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Home >> Sky deities

SKY DEITIES                                                         German version  

by Gert Hans Wengel

The chthonic deities of the earth, female-maternal, are contrasted with the male-paternal divinities of the Olympian world, the sky. In Greek mythology, their ruler is the sky-god Zeus. They call him megas aither, „vast sky“ (1). The realm of the air includes the elemental forces prevalent above earth such as the sun with its light and heat, the wind and the rain with their tendency to grow into storms, and of course thunder and lightning, natural powers worshipped and feared as male numina that act upon mother earth and impregnate her.

The sun is the highest god in many religions, begetting new life on earth with his light and heat. Zeus also used to be the sun and bringer of daylight before he took human form, a fact that is still commemorated by the etymological kinship of his name  (Zeus <*Djeus) with the Latin word for day, dies. The Romans called him Jupiter. In his Saturnalia (1,15), the Roman scholar Macrobius relates:

 For since we take Jupiter to  be the author of light – and that is, why the Salii in their chants sing of him as “Bringer of the Light” (Lucetius) and the Cretians call him “The Day” (Dia) – the Romans also address him as “Father of the Day” (Diespiter).                            (2)

Whoever prays to the sun worships „the great procreative force of nature in the sun’s powers“ as was the case with, for example, the native American Sitting Bull:

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! Every seed is awakened, and all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even to our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves to inhabit this vast land.                                                         (4)

The sun is also venerated as a begetting father god in Goethe’s poem Ganymed:

How, in the light of morning,
Round me thou glowest,
Spring, thou beloved one!
With thousand-varying loving bliss
The sacred emotions
Born by thy warmth eternal
Press ‘gainst my bosom,
Thou endlessly fair one!
Could I but hold thee clasp’d
Within mine arms!

Ah! Upon thy bosom
Lay I, pining,
And then thy flowers, thy grass,
Were pressing against my heart.
Thou coolest the burning
Thirst of my bosom,
Beauteous morning breeze!
The nightingale then calls me
Sweetly from out of the misty vale.
I come, I come!
Whither? Ah, whither?

Up, up, lies my course.
While downward the clouds
Are hovering, the clouds
Are bending to meet yearning love.
For me,
Within thine arms
Embraced and embracing!
Upwards into thy bosom,
Oh Father all-loving! (5)

The beautiful youth Ganymede is abducted to the sky by Zeus, who had fallen in love with him. That is the poem’s mythological background. The „you“ being addressed is Zeus in his original form as the sun. Just like the earth with Sitting Bull, Goethe shows Ganymede having himself embraced by the sun,  having himself annealed by what harbours its potency, the morning light and warmth of spring. The flowers and grass, which the lyrical I entertains a deep inner connection with, are referred to as „thy flowers, thy grass“, meaning: we are your children! The sun is their father because it has created them and allows them to grow by its fructifying impact on mother earth. Ganymede, who refers to the sun god as „Father all-loving“ in the last line, understands himself as its offspring, while his relationship with the flowers and grass, and ergo with nature, is a fraternal one, on an equal footing, not yet alienated as in Christianity which, true to the motto „Subdue the earth!“, has elevated man above nature as a master and exploiter, thereby rupturing his original deep inner connection with her.  Just like Sitting Bull, Ganymede-Goethe experiences himself as a part of nature and child of the sun, whose „mysterious power“ he owes his existence to, just like his fellow beings, the plants and animals.
As an ode to the sun, Ganymede provides an example for Goethe’s paganism because understanding oneself as a part of nature and worshipping, homoerotically experiencing a fertilizing power of nature is antique, not Christian.

Ovid also knows that Zeus was the sun initially, whose light and heat are of a phallic character. In his Metamorphoses (I, 588-597), the god desires the beautiful Io and asks her to keep herself ready for him in an umbrageous forest, namely when „the sun at his zenith’s height is overwarm“ (6). The time of love’s union is hence meant to be noon, when the potency of the sun is at its greatest.  

