The Sun Through the Ages

Our sun has been a wonder from the time of the earliest civilizations. From religion to art and dance to science and astronomy, the sun has played a prominent role in human history. I can't hope to cover even a fraction of the material on the sun in history, but here are a few selections to spark your interest. I've divided them into 3 main catagories below. Maybe you'll even decide to investigate further on your own!

Religion and Culture

Most of the ancient civilizations, including the Sumerians, Greeks, Mayans, and Egyptians, had a sun-god of some sort in their religious framework. The Sun Dance was an important ritual for the North American Plains Indians. Anasazi and Mayan people built sun observatories and used their findings to calculate time and weather patterns. For these people, the sun was often seen as the source of life, but also as a source of death and harsh control. In some cases, the religion centered on sun worship and in others it was part of a larger scheme. But the importance of the sun for these ancient peoples is clear in their stories and beliefs.

  • The ancient Chinese people believed that there were actually 10 suns. The sun had such a powerful light and effect on their lives that they felt it must come from more than one source.
  • The oldest known sundial is in Southern Egypt and is thought to be over 6,000 years old. The stone structure, located in Nabta, was used to record the passing seasons.
  • In many early cultures, especially in the northern or central areas of the world, the sun was the focus of life because of its role in crop growth and seasons. Stonehenge is an ancient solar observatory illustrating the importance of the sun in an agricultural society.
  • Sumerians honored the sun-god Utu among their panthenon as early as 3000 BCE. However Utu was not among the most powerful of their gods, and seems to have been worshipped in tandem with moon and water gods. The sun and other planetary bodies were often associated with anthropomorphic gods in general.
  • The Akkadians extended the Sumerian notion of a sun-god to form a cult devoted to that worship. Soon the sun god Shamash was unrivaled in Akkadian culture and became the subject of temples, hymns, stories, and art.
  • Ancient Egyptians honored Ra-Atum-Khepri, the manifestation of God in the sun. They held that Ra created the first divine couple. Human life, too, came from the tears of Ra. The Pharaohs were believed to be the successors of the first king, who was the creator Ra. Because of this belief the pharaohs deeds and gestures were described in the same terms used to describe the actions of the Sun god Ra. Light was a symbol of life, and this was made especially clear through Ra. Aton, often called the supreme god, holds a solar disk in his hands, suggesting that his strength comes from the light of the sun.
  • The Greeks worshipped Apollo as a god connected to the sun, but soon tied him to the arts, music, and mathematics. This proved to be an important step, as the sun would be influencial in human advancement in all these areas and the subject of much debate and inquiry.


Images of the sun have been used in the art of almost all known cultures, both ancient and modern. Here are some examples of the ways that different artists interpreted this vital part of life.

This image (courtesty of Ron Lussier, is a Chaco Canyon petrograph of a man and sun. It was created by Anasazi (ancient inhabitants of the Americas) between 900 and 1130 CE.

Here is another image of a man and the sun (from the solar center at Stanford University); this one dates from the Copper Age and was found in the Alps mountain range.

As discussed above, the ancient Akkadians refered to the sun as Shamash. This is a common symbol used to represent this god and the sun in general for both the Akkadians and Sumerians. It is hard for me to see the clear connection to the basic image of a circle and rays, but this symbol was in use throughout Mesopotamia at the time. (image from

Ancient peoples of the Americas also used the sun prominently in their artwork. Often, it was represented by a circle with lines extending from the center, a concentration of dots in a circular pattern, or as a spiral. The image on the left comes from the Great Basin Desert in the southwest of the United States.

Scientific Inquiry

The sun has been a part of astronomical and scientific inquiry for centuries, which is not surprising given its prominant plave in the lives of men. But it has not always held the same position that we currently place it in. Our understanding of the sun and its relationship to us on Earth is a constantly evolving study. Here are some key steps in that evolution.

  • Geocentric or Heliocentric?
    Aristotle was an early developer of the geocentric view of the solar system, placing Earth at the center, around 384 to 322 BCE. However, Ptolemy, another Greek, is more generally credited with the promotion and refinement of a geocentric universe. This error would remain the dominant view well into the modern age. Using only logic and observation, early sun watchers believed that if the Earth was in motion, they would see stars change places. As they did not observe this, they mistakenly concluded that the sun was the body in constant motion.
    A breakthrough in understanding the sun came in 1543, when Copernicusreguted Ptolemy and posited a heliocentric view of solar movement. We now know that he was correct, but the public could not accept that the Earth rotated around the sun for many years.
    In 1610, Galileo published his first work confirming Copernicus' theory of a sun-centered universe. Although Galileo came under heavy fire from both religious and secular sources and was eventually forced to retract his statements, his research and observations are with us today as a landmark in solar history.

  • Hipparchus, born in 190 BCE in what is now Turkey, contributed in a very practical way to our understanding of the sun's impact on our lives. Using only his eyes and power of observation, he calculated the length of a solar-based year to within 6 hours of current measurements. By noting the positions of the sun, planets, and stars in the sky, Hipparchus was able to determine the regular equinoxes and the relative brightnesses of stars when compared to the sun. From this, he posited relative distances.

  • In 1816, photography was invented. This soon allowed for actual photographs of solar bodies, eventually even the sun. By 1845, the first series of sun photographs was taken. Over the years, the techinque has been refined so that we can currently marvel not only at close-up images of detailed solar-flare activity, but also examine images of the sun's temperature, motion, and internal gases.

  • Back in 1610, Galileo and Johann Goldsmid discovered sunspots. Their work led to many others and the study of sunspots continues to this day. In 1843, Schwabe noticed a cyclical pattern to sunspots and their frequency in appearence. By 1852, Rudolph Wolf demonstrated that this cycle was 11 years long. 1908 promised another development: Hale discovered magnetic fields in sunspots.

  • In 1946, the first observations of solar ultraviolet rayswere recorded. They were soon followed by solar x-rays in 1949 using a sounding rocket and observation of solar gamma rays by the Orbiting Solar Observatory I in 1963. Eventually, researchers were recording emissions from the sun across the entire spectrum of light.

  • One of the greatest scientific achievements in solar observation began in 1994, when Ulysses flew over polar regions of the sun. This is proof that the research must and does continue, as we try to learn more about the sun.

Investigation into the sun continues today, building off these old traditions and research. We still need to know more and we need more people to ask questions. So...what do you want to know?

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