The sun as a child at the winter solstice

I’ve been reading the article in which Franz Boll published the calendar of Antiochus of Athens, with special reference to the entry on 25th December.

It is good to have a publication of the calendar, although the lack of a translation for the Greek is irksome.  But I haven’t read many articles which are less satisfactory when it came to discussing this particular entry.  It waffles.  It wanders.  It suggests.  But the logic is tenuous.

Boll is keen to suggest that the calendar is Egyptian in origin.  This he fails to show adequately, as far as I can make out.  The most I can find is an assertion that the dates given to various astronomical phenomena require that it was composed in Alexandria.  He also asserts that there are commonalities with the calendar of Ptolemy; but of course any astrological calendar is likely to have certain similarities — they all deal with the stars, after all.

Let’s look at an extract of the calendar for December:

κβ’. τροπὲ χειμερινὴ.
κγ’. Προκύων ἑῷος δύνει.
κε’. Ἡλίου γενέθλιον · αὔξει φῶς.

The first entry (for the 22nd) tells us that it is the winter solstice.  The 23rd relates to the star Procyon, and the last entry for the 25th reads “Birthday of the sun: the light increases”.  The solstice entry is apparently also found in the calendar of Ptolemy, but not the birthday of the sun. 

Why are there two entries?  I.e. why is the day of the sun later than the solstice?  This is explained by Julian the Apostate, in his Oration 4, whom I quoted at more length here:

 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. 

The idea that 25 Dec. is the “new sun” is found in Latin sources as we have seen in the past.  Boll references

Pliny NH 18, 221; Columella I, 9; Servius, Aen. 7, 720.  (Proprie sol novus est VIII. Kal. Jan.)

But he also mentions something which is new to me:

Greek and Roman writers tell us about something called the Egyptian doctrine, according to which the sun appears on the Winter solstice like a child, at the spring equinox as a youth, at the summer solstice as a man and in the autumn the same as an old man. The well-known witness, already cited by Th. Gale in Iamblichos de mysteriis p. 289, is Macrobius in his solar theology, in Saturnalia I 1 &, 9:

item Liberi patris simulacra partim puerili aetate partim iuvenis fingunt.  praeterea barbata specie, seniIi quoque . . . hae autem aetatum diversitates ad Solem referuntur, ut parvulus qualem Aegyptii proferunf ex adyto die certa, quod tunc brevissimo die veluti parvus et infans videatur. exinde autem procedentibus augmentis (vgl.  αὔξει φῶς here in Antiochus and in Catal. codd. astr. I 144, 13) aequinoctio vernali similiter atque adulescentis adipiscitur vires figuraque iuvenis ornatur. postea statuitur eius aetas plenissima effigie barbae solstitio aestivo quo tempore summum sui consequitur augmentum. exinde per diminutiones veluti senescentis quarta formum deus figuratur.

The “solar theology” is a speech by Praetextatus in book 1.  I wish I had the English translation of Macrobius to hand, so I could give a translation here.  But he is making the point that when the days are shortest, the sun seems small and like an infant; likewise at the spring equinox like a youth, at the summer solstice as a grown man.  Then by dimunition it becomes an old man.

Boll would like us to associate this with his calendar entry.

But is Macrobius telling us about the same thing?  There is also the issue that Macrobius writes very late indeed, after the fall of paganism at the end of the 4th century.  His paganism would seem to be influenced by the prevailing monotheism of Christianity, when he asserts that all the gods are merely aspects of a single deity, the sun god.  Considering the Christian polemic against the multitude of provincial gods, such a rationalisation was inevitable.  But it can’t be used as evidence of earlier pagan views, I would have thought.

He then writes at some length speculative material about the possibility that Antiochus is basing his entry for 25 Dec. on an ancient Egyptian source.  From the idea that “birth of the sun”, he goes on to say:

Brugsch, who follows Jablonski Panth. Aegypt. lib. II cap. VI, p. 254 on the first place, suggests that these ideas are really Egyptian in origin, and, the monuments of the latest periods of Egyptian history at least very clearly represent the sun at the time of the winter solstice under the name of the child sun, at the Spring time as a “boy” or “youth”, during the summer solstice as “the great (adult) Sun” and at sunset as “the old man.” In an inscription (22) the “new born Sun” is mentioned, and in two others (23) as the “little sun”. (24)

The tenuous connection of this with the calendar will be immediately apparent!  But the idea is interesting, and I spent some time trying to work out what the references were, and looking at them.  One advantage of Boll’s work is that it is so old that his references are all online.

