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Celestial commanding and Solar supplication

By Edmund Connolly, on 4 April 2013

With the days lengthening and the bleak Beowulf-like nights withering we can start to revel in getting home from work in glorious sunshine (/grey illumination) and wend our commuter way with the street lights still off. Returning to my theme of spring (and Ancient Egypt), I’m now intrigued by the new affectation in the heavens:  the sun!

Our sun is about 4.6 billion years old, comprising of 99.86% of the solar system’s mass. Probably the starkest visual image we can experience, the sun has inspired civilizations over millennia, and continues to affect our notion of time, season and even our emotions.




With innovations such as Galton’s metrological maps and his sunshine record, humans have been able to map the sun and start to understand this gaseous body.

Galton's Meteorological maps

Galton’s Meteorological maps

The sun is not always a dominant entity,  images such as this Flaxman show the sun being commanded to set by the Goddess Juno. Here the sun is represented as Helios’ bedazzled chariot, whilst the Goddess, somewhat aloofly, dismisses him beyond the horizon.


Flaxman, John (1755-1826) 2825, UCL Art Musuem

Flaxman, John (1755-1826)
2825, UCL Art Musuem

Scurrying back in time, I think it is quite safe to say that the Ancient Egyptian’s religious fixation with the sun is well established and known (____), generally attributed to Ra, often represented as a falcon headed god with a sun disk radiating from behind his celestial brow. Most popular at the site of Heliopolis, Ra gradually assimilated the local sun-deity Atum, growing in popularity throughout the years, proving its most popular in the 5th century (roughly 2,500-2,000 BC). Despite these two sun-worshipees, it is the notorious Akhenaten (12th century BC) who really made this sun stuff serious.


After founding the city Akhet-Aten, devoted to the sun god, Akhenaten fervently continued to worship the sun disk (Aten), earning himself the title (posthumously) of the ‘heretic king’.


Akhenaten, UC401, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Akhenaten, UC401, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

With arms upraised he and his family, in a rather Von Trapp type arrangement, raise their hands, basking in the suns glow (fingers crossed for this here!) Akhenaten tried to suppress the polytheistic faith of his predecessors, focusing the religious mind of the Ancient Egyptians to supplicating and celebrating the Sun as a God-Figure that provided life and light to the world.

So why this shift from supplication to commanding and analysis? Often archaeologists and Cultural Historians[1] are encouraged to draw similarities between more contemporary and ancient minds, but here I see a stark difference. The 19th century scholar and artist represent the sun on page as a matter of numbers and statistics, or as a minor entity being ordered and controlled. But for Akhenaten, the sun was divine, the life force of the world.

Perhaps a point to muse on, personally, whilst I may not worship the sun, I would dearly love for it to appear for an interval greater than 20 minutes!


[1] I guess I am one of these

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