Burning Questions

Tonatiuh, the Aztec Sun god, who wavered upon his first rising until bloody sacrifices were made. From the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th Century).

Tonatiuh, the Aztec Sun god, who wavered upon his first rising until bloody sacrifices were made. From the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th Century).


Jan 03, 2014

If folk memory is anything to go by, global warming in its most dreaded form is a thing of the past.

The universality of flood myths is widely known, but fewer people are aware that traditions of unbearable heat, often leading to a devastating Weltbrand, are just as ubiquitous. Although many reports do not identify the cause of the steep rise in temperature or the wildfire associated with the ‘age of myth’, others persistently attribute it to a group of phenomena we may conveniently call ‘anomalous suns’.

Generally, the sources trace the erstwhile emission of relentless heat to four solar properties, singly or combined, all of which seem equally bizarre when applied to the quotidian sun.

Firstly, many accounts impute a greater intensity to the sun’s radiation at this time. The Yao (south of Lake Malawi) told of such an incident: “The sun gave way to fierceness, and said, ‘Let me shine and destroy people’.” The Chukchi (northeastern Siberia) told of a series of violent natural events, in one of which “Sun … scorches the people.” Referring to a long time ago, the Klallam (Washington State) said that “the sun … was much hotter then than now. … it has not been so hot on the earth since.” According to the Cherokee (originally along the Tennessee), the sun – traversing the path she follows today – used to kill many people in spite:

“The Sun lived on the other side of the sky vault, but her daughter lived in the middle of the sky, directly above the earth … Now, the Sun hated the people on the earth, because they could never look straight at her without screwing up their faces. … The Sun was jealous and planned to kill all the people, so every day when she got near her daughter’s house she sent down such sultry rays that there was a great fever and the people died by hundreds, until everyone had lost some friend and there was fear that no one would be left.”

And as stated by the Huichol (central Mexico), the sun afforded little pleasure when it was first launched into the sky by “the people”:

“When the Sun radiated his light and heat over the world, all the nocturnal animals … became very angry, and shot arrows at him. His heat was great, and his glaring rays blinded the nocturnal animals; and with eyes closed they retired into caves, water-pools, and trees.”

Some cultures harboured doubt about the identity of the radiant oppressor, casting it as a false sun or an early form of the sun. The Okanagon people (British Columbia) related with respect to an early ‘experimental’ sun: “Somebody proposed that Quilquilā́ken, the red-headed woodpecker, should be put in the heavens for a sun. He was accordingly put up, but was found to be too hot; and objections being made, he was taken down again”. And the Quiché Maya (Guatemala) remembered the unbridled heat of the sun upon its first rising in the east:

“And then the face of the earth was dried out by the sun. The sun was like a person when he revealed himself. His face was hot, so he dried out the face of the earth. … And when the sun had risen just a short distance he was like a person, and his heat was unbearable. Since he revealed himself only when he was born, it is only his reflection that now remains. As they put it in the ancient text, / ‘The visible sun is not the real one.’”

Secondly, the excessive heat is often attributed to the sun’s markedly lower position in the sky, in line with the common belief that the sky as a whole used to be much lower than it is today. Some societies recalled this condition wistfully. For example, the Tohono O’odham (southwestern Arizona) averred with respect to the “primeval days”: “At that time the sun was nearer to the earth than now, the seasons were equal, and there was no necessity for clothing to guard against the inclemency of the weather.” And the Shipibo-Conibo (Peruvian Amazonia) told with respect to the antediluvian period: ‘The sun stood so close above the earth that one could cook food by placing it in the sunlight.’

The dominant sentiment was negative, however. The Cherokee stated: “When the earth was dry and the animals came down, it was still dark, so they got the sun and set it in a track to go every day across the island from east to west, just overhead. It was too hot this way”. The Diné (Four Corners Region) relay that the first “people” created the sun with a crystal that “lighted into a blaze”: “The people retreated far back on account of the great heat, which continued increasing. The men from the four points found the heat so intense that they arose, but they could hardly stand, as the heavens were so close to them.” When Atseatsine “elevated the sun a short distance it tipped a little and burned vegetation and scorched the people, for it was still too near. … it continued to burn everything. … the people are suffering and all is burning”. The Keres (Santa Ana and Santo Domingo, New Mexico) and Hopi (northeastern Arizona) passed on the following tradition: “When Sun was first placed in the sky, he came too close to the earth and scorched it”. And the Ute (primarily Utah and Colorado) remembered a time of erratic daylight before the institution of the day and night, the seasons and the years, when Ta-vi, “the sun-god”, was fickle: “In that long ago, … the sun roamed the earth at will. When he came too near with his fierce heat the people were scorched …”

Thirdly, the torridity may sometimes be blamed on the sun remaining stationary in the sky. For example, according to the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands the first people had “uninterruptedly enjoyed … the privilege of daylight”, but “the sun, one day, burned so fiercely as to cause great distress”.

And fourthly, multiple simultaneous suns, including the present sun, were often held accountable for the discomfort, culminating in a world-embracing blaze. The Yaghan (Tierra del Fuego, South America) believed that the current sun is the benevolent son of a former one, “the senior sun-man, who was a truculent old man and who caused the first world conflagration by making the ocean boil and by setting the world ablaze in a primordial fire.” According to a variant account, “powerful Táruwalem appeared quite suddenly in the east and set fire to the entire region. … At that time the whole world burned up all at once, and later everything cooled off again.” Again, the Ngarinyin (Kimberleys, northwest Australia) informed that, before “the little sun has made her journey from the east to the west to give the world day and night”, this one and her larger mother used to dwell permanently in the east, causing excessive heat:

“Long, long ago, in the East, behind the world, there lived two suns. A big fat mother sun and a little daughter sun. They lived in hollow logs. They came out to give the world light, but they shone so fiercely and for so long that everything began to burn up. The ground became scorched. The rivers dried up … The animals began to die of thirst.”

