The Wayward Sun
by Rand and Rose Flam-Ath
It is sunset at the camp of the tribe known as the Utes. Preparations for
the annual Sun-Dance have begun. Men and women draped in rabbit-skin robes
are drawn to the fire's glow. Dishes of simmering turtle, lizard, insects,
and generous servings of berries and seed are shared around the circle. It
is time. An elder rises and passed a lined hand over his buffalo-skin
cloak. The children are immediately alert, their eyes wide with
Listen now, on this feast of the Sun-Dance, to the Utes' myth of the taming
of the sun-god:
Once upon a time Ta-wats, the hare-god, was sitting with his family by the
camp-fire in the solemn woods, anxiously waiting for the return of Ta-va
(the wayward sun-god). Wearied with long watching, the hare-god fell
asleep, and the sun-god came so near that he scorched the naked shoulder of
Ta-wats. Foreseeing the vengeance which would be thus provoked, he fled
back to his cave beneath the earth.
Ta-wats awoke in great anger, and speedily determined to go and fight the
sun-god. After a long journey of many adventures the hare-god came to the
brink of the earth, and there watched long and patiently, till at last the
sun-god coming out he shot an arrow at his face, but the fierce heat
consumed the arrow ere it had finished its intended course; then another
was sped, but that also was consumed; and another, and another, till only
one remained in his quiver, but this was the magical arrow that had never
failed its mark.
Ta-wats, holding it in his hand, lifted the barb to his eye and baptized it
in a divine tear; then the arrow was sped and struck the sun-god full in
the face, and the sun was shivered into a thousand fragments which fell to
the earth, causing a general conflagration.
Then Ta-wats, the hare-god, fled before the destruction he had wrought, and
as he fled the burning earth consumed his feet, consumed his legs, consumed
his body, consumed his hands and his arms - all were consumed but the head
alone, which bowled across valleys and over mountains, fleeing the
destruction from the burning earth, until at last, swollen with heat, the
eyes of the god burst and the tears gushed forth in a flood which spread
over the earth and extinguished the fire.
The sun-god was now conquered, and he appeared before a council of the gods
to await sentence. In that long council were established the days and the
nights, the seasons and the years, with the length thereof and the sun was
condemned to travel across the firmament by the same trail day after day
till the end of time.
The Utes, after whom Utah was named, were among the most warlike tribes in
the American West. They fought with the Comanche, Arapaho, Kiowa, and
Cheyenne for domination over hunting grounds. Young braves were taught
when to attack, when to retreat, and when to find honour in vengeance.
These challenges were interwoven with forceful lessons about the humbling
power of nature. Tales of the hare-god's antics and the sun-god's power
were much more than exciting children's stories. The myths illustrated the
critical factors a warrior must weigh in times of battle: how the seasons
came to be, and why the sun follows its predictable path across the sky.
This cohesive view of the world was strong glue binding the tribe together.
The myth was also a reflection of the human need to create order out of
nature's chaos. The social problems of war and peace were mirrored in
nature's forces of chaos and order. Ta-wats, the hare-god, is sleeping in
the woods when the wayward sun provokes him by scorching his shoulder. He
rises and seeks revenge upon the fleeing sun-god. Eventually the sun-god
is attacked with a magic arrow and the explosive forces of nature are
released. The sun erupts and a great flood engulfs the world. Order is
restored only when a council of the gods creates predictable seasons and
condemns the sun to follow an unalterable path across the heavens until
"the end of time."
The myth of the wayward sun can also be seen as a distant echo of the last
earth crust displacement. As the ground shuddered beneath them it would
have seemed to its shocked inhabitants that the sky, sun, and stars were
tumbling from their place in the heavens. The violent earthquakes caused
by the displacement generated great tidal waves that rolled across the
ocean, smashing vulnerable coastlines. Ice caps melted, forcing the ocean
level higher and higher. For many it was the end of the world. But for
the survivors, it became the first day of a new world order.
The German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) traced the
mythology of the Utes to the Canadian province of British Columbia, where
the mythological trail connected the Utes with the Kutenai, and in turn the
Okanagan. The Kutenai occupy territory encompassing parts of British
Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Like the Utes, the
Kutenai speak of a great fire that erupted over the earth when the sun was
struck by an arrow. "Coyote is envious, and shoots the sun at sunrise.
His arrows catch fire, fall down, and set fire to the grass."
