Meditations on Phoebus

by Maria J. Mateus

A comparison of sun deities of the Mediterranean and Near East may give us deeper insights into antiquity’s understanding of what it meant to be under the influence of the solar light.

Anatolian Imports

It is thought that Apollo may have been imported into Dorian and Minoan tribes from a Syro-Hittite cult in western Anatolia, as his name closely resembles that of the Luwian god, Apaliunas, on whom the Etruscan god, Apulu was also based. Apaliunas appears as one of the named deities guaranteeing a 13th century BCE treaty between Hittite and Trojan kings.1 This practice of signing treaties and contracts under a solar deity is one that is seen frequently in the Near East and Mediterranean over several centuries, as other solar deities of the Hellenistic age seem also to have had something to do with contracts, oaths and treaties. Apaliunas’ name also appears as one of three deities named on the walls of Troy itself, which was enough to inspire Homer to cast his Apollon on the side of the Trojans in the Iliad.

In the Hittite kingdom’s religion, which had influences from Mesopotamia, but still retained many of its Indo-European characteristics, we find a solar deity named Istanu (or Tiwaz in the Luwian language). As we’ll find in other Near Eastern sun gods, he’s a god of judgment, normally depicted wearing a winged sun on his headdress and carrying a crooked staff.

The following is a Hittite Hymn to Istanu: 2

O Istanu, my lord, just lord of judgment, king of heaven and earth! You alone rule the lands. 
And the boundaries you alone set; you alone give strength, to [the land] you give life.
You alone are just, you alone have mercy, you alone fulfill prayers.
You are a Sun-god of mercy, you always have mercy.
The just person is dear to you alone, and you alone value him. 
Istanu, fully grown son (of) Ningal, your beard (is) of lapis lazuli. 
Behold! The child of mankind, your servant, has bowed to you, is speaking to you:
In the circumference of heaven and earth, Istanu, you alone (are) the source of light. 
O Istanu, mighty king, son (of) Ningal, you alone establish custom and law in the lands. 
O Istanu, mighty king, among the gods you alone are established.
Strong lordship is given to you.
You (are) the just lord of government, you (are) father and mother of the lands!
When Istanu rises up early through the sky, your light alone, Istanu's, enters all the upper and lower lands,
(and) decides the case of the dog and the pig.
And the case of animals who do not speak with their mouth, that too he (Istanu) decides.
'The case of the bad and evil man you alone decide, 
and the man whom the gods scorn, (whom) they reject, him you reconsider and show mercy.
And this your mortal servant, Istanu, sustain, 
(and when) he begins offering bread and beer to Istanu; him, your just servant, Istanu, take by the hand.

We note from this hymn several significant characteristics about Istanu. First, he is above all, a “just lord of judgment”, not to be confused with a law-establishing deity such as Marduk. Istanu, like the Mesopotamian solar deities, judges and decides the fate of those who are to be shown favor as well as those who have defiled the established order. He is a champion of the lowly, and considers “the case of the man whom the gods scorn” and “shows him mercy”. He is the giver of life and strength. He takes the downtrodden and lifts them up, takes his servants by the hand, offers them bread and beer, and guides them on their path…

We also note that Istanu is the son of the goddess Ningal, the same deity who gives birth to Utu, the Sun god of Sumer. She was the consort of the male Moon good Nanna, and both were worshipped in southern Mesopotamia and in Harran, a major religious center in northern Syria. Not only is Istanu’s foreign lineage directly given in this hymn, but the hymn itself is remarkably similar in style and content to those dedicated to the solar deities of Mesopotamia.

Utu and Shamash in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is the birthplace of an astral religion that develops into a complex form of astrology. There, the planets and gods are one and the same. Unlike Greece, here an existing pantheon did not lend its names to the planets, which were perceived to be divinely possessed by their powers. Instead, the planets were deities themselves and part of the Assembly of the Gods that met regularly as a court of law, and who had the authority to elect or depose public officials, including the King.3 Thus, Utu was not ‘the star of the Sun’ but was in fact, the Sun itself.

