The Myth of the Sun God, the Houses, and the Christ

My purpose in this essay is to explore the myth of the sun god as it is reiterated in the Christ Myth – I use the expression with the greatest reverence – of the Christian faith. Furthermore, since the myth of the sun god has been established as the formal principle of the astrological houses (see Deborah Houlding, The Houses: Temples of the Sky), I also intend to show that they too contribute an important structural element in the unfolding drama of the Christ. The discussion will be exploratory and suggestive, stepping stones perhaps to making the case in a more rigorous way.

The usual way of mapping the Christ Myth to natural cycles is through the pattern of the seasons and the Christian liturgical year, with the Nativity, St. John’s Tide, Good Friday & Easter, and Michaelmas happening near the solstices and the equinoxes, and other mysteries commemorated on the cross quarter days. This calendrical ordering of the myth makes sense as a means of organizing community life along sacred lines of feast and fast.

That being said, the Christ Myth probably makes even better sense by analogy to the diurnal, rather than the annual, solar cycle: the rising, culmination, setting, anti-culmination and rebirth on the new day. This kind of solar symbolism saturates the New Testament. Jesus’ identity as the “light of the world” (John 1:4, 8:2) is one of its central Christological metaphors, one which echoes the messianic prophecy of Malachi 4:2 – “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings”. Luke describes Jesus prophetically as “the rising sun [who] will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death” (1:76-79). At the end of time, the heavenly city – symbol of cosmic reintegration – will not need the sun to shine in it, because the “Lamb is the light thereof” (Rev. 21:23). That is to say, the Lamb, or Christ, is the transcendental Sun of which the material sun is a lesser copy.

The essential structure of the Christ Myth is given in the Christological section of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

The creed envisions a double cycle – the first occurring within history, the second transcending and transforming time and space.

The first cycle begins with Jesus’ virginal conception (4th house), continues with his birth and later baptism, (1st house), then his public ministry climaxing on the Mount of Transfiguration (10th house), and finally concludes with his crucifixion, death and burial (7th house).

The second cycle begins as Jesus descends into hell (4th house), continues with his resurrection (1st house), culminates in his ascension to the place of authority (10th house) and looks forward to his descent back to a renewed earth and an eternal kingdom (7th house).

First Cycle:

The 4th House: Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit

Grotto of the Annunciation

Grotto of the Annunciation (Nazareth)

The Christ Myth does not begin as we might expect with the sunrise and the Ascendant. It begins in the depths, in the 4th house, with the Annunciation and conception of Jesus. A number of 4th house motifs converge in this first part of the narrative. We find the theme of paternity and begetting. The pre-existent Logos (i.e., the light of the world, or eternal Sun) comes from the Father, being his uniquely begotten Son (John 1:14 – monogenés huios). There is the motif of ancestry, which we see in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, both of which are intended to establish Jesus’ claim to the messianic title “Root of David” (see also Rev 22:6: “I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.”). Finally, we encounter the symbolism of the darkness of the underworld. The incarnating Logos is the light shining in the darkness of the cosmos (John 1:5), with the understanding that the cosmos bears to the transcendental divine realm of the Father the same relationship that the underworld has to the material heavens and earth. At his conception, the Logos “pitched his tent” (John 1:14 – eskénósen) in human flesh, the theme of dwelling places also fitting with the 4th house. Further symbolic harmonies with the 4th house include the ancient Western tradition that Mary’s house at the Annunciation was in a cave and the Eastern tradition that she was visited by the angel Gabriel while drawing water from an underground well.

In the Sun’s journey out of the underworld, he passes through the cadent 3rd house. The principal topic of the 3rd is brothers and cousins. An analogous event in the Christ story takes place immediately after the Annunciation, when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus.