And the Kutenai speak of the fear they have that the world will come to an
end when the sky loses its stability: "The Kutenai look for Polaris [the
North Star] every night. Should it not be in place, the end of the world
Little is known of the origin of the Kutenai. They often have wavy hair,
light brown skin, and slight beards. Their neighbours in the plains, the
blackfoot, gave them the name Kutenai, which is a Blackfoot word for "white
men." Franz Boas believed that the Kutenai were mythologically linked with
their neighbours to the west, the Okanagan. The Okanagan called the
Kutenai by the same "skelsa'ulk," which has been translated as "water
In 1886, the famous American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918)
related the Okanagan myth of their lost island paradise of
Long, long ago, when the sun was young and no bigger than a star, there was
an island far off in the middle of the ocean. It was called
Samah-tumi-whoo-lah, meaning White Man's Island. On it lived a race of
giants - white giants. Their ruler was a tall white woman called Scomalt.
... She could create whatever she wished.
For many years the white giants lived at peace, but at last they quarreled
amongst themselves. Quarreling grew into war. The noise of battle was
heard, and many people were killed. Scomalt was made very, very angry ...
she drove the wicked giants to one end of the White Man's Island. When
they wee gathered together in one place, she broke off the piece of land
and pushed it into the sea. For many days the floating island drifted on
the water, tossed by waves and wind. All the people on it died except one
man and one woman. ...
Seeing that their island was about to sink they built a canoe [and] ...
after paddling for many days and nights, they came to some islands. They
steered their way through them and at last reached the mainland.
The Okanagan and the Utes feared any dramatic change in the heavens as an
ominous portent of another Great Flood. The fear that the sun might once
again wander or the sky might fall became an obsession. The Utes related
that: "Some think the sky is supported by one big cottonwood tree in the
west and another in the east; if either get rotten, it may break and the
sky would fall down, killing everybody."
And the Okanagan believed that in a time to come,
"... [the] lakes will melt the foundations of the world, and the rivers
will cut the world loose. Then it will float as the island did many suns
and snows ago. That will be the end of the world."
As we move south we encounter the Washo of western Nevada who are famous
for their decorative basketry. They lived on the eastern flank of the
Sierra Nevada Mountains. The tribe was always small, never overhunting the
earth. They ranged from a population of 900 in 1859 to just over 800 in
1980. In earlier times, their numbers may have reached 1,500. They were a
solitary people who told a tale of a time, long ago, when the mountains
shook with volcanoes and "so great was the heat of the blazing mountains
that the very stars melted and fell."
Along the Gila and Salt River valleys of Arizona live the remnants of the
A'a'tam tribe, who have been misnamed by outsiders not once, but twice.
Because one Italian explorer sailing under the Spanish flag in 1492 didn't
know where he was, the entire native population of the Americas was
christened, wrongly, "Indians." And when the early miissionaries demanded
that the A'a'tam tribe identify themselves they refused, answering in their
native tongue with the single word, "pima," meaning "no." From this
exchange a misunderstanding arose that remains to this day. The
missionaries took the "pima" response as an answer to their question rather
than a refusal to cooperate and so the tribe came to be known as the Pima.
In fact, "A'a'tam" means "people."
Part of the A'a'tam's history was carried across the centuries in an
age-old myth of a great flood that had once overwhelmed the earth. Their
tale of the flood included an event absent from the frontiersmen's Bible.
Using the symbolism of a magical baby created by an evil deity, the myth
told how the screaming child "shook the earth," catapulting the world into
the horrors of the great flood.
The A'a'tam now feared that the sky was insecure. Corrective measures were
called for and the Earth Doctor created a grey spider that spun a huge web
around the edges of the sky and earth to hold them secure. But still the
fear remained that the fragile web might break, releasing the sky and
causing the earth to tremble.
In 1849, the California Gold Rush brought white men streaming across the
Rocky Mountains to the west coast, home of the Cahto. Ten years later, the
pioneers of Mendocina County in northwestern California killed thirty-two
Cahto because they took some livestock belonging to the whites. These
thirty-two men represented more than 6 percent of the Cahto's population.
To put this tragedy in perspective, we can imagine the havoc wreaked on the
United States today if the populations of New York, Chicago, and Los
Angeles were suddenly murdered by some alien force. The Cahto never
recovered. By 1910, 90 percent of the population was dead.
The mythology of this lost culture stretched back nearly twelve thousand
years to the time of the last earth crust displacement. Through this
legacy we learn of the catapulting events in California at the time of the
Great Flood: "The sky fell. The land was not. For a very great distance
there was no land. The waters of the ocean came together. Animals of all
American native mythology identifies four westerly mountains tied to the
aftermath of a great flood. All four lie immediately west of land, and
each is 1,800 metres or higher above sea level. At the time of the Great
Flood, this land would have been the first hope for those survivors of the
lost island paradise who had travelled so far across an endless ocean.