His image is a personification of the shining light of the Sun, which brings forth life on earth. He is described as “long-armed”, since his influence is far-reaching, and he’s typically depicted wearing a horned hat and sporting a beard, although he is also frequently described as “youthful Utu”. In the morning, he’s believed to emerge from the doors of heaven located between two mountains to the east, then journey across the sky during the day, and enter the ‘interior of heaven’ through a second set of doors to the west at dusk. Presumably, the arched pruning-saw with serrated teeth that he carries is used to cut his way through these passages. He had two temples called ‘E-babbar’ or ‘White House’. One was located in the Sumerian city of Larsa, the other to the north in Akkadian Sippar.

This placement of solar temples both to the north and south of Sumeria is significant and tied to the Sun’s seasonal movement north and south along the eastern horizon over the course of the year. This journey of the Sun essentially divided the year into two seasons, one of growing light when Utu was traversing the northern lands and one of growing darkness, when Utu traveled in the south. The Babylonian preoccupation with balance is illustrated by the ritual practice that took place during the solstice months (IV and X) of exchanging priestesses from the temple of Esagil (House-of-the-Daytime) in the north, with those from the temple of Ezida (House-of-the-Night).4 This was thought to balance the fact that at the start of the summer, the nights are shorter and require the daughters of Esagil to go to Ezida, while in the winter, the reverse was desired.

An examination of a Hymn to Shamash — Utu’s Akkadian name — makes the Sun’s geographical scope even more clearly connected to one of his roles in society.5

You climb the mountains surveying the earth,
You suspend from the heavens the circle of the lands. 
You care for all the peoples of the lands, 
And everything that Ea, king of counselors, had created is entrusted to you.
Whatever has breath you shepherd without exception, 
You are keeper in upper and lower regions.
Regularly and without cease you traverse the heavens,
Every day you pass over the broad earth...
Shepherd of that beneath, keeper of that above,
You Shamash, direct, you are the light of everything.[...]
Of all the lands of varied speech,
You know their plans, you scan their way.
The whole of mankind bows to you,
Shamash, the whole of the universe longs for your light...[21-52]

The ability of Shamash’s rays to cover all of the known world make him truly an international deity capable of ‘caring for all the peoples of the lands’. It is for this reason that Shamash is often linked to travelers, as is explicitly related in the list of those who seek his protection:

Shamash, there confronts you the caravan, those journeying in fear.
The traveling merchant, the agent who is carrying capital. [138-139]

No other story exemplifies better Shamash’s role as personal guide to those on journey than the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. In it, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu decide to make a trip to the Cedar Forest to seek their fame. They are accompanied throughout their long journey through distant lands by Shamash, whose main role is as their protector. It is to him that they pray when they are fearful and in need of guidance. But because Shamash also spends half of his time in the Underworld at night, he is also protector of those about to travel below the earth. This is exemplified in the stories involving Dumuzi, the shepherd-king and his betrothed Inanna, the goddess of love and Utu’s sister. When an impudent Inanna sentences her lover to the Underworld for his neglect of her danger, Dumuzi appeals to his future brother-in-law Utu, for his protection from the demons that seek to imprison him below.

The two examples point not only to the Sun god’s role as protector and guide, but they point to his particular affinity with shepherd-kings, whose responsibility in Mesopotamia, it is to protect and guide their citizens, or “earthly flock”. Scholars have described Gilgamesh as a solar hero, and there are many reasons for this classification, not the least of which is his lineage, which makes him the son of the nomad shepherd king Lugalbanda. Like the story, which calls Gilagmesh’s city, ‘Uruk, the Sheepfold’, the hymn to Shamash also describes him as a ‘shepherd without exception.’

