Language of the celestial pole
One requirement in this cross-cultural review is to see how consistently the traditions of the primeval "sun" converge with another ancient theme describing an ancient power stationed at the celestial pole.
As the Earth turns on its axis, observers on Earth see the celestial bodies moving in arcs across the sky. But there is, of course, an exception. There is a central point around which the stars appear to revolve. For ancient sky-worshippers (of the northern hemisphere) that motionless spot, occupied today by the star Polaris, appears to have possessed an extraordinary importance. And as we shall see, the stories told around the world about this place par excellence, offer a stunning resolution to the cosmic mysteries we are exploring here.
In the sixth century B.C. Xenophanes of Colophon offered this definition of the true god: "There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals. He abides ever in the same place motionless, and it befits him not to wander hither and thither."
A remarkable parallel occurs in the Hindu Upanishads:
"There is only one Being who exists
Unmoved yet moving swifter than the mind
Who far outstrips the senses, though as gods
They strive to reach him, who, himself at rest
...Supports all vital action
He moves, yet moves not."
One might think that images of this sort arose as independent philosophical insights. But cross-cultural examination reveals something more ancient than the insights themselves-- a universal myth describing the central sun, a power ruling the heavens from the summit of the world axis. So one step in the resolution we are looking for is simply to note the universal language of the celestial pole. Then, with that language clearly in mind, we can compare it to descriptions of the primeval sun, the great luminary said to have founded the Golden Age.
Consider the image of the pole in Shakespeare--
"...I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament"
The speaker here is Shakespeare's Caesar--whom tradition regarded as the supreme ruler on earth, a replica of the celestial power. Many centuries before Shakespeare, Hipparchus spoke of "a certain star remaining ever at the same place. And this star is the pivot of the Cosmos." That language turns out to be the very language used by the ancient Chinese astronomers and poets in describing the "star of the pivot" at the celestial pole.
To the Polynesians the pole is the station of the "Immovable One." The North American
Pawnee call it "the star that stands still" and regard it as the governor of the sky. This star, they say, "is different from other stars, because it never moves." To the Hindus, the star is Dhruva, meaning "firm," while the region of the pole is esteemed as the "motionless site," the celestial "resting place" of gods and heroes.
What, then, is the connection of this supreme resting place to the station of the primeval “sun”?
The polar Sun in Egypt
In ancient Egyptian cosmology, possibly the oldest known thought-system, one finds a mystifying connection of the sun god Atum with the pole. Many years ago, French scholar Jacques Enel, in his study of Egyptian imagery, for example, concluded that the Egyptians remembered Atum's station as "the single, immovable point around which the movement of the stars occurred." To the Egyptians, states Enel, "Atum was the chief or center of the movement of the universe at the pole."
Much the same language was used by the eminent Egyptologist, T. Rundle Clark, who reported that the pole was the celebrated place par excellence. Atum, according to Clark, is "the arbiter of destiny perched on the top of the world pole." So when the text declare that "the great god lives, fixed in the middle of the sky," the reference is to the polar station, according to Clark.
Clark writes that "the celestial pole is 'that place,' or 'the great city.' The various designation show how deeply it impressed the Egyptian imagination. If god is the governor of the universe and it revolves around an axis, then god must preside over the axis."
That the Egyptians would remember a former sun god at the celestial pole may seem too much to swallow. And Clark is emphatic: "No other people was so deeply affected by the eternal circuit of the stars around a point in the northern sky. Here must be the node of the universe, the center of regulation."
Atum, the first form of the sun god Ra, was thus the 'Unmoved Mover" described in Egyptian texts many centuries before Aristotle offered the phrase as a definition of the supreme power. The Egyptian hieroglyph for Atum is a primitive sledge, signifying "to move." To the god of the cosmic revolutions, the Book of the Dead proclaims "Hail to thee, Tmu [Atum] Lord of Heaven, who givest motion to all things." But while moving the heavens Atum remained em hetep, "at rest" or "in one spot." Throughout all of Egypt this "resting place" of Atum was remembered as the site of the First Occasion, the drama of cosmic beginnings.
Remember that the sun god Atum and the sun god Ra were one and the same, though the Egyptians insisted that the god himself evolved with the unfolding events. The god who was Atum became Ra in the course of his own unfolding, as the originally formless god began to acquire certain distinct attributes (a subject we shall explore at length).
Thus Atum's counterpart Ra, according to the sources themselves, "rests on his high place." He does not roam about the sky. Like Atum, Ra is the pivot, with the lesser lights revolving around him. These are, as the texts say, the "stars who surround Ra." "These gods shall revolve round about him." "The satellites of Ra make their round." Again, the picture is of a stationary god serving as the axis of celestial motions.
[It must be noted here that, as commonly translated, numerous Egyptian texts have Ra "rising in the eastern horizon." But as I will show in discussing the worldwide myth of the cosmic mountain, such translations hide the literal meaning of the Egyptian word [Aakhut] rendered as "horizon." The literal meaning is "the mountain of fire and light." Ra does not "rise" on or above the mountain, he "grows bright" in the mountain in the archaic cycle of day and night. And the language does not literally describe the geographic "east" either. The subject was not geography, but cosmography, the theater of the gods].
