Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Invincible Sun - Sol Invictus

Christmas day (aka Dies Natalis Solis Invicti*) is getting closer and so I thought I would pay tribute to Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, who I regard as an aspect of radiant Apollo – who is (as we all know) one of the most revered Gods within the Roman pantheon. As far as Apollo's solar aspect goes, while the veneration of the Sun (Sol) is certainly a genuinely ancient Roman practice, the cult of Sol Invictus was a latecomer to the classical world and did not achieve widespread appeal until the third century CE, when it received imperial patronage. Beard et al describe the cult of Sol Invictus in ancient Rome thus:
“In AD 274 the emperor Aurelian dedicated a great temple to the Sun (Sol) which was famed in antiquity for the richness of the offerings and dedications it contained … The cult of the Sun can have clear associations with eastern religions: the full title of the God Elagabalus was, in fact, Sol Invictus Elagabalus – Invincible Sun Elagabalus; and here it is often assumed that the particular form of the cult derived from the cult of Ba’al at Palmyra in Syria, after Aurelian’s successful campaign there … At the same time, however, its significance had Roman roots too. So, for example, a regular sacrifice to Sol is marked on 9 August of several Augustan calendars; and there had been a longstanding identification in both the Greek and Roman worlds of the God Apollo with Sol (or Greek Helios) … Besides, the imagery of the God – at least on the few contemporary coins on which it is shown – is strongly Graeco-Roman, rather than oriental (contrast the explicit eastern imagery attached to Elagabalus’ cult) and the priesthood founded to serve the cult was given the very Roman title of ‘pontifices of the Sun’ [M Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 259].”
A number of Roman emperors are known to have particularly revered the Sun. The rising popularity of the cult coincided with a decline in that of the imperial cult and it is possible that some members of the third and fourth century Roman elite may have aspired for it to become a sort of “universal solar cult consecrating the religious unity of the Roman world”: R Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome at 142. It is also arguable that the cult of the Sun was, for some Romans at least, quasi-monotheistic  Macrobius portrays one of the leading Pagans of the fourth century, Praetextatus, as stating that "the supreme God, of whom all the others are aspects, is the Sun": cited in J Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 114.** However, the cult of the Sun was still very much a polytheistic phenomenon, as Rüpke explains in his summation of the rise of Sol Invictus in ancient Rome:
“… in the years after [Emperor] Gallienus’ death in 267, a series of strong and efficient emperors managed to stabilise the Roman empire … Foremost among them was Aurelian. Much more than his predecessors he laid emphasis on the fact that a God had invested him as emperor. After his victory over Palmyra in the summer of 273 he established the cult of Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun) in Rome. The God received his own magnificent temple, the templum Solis, and the priesthoods were restructured in order to give the priestly college of Sol a special rank … This cult had an air of monotheism, insofar as there was a central God, but it did not exclude the veneration of other Gods. It was new, but remained within the framework of traditional religious practice and could happily co-exist with the older cults  the worship of Sol was one of the key cults in the fourth century … The [polytheistic] emperor Julian (361-3 CE) ... was especially devoted to the Sun and viewed him as the supreme God … [J Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 102-114]”.
I discuss the rituals we might engage in for a solar oriented Christmas in more depth in my post A Pagan Christmas in High Summer.*** For myself, I have Christian relations staying with me and I confess that my Pagan invocations this festive season have never been so hurried or so hushed. However, they will to go to Church for a daytime service and I will engage in a ritual honouring Sol Invictus/Apollo then. In the meantime I have put together this visual tribute to the Invincible Sun  may he look favourably upon us.

Taken from the Roman Forum, part of Saturn's temple on right. Source:

"Apollo" by C Roncalli (17th century)

"Apollo Crowned by Victory" by N Coypel (17th century)

"Apollo" by M Desubleo (17th century)

"Apollo and the Continents" by G B Tiepolo (18th century)

Detail of altar to Sol (1st century). Source:

Sun Chariot in medieval manuscript (Vaticanus gr. 1291). Source:

Detail (sun chariot) from the Schloss Eggenberg by H A Weissenkircher (17th century)

"Apollo and the Continents" by G B Tiepolo (18th century)

* The birthday of the Invincible Sun  if we accept that a reference in the calendar of Philocalus to"N INVICTI" refers to the Natalis Invicti and thus Sol Invictus.

** This is reminiscent of the view common amongst many contemporary Hindus that all Gods are manifestations of the one greater God (eg, Vishnu, who may be the Hindu manifestation of Apollo: see my post on Roman Gods, Indian Gods).
*** See also my post on Pagan Offerings to the Gods.

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.

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