Exploring myth

Death & rebirth of the Sun and Horus on the winter solstice

Not long ago, I crossed paths with a book by a religious apologist-

Cloud Reader(1b)

-in which the following claim was made: Cloud Reader

No early evidence for a winter solstice birth/rebirth of the sun prior to the 3rd century CE?

Enter Ovid.

Publius Ovidius Naso was a Roman poet of the 1st century BCE to the early 1st century CE.[1] In the first book of his work known as Fasti, composed sometime around 8 CE[2], Ovid portrays himself in dialogue with the god Janus discussing the arrangement of the calendar year. In lines 163-64, Janus states:

The winter solstice is the first day of the new sun, the last of the old. Phoebus and the year take the same starting point.[3]

Phoebus was one of the many Roman epithets for the sun god, meaning “the shining one.”[4]

Ovid’s lengthy opening entry tackles the month’s titular god, Janus, who manifests himself to explain why he has two faces. Janus is the gatekeeper to the year; he completes the old year and ushers in the new one … The year begins, Janus states tersely, when the sun is reborn after midwinter.

Dr. Diana Spencer, Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity[5]

Ovid explains the significance of the midwinter moment as marking the rebirth of the Sun.

Professor Meg Twycross and Dr.Sarah Carpenter, Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England[6]

In ancient Rome too, the attributes of the winter solstice and New Year’s Day were somewhat interchangeable, due no doubt to the close analogy between the shortening, then increasing length of days and the diminishing, then rising number of days. When Ovid asked Janus why the New Year began in winter, the god’s answer pointed to the winter solstice. “Winter has the first new sun and the last old one: So Phoebus [the sun] and the year begin the same (Fasti 1:163-164, p.8).

Dr. Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1 A-L[7]

So that’s a primary source far predating the 3rd century CE, and thus not only predated any incorporation of a winter solstice birth motif into certain religions which originated in the Fertile Crescent area during the 1st century, but it also predated any of their texts and it even predated the alleged death and rebirth of their own god/demigod. Although a later source (1st cen. BCE to CE[8]), Antiochus of Athens likewise predated the 3rd century as well, and was also contemporary with certain canonized religious texts. In his Parapegma, in the section on the month of December, he wrote:

Month of December ♑ …
22: Winter Solstice.
23: Procyon sets in the morning.
25: The birth of the sun, light increases.[9]

So that’s another primary source pre-3rd century which attests to a birth/rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice. Now some people reading this might wonder- “now wait a second, the passage says the winter solstice was on the 22nd, not on the 25th when the sun was born, so what’s the deal?” First of all, notice how the 22nd-25th is a difference of three days (and is already the case here in the 1st century, in spite of the erroneous claims of certain apologists). So this corroborates with the notion that the sun died on the winter solstice and was born again three days later. Now why is that? Whence came the 3 day difference? Well, this was already explained for us in another ancient text:

Our forefathers, from the time of the most divine king Numa, paid still greater reverence to the god Helios. They ignored the question of mere utility, I think, because they were naturally religious and endowed with unusual intelligence; but they saw that he is the cause of all that is useful, and so they ordered the observance of the New Year to correspond with the present season; that is to say when King Helios returns to us again, and leaving the region furthest south and, rounding Capricorn as though it were a goal-post, advances from the south to the north to give us our share of the blessings of the year. And that our forefathers, because they comprehended this correctly, thus established the beginning of the year, one may perceive from the following. For it was not, I think, the time when the god turns, but the time when he becomes visible to all men, as he travels from south to north, that they appointed for the festival. For still unknown to them was the nicety of those laws which the Chaldaeans and Egyptians discovered, and which Hipparchus and Ptolemy perfected: but they judged simply by sense-perception, and were limited to what they could actually see. But the truth of these facts was recognised, as I said, by a later generation. Before the beginning of the year, at the end of the month which is called after Kronos, we celebrate in honour of Helios the most splendid games, and we dedicate the festival to the Invincible Sun.

Emperor Julian, Oration 4[10]

So as Julian explained, the discrepancy of there being two dates traditionally acknowledged as the winter solstice (the time when the path of the sun/Helios stops moving south and begins to move north again) was due to there being two different methods for determining the date, with one being more precise than the other. Going back allegedly as far as the legendary Numa Pompilius in the 8th-7th cen. BCE, people would determine the time of the winter solstice by simply “eye-balling” it, or as Julian put it “simply by sense-perception” and “what they could actually see.” And that which they “could actually see” was “the time when [the sun] becomes visible to all men,” or as Antiochus put it- when the “light increases.” So when people could actually visibly notice an increase in daylight with the naked eye was the day that they recognized as the winter solstice in those early times. Later on, when more precise astronomical calculations were discovered, the true winter solstice was determined to be the shortest day and longest night of the year, when daylight was at its lowest and the path of the sun was at its absolute farthest point south. The subsequent movement northward only increases the daylight ever so slightly each day, thus a noticeable difference in daylight time isn’t observable to the sense perceptions of the common folk until a few days after the true winter solstice. Therefore this discrepancy would have existed at least as early as “the nicety of those laws which the Chaldaeans and Egyptians discovered,” which would thus result in two different dates for celebrating the winter solstice centuries prior to the Common Era. While some readers here might wish to emphasize that Julian wrote in the 4th century CE, this 3 day discrepancy is still explicitly attested to at least as early as the 1st century BCE, in a source which in turn attests that this discrepancy already existed in the 5th-4th centuries BCE:

