Everything Under the Sun
Everyone, everywhere and in every time, has experienced the sun. See how ideas about the sun have appeared in art from a variety of cultures.
Idea One: The power of the sun.
Sometimes the sun god is shown as a man with the head or wings of a falcon, often wearing the disk of the sun on his head. This image of Horus appears on the mummy case of Lady Teshat.
The people in ancient Kemet (Egypt) worshipped different gods in different regions. But throughout this hot land, the most important deity was the sun god. His various forms included Ra, Horus, and Amun, among others. People came to believe that their ruler, the pharaoh, was the sun god’s representative on earth.
In the art of Kemet, the sun might be shown simply as the right eye (as it is looked upon) of the one above. The moon was the left eye, wounded in a fight. Small amulets, or charms, shaped like the eye were often tucked into the wrappings of mummies, so the dead person would be protected by the sun while traveling through the dark underworld, a voyage the sun also took at each day’s end.
Many images of the sun god show him as a man with the head or wings of a falcon. As the god of the midday sun, he might appear simply as a disk with outstretched wings, soaring like a bird. And as god of the morning sun, rising in the east, he might be pictured as a scarab, a beetle known for its habit of pushing balls of dung along the ground. The ancient Egyptians imagined that the sun moved across the sky in the same way.
The sun god is often pictured on mummy cases as a winged sun disk spread across the chest, another form of Horus. This example appears on the mummy case of Lady Teshat.
Scarab beetles roll balls of dung across the ground. The ancient Egyptians believed the beetle god Khepri rolled the sun across the sky in the same way.
Idea Two: The universe in balance.
Many Taoist priests robes feature a diagram of the cosmos on the back.
A three-legged rooster appears on the red disk of the sun. The number three is another symbol of yang.
A rabbit said to live on the moon is shown here pounding a root to make the elixir of immortality.
To the Chinese Taoist priest who wore this robe, the sun was just one part of a balanced system. Taoism (DOW-ism) teaches that two forces, yin and yang, together produce everything in the universe. The moon expresses the cool, dark, feminine force of yin. The sun expresses the hot, bright, masculine force of yang. An imbalance of yin and yang causes disorder.
A diagram of the cosmos appears on the back of many Taoist priests robes. In the center, a pagoda surrounded by a rainbow-like pattern represents paradise. Clouds float around it, within a ring of flames. Beyond, evenly placed colored circles stand for the stars. Two disks at the priest’s shoulders, one on each side, signify the sun (red) and the moon (white), shown as equal in size and importance.
Like the sun, the emperor represented yang forces. (Only the emperor and his immediate family could wear bright yellow, the color of the sun.) An eclipse of the sun was thought to be a dangerous time for him. The sun also symbolized good government: just as the sun shines on everyone alike, rulers should treat all their subjects fairly.
Idea Three: Connections with the supernatural
For the people of the Northwest Coast of North America, the sun comes and goes with the seasons. Days are long at the height of summer. The sun never sinks far below the horizon at night, causing twilight nights around the longest day of the year. Winter days are short and often darkened by rain clouds.
Various cultural groups in the region explain that long ago they lived in a world without any sun at all. In one version of the story, the trickster Raven flew through a rip in the sky to the world of the spirits, where the sun shone all the time. He snatched it in his beak and brought it to the world of the people. As he returned, parts of the sun fell off, forming the moon and the stars.
The bright spring and summer months were traditionally spent preparing stores of fish and other food to last the rest of the year. The dark and rainy winter was a time for gathering together at home. It was also the season for ceremonial reenactments of the stories of the people. Countless stories, like that of Raven and the sun, reminded communities of connections between the physical world around them, animals, humans, plants, the sun, moon, and stars, and the world of the spirits. A dancer might have worn a mask like this one as part of such a drama.
This mask of Raven opens to reveal a human face, a reminder of the connection between humans, animals, and the world of the spirits.
The mask of Raven, the most important figure in many stories, would traditionally be worn by a tribal leader believed to have special abilities to communicate with the spirit world.
Idea Four: A scientific understanding of the sun.
The 18th century was an exciting time for European clockmakers. The ideas of the mathematician Isaac Newton had recently revolutionized astronomy and navigation. Both those fields required devices that could measure time with ever greater precision.
Jean-Antoine Lépine (lay-PEEN), clockmaker to the king of France, was among the most inventive clockmakers of the time. This clock tracks the course of the earth around the sun in several ways. The central face tells the time in Paris. Twelve smaller dials give the time in cities around the world, including Boston and Beijing. On the left, another face shows the position of the sun in relation to the stars. A face on the right tells the time of sunrise and sunset each day.
The clock’s inner workings were scientifically up-to-the-minute. But its decoration reflects a fascination with the world of the ancient Greeks. Early Greeks believed the sun moving across the sky was the god Helios, driving his chariot. The poet Homer described Helios (also known later as Apollo) as flashing bright rays, wearing a gold helmet, and driving a golden-reined chariot pulled by powerful horses. On one of the clockfaces, the god appears in his chariot, soaring high over the globe of the earth. At the top of the clock case, his head appears in the center of a sunburst made of bronze metal covered with thin sheets of gold. Circles of golden laurel leaves, another symbol of Apollo, add to the dazzling effect, making this clock shine like the Greek sun god himself.