The fathering power of the sun was also believed in by the ancient Egyptians – as Herodotus (III, 28) has handed down. The sun is thought to have begotten the holy bull Apis with a ray of light:

This Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow that can never conceive again. By what the Egyptians say, the cow is made pregnant by a light from heaven, and thereafter gives birth to Apis.                   (7)

The sun’s heat and light were also felt to be emanations of a potent male god by a schizophrenic patient of psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, a disciple of Carl Jung. The patient identified with mother earth who, petrified under a blanket of snow, is revived by the sunshine, or penetrated by a ray of sunlight (8). In her fantasy, that ray of sunlight is a phallus of God: „Jesus Christ has shown me His love by knocking on my window with a ray“ (9). The ray of sunlight has become solid, erect so to speak, so that the male Christian God can knock on her window with it, and seek entrance into her.
A solidified ray of sunlight is also encountered in Wilhelm Busch’s oeuvre. In his anticlerical satire Saint Antonius of Padua, the hero inspires believers with his sermons and also miracles. But not everybody is delighted by them. Antonius finds himself denounced for „devilish arts and witchcraft“. The competent bishop Rusticus pays him a visit to find out if these marvels are the work of God or the devil. Antonius performs one of his miracles for him: he hangs his cap from a ray of sunlight „as if from a pole“:

But this fails to dispel the bishop’s doubts, as it could also be the devil at work. So Antonius turns to a deaf-mute foundling who happens to be playing nearby and asks him who his parents are. The child not only understands him, but can suddenly also speak, points to the bishop and tries to identify him as his father. The bishop interrupts the child and, to prevent disclosure of his paternity, absolves Antonius from all suspicions.
The two miracles Antonius performed for the bishop are related because both of them refer to sexuality. The first shows a ray of sunlight as solid or erect, as it were, and the second reveals that the bishop has sired a child. In his first miracle, Antonius demonstrates that the sun, as an earlier incarnation of Christianity’s heavenly father god, was not as asexual as the latter by any means – being tasked with fertilizing mother earth, after all. The second miracle, i.e. that a deaf-mute boy can speak, namely the truth, shows that the bishop, expected to abstain from sex in keeping with Catholic ideals, has done anything but that, and got a woman pregnant. This Catholic ideal of asexuality turns out to be the main target of the satire. Antonius has by and large vanquished the sexual-animalistic aspects of himself in the name of this ideal, even if he has not quite emerged as a sovereign, glorious winner. The bishop, however, has apparently been defeated in this struggle, a defeat the second miracle refers to. Whereas the first miracle shows that the Christian father god, too, had in no way lived up to this unnatural ideal at first – and that Christianity is not only doing violence to its Catholic clergy, but also to its God.

That the god of the Christians had originally been the sun, whose light has a phallic character, is also recognizable in old master paintings showing the Virgin Mary inseminated by rays of sunlight, while the Holy Ghost, who impregnated her according to Mathew 1.18, is embodied by a dove, which is associated with a ray of light:

Fra Angelico: Annunciation

Jean Poyer: Annunciation

Carlo Crivelli: Annunciation

Rogier van der Weyden: Annunciation

1) Sophokles: Oedipus at Colonus 1471. Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (The Loeb Classical Library)

2) Macrobius: The Saturnalia. Translated with Introduction and Notes by Percival Vaughan Davies. New York/London 1969

3) C.G.Jung: Symbole der Wandlung § 135 (GW 5)

4) Charles A. Eastman: Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains. Chapter 7: Sitting Bull

5) Translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring

6) Translated by Frank Justus Miller (The Loeb Classical Library)

7) Translated by A. D. Godley (The Loeb Classical Library)

8) Sabina Spielrein: Über den psychologischen Inhalt eines Falles von Schizophrenie (Dementia praecox), in: Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen, p. 375, 382pp.

9) Ibid, p. 383