The sun traverses Capricorn in twenty-nine days.

On the 1st day: The winter solstice according to Euctemon,[11] there is a change in the weather. According to Callippus Sagittarius finishes rising, winter solstice, it is stormy.
On the 2nd: According to Euctemon Delphinus rises, it is stormy. On it is stormy.
On the 4th: Winter solstice according to Eudoxus,[12] it is stormy.

Parapegma of Geminus of Rhodes[13]

The 1st to the 4th is likewise a difference of three days. With two different dates having been used to celebrate the same event, eventually the conclusion was reached that both dates are significant to the life of the sun god. The true winter solstice came to be understood as the day of the sun god’s original birth & death (hence his light was at its weakest state), then three days after that death came the secondary, traditional “solstice” wherein he was posthumously reborn. So taken collectively, Euctemon, Eudoxus, Geminus, Ovid, and Antiochus are primary sources attesting to there having been an understanding that the sun died on the winter solstice and was born again 3 days later prior to the 3rd century CE. The arbitrary selection of three-days may have its roots in an ancient convergence point between the solar leap year and the lunar leap year known as the hekkaidekaeteris. Now as for death & rebirth- it is also interesting to note a passage by Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote in the mid-1st century BEFORE the Common Era, in his Library of History 3.57.5 recounted a Greek tale in which the sun god likewise died and was resurrected & made immortal before becoming god of the sun. Moving along, because of his identity as one of the Egyptian sun gods (the earliest attested of their sun gods[14]), Horus was identified by the Greeks & Romans with their sun gods. In fact, they engaged in such cross-cultural syncretism with nearly all of their gods. Hence it comes as no surprise to see Horus identified by the aforementioned epithet of Phoebus.

Three stelai from Hassaia, the necropolis of Apollonopolis Magna near Edfu, preserve funerary epigrams, all composed by a certain Herodes, and all related to one small family (IMEG 5, 6, 35). The texts, which date to the late second century BCE, are composed in elegiac couplets … Their home, “the steep, sacred city of Phoebus” (IMEG 5.10) is Edfu, the city of Horus.

Dr. Jacco Dieleman and Dr. Ian S. Moyer, in A Companion to Hellenistic Literature[15]

(I. Métr. 35, lines 7-10): “My name, O stranger, is Aphrodisia, whom Ptolemaios wedded, who was excellent in counsel and with his spear, and who always showed a pure light in the army of Phoebus, bearing the heavenlike reputation of a kinsman.” (“Phoebus” is a metonym for Edfu, whose god Horus was identified with Greek Apollo).

Dr. Jane Rowlandson, in Perspectives Juives sur Règles Hellénistiques[16]

Alongside the temenos of the great temple of Pan and extending onward to the sacred lake of Phoebus (Horus) was a fine garden.

Dr. William H. Willis and Dr. Klaus Maresch, in The Archive of Ammon Scholasticus of Panopolis (P. Ammon) Volume I: The Legacy of Harpocration[17]

Thus within the context of the Graeco-Roman world in which Ovid was writing, Janus’ afore-quoted statement from Fasti 1.163-64 concerning the sun’s rebirth on the winter solstice would have equally applied to Horus as well. Hence it is no wonder to see that later on Plutarch, writing in the late 1st century[18], explicitly affirmed as much:

Isis, when she perceived that she was pregnant, put upon herself an amulet on the sixth day of the month Phaophi; and about the time of the winter solstice she gave birth to Harpocrates, imperfect and premature.

Plutarch, Moralia 377C[19]

According to one Egyptian tradition, the solar deity was born at the winter solstice. Plutarch identifies that day as the one on which Isis gave birth to Harpocrates.

Dr. Mark J. Smith, in A Micellany of Demotic Texts and Studies[20]

December 25 proper was the date of the Kikellia, the celebration of the birth of Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris.

