Even the most avid reader of ancient mythology could be forgiven for assuming that humanity has forever and always looked up at the brightest object in the sky and venerated it as a masculine source of energy, warmth and creation, the brother or husband of the soft, gentle, and lesser light of the moon. One might think that sun goddesses are a rare exception to the rule, found in isolated pockets of humanity where people just didn’t get the message that the solar orb is a perfect symbol of male strength and virility, yang to woman’s dark, watery, and lunar yin.
So, is the popular perception accurate? Is the Sun male? Interestingly, the question itself suggests an answer, for when we ask about the gender of the sun, the very word we use for the greatest of lights in the sky is derived from the name of a goddess. Sunna, or Sunnu, is the name of the sun goddess of the Germanic peoples, the peoples who became not only the Germans, but the Scandinavians, the Franks (after whom France is named), and the Anglo-Saxons (who entered Britain in the Dark Ages and spoke the first version of the English language). So the correct answer to the question is clearly no, the Sun is not necessarily male. To the cultural ancestors of northwestern Europe, the sun was female. They weren’t alone.
In fact, as it turns out, the more you look for a female Sun, the more you find her. In religion and myth, in language and fairy tale, her story is incredibly ancient. How ancient, it’s hard to say, as her symbols are often consistent across vast expanses of time and space. In seemingly unrelated cultures she is trapped in caves or towers and/or by old hags at midwinter; she is captured or brought back by mirrors; she spins light or gold or perfect flax; she is accompanied by or appears as cats or lions, leopards or tigers (a phenomenon we’ll see more of in Part 2). In many cases she is directly remembered, but in others these well known associations with her are fragmented and reflected back in fairy tales like those told by the Brothers Grimm.
There is too much of the Sun Goddess to condense into a single post, so we will return to her stories individually from time to time. Here’s a summary of some of the more interesting facts about the feminine sun:
THE CHARIOT OF THE SUN:
The Indo-European people whose language forms the root of virtually all the languages spoken in the western world today (as well as that of India) are often presented in feminist theory as the baddies in the development of patriarchal ways throughout the lands they entered. It is likely that these peoples originated in eastern Europe and spread outward from there, either by conquest or migration or both. It’s also likely that they brought with them a Sky God who began to dominate ancient pantheons, and that they were warriors who probably invented chariots and first tamed the horses who pulled them.
But all the powers in the sky may not have been male to the Indo-European mind. The popular image throughout Europe of the fiery sun deity riding across the sky in a chariot presents a challenge to the idea that these ancient ancestors thought of women as weaklings. It’s true that as the sun flew over the skies of the Greeks and Romans (both descended from Indo-Europeans), he was called male, and his sister was the moon; up north, however, it was the other way around. Sol is the Roman name for the Greek Sun God Helios; however, it is also the name of a Viking Sun Goddess, also called Sunnu, and both are related to the Lithuanian Sun Goddess Saule. Both Sunnu and Saule ride across the daytime sky in horse drawn chariots, just like Roman Sol. All these cultures are related to Indo-Europeans.
WARMING THE NORTH:
The most widespread and clearly attested area of Sun Goddess worship is in the north, where the Sun Goddess’ range extends from Japan in the east, across Siberia, to the Baltics of eastern Europe, across the lands of the Vikings and Germans and all the way to Anglo-Saxon England. In all these places, the sun is female. There are even hints that the Celts (yet another branch of the Indo-European family tree) had a Sun Goddess as well as the better known Sun God, Lugh. The Gaelic word for sun, grian, is feminine, just like the Germanic word for sun is, and goddess-turned-saint Bridget is remembered with peculiarly solar imagery in her stories and festival. ( She returns annually in February as the sun increases its power, wearing a white dress; she could hang her cloak on a sunbeam; a perpetual flame is lit in her honor; as a baby she shone with such unearthly radiance the neighbors thought the house was on fire, and so on.) More definitely, Sol or Sunnu in Scandinavia, Saule in the Baltics, and Amaterasu in Japan, are all Goddesses of the Sun.
Outracing the wolves until the end of time: Norse Sunnu, the “bright bride of the heavens” rides in a horse-drawn chariot across the sky by day, while her brother Mani, the moon, does the same by night. The Poetic Edda of Norse mythology, first recorded in the 13th century, tells us that the Sun Goddess races so quickly because she is pursued by a terrible wolf called Skoll, who will at the end of time devour her. Fortunately, it is foretold that she will give birth to a daughter, a future sun for a future earth, before she — and the world with her — are destroyed in the final battle of Ragnarok. Mani is also pursued by a wolf.