The metaphor extends to Shamash’s cosmic role of as divine shepherd. The astrological treatise, the Enuma Anu Enlil says:

The road (KASKAL) of the Sun at the end (šēpīt = foot)of the cattle-pen (TÙR) is the path of Ea (šūt Ea); the road of the Sun at the middle (mišil) of the cattle pen is the path of Anu; the road of the Sun at the beginning (SAG = head) of the cattle-pen is the path of Enlil.6

Reiner and Pingree interpret the ‘cattle-pen’ as the equatorially bound region along the eastern horizon – stretching from the northeast at the summer solstice to the southeast at the winter solstice – over which the Sun is seen to rise. The metaphor of the Sun’s path as a cattle-pen and the planets as wild oxen moving within this region is alluded to in tablets that refer to Utu or Šamaš as “shepherd of the land,” and where, says Samuel Kramer, “the ‘little ones’, the stars, are scattered about him like grain while the ‘big ones,’ perhaps the planets, walk about him like ‘wild oxen’.”7 Thus, as divine shepherd, it is Shamash’s role to designate the boundaries inside of which the planets are themselves permitted to travel. It is for this astronomical reason that in the myth called “Enki and the World Order”, we are told that Utu is placed in charge of both earthly and heavenly boundaries.8 It is curious that although the Sun did not ever occupy the head of the Babylonian pantheon, his cult became increasingly important at the same time as astrological developments begin to accelerate sometime after the 8th century BCE.

Just like his Anatolian counterpart, the most salient of Shamash’s functions is as judge and guardian of justice:

You give the unscrupulous judge experience of fetters,
Him who accepts a present and lets justice miscarry you make bear his punishment.
As for him who declines the present but nevertheless takes the part of the weak,
It is pleasing to Shamash, and he will prolong his life...[...]
You hear and examine them; you determine the lawsuit of the wronged.
Every single person is entrusted to your hands...[97-128]

As judge and protector of the law, it is under his vigilance that contracts and agreements are made and upheld. This chief role of solar deities is maintained well into the late Roman Empire where we find Roman soldiers swearing oaths in the name of Mithras, the Persian sun god.

Lastly, the Hymn to Shamash alludes to one final role for the solar king: that of seer and grantor of omens.

You manage their omens; that which is perplexing you make plain.[...]
You grant revelations, Shamash, to the families of men,
Your harsh face and fierce light you give to them...
The heavens are not enough as the vessel in which you gaze,
The sum of the lands is inadequate as a seer’s bowl...[129-155]

It is the light afforded by him that enlightens and gives clarity. We find a similar divinatory function displayed by Apollo, the Greek Sun God.

Apollon in Greece

There are actually two deities associated with the Sun in the Greek mythological literature: Helios, who personifies the actual Sun and Apollo, who represents the solar light, as well as having multiple other functions. Helios is the Sun who rises from a swamp in the East, rides in his chariot pulled by white winged horses, and sets to the West in the ocean in the Hesperides.

Like Shamash who sees all, Helios is said by Pindar to be: ‘the god who plumbs all hearts, the infallible, who neither mortals nor immortals can deceive either by action or in their most secret thoughts.’9 For Helios there are no secrets and it is he who tells Demeter of her daughter’s rape and abduction and who divulges Aphrodite’s adultery to Hephaestus.

However, unlike Shamash, Helios needs to seek out the king of gods in order to attain justice. This hierarchy is illustrated by an episode in Homer’s Odyssey, when his sacred horses are killed and eaten by Odysseus’ men and he must seek restitution from Zeus, rather than act directly. His sacred sanctuary is at Rhodes where a giant statue of him (the Colossus of Rhodes) once straddled the harbor where ships sailed under his legs.

While Helios may have represented the actual Sun, he was not nearly as important a figure in the Olympian pantheon as was Apollo, the son of Zeus and second in importance, after his father. He was given dozens of epithets sometimes being called Phoebus‘the brilliant’, or Xanthus, ‘the fair’, or Chrysocomes ‘of the golden locks’,10 and like Utu, he represents the epitome of youthful masculinity. As the god representing the Sun’s beneficent rays, he was responsible for the growth of fruits and was protector of crops. Perhaps due to the Sun’s beneficent qualities, Apollo, like his son Asclepius, the god of medicine, was also given patronage over healing. In this capacity, Apollo was invoked in purification rites and healing oracles.

But just as the sun’s rays can be murderous, Apollo had the power to cause sudden death with his arrows and was also a god of plague. It is not uncommon to find plague and disease associated with extreme heat in deities of the western Levant and Anatolia. An old form of Apollo’s name is a verb meaning ‘to destroy’.11 Like his sister Artemis, his bow and arrows also point to his role as god of hunting and he is sometimes associated with a stag or roe or pictured with lions.

