain to sun god: Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war among the Aztecs
Ursula Thiemer-Sachse, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

In the cosmogony of the central Mexican peoples which, due to their common characteristics of language, habits and culture, are subsumed together as Aztecs, the sun god played an important part. Like all the other gods he himself had various aspects. As we can rely on numerous sources, which include illustrations from Aztec and contemporary Mixtec pictorial manuscripts as well as other iconographic representations, and which further comprehend transmitted texts of myths, we will here draw up the cosmogony of the Aztecs to present the solar deity in Ancient Mexico. At this stage we are in the Post-classical time of the last 500 years before the Spanish conquest which, around 1520, destroyed the aboriginal cultures of Mexico.

In the end we will speak about Huiztilopochtli. In his song, chanted in appropriate rituals, it is said: “Huitzilopochtli, the warrior. Nobody is like me. Not in vain have I put on clothing of yellow feathers, for by me the sun has risen – the time of sacrifices has appeared.” – Huitzilopochtli was understood as the young sun, his birth shows him to be a warrior god.

“The soul of the sun permeates the whole world.” Sun cult and religious astronomy in Ancient Egypt
Alexandra von Lieven, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

In Ancient Egypt, the cult of the sun was of major importance from the earliest periods until the very end of Paganism. The solar god under different names and forms was perceived as the creator and highest deity in the pantheon. Other gods could be identified with him to mark their increased rank and importance via ‘solarization’. His cult comprised both highly esoteric forms of worship executed within the temples by priests and popular practices available to the whole of the population. While the latter as well as the everyday temple rituals were more or less identical for all Egyptian deities, some of the more esoteric rites were specific to the solar cult.

Helios, Sol, and Sol Invictus. Cults of the sun in Greece and Rome
Widu-Wolfgang Ehlers, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Though Helios was not one of the Olympian gods, he is mentioned by Homer and had a major role in Athenian daily life; he was a central figure of cult only in Rhodes, where his colossal statue was a Wonder of the World. In Rome there was from earliest times a cult of Sol, a charioteer god associated with the races at the Circus. In philosophy, Plato used the sun as a symbol for the idea of the good, and Helios becomes a kind of celestial governor of the world, with a special role in utopian societies. From the time of Julius Caesar, the cult of the sun and of the ruler (emperor) were gradually assimilated. In the later empire, solar pantheism became the dominant religion of the Roman world. The last pagan emperor Julian tried to connect the old myths of the gods with a philosophical monotheism and political ideology centred on King Helios. The cult of the sun was banned by Theodosius in 391–392, but its influence remains in the date of Christmas, which was fixed on the Feast of the Nativity of Sol Invictus, the 25th of December.

Vestiges of sun worship among the Celts
Andreas Hofeneder, University of Vienna, Austria

In modern scholarship opinions on the importance of sun worship among the Celts differ considerably. The principal reason for this is certainly to be looked for in those sources of a possible sun cult which allow for different interpretations. This paper offers a reappraisal of the available and very scanty evidence for a Celtic sun cult and arrives at the conclusion that the religious conceptions which the Celts had concerning the sun can scarcely be identified.

“When Šamaš comes forth from the great mountain”. The sun cult and sun symbolism in Mesopotamia
Dominik Bonatz, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

This essay presents a survey of divine manifestations of the sun and symbolism used in relation to the sun in ancient Mesopotamia. It confronts the religious perception of a natural phenomenon with the different representations of the anthropomorphic sun god, Akkadian Šamaš, who was worshipped as ‘Universal Guide’, ‘Protector of the Living’, ‘Light of the Dead’, and ‘Supreme Judge’. In his close relation to kingship, the sun god was expected to perform a variety of functions and was petitioned for this purpose using rituals and prayers that had been especially designed for the sun cult. While these functions will be described by citing examples of Babylonian and Assyrian ritual texts, the focus of this essay is on the visual imagery. In addition to the textual record, the symbolic and anthropomorphic depictions of the sun are to be taken as an example of the permanence and viability of religious concepts in ancient Mesopotamia.

