American Gods: Rituals & Sacrifices to the All-Powerful Solar Gods
The ancients knew him well. He was as powerful as a god, as dangerous as a demon. He generously gave life – and he ruthlessly took it away.
He appeared to all, from the darkest and most bone-chilling conditions of the north, to the parched and shimmering-hot deserts of the south. The ancient peoples of the Americas knew who was in charge of their lives and fates, and so he featured widely across cultures and mythologies. Curiously, though he was dangerous, he was almost always welcomed! He was as reliable as the sun, rising in the east and setting in the west. And that’s no coincidence, because he was the sun itself: powerful, unknowable, and blindingly obvious.
Even in belief systems which incorporated many deities attributed to the natural world, the sun was a mainstay. Worship of solar gods throughout human history in the Americas is easy to see. Ancient, even prehistoric symbolism, ritual, and monuments reveal peoples across varying landscapes, climates, and with cultures and lives that couldn’t have been more different from each other—yet worship of solar gods connects them.
Usually seen as male, the American solar gods were not just life-bringers, they were often warrior gods as well. Their shining nature, powerful and dominant, was symbolized by fire, shields, golden idols and relics, discs, or masks.
The sun was not necessarily the supreme creator; instead, it was frequently the child of creator gods. Sometimes, myth held that the sun and moon were twins. It went that after nothingness came creation, and then generally a sun, a moon counterpart or sibling, followed by additional celestial bodies to inhabit the newborn universe.
Fire was a symbol for the heat, light, and power of the sun. ( Public Domain )
The movements of the sun affected all. The changing of the seasons and the connection to the sun in the sky was cemented in the minds of ancient peoples of America. High temples and monuments in alignment to the sun’s travels were a necessity. Dances and rituals were practiced and passed on to following generations. For, without sacrifice and offerings to sun gods, peril could follow!
The Sun Dance
Before European colonization, the indigenous people of the Americas extensively worshiped the sun. A prominent feature of many religions, often a ritualized dance was the most important ceremony. These were occasions when bands would gather to reaffirm their beliefs about the universe and creation.
The Sun Dance was a vital annual tradition of the Plains Indians of North America. Held in the late spring or early summer, hundreds of people would attend, seeking access to powers or insight from the supernatural world. This concept can be found globally in solar worship. Sun Dance was done to ensure the tribe’s well-being through a physical and spiritual ordeal offered in sacrifice for their people.
The Sun Dance included grueling tests of endurance; for those who pledged to endure in the ritual, dancing might go on for days, with no food or water taken. Skin might be pierced with wooden skewers strung with leather thongs, and then heavy weights were attached, such as a buffalo skull, which would be dragged across the ground. The dancing would continue until the skin ripped or the dancer succumbed to exhaustion.
In the 1800s the Sun Dance was disallowed and discouraged by USA and Canada, however, the dance continued in secret and now sun dancing remains a significant religious ritual among many Plains peoples (although without the more extreme endurance trials).
Illustration of Native American Sun Dancers strung with ropes to a pole in an endurance ritual ( Public Domain)
Who Worked the Hardest?
In the Arizona region of America, the Hopi people believe that in the beginning there were two entities: the Sun-God, Tawa, and Kokyangwuhti the Spider-Woman, the Earth-Goddess. While the sun was indeed a powerful creator, he had to share creative control with the goddess. Tawa controlled everything in the Above, while the Spider-Woman was in charge of all in the Below. It’s said these two were the creators of all living things to come. But in some tellings of the legend, the sun merely watches on as other goddesses create everything. No matter who gets the credit, it is still traditional for Hopi mothers to seek a blessing from the sun for their newborn children.
Tawa, the Sun Spirit and Creator in Hopi mythology. ( Public Domain)
The sun god actually has to work for a living, according to the Navajo people of the American Southwest. Every day Jóhonaa'éí, or sun bearer, must laboriously haul the blazing sun across the sky on his back. He can only rest at night when his work is done, as he hangs the sun on a peg in the wall.
Navajo Yebichai (Yei Bi Chei) dancers. Edward S. Curtis. USA, 1900. Navajo healing ceremonies known as sings, or chants, are designed to restore equilibrium to the cosmos. ( Public Domain )
The Navajo built dwellings made of wood and covered in mud, with the door always facing east to welcome the sun each morning.
Eagles, Turtles, and Bison, Oh My!
In the northeastern United States and Eastern Canada, the Abenaki people believed that "Sun-Bringer" was a great eagle whose wings opened to create the day and closed to cause the nighttime.
For the Blackfoot tribes of Alberta, Canada, Napioa is an important figure in the mythology. The sun god is known by many names including Napioa, Old man, and Napi (Nah-pee). Napioa floated on a river and came across a turtle with a mouth full of mud. It was this mud with which the sun god created the earth. With the same mud he formed the men and women as well. Then Napioa made the bison for the people to hunt.
