According to Wikipedia.org’s list of 96 solar deities, sun gods and goddesses were central to many ancient religions and cultures and are still worshiped in some major religions today, such as Hinduism. (That’s right, for practicing Hindus, the Surya namaska, or sun salutation, is more than a series of poses in a morning yoga class; it’s a way to worship Surya, the Hindu solar deity.) The sun’s star role in creation myths is hardly surprising given the major real estate the sun takes up in the sky and the dramatic entrance and exit it makes daily in our lives.
Gnowee, sun goddess of the Wotjobaluk aborigines of south-eastern Australia, perfectly embodies the cycle of loss and hope in sunrise and sunset as she crosses the sky daily with a bark torch, searching for her lost son:
Gnowee, the Sun, was once a woman who lived upon the earth when it was dark all the time. . . . One day she left her little boy sleeping while she went to dig roots for food. Yams were scarce, and Gnowee wandered so far that she reached the end of the earth, and continuing her wanderings, passed under it and came up on the other side. Not knowing where she was, as it was dark, she could not find her little boy any more. She has now gone to the sky with a great bark torch, and wanders across it and the earth still looking for him. Aldo Massola, Bunjil’s Cave: Myths, Legends & Superstitions of the Aborigines of South-East Australia (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1968).
And what better (if slightly creepy) way to acknowledge the sun’s vital, life-giving power than to imagine, as the Aztecs did, that the sun was a self-immolating god who courageously leapt into the flames to burn forever in the service of humanity when none of the other gods wanted the job?
Fans of reality TV will appreciate those myths that explain day and night as the result of sibling rivalry or strained child custody arrangements among gods, including the Inuit story of Malina, goddess of the sun, who crosses the sky over Greenland fleeing from her brother Anningan, the moon, and the Baltic myth of Saulė, the goddess of the sun, and her ex-husband, Mėnuo, god of the moon, who following their divorce spend equal amounts of time with their child, the Earth.
Drama also runs high in the stories about Étaín, the Irish sun goddess, who spent years as a wind-blown butterfly because her husband’s jealous ex-wife just couldn’t let go, and who was later rescued by said husband from a very bad bargain (sleeping with another man, not her husband, out of pity, who said he was “dying of love for her”– puleeze).
Of course, when family drama occurs among the gods, the world can literally burn, as happened when Phaëton, son of Helios, the Ancient Greek Titan god of the sun, took his father’s chariot for a joy ride and crashed.