The Sun and Me

Welcome back to Etymonday — the weekly, unprofessional, perhaps even incorrect etymology and thoughts blogcast.

The previous week I mused on stars, so perhaps it’s convenient to talk about the closest and brightest star in our sky, the Sun, and specifically, it’s many variants and names that I find personally interesting.

The word “sun”  comes from the Old English word sunne, which comes from the Proto-Germanic word sunnon, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root suwen. Much like the word “star,” the word for sun seems to have remained remarkably static throughout the centuries, perhaps because the Sun itself is so utterly constant. More than even the stars, which ancient peoples have noticed had a few stray actors such as the planets or the occasional meteor, but the Sun never changed. Still, as it evolved in other languages, such as into the Greek helios or the Latin sol,  or the Sanskrit surya, the symbolism behind the Sun seems fairly universal. Interestingly, suwen may be related to the word for south, due to the fact that the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European would have always been in the Northern Hemisphere; therefore, the Sun would have always appeared in the south. Only along the equator does it appear that the Sun travels perfectly east to west across the sky.

The Sun was often seen as the embodiment of heavenly perfection for many civilizations across time. Cults that worshiped the Sun must have been nearly ubiquitous across the surface of the Earth, as even we acknowledge now in the modern day that nearly all of our energy production is driven by solar energy. Wind and water? That energy comes from the input of solar energy that moves those substances. Fossil fuels? Any bio-fuel can be traced back to chlorophyll and plants, which source their energy from the Sun. Geothermal and nuclear energy perhaps are the only two that do not have a strictly solar origin, but even they are byproducts of a previous Sun that exploded in order to create the materials that eventually coalesced into the Earth. Alchemists of Europe believed the Sun to be made of the perfect material, which was crystallized in their pursuit of gold.

In fact, it might be worth to take a trip down the halls of world mythology in order to see how people viewed the Sun. The Sumerians believed the sun to be Utu, the dispenser of justice and truth, rider of the sun chariot, a concept that survived since the Neolithic era. The “solar barque” was a ship that the Sun rode on, which is reflected in Egyptian mythology with Atum the sun-god and Horus the god of the sun, and later Ra. It almost seems as if control over the Sun shifted over time as different kingdoms within Egypt rose and fell from power, as if conquering the mythology of the Sun itself was symbolic of asserting absolute authority.

The Greeks perceived the sun as the god Helios, and later, Apollo. Interestingly, the earliest epics of Homer see Apollo in a different light than the Romans who saw Apollo as a shining, solar god. In any case, the original driver of the solar chariot Helios, son of Hyperion, was thought to be all-seeing and diligent, attending to the dangerous and skillful task of daily controlling a chariot that had the power to set the entire world on fire. The Romans believed something similar but went on to eventually call the Sun Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, incidentally, whose festival was celebrated on December 25th to celebrate the passing of winter solstice and return of longer days.

The list goes on and on, and one can peruse Wikipedia’s article on solar deities for themselves, but the point is that the Sun represents power. It is considered masculine in almost all mythologies (although the Proto-Germanic word was feminine, and there’s evidence of a Pan-Asiatic sun goddess such as in the Japanese goddess Amaterasu), and is even the chief god in some, the son of a chief god, or at the very least a high-ranking, respected member of the pantheon. The Sun is never to be looked down upon or trifled with, and many who dare try in these mythologies are punished to the utmost and destroyed.

The Sun represents power and life. Bright, burning, beautiful, like fire itself, capable of warming and harming. It is a measure, lengths of its day used to determine seasons and calendars, the zodiac used to determine the fate of a child. Eclipses come and go, but the Sun rose and set every single day since eternity without fail. Nothing else could compare to the persistence of power of the Sun. A sunny disposition is someone who is bright and cheerful, full of energy and optimism. The Sun is hope in solitary constancy, that things will not change despite how things appear to change. Could it be that the Latin word solus as in “alone” (where we draw “solitary” or “isolated” from) is related to the fact that there is only one Sun who is unaccompanied by the moon or the stars?

