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Father Sun

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"Shakuru, the Sun, is the first of the visible powers," said the Pawnee priest, quoted above. "It is very potent; it gives man health, vitality, and strength. Because of its power to make things grow, Shakuru is sometimes spoken of as atius, `father.' The Sun comes direct from the mighty power above; that gives it its great potency."

Here we have a compendium of the theology of sun-worship, perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the Plains Indian's religion. The sun was regarded as a mighty power, though not the mightiest; he was the first and greatest of the intermediaries who brought the power of Father Heaven down to earth, and he himself was addressed as "Father" or "Elder" because of his life-giving qualities. Especially potent were his first rays. "Whoever is touched by the first rays of the Sun in the morning receives new life and strength which have been brought straight from the power above. The first rays of the sun are like a young man: they have not yet spent their force or grown old." Inevitably this expression brings to mind the boy Harpocrates and the youth Horus, personations of the strength and splendour of the morning sun, as he leaped from the couch of night before the eyes of the priests of old Egypt.

Indeed, the Pawnee ritual in connexion with which this explanation was given seems to afford us a glimpse of just such a rite as must have been practised centuries before Heliopolis was founded or the temple of the Sphinx oriented to the morning sun. All night long, in a ceremonial lodge whose door is toward the east, priest and doctor chant their songs; as the hour of dawn approaches, a watcher is set for the Morning Star; and the curtain at the lodge door is flung back that the strength-giving rays may penetrate within. "As the Sun rises higher the ray, which is its messenger, alights upon the edge of the central opening in the roof of the lodge, right over the fireplace. We see the spot, the sign of its touch, and we know that the ray is there. The fire holds an important place in the lodge. Father Sun is sending life by his messenger to this central place in the lodge. The ray is now climbing down into the lodge. We watch the spot where it has alighted. It moves over the edge of the opening above the fireplace and descends into the lodge, and we sing that life from our Father the Sun will come to us by his messenger, the Ray." All day long the course of the life-giving beam is followed with songs of thankfulness. "Later, when the Sun is sinking in the west, the land is in shadow, only on the top of the hills toward the east can the spot, the sign of the ray's touch, be seen. The ray of Father Sun, who breathes forth life, is standing on the edge of the hills. We remember that in the morning it stood on the edge of the opening in the roof of the lodge over the fireplace; now it stands on the edge of the hills that, like the walls of a lodge, inclose the land where the people dwell. When the spot, the sign of the ray, the messenger of our Father the Sun, has left the tops of the hills and passed from our sight. we know that the ray which was sent to bring us strength has now gone back to the place whence it came. We are thankful to our Father the Sun for that which he has sent us by his ray."

Of Stonehenge and Memphis and Pekin and Cuzco, the most ancient temples of the world's oldest civilizations, this ritual is strangely and richly reminiscent. Far anterior to the olden temples must have been such shrines as the sacred if temporary lodges of the Indian's worship, within which the daily movements of the sun's ray were watched by faithful priests — Horus of the morning, Rê' of the midday, Atum of the sunset — and by which the first invention of the gnomon, and hence the beginnings of the measured calendar, were suggested. Who, remembering the sculptures of Amenophis IV, with rays reaching down from the Divine Disk to rest hands of benediction upon the king, but will feel the moving analogy of the Pawnee conception of the Ray, the Sun's messenger, touching his worshippers with life? Or, indeed, who will fail to find in the Indian's prayers to Father Sun the same beauty and aspiration that pervades the psalms of the heretic king?

The Sun-Dance of the Prairie tribes is their greatest and most important ritual. This is an annual festival, occupying, usually, eight days, and it is undertaken in consequence of a vow, sometimes for an escape from imminent death, especially in battle; sometimes in hopes of success in war; sometimes as the result of a woman's promise to the Sun-God for the recovery of the sick. In the main, the ceremonies are dramatic, consisting of processions, symbolic dances, the recounting and enactment of deeds of valour, and the fulfilment of vows of various kinds undertaken during the year. The last and central feature is the building of a great lodge, symbolic of the home of man, in the centre of which is erected a pole, as an emblem of earth and heaven, sometimes cruciform, some-times forked at the top, and adorned with symbols typifying the powers of the universe. Warriors under vow were formerly attached to this pole by ropes fastened to skewers inserted under the muscles of back and chest, and they danced about it until the lacerated body was freed; 21 but this and other forms of self-torture — a kind of atonement to the life-giving Sun for the life he had spared — were not essential to the ceremony, and in some tribes were never permitted; among the Kiowa the mere appearance of blood during the ceremony was regarded as an ill omen.

Not only were vows of atonement and propitiation fulfilled on the occasion of the Sun-Dance, but the dead of the year were mourned, babes had their ears pierced by the medicine-men, young men who had distinguished themselves were given formal recognition, and tribal and intertribal affairs and policies were discussed, for visiting tribes were often participants. The central feature, however, was a kind of cosmic thanks-giving, in which the people, through the Sun-Symbol, were brought directly into relation with Father Sun. The prayer of a chief directing this ceremony, in a recent performance of it, gives its meaning perhaps more fully than could any commentary:

"Great Sun Power! I am praying for my people that they may be happy in the summer and that they may live through the cold of winter. Many are sick and in want. Pity them and let them survive. Grant that they may live long and have abundance. May we go through these ceremonies correctly, as you taught our forefathers to do in the days that are past. If we make mistakes pity us. Help us, Mother Earth! for we depend upon your goodness. Let there be rain to water the prairies, that the grass may grow long and the berries be abundant. O Morning Star! when you look down upon us, give us peace and refreshing sleep. Great Spirit! bless our children, friends, and visitors through a happy life. May our trails lie straight and level before us. Let us live to be old. We are all your children and ask these things with good hearts" (Mc-Clintock, The Old North Trail, p. 297).

"We are all your children and ask these things with good hearts"! Is not this the essence of religious faith?



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