Santos Bonacci explains how the art of sungazing is intricately tied into astrotheology and religion.
Thousands of Neolithic tombs erected across Europe and Africa around 10,000 B.C. were apparently built to face the rising sun, securing the sun’s importance in various human cultures across three countries, two continents and the Mediterranean islands, according to Michael Hoskin, a historian of astronomy at Churchill College in Cambridge, England.
“I think all these cultures looked on the sunrise as a symbol of hope,” said Hoskin, in an e-mail interview. “The customs of structure of the tombs vary hugely from region to region, but the patterns of orientation are very similar”.
“In studies like this, in which you have a large sample of tombs, you look for trends,” said E.C. Krupp, an archaeoastronomer and director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angles, California, adding that it’s amazing such structures can be identified in the first place.
“So not only are the dead part of the story, but the sun is part of the story too.”
Hoskin spent 12 years personally cataloging the positions of 2,000 Neolithic tombs, and researching documented descriptions of some 1,000 others, across France, Portugal, Spain and North Africa.
In the Alenterejo region of central Portugal, for example, every one of the 177 tombs measured by Hoskin faced sunrise, usually during autumn and early winter, with a sharp cutoff at the winter solstice.
“All the evidence is consistent with their having aligned their tombs with sunrise on the day when building started, which is exactly what we know happened commonly with Christian churches,” Hoskin said. “The churches face the rising sun as a symbol of Christ rising from the dead. No doubt the Neolithic people saw the rising sun as a symbol of hope of afterlife.” The only exception were some tombs around the small French town of Fontvieille, where the monuments were built facing sunset, unlike any others found, Hoskin added.
THE FIRST SUN GOD(DESS)
Our history begins in Mesopotamia, where Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of the sun, exercised the power of light over darkness and evil. In this capacity he became known as the god of justice and equity and was the judge of both gods and men. (According to legend, the Babylonian king Hammurabi received his code of laws from Shamash.) At night, Shamash became judge of the underworld.
On a 9th century BC stone relief of the Babylonian god Shamash the divine human figure is associated with a cross represented as a four-pointed star inside a disc with interspersed wavy lines: an accompanying inscription reads “the image of the sun, the great lord who dwells in the temple”. Shamash was pictured seated on a throne, holding in his hand the symbols of justice and righteousness, a staff and a ring. He is often pictured with a disk, having a cross inside, that symbolized the Sun.
In fact, Shamash did not representing the sun, or the sun God, but rather a hero who had the power to stare into the sun, as is written into the story of Gilgamesh, tablet X:
265: “No man has ever gone that way and lived to say he crossed the sea. Shamash only ventures there, only Shamash would dare to stare into the sun.”
307: “But there is no one else who can see what Shamash only can see within the sun.”
The following excerpts from The Papyrus of Ani (Egyptian Book of the Dead) are talking about sungazing at the disk of the sun:
“Those who have lain down in death rise up to see thee, they breathe the air, and they look upon thy face when the disk riseth on the horizon. Their hearts are at peace since they behold thee, o thou who art Eternity and Everlastingness.”
“Hail, thou Disk, thou lord of rays, who risest on the horizon day by day. Shine thou with thy beams of light upon the face of the
Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, for he singeth hymns of praise to thee at dawn, and he maketh thee to sit at eventide [with words of adoration].
“And I, Ani, have come into thy presence, so that I may be with thee, and may behold thy Disk every day. Let me not be kept captive [by the tomb], and let me not be turned back [on my way]. Let the members of my body be made new again when I contemplate thy beauties, even as are the members of all thy favored ones, because I am one of those who worshiped thee upon earth. Let me arrive in the Land of Eternity, let me enter into the Land of Everlastingness. This, O my Lord, behold thou shalt ordain for me.”
“And moreover, the Osiris Ani, whose word is truth, in peace, the truth-speaker, saith:- Homage to thee, O thou who risest on thy horizon in the form of Ra, who restest upon Law, [which can neither be changed nor altered]. Thou passest over the sky, and every face, watcheth thee and thy course, for thou thyself art hidden from their gaze. Thou dost show thyself [to them] at dawn and at eventide each day. The Sektet Boat, wherein Thy Majesty dwelleth, setteth forth on its journey with vigor. Thy beams [fall] upon all faces, thy light with its manifold colors is incomprehensible [to man], and thy brilliant rays cannot be reported. The Lands of the Gods see thee, they could write [concerning thee]; the Deserts of Punt could count thee. Thy creation is hidden. It is one by the opening of thy mouth.”
“I enter in by the Disk, I come forth by the god Ahui. I shall hold converse with the Followers of the Gods. I shall hold converse with the Disk.”
RITUAL SUN GAZING AND SUNBATHING
Watching the sunrise was a daily practice, performed by the Mesopotamians in the honor of Shamash. This practice was also employed by Jews, even though it was officially condemned: “And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD’S house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east; and they worshiped the sun toward the east.” (Ezekiel 8:16 )
The practice of sun gazing is also mentioned in Ecclesiastes 11:7:
“Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.”
Sun gazing at sunrise is also evidenced in Odes of Solomon:
1 As the sun is the joy to them that seek for its daybreak, so is my joy the Lord;
2 Because He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; and His light hath dispelled all darkness from my face. (Odes of Solomon, Ode 15)
The above quotes are clearly indicating that sun gazing was a widespread practice among the ancient Jews, and even though it was later banished and those who practiced it were sentenced to death, sun gazing survived inside the community of Essenes.
The complaint of Pope Leo, in the fifth century, that worshipers in St. Peter’s turned away from the altar and faced the door so that they could adore the rising sun is very significant in regard to the number of Christians who performed sungazing being adherents of some form of sun-worship.