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.