Spinning sunlight: Saule, the sun goddess of the Lithuanians and Latvians near the Baltic Sea in eastern Europe is an ancient and still very well remembered goddess. As late as the 15th Century Baltic people were celebrating a festival at winter solstice at which the goddess Saule had to be released from imprisonment in a tower by means of a metal hammer wielded by the 12 signs of the zodiac. The hammer was evidently also used to create a golden cup for her light. On the solstice she then emerged in a horse-drawn chariot to fly through the skies bearing the cup of light.
The women there still sing her songs, in which they say Saule spins threads on her spinning wheel — threads of light, of gold and silver, of fate. She cries amber tears for her daughter, Ausrine, who is the morning star and a descendant of the Indo-European Goddess of the Dawn. Ausrine was abducted by her father, Saule’s husband, Menuo, the moon. (He is repeatedly punished for his crime by being cut in half every month.)
Amber tear drops and amber spindles are among Saule’s symbols which can be found in very ancient gravesites. Her symbols are consistent with those of artifacts dating back to the Neolithic and her stories are told in a language which may be the closest living relative of the later Bronze Age Indo Europeans. Her chariot identifies her with the Indo-European sun, but this attribute might have been grafted on to an earlier goddess. There are only two genders which could be assigned to the sun, of course, and it may be that both the older and newer cultures chose the feminine, with the two combining into the single figure of the Baltic Sun Goddess. Symbols of the Sun Goddess live on not just in the songs of the Lithuanians but also in the stories of western Europe, where she was less clearly recalled and passed out of myth and hymn and into fairy tale. When princesses with golden hair are trapped in towers or on glass islands, when they must spin thread or hair or gold to save themselves, these are memories of the same Sun Goddess at winter, trapped and in need of saving. The Brothers Grimm tell us, for example, that Rapunzel, with her long, golden hair, trapped by a hag, escapes eventually from her tower. Later she cries bitter tears over her handsome, would-be rescuer, a prince who has been blinded by the witch for his efforts. Her tears, powerful as the amber tears of a goddess, cure his blindness.
Mother of an empire: Sun Goddesses once worshiped across the far north included the Finnish Paivatar, Finno-Ugric Akanidi, and the Siberian Kajae. The sun was also female in Korea. In all these places she was served by female shamans and in Siberia she was served later by male shamans who wore metal breasts and hair braided like women. There they remembered that the first shaman was a woman who mated with an eagle.
From Korea, she probably passed even further east into the stories of Japan, where the Sun Goddess is alive and well today. There, religious tolerance helped her escape the persecution she faced in ancient (and modern) China and Korea as more male oriented religions like Confucianism and Buddhism took hold (and again as Communism persecuted religion in general.)
In the Middle Ages, when Korea was ruled by China, the female shamans who served the Sun Goddess were poisoned, jailed, or starved to death and their books were burned. As a result, their tradition has all but disappeared.
By contrast, Shinto worshipers of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu still leave carefully written prayers in her shrines today. Ancient dances by women in masks reenact a myth in which Amaterasu retreated to a cave to avoid the noise of her brother, the Storm God. Her disappearance, of course, led to chaos in which darkness and demons took over the world. She was lured out by the Goddess Uzume who danced an obscene dance which made her laugh. Amaterasu’s symbol is the mirror, a fact which connects her to the shamanic practices of Siberia, in which mirrors are used to communicate with the world of the gods. Though female shamans have been replaced by male priests and Shinto has been peacefully merged with other religions, like Buddhism, Amaterasu is remembered. Perhaps the reason the Sun Goddess and her followers survived in Japan is just as political, though, as the reasons she didn’t in Korea. For, you see, the Emperors of Japan have from 660 BC right down to the present day claimed to be descended in an unbroken line from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. That’s right, the Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC), first in the Yamato dynasty, said his grandmother was the Sun. Or at least his descendants said so. Whatever her origins and date of birth, Amaterasu is clearly part of the same system of beliefs held across the northeastern part of Asia, probably for millennia, and she’s still worshiped today — a last holdout of the ancient northern religion of the female Sun.
See Part 2 here.