Now that Zeus dimmed the daylight and made darkness come upon us in the noon," writes the Greek poet Archilochus, "nothing will surprise me anymore." Describing a solar eclipse that occurred in the 6th century B.C., he than tells of the "limp terror" that descends on mankind. Men will not be astonished, he says, when "beasts of the dry land will exchange with dolphins . . . in the watery pastures of the sea."
What will befall us, Pindar asks following the solar eclipse of 463 B.C. "Do you bring some blazon of war; punishment of seed; power of snow beyond imagination?" Why have you abandoned the earth?
For early man, the sun was a concave bowl in which vapors from the sea burned. It held an infinite mass of substance, uncreated, eternal. And it was a god, enthroned in the distant heavens. Below its sacred fire, rivers flowed; the land bloomed. And people the children of the sun lived. The eyes of man are open, according to an inscription on an ancient tomb, "That he may behold the Lord of the Horizon when he sails across the sky."
Poets, beholding the sun, pointed to his golden beams and the rosy fingers of his light. They found word formulas to keep him shining and to give worship.
Storytellers recalled the boy, Icarus, who, given wings, becomes enamored of the sun. Drawn by its amazing beauty, Icarus flies up to the horizon and comes close to the divine fire. Then too late, he notices that the wax securing his wings has melted. The boy, a victim of his own passion, falls out of the sky.
Above him, Phoebus Apollo, the yellow-haired, youthful sun god, drives a golden chariot across the horizon. He brings life; he orders the universe. He inspires medicine, art and poetry. Healing body and soul, he is the Divine Physician. "Just as you wander over the wide earth," writes Alcaeus in the 5th century B.C., "deliver mortal men from death and its terror . . . Shine upon the cables . . . bring light to the black ship."
So great was the sun's power that people believed his rule extended to the land of the dead. Accordingly, when men died, poets asked the sun to bless them. "On the blessed dead is lit the strength of the sun." They will lie in "bright-flowering meadows, shadowy with incense-trees and heavy with golden fruits." They will go to a place where "a lovely fragrance is scattered . . . as they join in all manner of sacrifice to bright fire."
The Egyptian Pharaoh Ikhnaton was the sun's most inspired poet. Approximately 1,400 years before Christ, Ikhnaton declared the sun all-powerful, all-loving. Out of divine love, the Pharaoh explained, "Aton," the sun, created man. From his golden disc extend numerous rays; each ray terminates in a human hand. Below these hands stand man. Man is but earth and water warmed by the sun.
Only fragments of Ikhnaton's poem, "Hymns to the Sun," exist. They show Aton a benevolent father soothing, healing, giving men the gift of words. He protects: When Aton sets, warns Ikhnaton, every lion comes forth from his den; serpents sting; the world falls into silence. He inspires: When he rises, the sheep dance on the grassy meadows; the green earth sings:
"Beautiful is your rising in the horizon of heaven, living Sun," Ikhnaton says. "You are beautiful and great and shining. You are far, but your rays are on the earth. The beings of earth are formed under your hand . . . You rise and they live. Their eyes look at your beauty until you set . . . "
Modern man no longer deifies the sun. We no longer find a solar eclipse astonishing. An eclipse is a shadow cast somewhere on a piece of earth; the mon hides the sun for a few minutes. The eerie silence during an eclipse portends nothing; we don't believe in omens or wings secured by wax. We find the passion of Icarus silly.
The sun isn't love; it's energy. It doesn't inspire; it explodes. The sun resembles a gigantic nuclear furnace, not a yellow-haired god, nor a golden disc which is somehow our father. Neither are we children, blessed by rosy-fingered hands.
Yet we are drawn to the sun. We force ourselves to look away from its blinding power. Even so ordinary a thing as the sun rising, setting, and moving on its daily course calls itself to our attention. We notice a shining through the branches of a tree, and we stop. Perhaps it is just a shadow. Or a certain brightness. Whatever it is, it calls out to us. We look for a minute at that soft yellow light, and we almost hear voices.
"Living Sun, you are beautiful and great and shining," they say.
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She wrote this article in memory of Frances Karpers.