The native people of Washington and Oregon claim that their ancestors came
in great canoes and landed on Mount Baker and Mount Jefferson. They
believed that Mount Rainier was the refuge of those who were saved after
the wicked of the earth were destroyed in a great flood. The Shasta of
northern California tell of a time when the sun fell from its normal
course. In a separate myth they tell how Mount Shasta saved their
ancestors from the Deluge.
On the opposite side of North America lies another great mountain chain,
the Appalachians. Here also, tales were told of terrifying solar changes,
massive floods, and the survivors of these catastrophes.
The lush green forests of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains
were once the home of the Cherokee. In the early part of the nineteenth
century, a Cherokee named Sequoya created an alphbet for writing the tribal
language. His work left a rich legacy of myths transcribed from his
people's oral tradition. In one of these myths, the flood is attributed to
the uncontrollable tears of the sun-goddess.
It was said that she hated people and cursed them with a great drought. In
desperation the Cherokee elders consulted "Little Men" (whom they regarded
as gods). They decreed that the Cherokees' only hope of survival was to
*kill the sun.* Magical snakes were prepared to deal a death blow to the
sun-goddess. But a tragic mistake was made and her daughter, the ../moon, was
When the Sun found her daughter dead, she went into the house and grieved,
and the people did not die any more, but now the world was dark all the
time, because the Sun would not come out.
They went again to the Little Men, and told them if they wanted the Sun to
come out again they must bring back her daughter ... [Seven men went to the
ghost country and retrieved the ../moon but on the return journey she died
again. The sun-goddess cried and wept ... ] until *her tears made a flood
upon the earth*, and the people were afraid the world would be drowned.
The Cherokee, like the Utes and Okanagan tribes, had a dark prophecy of how
the world would end:
The earth is a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at
each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault,
which is of solid rock. When the world grows old and worn out, the people
will die and the cords will break and let the earth sink into the ocean,
and all will be water *again.* (italics added)
Despite the fact that they both lived in mountain ranges, far from the
ocean, the Cherokee and Okanagan people associated the mythgoligical flood
with an island. For the Okanagan this island lay "far off in the middle of
the ocean." For the Cherokee, the myth of the "great island floating in a
sea" contains clues to this lost land: "There is another world under this,
and it is like ours in everything - animals, plants, and people - save that
the seasons are different."
There is, in fact, just such an island in the middle of the ocean with a
climate opposite to that of the northern hemisphere. The island continent
of Antarctica was partially ice-free before the last earth crust
displacement. ... Was it the drowned island of Okanagan/Cherokee mythology?
The people of Central America hold a rich mythology about the lost island
paradise and its destruction in a great flood. We will explore their
The people of South America also tell myths of a flood and the events
surrounding it. The Ipurinas of northwestern Brazil retain one of the most
elegant myths about the disaster:
" ... long ago the Earth was overwhelmed by a hot flood. This took place
when the sun, a cauldron of boiling water, tipped over."
Further south, after their sweeping victories in Mexico and Peru, the
Spanish conquistadors assumed that Chile would be another easy target.
Santiago, the Spanish capital, was founded in February 1541 by Pedro de
Valdiva, the first Spanish governor. Six months later the city was
destroyed by the native people of Chile, the Araucanians, who launched a
war that continued for four centuries.
Here was a tribe so valiant that they would fight for generations rather
than submit to slavery. But even these brave people trembled before a
traumatic memory: "The Flood was the result of a volcanic eruption
accompanied by a violent earthquake, and whenever there is an earthquake
the natives rush to the high mountains. They are afraid that after the
earthquake the sea may again drown the world."
Like the Araucanians, the Inca were paralyzed by the fear that any change
in the sun foretold doom. A 1555 Spanish chronicle spoke of this
trepidation: " ... [when] there is an eclipse of the sun or the ../moon the
Indians cry and groan in great perturbation, thinking that the time has
come in which the earth will perish ... "
The famous Peruvian historian, Carcilasso de la Vega, son of a Spanish
conquistador and an Inca princess, asked his Inca uncle to tell him the
story of his people's origins. How had Lake Titicaca become the source of
their civilization? The uncle explained:
... in recent times all this region which you see was covered with forests
and thickets, and the people lived like brute beasts without religion nor
government, nor towns, nor houses, without cultivating the land nor
covering their bodies ... [the sun-god sent a son and daughter to] ... give
them precepts and laws by which to live as reasonable and civilized men,
and to teach them to dwell in houses and towns, to cultivate maize and
other crops, to breed flocks, and to use the fruits of the earth as
rational beings ... "
The "gods" who brought agriculture to the vicinity of Lake Titicaca were
said to have come "out of the regions of the south" immediately "after the
deluge." In other words, agriculture was introduced to Lake Titicaca by
people who already possessed the skill but had been forced to leave their
homeland when a flood destroyed their southern land.
