Dec 19, 2014
On the surface, the idea that the sun could reverse its apparent direction and be seen to move from west to east might seem bizarre in the extreme, but exactly this is what several ancient traditions claim to have happened in the past.
In the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus noted that the Egyptians of his day recalled four inversions of the sun’s trajectory: “Four times in this period (so they told me) the sun rose contrary to his wont; twice he rose where he now sets, and twice he set where now he rises …”
The earliest known Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela (fl. 43 CE), probably relied on Herodotus when he concurred that the Egyptians “also preserve a written tradition that, for as long as there have been Aegyptians, the stars have changed their courses four times, and the sun has set twice already where it now rises”.
The Greeks had mythological traditions of their own to the same effect. According to a popular myth, Zeus had caused the sun to retreat back towards the east during the reign of the legendary – but quite possibly historical – Atreus, king of Mycenae. Euripides, a contemporary of Herodotus, is one of the earliest witnesses to the tale:
“… ruin was rolled
Upon Atreus, a king’s overturning:
And the sun-car’s wingèd speed
From the ghastly strife turned back,
Changing his westering track
Through the heavens unto where, blush-burning,
Dawn rose with her single steed …”
The mythographers leave one in the dark regarding the duration of the sun’s reversed course at the time of Atreus – did the sun resume its ordinary path the next morning or did it continue to move eastward? More explicit is a Jewish statement that God “reversed the order of nature, the sun rising in the west and setting in the east” during the “seven days” immediately preceding the deluge.
Catastrophists have been aware of this theme for centuries, but their selection of valid examples remained confined to the eastern Mediterranean basin – the Greek, Egyptian and Jewish cultures. Yet if there was any truth in the traditions, surely the memory ought to be global? As it happens, fresh research continues to uncover similar reports from widely separated cultures.
In several cases, a prolonged period of inverse movement is indicated. For example, the original population of Malaysia averred that the god “Tak Suwau turned the sun round so that it rose in the east, instead of the west, as formerly. … When he had turned the sky round, he went into the earth.” And the English Anglican missionary Reverend John Batchelor (1854-1944), who spent nearly a lifetime among the Ainu of Hokkaidō (Japan), reported the following incident in 1894, which is worth citing in full for its authentic flavour:
“On a certain occasion, when speaking with a man on the subject of the heavenly bodies, he surprised me by asking the question whether my books said anything about the sun having once, for a long period of years, risen in the west and set in the east! I was never more taken aback in my life. The man was perfectly sober and serious. Upon asking him why he put such a peculiar question he replied as follows:
‘It has been handed down to us by our remote ancestors that, when the world was brought forth in the beginning, the quarter now called east was named west, and the west designated east. This was so because at the beginning of time the sun used to rise in the west and set in the east. But for some unknown reason God saw fit to change this order of things, and to make the sun rise and set in the quarters it now does. When this took place the Ainu were obliged to transpose the names east and west, for those designations would not apply under the altered condition of things, because Chup-ka (east) means ‘the kindling of the luminary’, and Chup-pok (west) means ‘the going under of the luminary’. Such is the tradition.”
Sadly, Batchelor did not include his response. Given his learning, he may have been familiar with the classical enunciations cited above, but his failure to spell out the analogy suggests his oblivion to them.
What to make of such traditions, other than a swift knee-jerk dismissal? Most ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the sun as one of the planets orbiting around the earth. Plato’s dialogues introduce an ‘Eleatic stranger’ who proposed that the cosmos goes through long cycles, during which the revolving spheres are alternately propelled by a cosmic ‘helmsman’ and left to wind back in the opposite directions, as the captain lets go. In the heliocentric reality, it is more sensible to relate the change to the earth’s axial rotation – overturning cherished Aristotelian beliefs of a stable world in the process.
The French mathematician, architect and royal engineer Nicolas Antoine Boulanger (1722-1759), a ‘closet’ catastrophist whose writings on the matter were only posthumously published, was original with his idea that the ‘phenomena’ would be produced if the earth had physically turned over. In turn, the late British physicist Peter Warlow (1936-2011) improved on this by suggesting the more energy-efficient alternative of a ‘tippe top reversal’, a type of rapid large wobble in which the earth turns over while its axial rotation remains unperturbed. This can physically be made to work if the earth’s crust and mantle are thus displaced with respect to its fluid outer core.
An event of this kind would also account for traditions of an inversion of sky and earth, toppling of the earth or fall of the sky. Such traditions are found in much greater abundance than those concerned with a reversal of the sun’s movement alone. In addition, a rollover would make sense of the common mythological association of such events with the deluge, similar to the Jewish testimony cited above.
Nevertheless, other possibilities remain. In some accounts, the reversed sun overlaps with the widespread themes of a ‘stationary sun’, a ‘sun’ enclosed in a box or basket, a ‘low sky’ and ‘multiple suns’. An example is this tale from the Wailaki (northern California):
“In those times the sun rose in the west, but did not come up high. It was not really light. Coyote went to the west to find out about this condition. He found the sun in a sweat-house, hanging in a burden-basket and covered with a tray basket. … Then he crept in, grasped the basket, and ran. … Coyote said: ‘I do not intend to have this sun rise in the west. We need light. I am going to have the sun rise in the east and set in the west every day.’ He threw it into the eastern sky.”
There appears to be a parallel with the belief on the Tanimbar Islands (Maluku, Indonesia) that the sun was formerly prevented from rising properly by an oppressively low sky:
“… the great round disc of the sun, which was pinned below the edge of the eastern horizon by the weight of a sky that pressed so low upon the earth as to be inseparable from it. Occasionally the sun attempted to rise over the rim of the horizon, and the rays of a would-be dawn lightened the world enough for people to move about. But soon the sun was forced to retreat below the horizon, and the world was enveloped once again in its primordial darkness.”
A no less puzzling account of a sun appearing to behave normally while completing only half of its course has come down from the Q’eqchi’, a branch of the Maya of Guatemala and Belize: “Lord Kin placed a mirror in the center of the sky, and every morning he used to start out from his home in the east and travel till he got to the center. Then he used to turn back home, but the mirror reflected his light, and it appeared as though he was continuing his journey. When he got home, X’t’actani, as the moon, used to walk across the heavens in the same manner. At that time she was as bright as her husband, the sun. Then there was no darkness, for the night was as bright as the day.”
Perhaps stories about multiple ‘suns’ which were formerly trapped below a low-hanging sky refer to some other, atmospheric or magnetospheric phenomenon than the actual sun. As mentioned before on these pages, these and many related themes of ‘creation mythology’ may find an explanation in the topsy-turvy circumstances attending a geomagnetic excursion. On such occasions, temporary collapse of the earth’s magnetic field encourages direct contact between the solar wind and the earth’s upper atmosphere, arguably featuring intense plasma discharges between the ionosphere and the surface. The discharges will be prone to so-called sausage instabilities, dividing the plasma pinches into discrete plasmoids. Observations of such plasmoids could well be behind many traditions about ‘anomalous suns’ – including perhaps some of the memories of reversing suns.
Warlow’s vision of a tippe top motion may come into play as well, perhaps in relation to the same chain of events – but to figure out the causative geophysical and climatological mechanisms involved is, of course, no easy task. Nor can it be assumed that all traditions of east and west reversals relate to the same event. As Herodotus asserted, there will have been several.
Definitive answers may well remain out of reach for some time to come, but the day when physicists will begin to consider ancient traditions about cosmic inversions will surely mark a momentous turning-point in the history of science.
Rens Van Der Sluijs