In Greek mythology, the god Apollo drives the chariot of the sun across the sky. One of the clockfaces illustrates this.
The face of the Greek god Apollo appears in a sunburst at the top of the clock case.
Idea Five: The magical glow of pure color.
The Seattle artist Dale Chihuly (chih-HOO-lee) is enchanted by color. Glass, he feels, is the best material for showing off color. Light passing through glass brings colors to life, whether in a bottle on a windowsill, a stained-glass window, or one of Chihuly’s fantastic creations.
Chihuly has been combining color, light, and glass in unexpected ways since the 1960s. In the 1990s he began playing with a centuries-old form, the glass chandelier. In this example, more than 1,000 pieces of yellow glass, each one blown by hand, surround a core of red neon light (made of more than 100 feet of neon tubing). Weighing more than 3,000 pounds, the chandelier hanging high overhead seems to defy gravity. A round ball of glowing warmth, with curls shooting off like solar flares, this is more than a mere light fixture.
Chihuly titled this chandelier Sunburst. Usually he keeps his titles vague, because he wants people to make their own connections with what they see. But the sun may have special meaning for Chihuly. He often remarks that his love of color may have its roots in cherished childhood memories. Every day at dusk, he and his mother took a walk to admire the colors of the sky as the sun set over the waters of Puget Sound.
Chihuly’s ideas for his creations in glass begin as colorful paintings.
The changing face of the sun
How do the qualities of the sun change from season to season where you live? Design two masks, representing the winter sun and the summer sun. How do your designs reflect the seasonal differences? Make up a story or skit that explains how those differences came to be.
Our corner of the cosmos
Research current scientific understanding of the sun’s relationship to the earth, moon, planets, and stars. Let what you learn inspire a decorative design for a rain poncho or an umbrella. In what ways is your design accurate? In what ways have you taken liberties for the sake of design?
Picturing the sun
Artists can emphasize different aspects of the sun. Use the collection search tool on Mia’s website to find a variety of artworks from around the world that depict the sun and sunlight. As you look at the images, think about these questions: Which artists seem to have been thinking about the color of the sun? the shape of the sun? the feeling of sunlight? the sun’s symbolism? stories about the sun? feelings about the sun?
The sun around the world
Many cultures besides those mentioned here have stories about the sun. Look at some of the books listed in the bibliography below. How do the stories reflect the climate and environment of the places where they originated? Do the illustrators of the books seem to have considered that information in creating their illustrations?
Stories about the sun
All titles are owned by the Minneapolis Public Library.
Ada, Alma Flor. The Lizard and the Sun. New York: A Doubleday Book for Young Readers, 1997.
A traditional Mexican folktale in which a faithful lizard finds the sun, which brings light and warmth back to the world. In English and Spanish.
Albert, Burton. Journey of the Nightly Jaguar: Inspired by an Ancient Mayan Myth. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996.
In this Maya legend the sun becomes a jaguar at night, stalking through the jungle until it appears again as the sun in the eastern sky.
Bevan, Finn. Sacred Skies: The Facts and the Fables. London and New York: Children’s Press, 1997.
Discusses how people throughout the ages explained the sun and other phenomena of the skies and presents several traditional tales from around the world that embody those beliefs and observations.
Bishop, Gavin. Maui and the Sun: A Maori Tale. New York: North-South Books, 1996.
The Maori people of New Zealand tell this version of the Polynesian folktale in which a trickster uses magical powers to slow the movement of the sun.
Emberley, Michael. Welcome Back Sun. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.
During murketiden, the dark months between September and March, a Norwegian girl and her family try to hasten the arrival of spring.
Johnson, Charles, ed. The Beginning of the World: The Sun and the Moon. St. Paul, Minn.: Macalester College, Linguistics Department, 1981.
A Hmong folktale retold in English for beginner ESL.
Keams, Geri. Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun: A Cherokee Story. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Publishing, Rising Moon, 1995.
After Possum and Buzzard fail in their attempts to steal a piece of the sun, Grandmother Spider succeeds in bringing light to the animals on her side of the world.
Lilly, Melinda. Song of the Sun: An Aztec Myth. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke Press, 1999.
Eagle Warrior tries to find a way to free his fellow musicians who have been captured by the jealous Sun because they have honored only the Spirit of Night.
McDermott, Gerald. Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale. 1974. New York: Viking Press, 2004.
An adaptation of the Pueblo Indian myth which explains how the spirit of the Lord of the Sun was brought to the world of men.
McDermott, Gerald. Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
Raven, a Pacific Coast Indian trickster, sets out to find the sun.
Neitzel, Shirley. From the Land of the White Birch. Spring Lake, Mich.: River Road Publications, 1997.
A collection of three Ojibwe legends, including The Sun Snarer.
Wolkstein, Diane. The Day Ocean Came to Visit. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, 2001.
After hearing Ocean’s stories, Sun invites Ocean to the house he shares with his wife, Moon, but his visitor proves to be more than his house can hold.
Wolkstein, Diane. Sun Mother Wakes the World: An Australian Creation Story. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
An Aboriginal creation story in which the sun slowly brings life to the earth.”