NASA's new 360-degree image of the sun is a stunning look at the star that gives us all life. But for centuries, we had wild beliefs about the sun and how it got there. TIME takes a look at some of the most fascinating myths
Worship of the ancient sun god Ra, a.k.a. Re, wasn't limited to Heliopolis in Egypt: he lent his name to Egyptian kings, who took the title Son of Ra. Fittingly, given the sun's role in enabling life, he was also a creator god. His preferred method of transportation was a ship rather than a chariot, and, so the story goes, he used it not just in the sky but also in the underworld at night. He was believed to be reborn each day.
The Sun Orbits the Earth
Much as we may persist in acting like we're at the center of the universe, we obviously know that's hardly the case. Yet Ptolemy's geocentric model, worked out around A.D. 150 (some 1,400 years before Copernicus developed his heliocentric one) was accepted for centuries. According to the cosmos of the ancient astronomer and mathematician in Alexandria, the sun was the fourth sphere from the central, stationary Earth, in between Venus and Mars.
In legend, the ancient Greek deity Apollo, the son of Zeus, master of Olympus, rode a chariot pulled by fiery horses across the sky every day to bring light to the world. Venerated in various guises and incarnations throughout classical antiquity, radiant Apollo came to represent not only the sun, but also other illuminating fields of music, logic and reason. In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, described what he termed the Apollonian tendency as a kind of ordering impulse, bringing discipline and structure to the irrational, feral impulses that underlie all human expression. That's quite a task, even for the guy who rides a flying chariot every day.
Huitzilopochtli, Aztec God of Sun and War
Huitzilopochtli's name is a combination of two Nahuatl (or Aztecan) words, huitzilin, meaning hummingbird, and opochtli, which means left — the god's name translates literally as "Hummingbird on the Left." This resulted in Huitzilopochtli often being depicted as a blue- or green-colored hummingbird or as a warrior whose armor and helmet were made of hummingbird features. But Aztecs also believed de*d warriors were reincarnated as hummingbirds and they called the south the left side of the world. So, translated another way, Huitzilopochtli's name means "Resuscitated Warrior of the South." The Aztecs believed their sun god, who was said to be in constant struggle with darkness, required blood from a human heart as nourishment to ensure his survival. To feed their god, the people of the sun offered up their own in the form of human sacrifice.
The 10 Suns
Once upon a time there were 10 suns in the sky, according to Chinese mythology. They would travel individually with their mother, goddess Xihe, until one day they decided to appear in the sky at the same time. The heat from the combined suns, however, was so immense that the father of the suns, Dijun, ordered each of them to behave. But they did not heed his warnings. So Dijun sent the archer Yi to shoot the suns away, k*lling nine of them and leaving only one.
The Inuit Moon and Sun Gods
The Inuit, a group of indigenous people who live in Alaska, Greenland and the Arctic, explain the existence of the sun and the moon with the legend of the moon god Anningan and his sister, the sun goddess Malina. The story goes that the two once resided together and, as siblings are wont to do, got into a quarrel one day. Malina stormed off. Anningan followed. Tales differ on the cause of the spat and whether or not Anningan was following to apologize or to argue some more. But because he is in constant pursuit, he neglects to eat and gets thinner and thinner, which explains the waning phase of the moon. When the moon disappears, the Inuit believe that Anningan has gone away to eat. Then, during the moon's waxing period, he starts his search anew. When he finally is able to catch up to Malina, it causes a solar eclipse.
Like many other pre-Christian deities, the Celtic sun god Lugus, or Lugh in Ireland, is remembered in some legends as a quasi-historical figure, a shimmering, brilliant warrior king who helped a tribe of ancient Irish win a war against a race of giants. Leading the giants, known as the Formorians, was Balor, an evil god of the underworld who happened to be Lugus' grandfather. Balor's great power emanated from a magical Cyclops-like eye, but in battle Lugus managed to sling a stone into Balor's socket, pushing the eye out of the back of his head so it wreaked havoc upon the army of giants arrayed behind Balor. A multifaceted deity, Lugus was tied to fertility rites, skills of invention and harvest cycles. The story of his victory over Balor is similar to a host of other mythological tales in the Indo-European tradition, in which a young, plucky usurper and his allies supplant the old rulers of land, who were often denizens of some dark underworld realm.
A Norse Sun God
In Norse mythology, Freyr was the ruler of peace, fertility, rain and sunshine. He was a pretty powerful dude. Legend says that Freyr rode a boar named Gullinbursti, which could travel across the sky and the ocean. And if he got bored, he could bust out his own ship, the Skiobloanir, which was the finest of ships in Scandinavia. When the ship wasn't in use, Freyr would fold it up and store it in his pocket.
Surya, the Hindu Sun God
According to ancient Hindu mythology, Surya, as the sun god, represents the visible form of the divine, one that you can plainly see every day. Depicted as a red man with three eyes and four arms, the deity is commonly pulled around in a chariot, carried by either seven horses or one horse with seven heads. Surya is also believed to heal the sick, and as such is honored with temples and festivals throughout India. The sun god is also believed to bring good fortune — an attribute that prompts many shopkeepers to place the symbol of the sun over the doors of their shops.
Lisa and Mawu
The Fon people of Benin and the Ewe people — who are dispersed throughout Ghana, Benin and Togo — count Lisa (the sun deity) and Mawu (the moon deity) as twins in one spirit. The two together are regarded as the creators of the universe, with Mawu representing motherhood and fertility while Lisa is seen as the embodiment of heat, work and strength.