Brugsch, thus, is H. Brugsch, Die Ägyptologie  (p.327), who writes:

Den 12 Sonnenbildern in den 12 Stunden des Tages verlieh man in der ptolemäisch-römischen Epoche eigenthumliche Bildersymbole in Gestalten von Göttern oder heiligen Thieren (s. Thes. S. 57). wobei die Sonne in der Frühe der ersten Stunde als neugeborenes Kind (Harphrad) in einer Scheibe erscheint. Die den einzelnen Verzeichnissen beigeschriebenen Namen (s. Thes. 58) benennen die Sonne der ersten Tagesstunde das Kind (nhn), der 3. den Knaben, Jüngling (hwn), der 12. den Greis (nhh wer). Die Vergleichung der zunehmenden und abnehmenden Sonne mit den Lebensaltern des Menschen tritt auch inschriftlich gelegentlich hervor.  In einem der Texte von Dendera (Thes. 55) heisst es von dem Sonnengotte: „ein Kind in der Frühe, ein Jungling zur Mittagszeit … ist er Gott ‚Atum am Abend“.  Statt des ‚Atum-Names findet sich als Variante eines der agyptischen Wörter zur Bezeichnung eines greisen Mannes (Thes. S. 511).

The 12 solar images in the 12 hours of the day in the Ptolemaic and Roman era became special symbols in depictions of gods or sacred animals (see Thes. p. 57), where the sun appears in the morning of the first hour as a newborn child (Harphrad) on a disk. The various lists (see Thes. 58) name the sun at the first hour of the day the “child” (nhn), in the 3rd “boy, young man” (hwn), in the 12th “old man” (nhh wer).  The comparison of increasing and decreasing sun with the ages of man also occurs occasionally in earlier inscriptions. In one of the texts of Dendera (Thes. 55) it is said of the sun god: “a child in the morning, a young man for lunch … he is god, Atum in the evening “. Instead of the ‘Atum-name found as a variant of the Egyptian words for the description of an old man (Thes. p. 511).

‘Thes.’ is his own Thesaurus, a publication of inscriptions, for Brugsch was one of the early genuine Egyptologists.  So we’re dealing with some real sources here.

Boll also mentions:

The famous oracle of the Clarian Apollo that Macrobius cites Sat. I 18, 20 from Cornelius Labeos’ book de Oraculo Apollinis Clarii, mentions four names of gods that seem to befrom the the same association of ideas out for the four figures of Helios set in the season when it also is contrary to the Jewish God.

Jablonski Pantheon Aegyptiorum lib. II cap. VI, p. 254 (p.254 in the PDF) is also online, in Latin, and dates to the 18th century!  It is in Latin.  Fortunately there is a lengthy translation into English of a chunk of it in John William Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua (1865). p.305.  Appendix III, translated and abridged.  The p.319 has a translation of the Pantheon Aeg. p.254.  P.305 of Colenso gives us the Oracle and a translation.  The Oracle of Apollo at Claros was asked who the god Iao was.  It replied:

It was right that those knowing should hide the ineffable orgies ; for in a little deceit there is prudence and an adroit mind. Explain that IAO is the Most High God of all,in winter Aides, and Zeus in commencing spring, and Helios in summer, and at the end of autumn tender Iao.

The name appears in Gnostic texts, and in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, book 1.  There is speculation that it really represents the Jewish YHWH.

Using Colenso’s translation, we find that Jablonski treated this oracle as derived from gnostic sources, and “reconstructed” what he believed the “original” text of the gnostic oracle was.    This Brugsch treated in his next paragraph as if it was actually an ancient source — there are perils to writing in Latin! — and made the association with Harpocrates.  But this is just a misunderstanding.

What are we left with, that is solid and real, in all this sea of factoids strung together without much connection?

We learn that the calendar contains “birth of the new sun” on Dec. 25.  We learn that the four stages of the sun during the day was compared in Ancient Egyptian, and more commonly in Ptolemaic and Roman sources, to the four ages of man, one of which was the sun-as-child at dawn.  We are invited by Boll to presume the latter has some connection with the former. 

But the fallacy of “this looks like that, therefore this is connected to that, or even this is derived from that” is one we encounter all the time.  We must regard the connection as unevidenced.


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