The Sun Symbol Throughout Time: From Antiquity to Emoji
The sun symbol one of the most ancient symbols in human evolution. Thousands of years ago, cultures across the globe depicted the sun, both as it appeared to the naked human eye and according to its importance in their respective cultures. All of the most important concepts were wrapped up in the image of the sun: time, life, birth, death, divinity, royalty, and power.
Our need to depict the sun has not faded with time. Today, humans use sun symbols both as metaphors—for power, knowledge, and emotion—and as literal shorthand for our sun and suns elsewhere in the universe. Anyone with a smartphone in their pocket can call up one of several sun symbols instantly from the Unicode emoji library and send it across the globe to anyone with an internet connection, and chances are, it will be recognized instantly.
The history of sun symbols is a long and complex one, and while there are many shared attributes and meanings for sun symbols across cultures, there are also many differences. There is perhaps nothing that unites all humans throughout time better than our shared relationship with our solar companion, its apparent movement through the sky, and its power to create warmth and growth.
Here, we will explore some of the best and most well documented sun symbols throughout history and what they meant to their respective cultures.
Sun Symbol in the Ancient World
Symbols representing the sun have existed for millennia across cultures and continents. Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Aztec and Bronze Age European cultures depicted suns using a variety of symbols and left behind a great many artifacts with these symbols prominently featured. Crosses, circles, discs and rays are some of the most common themes.
To understand many of these symbols and their place in their respective cultures, it’s important to know what the sun meant to these ancient societies. In antiquity, the sun was frequently viewed not as simply a physical phenomenon but as a god and was depicted together with other important symbols referring to royalty and divinity. In some cases, this divine sun was also closely tied to the power and assumed divinity of an earthly ruler, such as a king or pharaoh.
The Ancient Near East and the Winged Sun Symbol
Ancient Egypt is one of the best known examples of a sun-centric religious culture. The importance of the sun to ancient Egyptians was demonstrated in the importance and number of symbols pertaining to the sun. Perhaps the oldest of these sun symbols is the winged sun. The winged sun dates back at least to Egypt’s Old Kingdom, a period lasting from 2575 BC to 2150 BC. This ancient solar symbol depicts the disc of the sun flanked by an outstretched wing on each side. Frequently, two stylized rearing cobras, or uraeuses, adorn each side of the sun.
However, this symbol was not only used in sun-obsessed ancient Egypt. The Near East was replete with such winged sun symbols, with historical examples coming from Persia, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. Where it appeared, it was used to symbolize concepts such as power, divinity, eternal life and the soul.
European Bronze Age Sun Crosses
For ancient people who lived close to the earth and seasons, the sun’s power and life-giving ability was central to their understanding of the natural and spiritual world. Accordingly, Bronze Age Europeans recognized a sun god, whose name varied geographically. It was often said that the sun god rode across the sky each day in a chariot—a religious explanation for the passage of the sun through the sky.
A common symbol used during this period, which lasted from 3000 BC to 1200 BC, was the so-called sun cross. Typically, this was a simple circle divided by one horizontal and one vertical line which met at the circle’s center, though more complex variations exist.
While the round circle element of the design seems an obvious choice to represent the sun, many interpretations have been offered by scholars as to the reason for the cross. A longstanding theory among scholars is that the sun cross is a likeness of the four-spoked wheel of a chariot that the sun god was said to ride. Viewing the sun as a “wheel of fire” may seem strange to modern people, but for Bronze Age humans who viewed the natural and mythological as one, it may have been a perfectly natural connection to make. The belief in a god crossing the sky in a fiery chariot each day was one that would persist in various forms for thousands of years, cropping up again in the chariot of Helios, ancient Greek god of the sun.
Not everyone agrees that the cross represents the spokes of a wheel. Irish archaeologist Mary Cahill, for example, has suggested that the crosses, as depicted on Bronze Age discs dated from 2400 to 1800 BC, may simply be a depiction of the way the unprotected human eye views the rays of the sun, especially during sunrise and sunset.
There remains a great deal of ongoing scholarly discussion about what these symbols may mean and why they were so ubiquitous and so important to Bronze Age people. Today, the circle containing an equilateral cross is in wide use across the world by various religious and secular groups. It is also, interestingly, the astronomical symbol for Earth. Variations of the sun cross are also in use by various Pagan, Celtic and Irish groups and, unfortunately, by certain white supremacist groups as well.
The Sunburst Symbols of Ancient Greece and Macedonia
Jumping forward in history to the 6th century BC, we find another solar symbol rising to prominence: The multi-rayed sunburst symbols in use by ancient Greeks and Macedonians. Again, these symbols were probably closely linked to sun gods, and likely to Helios in particular. Known today as the Vergina Sun, this ancient sunburst symbol is typically composed of a central disc surrounded by a varying number of triangular rays.