In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, we read that “at birth he said: ‘Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.’ As god of music, it is no surprise then that song and dance are signs of his presence and that he is often depicted playing a lyre constructed and given to him by his brother Hermes.

Similar to Shamash, one of Apollo’s functions is to grant the gift of prophecy and divination. He was especially invoked at Delphi by the Pythia, a priestess who entered into a trance to make her pronouncements. One of his most well-known stories involves the slaying of the Serpent Python, whose place of death consecrated the sacred site at Delphi where the Oracle was established in his name. The Homeric hymn to Apollon may be divided into two parts: one that takes place in Delos, and involves his mother Leto’s delivery of the god, and the other in Delphi, which involves his journey to establish cult centers all over the Greek islands culminating with Delphi. It has been noted by Charles Penglase, who draws on many parallels between this hymn and the Mesopotamian myths involving the cult of the shepherd Dumuzi, that both sections of the Homeric hymn involve several journeys:

“These journey sequences and activities in them express many ideas about the god, but as in Mesopotamian myths, where they are also central features, they are employed to establish and express the god’s power.”12

Again, the same motif of the journey we saw in the Epic of Gilgamesh, are present in this and countless other stories involving solar heroes and deities.

Sol Invictus in Rome

the Sun’s favor among the Greeks did not go unnoticed by the Romans, who not only adopted Apollo as one of their own, but transformed his religious significance into a handy instrument to legitimate political power during the unsettled years of the late Empire. As deliverer of Augustus’ victory at Actium, Apollo soon gave way to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, who would be adopted as protector of the state and official state religion by Emperor Aurelian. However, the cult of the Sun went through various stages of transformation from the early Republic to its disappearance after the reign of Constantine and the conversion to Christianity—but not without some syncretization between the two religions. In Rome, there was an ancient indigenous cult to the Sun, Sol Indiges on the Quirinal, which was celebrated in the ancient Republican calendar on August 9th. As early as the 3rd century BC, coins appear with the Sun god shown with rays radiating from his head. However, this indigenous Sun god bears little resemblance to the solar god that would be imported from Syria centuries later.13

Still, the practice of equating living Emperors with the solar deity began soon after Augustus’ homage to the Greek Apollo. It was the Emperor Caligula that compared the ascension of the emperor to power as the invincibility of the Sun rising upon the eastern horizon. And the Emperor Nero is said to have been received by the king of Armenia who said to him: “I have come to you as my god, to worship you as Mithras.”14 But it was Commodus who first used Invictus as part of the official imperial title.

During the 3rd century, the Syrian solar deity called Elagabalus made a brief intrusion into Roman politics through Emperor Septimus Severius’ marriage to Julia Domna, the daughter of a Syrian high priest to the god. Her 14-year old grand-nephew, himself a high priest of Elagabalus, adopted the deity’s name and briefly became Emperor of Rome after Severus’ death, until the incursion of his foreign religion got him assassinated.

The cult of Sol Invictus reached its maximum heights with the Emperor Constantine, who was considered the personification of the Sun on earth and used the title Sol Invictus Imperator. In 325, Constantine proclaimed Sunday the official day of rest of the state. While, it is true that Constantine moved away from the worship of pagan deities and eventually converted to Christianity, the central position of the Sun continued unchallenged. Scholars claim that it was during this time that Christ became associated with the Sun: “Constantine’s god was a fusion of the Unconquered Sun and Christ the Victorious, but he remained god of power, not of love.”15

The Astrological Sun

Astrological interpretation is a product of historical imprinting. To ignore centuries of deity associations in regions that practiced astrology all over the Near East, while fixating solely on rote delineations in astrological manuals, is to miss the understanding of astrology as historical process. Having said that, for the purposes of discerning cultural influence, I will nevertheless include the typical delineations found in Hellenistic astrological texts on the Sun:

The all-seeing Sun, then, being truly fire-like and the light of the mind, the organ of perception of the soul, is significant at birth for kingly office, hegemony, mind, practical wisdom, outward form, motion, height of fortune, public registration, action, popular leadership, judgment, father, mastership, friendship, persons of high repute, the honors of images, statues, and crowns of office, arch-priests of the fatherland…of places.16

