Since the sun is present in some way in most myths, worship of the sun or elements of sun worship are found
in almost all religions. God-Sun worship or Sun-God worship—a clear distinction is not always possible—seems to be a common feature in the early stages of the higher cultures. This is probably to be explained by the fact that the sun as a concrete phenomenon fits in so well with institutional preoccupations, especially with the establishment of divine kingship as a unifying and sacredly founded central authority. Among the planting or food-gathering peoples, sun worship is mostly on the fringes of mythology and cult, or it is one element within a basically broader and more comprehensive system of worship. Thus, to promote fertility, sun wheels are placed in fields, fire wheels are rolled over declivities, and solstices and eclipses of the sun are marked with religious rites in order to renew the powers of the sun. On the other hand, men try through their worship to protect themselves from the sun. In any case, the sun is not the supreme being, nor does the sun exercise the latter's functions.
Many examples may be cited to illustrate the point that the sun is often not the only or even the main object of worship. In China, offerings were made to the sun along with those made to the eight gods. In the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tang) at Beijing, there was an altar to the sun. The worship of the sun by Indo-European peoples is well attested, e.g., by the sun chariot of Trundholm, and by Stonehenge. Thus, the sun in the form of a wheel was carried about on a wagon drawn by war horses, and mimetic sun dances (a form of sympathetic magic), morning greetings of the sun, ball games, wheel games, and offerings to the sun on sun feast days, etc., were common. In India the temple at Konarak in Orissa (built in the 10th century a.d.) was the center of a comprehensive sun cult. In the Gāyatrī rite, every Hindu began his day with a prayer and a hymn of praise to the sun (Sūrya ), the giver (feminine) of light, heat, and fruitfulness. The sun worship of the non-Aryans, with sun ritual and accompanying sacred meal and sacrifice, may have been even more fervent.
The religions of the Babylonians and Assyrians, the cult of Mithras (the cult of the sol invictus ), and Zoroastrianism, were all sun-centered forms of worship. The Babylonian sun god, Shamash (in Sumerian, Utu or Babbar, the Shining One) was worshipped at Larsa, and the cult was promoted later at Sippar by Hammurabi. Shamash was the god of justice, a hero and conqueror of death, who was praised in hymns (cf. the stories of Gilgamesh and Marduk).
Highly developed sun cults were characteristic of Mexico and Egypt. The Aztecs worshipped Tonatiuh, and the other gods who assumed his traits, with the heart's blood (as a nourishment for the sun) of the noblest human victims. The ball game called Ollama was dedicated to him. The Incas made heart-offerings (mostly animal hearts) to their sun god Inti. At the great sun feasts held at the solstices, they offered burnt sacrifices, and they enkindled the sacred fire. The sun was regarded as the ancestor of the Inca rulers, who were therefore declared sacred. Since the conquered peoples were frequently familiar with solar divinities, these rulers enjoyed a religious sanction. This phenomenon is found repeatedly elsewhere. In Japan, the emperor was worshipped as the descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu. The Thracians worshipped a sun king, from whom they believed they had descended. The Natchez Indians called their chief, "Great Sun," "Brother of the Sun." The mummies of dead Inca rulers were placed on seats in the sun temple of Cuzco, and thus continued to hold court as formerly in life.
In Egypt the cult of the sun god, Ra, of Heliopolis was made an official religion from the Fourth Dynasty, and the Pharaoh was worshipped as the son of Ra. With the ascendancy of Thebes under the Twelfth Dynasty, the cult of Ra was combined with that of Amon of Thebes into the cult of Amon-Ra. The sun worship in Egypt reached its highest point under Amenhotep IV (Akhnaton), one of the last kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The sun god was represented as a solar disk with many rays, each ending with beneficent or gift-giving hands, and he was invoked in hymns that were often very beautiful.
See Also: aztec religion; inca religion; egypt, ancient, 1.
Bibliography: f. von oefele et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 12:48–103. m. eliade, Patterns of Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958) 124–153 with good bibliog. j. g. frazer, The Worship of Nature (London 1926). g. lanczkowski, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 6:137–139, with good bibliog.