Of Gods and Men

Matt Lowry

As amateur astronomers, we often like to, pardon the pun, focus on other planets, stars, and various celestial bodies beyond our solar system in our voyeuristic explorations of the cosmos. But I have often been impressed with the display that our own star can put on for us.

I have been following for some time now, via a very interesting website called SpaceWeather.com, the behavior of our sun. In that time, I have come to truly appreciate just how amazing our very own local solar neighborhood can be. Of course, this is a far cry from the view that our ancestors had of our star.

In numerous ancient civilizations, from Meso-American Aztecs to the Egyptian empire of the Nile, the sun had an important place in the worldview of the people. Everyone gave homage of at least some form or another to our star, often seen as the giver of life. It is obvious to understand why - the sun shone light and warmth down on the Earth, which was critical for the growth of crops, and it also gave the ancients a way to mark the daily cycle.

Of course, the sun was usually viewed as a deity or god of some sort. Many times the sun god was the center of a larger pantheon of deities which were often associated with various other celestial objects - the Moon, other planets, even the star formations we call constellations. And in order to explain the motions of these gods in their journeys across the sky, a variety of stories and myths were created. And many of these myths are with us to this very day, forming a wide tapestry of mystery and wonder that hold our imaginations in rapturous awe.

There are those who would say that some of the earliest telescope-using astronomers, such as Galileo Galilei, burst the bubble of mystery by turning their instruments skyward towards the sun god. It was maintained that our sun was within the realm of the divine, and as such should be considered perfect and beyond the knowledge of mere humanity.

But curiosity got the better of us, and we couldn't help but take a closer look at our sun god. And when we figured out how to do so safely, without our eyes being struck down as punishment for our insolence, we saw past the first veil of mystery. We saw that the sun wasn't as perfect as we were, out of nothing more than ignorance, told by the worshippers of the gods.

First, we saw sunspots, blemishes on the surface of our star, challenging the old teachings of the gods that had held us in rapturous ignorance for so long. Then, gradually and as technology improved, we found that there were other features - spicules, solar prominences, the sun's corona, its magnetosphere, the solar wind, and even more. We even got to the point where we discovered that the eerie terrestrial phenomena known as the Northern and Southern Lights were the result of solar eruptions interacting with our own planet's magnetic field.

In the early dawn of humanity, we looked to our star and saw the gods bestowing upon us the gifts of light, lifegiving warmth, and the myths and legends that often form the core identity of who we are as a civilization.

But now, in our adolescence, we have used our tools and looked beyond the veil of mystery, unfettered by our previous ignorance and driven by our curious lust for knowledge. One can only imagine what wonders our star will bestow upon us as our race matures.

And you know what? Though there are some who would rather have the old tales and legends of the gods racing across the sky, I like the more modern view. Don't get me wrong, I like the old myths, as they are, in many ways, a history of who we are and where we come from. But personally, I prefer the more modern view of the sun gods, because it has the potential to not only tell us where we've been, but where we can go in the future. Who knows? Perhaps we will have more than one home star to explore, up close that is, in the days to come.

Published in the September 2004 issue of the NightTimes