Having made a peripheral inquiry into the mythological history of this deity, certain odd attributes from this list become clearer. Friendship, and practical wisdom, for example, are attributes found in eastern solar deities, such as Mitra and Shamash. While judgment, is also a prominent attribute of eastern deities, here it appears late in the list, only after several other significations. What is conspicuously absent in the list of solar significations is the Sun’s oracular capacity. Yet we do find in the astrological tradition, that the 9th place in the chart – considered the place of ‘the Sun’s joy’—is the place of divination, astrology, and oracles. In the same way that Apollo presided over the Pythia’s pronouncements at Delphi, this subtle difference, may indicate that the Sun was not understood to possess oracular skills himself, but to delight in and enable their occurrence in others.

The predominance of the motif of recognition, leadership and the attainment of kingly office, clearly derives from the oldest and most ubiquitous practice of considering kings to be manifestations of the Sun, whether they be shepherd-kings in Mesopotamia, the Invincible Sun in Rome, or the personifications of Ra in Egypt. One can only speculate on who ‘the arch-priests of the fatherland’ were. But if we are to believe that the Sun is ‘phos noeron’ (the light of the mind), than one might reasonably expect that an Aristotelian influence, which describes the Good ‘as like the Sun’ or “Father”17 was a part of the astrological tradition and the arch-priests of the fatherland as those who worshipped some form of the Sun, such as in the case of Mithras. For this reason alone, there is traditional precedence for considering the Sun emblematic of the father.

As 21st century astrologers, we can begin to look at the Sun as carrier of all these motifs, yet dressed in a modern guise. Above all, the Sun illustrates one’s capacity to elevate one thing over another, that is, to choose, and to do so with practical wisdom, judgment and clarity. The Sun is never just a neutral vehicle for one’s Zodiac sign. He represents the soul’s perception, its ability to focus the will in the direction of its choosing, and in so doing, to forge the path that will carry us forth along our journey. To invoke him, is to dispel the dark clouds that have rendered that path indistinct. To swear an oath to him, is to make one’s vision become Truth.


1 John Lawrence Angel, Machteld Johanna Mellink. Troy and the Trojan War: a symposium held at Bryn Mawr College, October 1984. (PA: Bryn Mawr Commentaries, 1986). p.42.

2 Jonathan Slocum and Carol Justus trans. Great Sun Hymn. KUB XXXI 128: I, 1-21 & 39-51. Indo-European Texts. Linguistics Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

 3 Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (London: Yale University Press, 1976). pp. 86-87.

4 Mark E. Cohen, The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient near East (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1993). p. 319.

5 W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1960). p. 127 ff.

6 Reiner and Pingree, Babylonian Planetary Omens, Part 2. p.43.

7 Samuel Kramer, Sumerian Mythology. A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievements in the Third Millennium B.C., revised ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961).

8 Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion. p. 85.

9 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. p. 142.

10 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. p. 113.

11 New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. p. 119.

12 Charles Penglase. Greek Myths and Mesopotamia. (New York: Routledge, 1994). p. 99.

13 John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970); and Halsberghe, Gaston H.. The Cult of Sol Invictus. (Leiden. Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1972).

14 Ferguson, p.46. Mithraism was a secret hierarchical mystery cult inspired by astrological symbolism based on the Persian solar deity known as Mithra, a god of light who ruled over truth, contracts, oaths, and order. Mithras became quite popular throughout the late Roman Empire among soldiers and his name was often used interchangeably with the title of Sol Invictus. See Franz Cumont. The Mysteries of Mithras. Dover Publications, Inc. NY 1956, among others.

15 Ferguson, John. The Religions of the Roman Empire. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970). p.46.

16 Vettius Valens, The Anthology: Book I, trans. Robert Schmidt, 1st ed., vol. IV, Project Hindsight Greek Track (Cumberland, MD: The Golden Hind Press, 1993). p.1.

17 See the entry on Nous, #16, p.137 in F.E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms, (New York: New York university Press, 1967).