Bison of North America. (Public Domain)
Land of the Midnight Sun
Celestial twins are sun and moon in the snowy reaches of North America. (©Robert Cocquyt/ Adobe Stock)
The Inuit or Eskimo are a group of indigenous people who live in Alaska, Greenland and the Arctic. Malina, the Inuit solar goddess, was known for her passion, courage, and beauty. However, she was constantly fleeing from her twin brother, Annigan, the lunar god. There are many mythic versions of the reasons behind their strife, including arguments and Annigan attacking her for her beauty, but as night follows day, so does Annigan constantly chase Malina across the sky. It’s believed that during solar eclipses, he has temporarily caught up with the fiery woman, but when the eclipse is done, the celestial chase resumes.
Inuit (Eskimo) woman wearing traditional hooded parka, 1942. ( Public Domain )
Sacrifice to the Sun
The Aztecs of Mesoamerica carefully observed the sun’s movements, and many of the remaining Aztec monuments and structures are aligned to the sun.
In Aztec creation myth, it’s understood that the universe isn’t permanent, but can live and die like any living being. Each time it dies, it is reborn into a new age or “sun”. Each sun was a god with its own cosmic era who would reign until expelled from the sky, and a new god would take over.
Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis ( Public Domain )
Huitzilopochtli was a Mesoamerican solar deity who also was god of war, human sacrifice, and he featured as the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan – a huge, ancient capital city-state of the Aztec Empire, in what is now the heart of Mexico City.
In myth, Huitzilopochtli was said to have come from his mother Coatlicue, a goddess who also birthed the moon and stars. He was born fully grown and fully armed, to protect himself from his murderous siblings.
The grand temple of Tenochtitlan, Templo Mayor was dedicated simultaneously to two gods: Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture, safely covering all the bases. If you wanted to eat and thus survive, sacrificing to both sun and rain gods for a bountiful crop seems wise! The infamous bloody human sacrifices at the ancient temples of South America were not relegated only to solar gods, however much they featured in the rituals.
The Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at The Field Museum, Chicago. Templo Mayor punctuates the sky at Tenochtitlan. (Joe Ravi/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Other Aztec solar deities include Nanahuatzin, the humblest of the gods, who sacrificed himself in fire so that he would continue to shine on Earth as the sun.
Tonatiuh was portrayed as a warrior, with arrows and a shield. He carried a human spine to signify his part in bloodletting and human sacrifice. It was believed Tonatiuh demanded human sacrifice as tribute and without it would refuse to move through the sky. 20,000 people are said to have been sacrificed each year to Tonatiuh (although this could have been spread by the Aztecs as a way to inspire fear in their enemies, or possibly a lie by the Spanish, demonizing the indigenous people).
Tonatiuh from the Codex Borgia. ( Public Domain )
House of the Sun
In Inca mythology, “Inti was the god of the Sun, and one of the most important deities in the Inca pantheon. As a solar deity, Inti is closely associated with agriculture, as this heavenly body provides the warmth and light needed for crops to grow. Hence, Inti was quite a prominent god amongst the farmers of the Inca civilization. Moreover, the Sapa Inca (the ruler of the Inca Empire) claimed direct descent from Inti, which further enhanced the prestige and status of this god,” writes Wu Mingren for Ancient Origins .
The founder of the Inca Empire in Peru, Manco Cápac was held to be the son of Inti. ( Public Domain )
Inti was considered a good and generous god, but he could be brought to anger. This was never more evident than during solar eclipses – proof of his displeasure! The Inca would try to appease him with offerings.
Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun at Saksaywaman, Cuzco. (Cyntia Motta/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Inti was often depicted as a golden statue, a sun disk, or a shining mask. Gold is believed to be the sweat of the sun. One of the most important Inca monuments, the Coricancha Temple, (‘House of the Sun’), in the ancient capital of Cuzco in Peru is dedicated to Inti.
A digital reconstruction of a room in the Temple of the Sun in Cuzao when it was filled with gold. (Martinangel/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Eclipse, A Time of Fear
Ancient Americans didn’t just respect the power of the sun god, they also feared what might happen when he disappeared. The impact of solar eclipses, and day turning to night ‘unnaturally’, had huge implications. Pregnant Aztec women believed that the darkening sky would cause their children to be born with deformities, without noses or lips, cross-eyed—or even born as mice.
Death of the Sun Gods?
Even as conquering Europeans brought a literal death of the old ways of culture and belief to the New World, so did they bring with them to the Americas their own version of solar worship. Christianity is thick with links to solar worship as can be seen in iconography and Biblical references:
"The Lord God is a sun..." - Psalms 84:11
"The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays..." - Malachi 4:2.
"And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light." - Matthew 17:2
Mosaic of Christ as Sol or Apollo-Helios. ( Public Domain )
In a text by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, it is noted that Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December because this was the date of the popular existing festival ‘Sol Invictus’ (or "Unconquered Sun”, which was the official sun god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers). The text read:
“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.”
This means that the many rich cultures and mythologies of the ancient Indigenous Americans, as well as later European immigrants to American shores, all share a history of solar worship, and these traditions survive in rituals and observances to this day. The sun god isn’t dead – he shines on, bringing power and life to the land and its people.
Top image: The solar gods of the indigenous cultures of the Americas have many names but share one radiant face. (Public Domain/Deriv)
By Liz Leafloor
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