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Jan 07, 2005
The Wayward Sun

ABOVE: Our Milky Way Galaxy as photographed in Infrared by NASA's COBE Spaceprobe.

The sun courses along the zodiac and has no direct connection to the Milky Way. Yet various cultures claim that the sun formerly moved on the Milky Way. This theme is particularly prominent in tropical Africa. For example, the west-equatorial Pygmies assert that the Milky Way is Kmvum's or Mvum's road to the sun in order to renew himself. They call it dzi ko or nwa ko, "road" or "path of the sky". The Rundi tighten the connection of the Milky Way and the sun even further, calling the Milky Way inzira y'izuba, "the sun's track". On condition that such folkloristic "wisdom" is not always meaningless, a possible explanation for such traditions could be that they preserve memories of some other bright object moving over the Milky Way, an object bright enough to qualify as a sun. This solution is recommended by the version of the Fiote of the Loango Coast, that involves a large luminary other than the sun journeying over the Milky Way: "The Star Way [Galaxy] is the road for a funeral procession of a huge star which, once, shone brighter from the sky than the Sun."

That such curious traditions can hardly be dismissed as nonsensical oddities follows from the existence of a precise parallel within the confines of ancient Greece. Among the most obscure elements of the teaching of the Pythagoreans, including Philoponus, Oenopides and Metrodorus of Chios, was the belief that the sun was once on a different course: the Milky Way. This former sun was identified as Phaethon. Phaethon, of course, was the tragic hero who aspired to succeed his father Helius, the sun, but failed to manage the solar chariot and fell from the sky amid a catastrophic fire that set the world ablaze. Aristotle and a handful of later authors identify Phaethon the mock sun as the luminary that moved on the Milky Way. Aristotle wrote: "The so-called Pythagoreans give two explanations. Some say that the Milky Way is the path taken by one of the stars at the time of the legendary fall of Phaethon: others say that it is the circle in which the sun once moved. And the region is supposed to have been scorched or affected in some other such way as a result of the passage of these bodies."

The above is just one of scores of anomalous yet universal themes that cry out for an explanation. It is likely that the "sun" and the "Milky Way" were metaphoric replacements of some other objects formerly observed in the sky that are currently lost. For example, the former "sun" could have been a giant comet, as the Jesuit scholar Kugler proposed long ago, and the "Milky Way" that was produced in its trail could be based on an increased zodiacal light, such as proposed by Clube et al. Alternative explanations can be proposed. The plasma model advocated on this website includes the possibility that many myths trace to an episode in which the magnetosphere of the earth was once visibly glowing as a semi-permanent “aurora”. If such conditions really prevailed in the Holocenic past, it stands to reason that myths of a former sun treading the Galaxy derived from genuine memories of a turbulent sky.

Contributed by Rens van der Sluijs


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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