A remarkable exploration of sun-centered religion – insightful and well-researched
In the Ancient Path of the Sun, Mark and Lara Atwood make a compelling case for the existence of a widespread sun-centered religion in antiquity – one “connecting the ancient wisdom traditions of the world” – and they reconstruct its central tenets based on detailed evidence.
Chapter one explores the spiritual meaning of the solstices and equinoxes, yearly milestones in the solar calendar celebrated by numerous ancient peoples. The authors explain that these events are a representation of a personal spiritual journey encoded in the cosmos on a grand scale. The word “path” in the title can thus refer to both the physical path of the sun through the sky in its yearly course as well as an inner spiritual path that celebrants of this ancient religion could aim to follow.
The Atwoods explain that these physical and inner paths are intimately related, as explained by the Hermetic maxims, “as above, so below,” and “as within, so without,” which describe the operation of spiritual principles on both macrocosmic and microcosmic scales and inner and outer levels. Because “spirituality exists in the very fabric of the universe,” the movement of the solar calendar is more than a physical process and was venerated by ancient peoples for more than simple agricultural or social reasons; rather, the authors state, many peoples understood the physical path of the sun to be the visible embodiment of hidden spiritual realities, since ultimately both spirit and matter share the same mysterious source.
This understanding of how the physical and spiritual worlds are interconnected is one of the primary themes of the book and serves as a key to unlock numerous ancient myths, religious texts, sacred sites, symbols, and scientific observations. The sun itself is obviously central to this understanding. It is explained as the source of “light and life” that sustains all physical beings and, along with all other stars, is the source of the elemental building blocks of the physical universe. The authors state, however, that the physical sun is also a representation of the spiritual son – a culture hero represented in numerous myths and religious texts (often as a sun deity) that brings salvation and whose life story is often represented with milestones corresponding to the solar calendar. The spiritual son himself is not a specific being (although the authors demonstrate how he has been represented by various spiritual figures over time) but rather is present both as a universal force and an inner aspect of each person’s spiritual nature.
The authors also explain how the spiritual son emerges from a spiritual father and spiritual mother (who also have universal and personal aspects). Together these forces form a sacred trinity, which can be found represented by deities in many religious traditions and sacred texts. The ultimate goal of the ancient Path of the Sun, as described in the book, is for a person to reintegrate the various parts of their spiritual nature – spiritual father, mother, and son – and ultimately to return to the source of creation. The scope and scale of primary evidence supplied to connect this perspective with the beliefs of ancient peoples is impressive.
The milestones on the Path of the Sun presented in the book, summarized here in basic form, are as follows: the descent to the underworld to face inner darkness and prepare for the birth of light (autumn equinox), the birth of the spiritual son and his descent into matter (winter solstice), the resurrection of the spiritual son and the triumph of light over darkness (spring equinox), and the ascension to heaven and the spiritual source at the time of maximum light (summer solstice), which represents the complete reintegration of a person’s spiritual nature.
The Atwoods explore this path in detail, with a chapter devoted to examination of each solar event, its deeper meaning, and how this meaning was reflected in the traditions, myths, sacred texts, and practices of ancient peoples.
In part two, they also examine in detail many sacred archaeological sites from around the world, demonstrating how these often-enigmatic monumental structures encoded an understanding of spiritual principles in their design, orientation with solar events, and symbolism, and could have been used to celebrate these events in the distant past.
Finally, in part three, the book offers guidance for those that might wish to renew the celebration of the sun in modern times, with suggestions for solstice and equinox ceremonies that guide readers towards reconnecting with their own heritage and celebrating the Path of the Sun in their own lives.
Overall, I found the book to be convincing, rich in detail, and at many points quite moving. The authors demonstrate a powerful understanding of the tapestry of ancient spiritual beliefs and an ability to weave together seemingly unrelated strands from different cultures to reveal an underlying unity and a depth of spiritual meaning.
Although the book makes extensive use of both primary and secondary sources, it is this ability to connect disparate ancient fragments into a coherent and powerful whole – with a seemingly intuitive wisdom – that makes this book valuable and unique. There were many moments where I experienced a sense of revelation and deeper understanding as these pieces fell into place.
This book could be valuable for students of comparative religion and spirituality, those interested in the possibility of lost civilizations in prehistory, and those looking to reconnect with pagan, indigenous, or sun-centered spiritual practices. Highly recommended.