Dr. Giovanni Ruffini, Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History[21]

The Kikellia were celebrated at Alexandria on the day of the Kronia, Dec. 25. The Kikellia, mentioned in the decree of Canopus, were a festival in honour of Isis, incorporated in a festal cycle of Osiris and celebrated immediately before and on the same day as a procession in his honour. … They fell on Choiak 29, and since that day corresponded to Dec. 25 of the Julian calendar at the date (26-25 B.C.) of its adoption in Alexandria, Dec. 25 remained the fixed date of the Kikellia in Roman times.

Dr. Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions[22]

The 1st century BCE (Ovid, Alexandrian Calendar) might seem rather late (although still prior to the Common Era, especially the 3rd century), but evidently the association between Horus and the winter solstice can be traced back at least as far as ~2000 BCE.

A further temple on the west bank, already existing and devoted to Horus, was completely reconstructed. It is located on a spur to the north usually called Thoth Hill. The place is a little tricky to negotiate, but the stupendous view over the Nile Valley more than makes up for it. Excavations have shown that a first temple had already been built here in the Early Dynastic period, but the building visible today dates from the eleventh dynasty and was constructed by Mentuhotep III. … The temple is probably one of the first instances of Theban monuments oriented to the winter solstice sunrise.

Dr. Giulio Magli, Architecture, Astronomy and Sacred Landscape in Ancient Egypt[23]

A splendid light hierophany at sunrise at the winter solstice at the temple of Sobek-Re in Qsar Qarun … The winged-disc symbol of Horus Behedety blossoms above the first gate at the pale yellow light of the first rays of his physical counter-part, the solar disk.

Dr. Juan Antonio Belmonte, Dr. Mosalam Shaltout, and Dr. Magdi Fekri, in Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy[24]

At the northern end of the temple at Abu Simbel is the little chapel of Re Horakhti. Its axis is pointed nearly 30 degress south instead of at right angles to the terrace. The author believes that the chapel is oriented in such a way that a priest posted in the center would, at the moment of the winter solstice, see the rising sun exactly in its axis. The solstice is identified with the rebirth of the sun god. Thus religion and astronomy were closely intertwined in Egypt. … The pylon embodies an ancient Egyptian myth about the creation of the world and does so to celebrate the winter solstice and the rebirth of the young sun-god who succeeds Osiris.

Dr. Jan K. van der Haagen, in Science Digest[25]

So an 11th Dynasty (or older) temple to Horus was aligned to the date of his birth, as was the shared chapel of Horus & Re at Abu Simbel (13th cen. BCE), and even at another god’s temple it was the image of Horus (as the winged sun-disk) which was the first thing to receive the sunlight of the winter solstice. That all seems sufficient enough to conclude that the association of the winter solstice with the birth of Horus far predates the 1st century BCE. ThothHillTemple

Fig. 1: Ruins of an ancient (c. 2000 BCE) temple of Horus on Thoth Hill which was aligned to the winter solstice sunrise.

Maiden_tower_baku_solstice_med.jpg 1800×2944

Fig. 2: Sunrise on the winter solstice.


Fig. 3: Depiction of the winter solstice, portrayed as the rising newborn sun being delivered by his mother Isis (right) and nurse Nephthys (left), Ramesside Period.


Fig. 4

That covers the birth, but what about the death & re-birth part? After all, the same religious apologist quoted at the beginning of this post has elsewhere claimed that:

Even if the aforementioned syncretism with Phoebus wasn’t enough (which it is), is there anything earlier & more explicit than Ovid indicating a death & resurrection of Horus? Absolutely. Working backward through time, first and perhaps most explicitly there is again Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote in the mid-1st century BEFORE the Common Era. In Library of History 1.25.6-7, Diodorus wrote:

Furthermore, she discovered also the drug which gives immortality, by means of which she not only raised from the dead her son Horus, who had been the object of plots on the part of Titans and had been found dead under the water, giving him his soul again, but also made him immortal. And it appears that Horus was the last of the gods to be king after his father Osiris departed from among men.[26]

It doesn’t get any more explicit than that. Horus was indeed understood to have been killed and physically raised from the dead prior to the Common Era. And as per all of the material covered above, in his identity as sun god, as Phoebus, his resurrection/rebirth can be said to have occurred three days after his death. So Diodorus predated the Common Era, but he was a Greek writer. Is there any evidence indicating a death & resurrection of Horus in his homeland of ancient Egypt, and even older than Diodorus? As a matter of fact, yes there is. (And no, I’m not referring to the Metternich Stela.) But to see all of that, you will have to get a copy of The Perennial Gospel. 😉

[More on Horus]

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[1] Stanley Lombardo, Ovid: Metamorphoses (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2010), xiii. Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983-2006), 274. R. Scott Smith and Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007), 247.

[2] John F. A. Sawyer, Sacred Languages and Sacred Texts (London: Routledge, 1999), 154. Katherine Callen King, Ancient Epic (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 140. Richard J. King, Desiring Rome: Male Subjectivity and Reading Ovid’s Fasti (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006), 37.