The polar sun in Mesopotamia
As I have already noted, the ancient Sumerian counterpart of Atum was the creator-king An, the Akkadian Anu, whose "terrifying glory" was a repeated subject of the hymns and rites. This was "the terror of the splendour of Anu in the midst of heaven," and the starworshippers did not mean by the "midst" of heaven some vague and unfamiliar metaphor for the sky. The "midst" (kirib sami, Kabal sami), meant, very concretely, the cosmic center, making the polar god, according to the early student of Mesopotamian astronomy Robert Brown, Jr., a nocturnal sun. The words translated as the "midst" mean, according to Brown, "that central point where Polaris sat enthroned."
Both Sumerian and Akkadian texts are replete with references to the "firm" and "steadfast" or "motionless" character of the dominant gods. The great god Enki of Eridu is "the motionless lord," and god of "stability." A broken Sumerian hymn, in reference to Ninurash, a form of Ninurta, reads:
"Whom the 'god of the steady star' upon a foundation/
To...cause to repose in years of plenty."
Failing to perceive the concrete meaning of such terms, solar mythologists like to think of the place of "repose" as a hidden "underworld" beneath the earth, a dark region visited by the sun after it has set. But the place of repose is no underworld. It is:
"The lofty residence...
The lofty place...
The place of lofty repose..."
What, then, of the famous Assyrian and Babylonian god Shamash, the sun god? A remarkable fact is that Shamash "comes forth" ·(shines) and "goes in" (dims) at one spot, called the "midst" of heaven (as note above)--the "firm," "stable" or motionless station of supreme "rest". This esteemed place was symbolized by the top of the ziggurats, the famous Babylonian axis-towers constructed as symbolic models of the Cosmos. Hence, the uppermost level was deemed the "light of Shamash," and the "heart of Shamash," denoting (in the words of E.G. King) the pivot "around which the highest heaven or sphere of the fixed stars revolved.:"
Remarkably, the Babylonian tradition of the polar sun has been preserved up to the twentieth century in the tradition of the Mandaeans of Iraq. In their midnight ceremonies these people invoked the celestial pole as Olma l'nhoara, "the world of light." It is therefore not surprising to find that chroniclers of the Mandaean rites call the polar power the "primitive sun of the star-worshippers."
We must ask, therefore, whether other cultures, showing similar reverence for the celestial pole, might have also preserved the connection to the "primitive sun."
A worldwide theme
To the Hindus the sacred celestial spot, the province of the creator-king, was the place of "supreme rest," called also "the motionless site," described as "a Spot blazing with splendor...and which subsistsmotionless." Thus the sun god Surya "stands firmly on this safe resting place." Surya, states the Sanskrit authority V.S. Agrawala, "is himself at rest, being the immovable center of his system." Just as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian sun gods "rise and set" in one place, Surya occupies samanam dhama--"the same place of rising and setting." For the words translated as "rising" and "setting" to possess any intelligible meaning, one must refer (as in the case of Egypt discussed above) to a phase of brightening followed by a phase of dimming in a daily cycle.
Another name for the stationary sun, according to Agrawala, is Prajapati. "The sun in the center is Prajapati: he is the horse that imparts movement to everything."
The motionless Surya and Prajapati compare with the light of Brahma, called the "true sun." This is the ancient sun, the texts say, which "after having risen thence upwards ... rises and sets no more. It remains alone in the center." Here, too, center and summit are synonymous. Brahma, observes Rene Guenon, is "the pivot around which the world accomplishes it revolution, the immutable center which directs and regulates cosmic movement."
Moreover, this stationary and axial character of the greatest gods seems to be common to all of the primary celestial figures in Hindu myth, with its diverse pantheon gathered from so many cultural traditions. The god Varuna, "seated in the midst of heaven," is the "Recumbent," and called the "axis of the universe." "Firm is the seat of Varuna," declares one of the Vedic hymns. In him "all wisdom centres, as the nave is set within the wheel." One of Varuna's forms is Savitar, the "impeller." While the rest of the universe revolves, the impeller stands firm. "Firm shalt thou stand, like Savitar desirable."
Also occupying the stationary center is the popular god Vishnu--who takes a firm stand in that resting place in the sky." The location is the celestial pole, called "the exalted seat of Vishnu, round which the starry spheres forever wander." Vishnu is the polar sun or central fire: "Fiery indeed is the name of this steadfast god," states one Vedic text.
To the Buddhists this is the center of the cosmic wheel, the throne of the Buddha himself. It is acalatthana, the "unmoving site," or the "unconquerable seat of firm séance." Thus, as noted by Coomaraswamy, the Buddha throne crowned the world axis.
Given the great variety of mythical figures pointing to the same underlying concepts, it is crucial that we recognize where Hindu and Buddhist myth located this cosmic center, the celestial resting place. It was, according to the most widely respected Sanskrit authorities such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the celestial pole, the axis of the turning heavens, a verdict repeated again and again by Rene Guenon, Mircea Eliade, and others.