The word "Inca" means "Son of the Sun" and was a title originally carried
only by the Emperor. To preserve his culture from the ravages of the
conquistadors, Inca Manco II left the great capital of Cuzco in 1536 and
retreated into the daunting heights of the Andes. He took with him three
sons, each of whom would, in turn, become Inca and suffer a succession of
bloody encounters with the Spanish. Manco II chose a mountain peak
overlooking the Urubamba valley to build his palace. Pizarro, leader of
the Spanish invaders, was never able to find this secret base and its
existence intrigued those who followed him. All who tried to discover the
lost city failed.
Later, in the same century, two monks, Friar Marcos and Friar Diego, did
come tantalizingly close to lifting the veil of the hidden city. Friar
Marcos was fired with a " ... desire to seek souls where not a single
preacher had entered and where the gospel message had not been heard."
Travelling with him was a medical missionary, Friar Diego, who became
popular with the local people and favourite of the royal Inca. The two
monks had established a convent at Puquiura, near Vitcos, and were
fascinated by Inca stories of the "Virgins of the Sun" who dwelt in a
fabulous city known as "Vilcabamba the Old." This city in the mountains
was said to house great "wizards and masters of abomination."
Daily, the two monks tried to coax the Inca, who didn't always remain in
the hidden city, into revealing the location of his city. Finally, he
agreed to take them. Higher and higher they travelled, the air becoming
thinner with every step. The Inca was carried in a litter and enjoyed the
view while the monks stumbled through the thick jungle, their clumsy robes
entangling their every step. After three days they arrived at the foot of
yet another barrier of mountains that jutted even further into the sky.
For three weeks the monks preached and taught the natives who lived in a
settlement just beyond sight and sound of the mystery city. They were
forbidden to enter its enclaves for fear they would learn something of its
rites, ceremonies, and purpose. During the night, the Inca priests high in
the forbidden city conspired to corrupt the monks by sending beautiful
women to tempt them from their vows of celibacy. Friars Marcos and Diego
resisted to the end and finally concluded that they would never reach the
sacred city. It was never found by the Spanish.
In 1911, four centuries later, the American historian and explorer Hiram
Bingham (1875-1956) discovered the marvelous, haunting ruins of a lost Inca
City cradled in the summit of a mountain called Machu Picchu. He believed
that he had discovered the lost city of "Vilcabamba the Old" where the
"Virgins of the Sun" catered to the wishes of their Inca master. He
recovered a number of skeletons from Machu Picchu, which he sent to Dr.
George Eaton of Tale University. The professor concluded that among the
... there was not a single one of a robust male of the warrior type. There
are a few effeminate males who might very well have been priests, but the
large majority of the skeletons are female ...
Why did the Inca retain a settlement of young women in this mountain
retreat, Machu Picchu?
A clue might come from the U.S. Air Force and its bunker buried deep
beneath Colorado Springs. It was built as a retreat in the event of
nuclear war and a base from which to re-establish civilization. For the
Inca, the threat was not nuclear but rather a great flood. To meet this
threat, they created bases on mountains far from the ocean. If another
deluge were unleashed, a base like Machu Picchu could repopulate a drowned
In his book, "The Lost City of the Incas," Bingham described one of the
rituals performed at each winter solstice by the priests of Macho Picchu.
A mystical cord was secured by a great stone pillar to "guide" the sun
across the sky, preventing it from losing course.
This "Intihuatana" or "hitching post of the sun" may have been a
ritualistic attempt to prevent another earth crust displacement. If so,
then the mysterious appearance of solar megaliths (known as Sun Stones)
around the globe may have represented ancient attempts to secure the sun in
its new path across the sky after the Flood. A reined sun could not
release another great flood. The earth would be safe for another year.
This obsession with the stability of the sun's path is found in the
American southwest among the ruins of the Anasazi (a Navajo word meaning
"the ancient ones"). They are famed for their cliff dwellings, their
circular architecture, and other artistic achievements. Chaco Mesa in New
Mexico is the site of one of the most remarkable solar megaliths in the
world. Three slabs of stone, each weighing two tons, have been arranged so
that the light of the sun falls on a spiral petroglyph marking the summer
and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.