Sun worship in Old Iran
Werner Sundermann, Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, Germany

The problematic nature of sun worship in ancient Iran is characterized well by the contradictory descriptions of the sun as “the worst”, according to Lommel (1962), and as “the best”, according to Gershevitch (1975), in their studies of its position in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism respectively. The diversity of doctrines and cults in Iran regarding sun worship and the development of its most important aspects are discussed in this contribution. It focuses both on the position of the sun within the divine work of salvation, and on the genesis of a mighty, just and benevolent sun god in the pantheon. The large gap between theology and folk belief is demonstrated by the transformation of the powerful god Mithra, the lord of contracts, into a sun god, probably under the influence of the Babylonian-Assyrian god Šamaš, “sun”, a development not present in orthodox Zoroastrian scripture. The Manichaean doctrine concerning the sun formed part of a completely different theological system from the Zoroastrian one, despite many similarities between sun worship in both religions during the Sasanian period.

Let us think of this desired splendour of the sun god who should inspire our thoughts. Sun worship in Vedic India
Adalbert J. Gail, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Sūrya belongs to the major gods in the Rgveda, next to Agni and Indra. In contrast to later Hindu practice he is not worshipped with images and temples but by singing his hymns, particularly the Gāyatrī (= title of this chapter) and personal rites such as sipping water, donating water, control of breath etc.

According to Vedic imagination the sun is the soul of everything that moves or that is immovable. Sūrya crosses the sky on a one-wheeled chariot drawn by seven dun horses. His predecessor before sunrise is Uṣas (dawn) who is compared with a maiden followed by her lover. The sun is the witness of all sins committed by human beings. He is the eye of Mitra (representing contract) and Varuṇa (representative of truth), and also reports to them who is innocent among humans. Often, in a henotheistic or inclusivistic manner, Sūrya is praised as the only or as the supreme god encompassing all others.

A particular Vedic idea is the assumption that Sūrya is like other gods magically dependent on priestly activities (singing, sacrificing) – ample quotations from Vedic stanzas try to convey the beauty that the poets connected with Sūrya’s splendour.

Armed and Booted. Sun god and sun cult in Hinduism
Adalbert J. Gail, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Around the turn of the eras the Indian sun cult seems to have been imported by Iranian Sun priests, the Magas. Puranic texts still preserve requisites like a special bunch of grass (baresman) and a girdle (aiwyanhana) that are reminiscent of the Iranian origin of the pictorial worship of the sun in contrast to Vedic worship (see Chapter Seven) that was non-pictorial. In addition the northern dress (udīcyaveṣa) attributed to the sun, most probably referring to his boots, and a cuirass, imply foreign elements in his outfit.

Images of Sūrya depicting him drawn by a quadriga are influenced by the Mediterranean world. These are gradually pushed back in favour of a chariot drawn by seven horses in accordance with old Indian tradition.

During the times of the Gupta kings the sun cult seems to have been integrated within the fold of Hindu sects under the name Sauras, including the general scheme of Hindu worship, i.e. pūjā in temples. In certain areas like Nepal, Bengal and Orissa the image of the sun loses the above-mentioned paraphernalia and is more closely adapted to normal Hindu gods (shawl, bare feet etc.).

The sect of the Sauras does not seem to have found its way to regions like Nepal, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, while the density of sun temples in Gujarat (Kathiawar) and Rajasthan, compared with other Indian sites, still points to the origin of the sun cult from the north-west.

How and why did one shoot at the Nine Suns? Concepts and representations of suns in ancient China
Jeong-hee Lee-kalisch, Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany

Although highly complex and not always logically comprehensible, the world of Chinese mythology is reflective of Chinese philosophy and religions. It provides an indispensable foundation for interpretation in the fields of Chinese archaeology and art history, as for example in regard to understanding concepts of the sun in Chinese antiquity. The article at hand deals with representations of the sun and other celestial bodies in ancient China on the basis of selected archaeological excavations. In particular, it investigates the mythological motif of the archer Houyi and Nine Suns, to be found on a clothes chest from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. A close reading of this motif reveals in what way depictions of the sun are to be understood within the context of Chinese cosmic principles and philosophically rooted conceptions of dualism.

back to publications list | buy Pandanus online

Pandanus Publications
back to publications list | buy Pandanus online
(c) 1998-2016 Seminar of Indian Studies, Institute of South and Central Asia, Faculty of Arts, Charles University.