[3] Ovid, Fasti, trans. A. Wiseman and P. Wiseman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-13), 5. (Emph. added.)

[4] Fernando N. Antolin, Lygdamus, Corpus Tibullianum III.I-6: Lygdami Elegiarium Liber (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 291-92.

[5] Diana Spencer, Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 60. (Emph. added.)

[6] Meg Twycross and Sarah Carpenter, Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002), 26 n.45. (Emph. added.)

[7] Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1 A-L (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005), 337.

[8]Jean Rhys Bram, Ancient Astrology: Theory and Practice (Noyes Classical Studies: Park Ridge, 1975), 323.

Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times, trans. D. Lorton (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 2005-07), 143.

Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1986), 3.

Tobias Churton, The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons (Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC: Boston, 2002-05), Pt. 1 n.1.

Paul A. Himes, Foreknowledge and Social Identity in 1 Peter (Pickwick Publications: Eugene, 2014), 100.

[9] Daryn Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World: Parapegmata and Related Texts in Classical and Near-Eastern Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 162, 343.

[10] Julian, Oration, in Julian: Volume I, trans. W.C. Wright (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913-80), 427. (Emph. added.)

[11] 5th century BCE.

[12] 5th-4th century BCE.

[13] Geminus wrote in the 1st century BCE. Lehoux (2007), 57, 236. (Emph. added.)

[14] Glenn S. Holland, Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Chantilly: The Teaching Company LLC, 2005), Lecture 7.

[15] Jacco Dieleman and Ian S. Moyer, “Egyptian Literature in the Hellenistic and Roman Period,” in A Companion to Hellenistic Literature, eds. J.J. Clauss and M. Cuypers (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010), 445-46. (Emph. added.)

[16] Jane Rowlandson, “The Character of Ptolemaic Aristocracy: Problems of Definition and Evidence,” in Perspectives Juives sur Règles Hellénistiques, eds. T. Rajak, S. Pearce, J. Aitken, and J. Dines (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 48 n.38.

[17] William H. Willis and Klaus Maresch, “Introduction,” The Archive of Ammon Scholasticus of Panopolis (P. Ammon) Volume I: The Legacy of Harpocration, eds. W.H. Willis and K. Maresch (Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1997), 4. (Emph. added.)

[18] Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, Revised Edition (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1994-2002), 437. David Furley, “Cosmology,” in The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, eds. K. Algra et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999-2002), 433. Gary B. Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 105. Beverley C. Southgate, History: What and Why? Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern Perspectives (London: Routledge, 1996-2001), 40. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, “Textiles,” in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, eds. P.T. Nicholson and I. Shaw (Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity Press, 2000-06), 269.

[19] Plutarch, Moralia, in Plutarch’s Moralia: Volume V, trans. F.C. Babbitt, (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,1936-62), 153. (Emph. added.)

[20] Mark J. Smith, “P. Carlsberg 462: A Fragmentary Account of a Rebellion Against the Sun of God,” A Micellany of Demotic Texts and Studies, eds. P.J. Frandsen and K.S.B. Ryholt (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 106.

[21] Giovanni Ruffini, Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 53.

[22] Raffaele Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1954), 178 n.34. (Emph. added.)

[23] Giulio Magli, Architecture, Astronomy and Sacred Landscape in Ancient Egypt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 161-63. (Emph. added.)

[24] Juan Antonio Belmonte, Mosalam Shaltout, and Magdi Fekri, “Astronomy, landscape and symbolism: a study pf the orientation of ancient Egyptian temples,” in In Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy, eds. J.A. Belmonte and M. Shaltout (Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities Press, 2009), 226. (Emph. added.)

[25] Jan K. van der Haagen, “Sunlight Creates a God,” Science Digest 53 (1963): 54, 58. (Emph. added.)

[26] Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History, in Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Books 1-2.34, trans. C.H. Oldfather (London: William Heinemann Ltd., and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933-67), 81-83. (Emph. added.)

Figure 1 (Ruins of an ancient temple of Horus on Thoth Hill which was aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, c. 2000 BCE): Photo by Roland Unger. Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license, available at Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 2 (Sunrise on the winter solstice): Photo by Betty Blair. Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license, available at Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 3-4 (Depictions of the birth of the sun on the winter solstice, based on a relief from the Ramesside Period, etc.): Images by Heinrich Brugsch in Thesaurus Inscriptionum Aegyptiacarum: Abtheilung 1 (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1883), 408-11. This work is now in the public domain.

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3 comments on “Death & rebirth of the Sun and Horus on the winter solstice

  1. jameshiscox
    November 27, 2014

    Brilliant as always.

  2. Pingback: On Horus & the Spring Equinox | Mythicism

  3. Pingback: The Eucharist of Horus | Mythicism.Net

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