Discovered in 1977 by artist and amateur archaeo-astronomer Anna Sofaer,
this solar calendar has been called a "sun dagger" becaue of the pattern
the sunlight makes on the rock carvings during the summer solstice. Sofaer
called the marking a "sun dagger" but it may have actually served as the
Anasazi's equivalent of the Incas' hitching post of the sun. If so, it
would be more properly called a "solar cord," designed to prevent a wayward
sun or at least monitor the sun's path to ensure that all was in order.
The fear of a wayward sun or falling sky became a global nightmare for the
survivors of the last earth crust displacement.
For example, from 400 to 1200 A.D. the Celts occupied much of central and
western Europe. They were known as fearless warriors who " ... did not
dread earthquakes or high tides, which, indeed, they attacked with weapons;
but they feared the fall of the sky and the day when fire and water must
And in 1643, a bishop in Ireland discovered a very ancient manuscript
containing the most detailed information ever found about Germanic myths.
These myths open with the haunting prophecy of an inspired seeress: "The
sun turns black, earth sinks into the sea. The hot stars down from the
heavens are whirled. ... "
The overwhelming anxiety that earthquakes might forewhadow a worldwide
flood was suffered not just by those who dwelled on the lip of the ocean.
The Mari, who still occupy the land west of the Volga River in Russia,
believed that the earth was supported on one horn (the other had broken
before the Great Flood) of a massive bull. The bull, in turn, balanced
precariously on the back of a giant crab, which crouched on the ocean
floor. Any movement of the bull's head was thought to cause earthquakes.
The Mari lived in terror that the bull's remaining horn would snap, sending
the earth tumbling once more into the ocean. As the beast's head tipped,
throwing the earth forward, violent earthquakes would erupt. And then, as
the earth was pitched from the bull's single horn and hurtled through the
air, the sky would seem to fall. Finally, the earth would tumble into the
ocean, releasing a cataclysm of water that would drown the world.
Throughout ancient Europe giant stones were erected to honour the sun.
Stonehenge in Eilshire, England, is one of the most famous of these sites.
Like the structures in North and South America, Stonehenge may have been
built as a magical device designed to prevent another earth crust
displacement. By controloling the sun's movements, these massive stones
might ensure the safety of the world.
The horseshoe mouth of thestones is open to receive the sun's rays on the
summer solstice. The body of the horseshoe corresponds to the path of the
sun from sunrise to sunset. Each day, as spring moves towards summer, the
sun rises slightly farther north on the morning horizon. On the summer
solstice this "migration" north seems to stall. The day after the
solstice, the sun reverses its journey and begins to rise farther south
each morning. To a people ever vigilant to the dangers of a wayward sun,
any irregularity threatens catastrophe. To prevent this, the priests may
have, like their counterparts on Machu Picchu, attempted to "harness" the
sun by "tying" its rays to successive stones within the horseshoe. The
world would be safe for another year.
In Egypt, the pyramids were also precisely aligned with the rising sun on
the summer solstice. In an ancient Egyptian writing the sun-god decrees:
"I am the one who hath made the water which becomes the Great Flood ... "
The sun "is usually said to have been born on or by 'the great flood.'"
In Egyptian mythology, the world was seen as a bubble within an endless
"Primordial Abyss of Waters":
This was unlike any sea which has a surface, for here there was neither up
nor down, no distinction of side, only a limitless deep - endless, dark,
and infinite. ... it was thought that the seas, the rivers, the rain from
heaven, and the waters in the wells, and the torrents of the floods were
parts of the Primeval Waters which enveloped the world on every side.
The Egyptians feared that these Primeval Waters might eventually seep into
the world, flooding it. The pyramids, artifical mountains aligned with the
"new" path of the sun, may symbolize the mountain upon which the survivors
of the last Great Flood ultimately found refuge. The builders of these
ancient monuments may have been paying homage to the land that their
ancestors clug to after the Flood.
>From all corners of the Earth, the same story is told. The sun deviates
from its regular path. The sky falls. The earth is wrenched and torn by
earthquakes. And finally a great wave of water engulfs the globe.
Survivors of such a calamity would go to any lengths to prevent it from
happening again. They lived in an age of magic. It was natural and
necessary to construct elaborate devices to pacify the sun-god (or goddess)
and control or monitor its path.
Is it any wonder that so many ancient people have called themselves
"Children of the Sun"? It was perhaps only later that this label became
one of pride. At first it may well have been a frantic appeasement to the
violent sun-god. The sun was feared, the sky untethered, and the ocean
volatile. A wayward sun might initiate a chain of events that could
brutally shatter our world.
But why did the sky fall?