According to ancient Chinese astronomy the revered Emperor on High, prototype of kings, stood at the celestial pole. Chinese astrologers, according to Gustav Schlegel, regarded the polar god as "the Arch-Premier ... the most venerated of all the celestial divinities. In fact the Pole star, around which the entire firmament appears to turn, should be considered as the Sovereign of the Sky." It was thus proclaimed that the celestial pole was the seat of the supreme ruler Shang-ti, mythically, the first king of a great dynasty in the remote past. His seat was "the Pivot," and all the heavens turned upon his exclusive power.
Raised to a first principle, the polar power became the mystic Tao, the motor of the Cosmos. The essential idea is contained in the Chinese word for Tao, which combines the sign for "to stand still" with the sign for "to go" and "head" The Tao is the Unmoved Mover, the supreme ruler, who "goes," or "moves" while yet remaining in one place--revealing a striking correspondence with the images of the polar power in other lands.
Chinese sources proclaim the Tao to be the "light of heaven" and "the heart of heaven." "Action is reversed into non-action," states Jung. "Everything peripheral is subordinated to the command of the centre." Thus the Tao, in the words of Erwin Pousselle, rules the "golden center, which is the Axis of the World."
In the Persian Zend Avesta the creator-king Ahura Mazda rules from atop the world axis, the fixed station "around which the many stars revolve." Iranian cosmology, as reported by Leopold de Saussure, esteemed the celestial pole as the center and summit of heaven, where resided Kevan, the sovereign power of heaven, called "the Great One in the middle of the sky." Throughout the ancient Near East, according to the comprehensive research of H. P. L'Orange, the "King of the Universe" appears as a central sun, "the Axis and the Pole of the World."
These archaic traditions can help us re-interpret the images of the sun god kept alive by Greek and Roman symbolists. In astrological representations, the primeval "sun" occupies the central, axial position while the other planets or stars revolve around him. The definitive celestial profile of Helios is as Basileus, the Royal Sun, recognized by Franz Cumont as the prototype of terrestrial kings or princes surrounded by their guards. In the time of the Roman emperor Nero, the sun-god was still remembered as the axis, the genius loci, the center of the cosmos, and was presented as such in astrological depictions, with the emperor himself serving as the terrestrial image of the original sun god.
It is significant too that, as noted by John Perry (Lord of the Four Quarters), the Etruscans--predecessors of the Romans--claimed there was one supreme deity, held to be the axial "Pole" Star.
"According to Jewish and Muslim Cosmology," wrote the eminent authority on Semitic religions, A.J. Wensinck, "the divine throne is exactly above the seventh heaven, consequently it is the pole of the Universe." (An echo of the ancient tradition will be found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who locates the throne of El in the farthest reaches of the north.)
Amongst Finno Ugric peoples, the supreme ruler of the sky is Ukko. As stated in the Finnish Kalevala the seat of Ukko was at the Pole. And this assertion, according to the prominent chronicler Uno Holmberrg, was part of a pervasive tradition of the creator-king seated atop the world pole.
A remarkable counterpart is provided by the Ashanti of Ghana, who remembered the old sun god as "the dynamic center of the Universe, from which lines of force radiate to all quarters of the heaven." Thus, according to the Ashanti, this former sun god is "the center around which everything revolves."
Significantly, the same overlapping images of a polar sun or sovereign luminary at the cosmic center, occur in the Americas. In southern Peru the Inca Yupanqui raised a temple at Cuzco to the creator god who was superior to the sun we know. Unlike the solar orb, he was able to "rest" and "to light the world from one spot." As the pioneering Mesoamerican scholar, Zelia Nuttal, noted many years ago, the only reasonable position in the sky for fulfilling this requirement is the celestial Pole. "It is an extremely important and significant fact," writes Nuttall, "that the principal doorway of this temple opened to the north." (Since the north celestial pole is not visible from Cuzco, 14° below the equator, Nuttall assumed that this tradition of a polar sun was carried southward.)
Cottie Burland tells us that, among the Mexicans, "the nearest approach to the idea of a true universal god was Xiuhtecuhtli, recalled as the Old, Old One who enabled the first ancestors to rise from barbarism. Xiuhtecuhtli appears as the Central Fire and "the heart of the Universe." "Xiuhtecuhtli was a very special deity. He was not only the Lord of Fire which burnt in front of every temple and in the middle of every hut in Mexico, but also Lord of the Pole Star. He was the pivot of the universe and one of the forms of the Supreme Deity." An apparent counterpart of this central fire is the Maya creator god Huracan, the "Heart of Heaven" at the celestial pole.
The Pawnee locate the "star chief of the skies" at the pole. He is the "star that stands still." Of this supreme power they say, "Its light is the radiance of the Sun god shining through."
The language used by the different cultures is remarkably similar. Yet the underlying idea--a great luminary or "sun" god ruling from the celestail pole--poses a blatant contradiction of direct experience today. How did it happen that the same contradiction occurred in every corner of the ancient world?