The sun has been a source of veneration, worship, and deification throughout human history. The pantheon of sun gods is extensive and spans cultures, continents, and times: The Egyptian sun gods, Ra, and the oldest know monotheistic god, Aten; Inca, Mayan, and Aztec sun temples and rituals of human sacrifice to the sun, giver of life; North American tribes sacred sun dances; the Hindu sun goddess, Surya, creator of the universe and the source of all life; Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, the great divinity illuminating the heavens; the Greek sun gods, Helios and Apollo; the Druids of England and their Stonehenge, built as part of their solstice worship; the Sun Day worship of Christians, which was legislated by the Roman emperor, and pagan-turned-Christian, Constantine, in honor of the Sun, which he called “Unconquered Sun, my companion”.2
We modern, indoor-dwelling sophisticates who possess more “advanced” religious beliefs, or whose world has been desacralized by a secular worldview, typically view such obsessions as pagan sacrilege, or as historical curiosities. But, yet, perhaps, might the sun still be fervently worshiped by us, although shrouded from our awareness by our smug sense of superiority? Might we be unenlightened?
Burn, Baby, Burn
Manure, peat, and coal. Trees, whale oil, and petroleum. Animal bones, natural gas, and corn. Such a bizarre diversity of things, yet they all are united by one essential fact: All have been used by humans to keep us warm and light the darkness. We have survived, and thrived, at the sacrificial altar of these “burnables”. It is difficult to imagine how, or even if, human life would be possible without them.
The common element of all these “burnables” is that they are composed of organic material; once a part of life in some form. This is obviously so for many “burnables”, like peat, trees, and whale oil. Less obvious are coal, petroleum, and natural gas; all perished life that has been compressed in the earth for millions of years.
The reason why we burn life in its various of forms is: energy. We all know intuitively what energy is. We feel it in our body, we “have energy” do something; to push, pull, lift, twist, throw—to do work. The remarkable transformation of human life wrought by the Industrial Revolution was launched by the discovery of the physical laws governing energy, force, and work. These terms have very precise meanings and measurable values, and we have invented many clever ways to put energy to work.
The most important form of energy that, literally, drives our modern life is heat. Heat, derived from “burnables”, combust in engines that propel us and ignite in furnaces that heat us. Furnaces also generate electricity that lights the night, animates the machines of our modern world, allows commerce and communication across the globe at the speed of light, gives life to our digital world—and so much more.
Where does all this “burnable” energy come from? Plants. And where do plants get their energy? The sun. Plant photosynthesis converts solar energy into potential energy that is stored chemically in the molecular bonds of glucose. Carbon dioxide and water are combined to create these sugars, and oxygen is released in the process. Plants then “burn” this stored energy to grow, flower, and develop seeds. Humans, and all other animals, survive by devouring plants and other animals, converting the stored energy in other living forms into their own chemical “batteries” that store energy to be used for growing, “flowering”, and “seeding”.
The heat and light created by “burnables”, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, is the captured energy from the sun radiated millions of years ago, stored in compressed organic matter, released into intense flame. The sun—rekindled in our furnaces.
The Cost of “Burnables”
All the energy and work fueled by these furnaces is purchased at a steep cost: Exhaust. Deadly exhaust. The process that converted carbon dioxide into glucose and released oxygen is reversed; oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide is released. The released carbon dioxide that we send into the sky is trapped in the atmosphere, covering it like a blanket, preventing the sun’s energy from escaping the atmosphere, heating the planet. Ironically, and tragically, our obsessions with “burnable” furnaces has led to our frying ourselves, and many other fellow organisms that share the planet with us.
Our voracious need for energy, as heat and light, has ravaged the planet. Vast areas have been denuded and polluted, millions of species killed or hunted to near extinction, entire mountain ranges reduced to rubble or riddled with miles of toxic tunnels. The benefits, however, have been great. Our modern life, with all the comforts of home, a cornucopia of food, life-saving medical treatments, and unimaginable goods and entertainments are the bounty of our quest for heat and light.
We moderns are the most fanatical worshipers of the sun. Almost everyone across the entire planet kneels to the sacrificial sun alters, dreads even a momentary halt in the offerings, and pursues “burnables” with fanatical religious fervor. Prior, “primitive”, sun worshipers were but simple beginners. We are appalled by the images and revulsed at the thought of the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, standing at the top of their sun temple, holding up the beating heart of a just-sacrificed victim to the sun. Yet we are oblivious to the colossal planetary destruction of life, human and otherwise, wrought by our own, much more ruinous sun worship practices.
We are on a trajectory akin to Icarus who was given wings of feathers and wax but warned to not fly too close to the sun. Icarus, however, did not heed the warning. He rose into the sun, his wings melted—and he tumbled to his death.
We, too, are being warned of the self-immolating consequences of our “burnable” sacrifices; that we are “flying too close to the sun”. Will we heed the warning? Does Icarus’ fate await?3
Why I Wake Early
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
- Photo by Jonas Ferlin from Pexels
- See post Between Sunlight and Darkness for an essay on the sun’s presence in our lives.
- We in the US are the most fanatical of religious fanatics. 187 countries and the EU have signed the Paris Agreement pledging commitment to significantly reducing “burnables”. The US is responsible for almost 30% of the CO2 in the atmosphere, and is the world’s 2nd largest producer of sacrificial exhaust, yet we are only 1 of 3 countries refusing to sign the Agreement (the others are those noted religious fanatics, Iran and Turkey).
- Beacon Press 2004
- It hangs in our kitchen and is only illuminated in December, the month of the winter solstice when the sun is at its lowest ebb, between 8:00 and 9:00 am. We make a reverential pilgrimage every December morning at sunflower rise to meditate on the astonishment of it all.