It was not actually so large a leap in logic to think the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than vice versa due to the role the Sun played in the minds of men. Who could ever have accepted a selenocentric model? I also wonder what kind of mythologies would occur in a planet orbiting a binary star system. The fact that we now understand the Sun is not eternal, is not the center of the universe, and isn’t unblemished (sunspots are certainly a thing) doesn’t really diminish the subconscious veneration we all have for the Sun even in the modern day. It is symbolic of awe-inspiring strength. It is symbolic of truth and light. It is the greatest physical fire that humanity has ever experienced, and we survive in its shade rather than its full presence. It’s almost fair to say that it is the closest thing that we have to an incarnate deity.

Stars and Me

I think on Mondays I’d like to talk about words.

And today, starry-eyed as I am, I’d like to discuss stars.

The word star is super interesting because it doesn’t come from Latin or Greek like the other 70% of English words. It comes from the Old English word steorra, which comes from an even earlier Proto-Germanic word sterzon, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ster. Isn’t it incredible how a word remained so static for over 7000 years of human history? How many words can boast that claim? Moreover, due to the sheer stability of the structure of the word, the English word “star” has many cousins in other languages that sound remarkably similar. Aster, stella, steren, estrella, stjerne, staar… the list goes on and on.

It’s theorized that IshtarAstarte, and Ashtoreth — all ancient goddesses of love, associated with the planet Venus — are potentially related to the word “star” due to the fact that Venus appears to be a wandering star (the Greek word planetes literally means “wanderer”). The movement of the planets, and therefore, the movement of the gods, was believed to determine the course of calamity and blessing. This is where we get the word disaster, literally meaning “bad star.”

Movie stars and rock stars and musical stars… all called such things because back in the 1820s, marketers would advertise by claiming the most famous members of touring theater and performance groups as stars, an idea that started to enter the popular consciousness only around this time. In history, reference to people as stars was commonly used to suggest their eternal fame or glory, as when Orion (of belt or hunting fame, depending on who you ask) was made a constellation in the heavens. Shakespeare and Chaucer used “star” to describe people as well. We use “stellar” to describe something good, but it was originally used to describe anything pertaining to stars. Strangely enough, the origin of that usage of “stellar” comes from the fact that we call these great people “stars,” which almost seems like an etymology that eats itself.

But I think what I find most interesting about the myriad uses of the word star and its conjugates is the idea that it all stems from one of the most widespread activities on the planet Earth: stargazing. Since time immemorial, single culture on every single continent has experienced night, and with it, the passing of the sun and the appearance of countless flecks of light speckling the sky, and all of them wondered what they were seeing. And so they stared, identifying ones that moved of their own whims, but noting the constancy of the stellar wallpaper.

To all people of the Earth, stars meant high and heavenly, almost divine, unsearchable. The way they moved, and the pattern to which they were arrayed could only be guessed at. And yet they chose to guess, eyes all around the world affixed on the same image of the boundless celestial ceiling, an unreachable backdrop upon which the history of mankind staged their performance.

They meant persistence. Every year, they would return to their positions, never having changed, only having revolved, as we perceived it. The very basis of the solar calendar, the pre-eminent calendar system of the ancient and modern day, was the Sun’s position relative to the stars. The Greek zodiac was developed to represent which constellation of the sky the Sun could be found in during that part of the year.

The stars never changed, no matter how far their explorers went. The North Star guided them by night as the Solar Star guided them by day. However, the further they went, the sooner they discovered there was a whole half of the sky that they had never seen. Two people from opposite poles would disagree about what the night sky looked like, but they were only ever looking at half of the full picture. Neither was ever wrong, unless they surmised that only their interpretation could have been correct.

I should note that as our observations of the stars have become keener and more refined, they are not as constant as they appear from afar. They change in luminosity — some grow weak and die with a puff, others expand and explode into a supernova. Others change places, dancing in a circular tango around one another. Some stars are so far away they can inform us of the history of the universe from ten billion years past due to the limitations on the propagation of light. They are born, they develop, they return to dust. It turns out they are only static in ignorance, but rather dynamic in truth. And now, our collective civilization has come to a point where it is possible to jettison man-made objects towards another star, to arrive there long after its creators have died. To reach for the stars could be more literal than poetic within our lifetimes.

Stars represent a lot… much more than what could be covered in a short post. They are symbolic of so many things that anyone from anywhere will immediately understand because of its pervasiveness in human experience, and I can’t help but see why the word has stayed the way it has for so long, and I can only guess that it will stay remarkably similar until the stars themselves begin to fade.