Providing yet another twist in the bewildering kaleidoscope of myth, one of the suns was often thought to have been or become the moon. For example, legends of the Bunun (originally of central Taiwan) “say that there were once two suns in the sky. The heat was unbearable” and one of the two was subsequently turned into the moon. Among the Atayal (northern Taiwan), too, it “was believed that in the ancient time, two suns circled around in the sky, and there was no separation between day and night. One of the suns was much larger than the one we see today, and it caused the weather to be extremely hot. … the plants started to shrivel and the rivers started to dry up which made agricultural crops impossible to grow. The people on earth suffered greatly.” Eventually, the “bigger sun” was changed into the moon. And the Twana (Washington State) blamed a past lethal outburst of heat on the moon, which had been intended by the creator, Dokibatt, “to be the sun”:

“In the morning it rose, but it shone too hot and caused the water to boil, killing the fish and also many animals on land, and did much damage generally, so then he made the sun as it now is to rule the day, and condemned the moon to shine at night.”

Still other traditions feature a larger number of torches or ‘suns’ striking the world. A well-known Chinese myth, for instance, has it that ten suns used to take turns to travel across the sky, while the others rested on a cosmic tree; yet on one fateful day during the reign of emperor Yáo (fl. 23rd century BCE), all ten appeared at once, thereby causing a drought and threatening all life upon the earth. A parallel tradition circulated in Mongolia: “Once upon a time there rose seven suns in the universe, and it was exposed to a burning drought. The earth was heated fiercely, the streams and rivers evaporated, the plants and trees were parched. People and living beings suffered from intolerable heat, and horses and animals were tormented by painful thirst. It was dreadfully difficult to live or even survive.” The Batak (Sumatra) similarly commemorated the appearance of eight suns, which partly dried up the sea.

Just like the global deluge, the sweltering heat and the flames seem to have resulted in mass deaths, driving many a species to extinction. In Berossus’ rendition of the Babylonian creation myth, the heroic god Marduk, hailed as “the sun, the sunlight of the gods”, separated heaven and earth. The primordial “monsters”, “wondrous beings with peculiar forms”, “could not endure the strength of the light and were destroyed.” The Quiché reflected: “Perhaps we would have no relief from the voracious animals today – the puma, jaguar, rattlesnake, fer-de-lance – and perhaps it wouldn’t even be our day today, if the original animals hadn’t been turned to stone by the sun when he came up.” The Shuswap (Kamloops area, British Columbia) claimed that the period when “the earth was very cold” and “people suffered much, and constantly shivered” ended when the Chinook wind was released from “a large round bag hanging on a post” in the land of the sun in the south: “At last the heat became so intense that the country took fire … Thus the earth burned up for a long distance north, and many trees and people were destroyed. … soon the Chinook wind commenced to blow, and, the snow and ice melting under its influence, the people felt the cold no more.” And, as shown in the above survey, the proto-sun killed “many animals on land” (Twana), “planned to kill all the people” (Cherokee), angered “all the nocturnal animals” (Huichol), made many “animals … die of thirst” (Ngarinyin), and “tormented by painful thirst” all “living beings” (Mongolia).

The crisis ended in sundry manners, varying from tale to tale. Whereas in some the combustion of the world simply ran its course, others relate that the intensity, the proximity, the inertia or the multiplicity of the luminary was remedied by the shooting of superfluous suns, snaring the sun, putting it into motion, driving it away or launching a replacement.

These densely interlocking traditions present a daunting intellectual challenge. The actual sun may once have shone too fiercely for human comfort, but can hardly account for memories of a sun that was much too close, multiple suns, a motionless sun and other events preceding the institution of day and night, or the shooting and noosing of suns. Exploding and possibly impacting fireballs are likely behind some of the myths, but only in cases where the event is short-lived, no celestial lights remain stationary and the cycle of day and night is already in place. Where the scorching heat is produced during a period of primaeval darkness or erratic intervals of light for a time exceeding hours, perhaps by a fixed object perceived as an early avatar of the modern sun, the reference may have been to a different light source altogether.

Anthony Peratt’s hypothesis of an intense-auroral z-pinch features a set of ‘plasmoids’ contained within the hollow sheaths of a sustained plasma column, which emitted exceedingly bright synchrotron radiation light. Although only one, two or three of these were generally observed at a time, a full set of nine may in rare instances have been made out. The stack of plasmoids would typically remain stationary relative to the earth’s surface.

Empirical support for such a scenario may come in the form of geophysical and palaeontological evidence for intense, but localised wildfires with significant increases in biomass burning, episodes of mass extinction and radioactive hotspots. As it happens, all three are characteristic for the tail end of the Pleistocene epoch, especially during and towards the end of the Allerød climatic oscillation.

Scientists sustain a heated debate on the possible causes of these events. Exploding bolides or impacts are among the contenders, but have come under fire. An alternative, Paul LaViolette’s scenario of a series of energetic solar proton events, remains viable and resonates with Peratt’s postulate of an intense solar outburst as the mechanism that provoked the ‘intense aurora’. Perhaps the sun was responsible for this prehistoric spell of cosmogenic global warming after all – albeit through the medium of transient atmospheric plasmoids. Playing with fire? Or nothing to make light of?

Rens Van Der Sluijs


Click here for a Spanish translation

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