An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 53

[Pg 120] several deities daily take ship to cross the heavens. Behind these anthropomorphic conceptions, however, lurked the older animistic idea, for we find that the Egyptians speak of the sun, the luminary itself, as the god, and that the Mexicans call it the teotl, the deity par excellence. Thus the animistic and anthropomorphic systems were in certain mythologies kept distinct. In others the animistic idea of the sun—that is, the sun itself, personified—remained to the end, as in the case of the Babylonian Merodach or the Japanese Ama-terasu. It is necessary, however, that the mythologist should distinguish between the anthropomorphic 'man of the sun' and the merely animistic concept of the sun-god.

Having thus distinguished between earlier and later types of the sun as deity, let us attempt to discover first his attributes as a god, and secondly if any definite and universal type of myth attaches to him. A generation ago mythologists were prone to "see sun-gods everywhere," as Mannhardt expressed it; but since that time the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Abundant criticism has been launched against the 'solar' theory, but it is not always pertinent and in many cases it is merely futile. The theory suffered from the philological school with which it was unfortunately bound up, and neither critics nor readers seem to be able to judge it on its mythological merits alone. In our inquiries as to the attributes and mythical character of the sun-god we shall find that the one will cast light on the other, for as his almost universal myth becomes revealed to us his attributes will gradually unfold themselves. In disentangling solar myths, too, we must be careful to lift the veil of allegory often cast over them later.

A rough synopsis of the groundwork of solar myth might be given as follows. After the sun has risen from the mysterious darkness, and after he has forsaken his first love, the dawn, he pursues his course, gaining access of strength as he proceeds in his bark or fiery chariot until, having passed the zenith, he gradually declines in strength, and on the verge o the western heavens encounters the monster night, who fights with and devours him. He must then traverse the Underworld, with all its dangers and horrors, until he succeeds in emerging once more at the gates of morning.

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Let us take a typical myth of this description, from which we may be able to gauge the universality of the sun legend. Apollo was the offspring of Zeus and Leto, the sky and the darkness. The name of his mother, denoting the oblivion of night, reappears in 'Lethe,' the gloomy river of the Underworld, and in 'Latmos,' the 'Land of Shadows.' In the Ionian hymn which recounts the circumstances of his birth we read that Leto, when about to become his mother, could find no resting-place until she came to Delos. In that little stony island alone could she find repose, and so poor was it that she dreaded that her son, the great being about to be born, would spurn it into the sea. When Apollo was born the earth rejoiced and Delos became covered with flowers; but he was weak and helpless until Thetis touched his lips with the drink and food of the gods, when his swaddling-clothes, the white mists, fell off, and, seizing his lyre, he sang the praises of Zeus. His sojourn in Delos was short, and a second hymn tells us of his westward wanderings, of how he journeyed from land to land, always, however, returning to his native Delos. As soon as he cast from himself his swaddling-clothes, the white mists, he seized his quiver, the universal symbol of the sun-god, and, thus armed, went forth on his westward journey, until he came to the fountain of Telphussa, where he desired to remain, but Telphussa urged him to seek the more favoured land of Krisa. He then betook himself to Parnassus, where the two supernatural builders, Trophonius and Agamedes, raised a palace for him. It is at this point that he is confronted with the dragon which all sun-heroes meet and overcome.

Thus we see that Apollo is born of a mother whose name is darkness, that he casts from him the mists which enshroud him, and soars in the height of his glory over Parnassus, latterly overcoming the Python.[3]

A story with a similar groundwork is that of Beowulf[Pg 122] in our earliest English saga. Betaking himself to the court of King Hrothgar of Jutland, whose realm was being devastated by the monster Grendel, he succeeded in slaying him, but later had to dive to the bottom of the sea to encounter Grendel's mother. Years afterward he fights with and conquers a dragon who guards a treasure, but in the combat is poisoned by its fangs. Beowulf came to land in the traditional sun-boat as a child. The Saxons called their harvest month Beo or Bewod, and Grendel is, of course, the water-provider. The later dragon typifies the continued contest between the sun-god and darkness, and the treasure it guards is, of course, the gold of the setting sun, or perhaps the elixir of life.

Similar stories are told regarding Indra, Cadmus, Horus, and lesser sun heroes, such as Hercules, Perseus, Bellerophon, Sigurd, Siegfried, and Rustem. The sun myth too has found its way into folklore. A good example is the folk-tale of King Arthur, which shows how in all ages the sun story has been interwoven with tales of local and even national heroes. A great obscurity rests upon Arthur's birth, but at manhood he springs into almost instant prominence and is hailed as rightful monarch of Britain. He slays not one dragon but several. He possesses the magic sword which all solar heroes wield. He kills his thousands and tens of thousands, and finally, when placed hors de combat, like other solar heroes, at Camelot, does not perish, but is wafted in a magical boat to the island of Avalon in the western sea. The sun myth has also attached itself to the stories of many of Arthur's knights, especially to that of Sir Tristram. May it not be that even the Round Table symbolizes the sun?