The 1st House: Born of the Virgin Mary

Your birth, O Christ our God,
dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Your birth those who adored stars
were taught by a star
to worship You, the Sun of Justice,
and to know You, Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You. – Orthodox Troparion of the Nativity

Obviously, the nativity of Jesus is a 1st house event, like any birth. What shows the Christmas event to be “solar mythical”, and likewise related structurally to the sequence of astrological houses, are symbolic motifs that appear in both scripture and tradition.

As was mentioned earlier, near the end the Benedictus (the great canticle traditionally sung at the morning office), the evangelist Luke describes the coming Christ child as “the rising sun” (Luke 1:76): one whose birth will be like the dawn. Although he is born during the dark of night, his solar radiance is witnessed by shepherds in a vision of the light of divine glory (Luke 2:8-9). Finally, at his presentation in the temple, the priest Simeon calls him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel” (Luke 2:32), prophesying that he is “destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34) – symbolism alluding to the basic pattern of the solar cycle.

Whereas Luke gives us solar imagery, the theme of the orient is more strongly emphasized in Matthew’s gospel, specifically in connection with the visitation of the Magi:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matt. 2:1-2)

The wise men come from the east and, more importantly, follow a star – “His star” – appearing in the east. Of course, this star is not the Sun, and it would have risen by night. Nevertheless, the star’s testimony to a solar king is implicit in the text. A contemporary reader would have understood that, to herald the birth of a “King of the Jews”, the star must have appeared in either Leo (the sign of the Davidic throne, to which Herod was a pretender) or Aries (the sign of Judea), the Sun’s domicile and exaltation signs. In this way, the star takes on a solar character and bears witness to the solar deity, whose birth aligns us with the true – metaphysical – east.

Before rising at dawn, the Sun passes through the Gate of Hades or 2nd house. As the solar hero comes forth from the underworld bearing gifts, so is the 2nd the house of wealth and moveable property. In the birth narrative of Jesus, the nature of the 2nd is represented by the three gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh.[1]nativity

The 12th house (the house of the Bad Daemon) with its attendant darkness and peril is very fully symbolized in the story. In Luke’s gospel, Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) declares that the “Risen Sun” comes “to shine on those living in darkness and the shadow of death” (1:79). Mary then, by night, gives birth to Jesus in a stable, where cattle – 12th house creatures – are kept. In the tradition, the ox and donkey stand as witnesses from the kingdom of nature to the human birth of the Creator.

It is in Matthew’s gospel that we meet the more dangerous characteristics of the 12th house. Herod – who throughout the gospel is presented as someone mentally deranged (12th) – behaves as a secret enemy (12th) to the wise men, using friendly overtures to gather intelligence that he secretly intends to use against the Christ child. It is pure 12th house treachery. Once the magi have hastened from Judea, Herod issues a scorched earth decree, ordering the murder of every male infant in the land – a powerful image of that intense enmity to life typical of the 12th house. The holy family are able to escape in the nick of time, take refuge in Egypt, which is ironic, as this was formerly the land of bondage and slavery (12th).

The Lukan infancy narrative concludes with 11th house symbolism: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). As the Sun aspires to the Midheaven, Jesus rises in rank and fortune. The story later returns to themes relating to the 1st house (the baptism of Jesus – “You are my Son, the Beloved. This day I have begotten you.”), the 12th house (the Lord’s temptation in the wilderness) and the 11th house (the calling of the apostles [i.e., friends] and his rise to fame). The story reaches its climax with the Transfiguration, which we will now consider.

The 10th House: Transfiguration

The pivotal 10th house event of the “first cycle” of the solar Christ myth is the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor. The Midheaven or 10th house is point in the sky where the Sun reaches its highest elevation and, at the same time, its greatest brilliance. In the solar myth, it is where the Sun’s is visibly enthroned as the heavenly sovereign. Astrologically, it is the place from which the gods pour out glory, honor, power and success. The Transfiguration, which is found in the synoptic gospels and 2nd Peter, features not only an overt solar element but also motifs entirely congruent with this 10th house symbolism.