One of the best-known examples of the Vergina Sun comes in the form of its namesake artifact, a coffin contained within a tomb discovered in Vergina, Macedonia in Greece in 1977. The coffin, known as the Golden Larnax, featured a stunning sixteen-ray sunburst, and another coffin discovered in the same chamber had a twelve-ray sunburst. The tomb is thought to house the remains of King Philip II of Macedon and his wife.
The significance of the Vergina sun symbol is not entirely known. However, one predominant theory is that the rays extending from the central disc or rosette have metaphorical significance relating to the ancient Greek religion. A twelve-pointed star refers to the twelve major god of Olympus; a star with more rays may refer to a more complex system incorporating multiple aspects of religious significance. The exact meanings of these sunburst symbols has been, for now, lost to time.
Heraldry and Medieval Sun Symbols
As history rolled on, sun symbology continued to evolve. In the high and late Middle Ages (1000 – 1500 AD) one rather familiar symbol began to appear: The sun with a large central disc and wavy, emanating rays— often anthropomorphized with a rather serious-looking human face. These stoic suns were often seen on heraldic badges and family coats of arms. Edward II and Edward IV of England used them as badges, and they have remained in use ever since on family crests, national flags and emblems.
The meaning of these heraldic suns may be related to the practice of alchemy and to the Roman god Sol Invictus, which translates as Unconquered Sun. In keeping with a long tradition of solar symbols, these suns represent power and glory. The depiction of solemn-faced suns with long and wavy rays would continue throughout the Renaissance.
The Great Aztec Sun Stone
The Aztec sun stone is a truly incredible artifact: A massive carved stone, highly detailed, with a diameter of 12 feet and weighing almost 25 tons. Once part of a temple wall, it was created in 1427 BC and discovered in 1790 BC in Mexico City.
While we don’t know the exact use of the Sun Stone, we do know that the sun was an important aspect of their timekeeping and mythology. According to Aztec belief, each era of human history was marked by a different sun. At the time of the creation of the Sun Stone, four suns (and thus four eras) had already passed. These eras are each depicted on the sun stone.
At the end of each era, the sun would fall to earth and humanity would be destroyed or transformed into other animals. The Aztecs believed they were in the fifth and final era of their civilization at the time of the stone’s creation. Tragically, it seems they were correct about their coming downfall; the Aztec Empire fell to an invasion led by Hernan Cortes in 1521.
Modern Sun Symbols: Religious, Utilitarian and more
In the modern day, we find suns represented across the globe with nearly every possible function. Many sun symbols still function, as they always have, as important links to the natural world and religious meaning. Others are symbols of national power, adorning plenty of flags and insignia worldwide. Still many more fulfill utilitarian functions as astronomical and weather symbols. Two representations of the sun were even inscribed on the plaque that was sent out on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft, in case the craft are ever intercepted by intelligent extraterrestrial life. The plaques contain information about the position of our solar system relative to the center of the galaxy.
The sun also remains a sacred symbol to cultures worldwide. The Zia people of New Mexico use a sacred solar symbol as their tribal logo; the ancient symbol also adorns their pottery. It is a circle with sixteen lines: Groups of four extend out from the top, bottom, left and right of the circle respectively. The symbol “reflects their tribal philosophy, with its wealth of pantheistic spiritualism teaching the basic harmony of all things in the universe.” It is also the flag of New Mexico.
The Sami people of Norway, Finland and Sweden recognize an important sun deity, Beaivi, which is associated with a complex sun symbol. In “The Shamanic Drum as Cognitive Map,” Juha Pentikäinen writes, “The Sami way of life, economy and culture is highly dependent on the sun. Seasonal variation is felt very strongly in the Arctic and Subarctic conditions of the Far North.” Like many people throughout time, the Sami recognize the sun as centrally important to life and give it corresponding religious significance. The Beaivi symbol can be rendered as an oval or softened rectangle (to fit onto the face of a drum) with a small diamond at its center representing the sun, from which project four lines, one from each point. More complex iterations of this symbol function as a picture of the universe, depicting the various worlds and seasons that make up the natural and religious world.
What is so remarkable about sun symbols is simply how little has changed and how much we have in common with people all throughout time and across the globe. Most of the sun symbols discussed here came into use hundreds or thousands of years ago, yet few have ever entirely fallen out of use.
Sun crosses, sunbursts and heraldic suns still find their uses today, whether on the insignia of the US Military Intelligence (who use the symbol of Helios because he, “as God of the Sun, could see and hear everything”, according to Stanford Solar Center) or in the case of the Vergina Sun, currently an official symbol of Greece. Sun symbols last, even when the civilizations that spawned them have fallen away.
This artcile about the sun symbol was published by Nazmiyal Antique Rugs in NYC.