Transfiguration

The Transfiguration

This episode is the crowning moment in the public ministry of Jesus. Indeed, the gospels link it to Jesus’ mystical accession to divine kingship, which he foretells in the pericope leading directly to the Transfiguration narrative: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming into his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). Matthew in particular characterizes this “kingdom advent” with a revelation of divine glory (Matthew 16:27), as does Peter, who also speaks of Christ’s “majesty” and “honor”: “… but we had been eyewitness of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory… We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). We may note several 10th house motifs: kingship, glory, honor and majesty.

The correspondence to the myth of the solar deity becomes even clearer in the Transfiguration story itself, especially in Matthew. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to the top of a high mountain (Matt. 17:1), mirroring the Sun’s culmination at the Midheaven. Once there, when the Lord is suddenly transfigured, his garments become “dazzling white” – like the solar brilliance – and “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2).

The houses succedent and cadent to the 10th are also implied in the narrative symbolism.

First, Jesus favors his most intimate disciples – his friends (11th) – with the vision on Mt. Tabor. These three also function as representatives of all the apostles, who will succeed to the ministry of Christ after the event of Golgotha. The idea of succession also corresponds to the 11th house. In the icon above, we see that the friends of Jesus are also depicted below and in the foreground, making the effort to rise up to the Lord according to their varying capacities.

Second, Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. They are not only specifically religious personalities (9th house) but also act as representations of the dispensation that is passing away (cadent 9th) to make way for the Savior, who unites perpetually in himself the roles of prophet, lawgiver and ruler. In the icon, Moses and Elijah are slightly below and in the background, as befits cadency.

The Transfiguration story ends with Jesus leading the disciples back down the mountain, traveling from the 10th to the cadent 9th. After they have descended, the Lord prophesies his imminent suffering and death – “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matt. 17:22-23). A sudden and startling shadow is cast over the illuminating mood lingering after Tabor. Anxiety, fear, shadows and the anticipation of death have led us into the 8th house.

We come now to the 7th house episode in the first cycle of the solar Christ myth.

The 7th house: Crucifixion and Burial

A great part of the essential symbolism of the 7th house arises from its association with the occident, sunset and the end of day. In the paradigmatic Egyptian solar myth, the western horizon – the angle of the west – is where Ra consummates his diurnal journey and crosses the threshold into the Duat (underworld), commencing a struggle with the forces of darkness and death. The 7th house, then, is associated (as we find in Manilius) with religious sacrifice – as the Sun surrenders its life force to the underworld –, with endings and things passing away . To these associations we must add those that arise from other tributaries of symbolism, particularly the 7th house’s opposition to the Ascendant: marriage, partnerships, open enemies, women.

RLCTB

Christ the Bridegroom

These motifs weave through the drama of the cross. The narrative begins with the Last Supper (Matt. 26:17-30, Mark 14:21-26, Luke 22:7-39, John 13:1-17:26), an evening banquet that occasioned the institution of the sacrifice of the Mass. The gospel of John even quietly works a nuptial theme into the story, seen in the intimacy of Christ with the Beloved Disciple (hon ephilei ho Iesous – John 13:23-25). Soon after, Judas (a 12th house personality) delivers Jesus into the hands of his open enemies, who bring him to trial.[2]

The solar-astrological myth comes most clearly into view at the crucifixion. For, just as the western horizon is where the Sun “dies” to the diurnal world, so likewise is the cross where the Savior passes over from life to death. The 7th house theme of consummation is obviously important in this context and, fittingly, receives special emphasis in Jesus’ last words in John: “It is finished” (John 19:30). Furthermore, at this moment, Jesus is himself shown to be the final sacrifice, for example in the rending of the Temple veil, which signals the end of the cultus of the former dispensation (Hebrews 9:11-15).

Unsurprisingly, the crucifixion is accompanied by an impressive solar event: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44-45). Since the crucifixion happened at Passover, this passage cannot describe a solar eclipse. It is a celestial sign in which the Sun’s marvelous yet terrifying occultation reveals the greatness of the victim and the enormity of his murder.[3]

Mantegna,_Andrea_-_crucifixion_-_Louvre_from_Predella_San_Zeno_Altarpiece_Verona

The Crucifixion (Andrea Mantegna – Louvre)

The traditional composition of the Cross itself embodies the four chart angles very exactly. Atop the Cross is INRI, the decree of kingship (MC). At the foot of the Cross is the skull of Adam, first father of the race (IC). An at the right hand of Jesus is the repentant thief, who will ascend to paradise (Asc.), while at the left is the other thief, whose impenitence leads him down to darkness (Desc.).

The passion ends with the burial of Jesus’ body by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret disciple. It is illuminating to view this event in light of Manilius’ verses on the solar mythical and astrological symbolism of the 7th house:

… so wonder not if it is called the Portal of sombre Pluto and keeps control over the end of life and death’s firm-bolted door. Here dies even the very light of day, which the ground beneath steals away from the world and locks up captive in the dungeon of night. This temple also claims for itself the guardianship of good faith and constancy of heart. Such is the power the dwells in the abode which summons to itself and buries the Sun, thus surrendering that which it has received, and brings the day to its close. (Astronomica 2.951-959)

Compare this to Matthew’s account of the burial:

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. (Matt. 27:57-60)

(1) The burial takes place in the evening; the 7th is where dies even the very light of day. (2) Joseph is a rich man who owns a tomb; the 7th is the Portal of Pluto, god of the underworld and riches. (3) Joseph uses his influence to acquire the body of Jesus; the 7th house steals away the sun’s light from the world. (4) Joseph buries Jesus‘ body in his own tomb; the 7th buries the Sun and surrenders what it has received. (5) Joseph is a disciple and cares reverently for the body of Jesus; the temple of the 7th rules good faith and constancy of heart. (6) Finally, Joseph rolls a great stone over the tomb door; the 7th is death’s firm-bolted door. It would strain credulity to suggest that Matthew had a copy of Manilius to hand. What these parallels do, however, demonstrate is that the solar-astrological myth belonged to the lingua franca of in the Hellenistic world, not only in its generalities but in its particulars.

Second Cycle:

The second cycle in the solar-astrological Christ myth is made up of the remaining Christological doctrines of the Apostles Creed: the descent into hell (4th house), the resurrection (1st house), ascension (10th house) and second coming (7th house). Except for the resurrection, these episodes take place beyond the constraints of ordinary time and space, making them not only more obviously mythological in character but also less narratively complex.

As this discussion has already grown overlong, I think it advisable just to make note of scriptural texts illustrating the connection between these episodes, the solar myth and the astrological houses. Based on the foregoing discussion, the reader ought to be able to make the necessary connections.

The 4th house: Descent into Hell

the-resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection

In these texts, we find the 4th house themes of imprisonment, the dead, and the lower regions beneath the earth. In the patristic tradition, this event is known as the “harrowing of hell”. In the canonical icon of the Resurrection, Jesus is shown rescuing the first parents Adam and Eve from the underworld.

1 Peter 3:19-20: (Jesus) “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water….”

1 Peter 4:6: “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”

Ephesians 4:7-10: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says, ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.”

The 1st house: Resurrection

In these texts, the harmony between the gospel narrative and the solar myth is seen mainly in the timing of the Resurrection, at dawn, Jesus’ rising and the manifestation of light. However, the evangelists do not exploit solar imagery as much as we might expect them to do. This might be because they did not want to encourage a simple – and false – identification of Jesus and any pagan solar deity.

Mark 16:2: “And very early on the first of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.”

Luke 24:1-4: “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel…”

Luke 24:45-46: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead…”

The 10th house: Ascension

The 10th house motifs in these texts ought to be obvious: Jesus being taken up into heaven and granted divine authority. Both Paul’s testimony from Acts and the vision of John in Revelation associate the ascended Lord with the sun shining at full strength or at midday.

Mark 16:19: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.”

Luke 24:50-53: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up to heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”

Acts 1:9: “And when (Jesus) had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

Acts 26:12-15: “Thus I (Paul) journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And I said, “Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’”

Ephesians 4:7-10: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says, ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.”

Revelation 1:16: “…in his hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

The 7th house: Second Coming

The solar Christ myth revisits the 7th house while, at the same time, altering its significance. In the texts below, we are told that Jesus will return to earth by way of descent from heaven, mirroring the sun’s descent from culmination to the western horizon. But the consequences of this descent will permanently alter time and space so that the sun is no longer necessary for life and light. And, while the 7th house, as Manilius says, “locks up captive (the sun) in the dungeon of night”, the gates of the New Jerusalem will never be shut – and there shall be no light there.”

Matthew 13:41-43: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will week and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Acts 1:10-11: “And while they were gazing into heaven as (Jesus) went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Revelation 21:22-26: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day – and there shall be no night there.”

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, this discussion was meant to be exploratory rather than scientific. Nevertheless, I do think it has made a tenable case that the evangelists and other writers rather thoroughly wove the ancient solar myth – and not a little astrology – into its story of Jesus Christ. At the same time, I hope it is also obvious that, in these very texts, Jesus is more than the sun god in Jewish raiment. The gospel narrative transforms the old solar myth by giving it a new design, orientation and purpose.

Rotunda Tomb of Jesus

Rotunda above the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem)

Which leads us back to the tomb in which Jesus was laid. The evangelists make a point of saying that the tomb was new and unused (Matt. 27:60; John 19:41). Why new? In the pagan solar myth, the sun’s setting and rising is a perpetual, ever-repeating cycle, that assures an unchanging cosmic order. It is the same every day. By contrast, Jesus’ death sparks the creation of a new order of being, shifting the old myth’s cosmological focus on cyclical time to a transcendental focus on what the New Testament calls eternity. The tomb has to be new because it is the doorway through which a new heaven and a new earth are being born. I wonder how such a perspective might shape the practice of a Christian Astrology?

[1] The Christ child himself is connected to the 1st house, and the three gifts are representative of the other angles, gold signifying his kingship (10th); frankincense, the temple incense, symbolizing his priesthood (7th); and myrrh, a funerary resin, prophesying his death (4th).

[2] We might also take note of a subtle but powerful syntactic feature arising in the Markan account of Jesus’ arrest. From the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the episodes in his public ministry are joined together by a repetition of the word “immediately” (euthus). Most New Testament scholars believe this simply to be a rhetorical device for moving the story along. Yet, precisely when the Temple guards arrive to arrest Jesus (Mark 14:43) – when the narrative attains real urgency – Mark suddenly stops using euthus to typify the Lord’s actions. It is the difference between day and night. Mark’s strategy – it has to be intentional – creates a major shift of mood and tone, and it happens at the moment when Jesus surrenders his power to act in the world and is subdued by the forces of darkness. In other words, the vehicle carrying the storyline forward changes at this point precisely when Jesus no longer moves or acts by his own volition. In relation to the Egyptian solar myth, for example, I am reminded of Ra’s two boats – the mandjet, or day boat, and the mesektet, or night boat –, that is, two distinct modes of the sun’s manifestation: one diurnal, visible, and sovereign; the other nocturnal, invisible, and passible.

[3] We should not be misled by the fact that this happens from noon until mid-afternoon. As Josephus confirms, executions finished early so that the bodies could be interred before the Sabbath, for reasons of ceremonial purity. Historical fact does not always neatly line up with the archetype. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus is crucified at noon is meant to show that he is truly the divine King (John 19:19), even in his humiliation. His death at the ninth hour (3 pm) also appropriately puts the sun in the 8th house.

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