Of all the celestial bodies the sun is the biggest, brightest and most important. Without the sun none of us could live, so naturally it has had a huge influence on religion. Every night the sun would die (set) only to reborn once again in the morning. The Egyptians mythologized this daily ritual into the story of Osiris. The story starts out with Osiris as the King of Egypt till his brother Set decides to kill him and steal the throne. Osiris would go on to become the King of the underworld, but while Set ruled, Osiris’s wife Isis gave birth to a son, Horus, who grows up, defeats Set and reclaims the throne. In astrological terms, Set is the sunset (the dark aspect of the sun), Isis (the Queen of Heaven) is the night sky and the chaos which occurs each day when Set rules, and she inevitably gives birth to Horus (the son) who represents the rising sun and the restoring of order.
The Christian myth bears striking similarities if you substitute Osiris with God (the Father), Isis with the Virgin Mary, Set with Satan, and Horus with Jesus. You can also see a good portrayal of this in the film The Lion King, with Mufasa as Osiris, Scar as Set and Simba as Horus.
In Polytheistic religions, such as those practised in ancient Egypt, the sun was one of many Gods and Goddesses worshipped and had different forms and names. The sun was often seen as the highest of the Gods, and became synonymous with the creator God himself. The sun being seen as masculine (and the moon feminine) meant that he was mostly represented in the form of a man – although feminine sun Goddesses exist too. Having three distinct phases – rising, midday, and setting – the sun was divided into a trinity to represent the three stages of life; growth, maturity and decay. In Christianity you have the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. In Hinduism, Brahma is the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer/Transformer.
The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten was one of the first, if not the first, to give the sun a special place above all the other Gods. He’d previously been known as Amenhotep IV, (meaning ‘Amun is satisfied’) before changing his name to Akhenaten (‘living spirit of Aten’) as his allegiance was to the sun God Aten. Akhenaten wanted to abandon traditional polytheism and promote a monotheistic religion with Aten as the One true God, whilst Akhenaten viewed himself as the son of God, and therefore the God of the Earth. His new ideas didn’t go down too well with the people of Egypt, and after his death the Aten worship faded. His son changed his name from Tutankhaten (‘living image of Aten’) to Tutankhamun (‘living image of Amun’), and the old traditions returned.
It’s been speculated that Moses was inspired by Akhenaten’s monotheistic vision and that monotheism in the Judeo-Christian religions arose directly out of the worship of Aten. While Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the Israelites made an image of a ‘golden calf’ and started to worship it. The golden calf is thought to stem from the Egyptian God Apis, who was a sacred bull. When Moses gets back to camp he destroys the golden calf and orders the worshippers be killed, resulting in about 3,000 deaths. The destruction of the golden calf symbolises the end of the astrological age of Taurus and the beginning of the age of Aries.
In the later part of the Roman Empire, the official sun god was called Sol Invictus (‘unconquered sun’), and the Roman festival ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (‘birthday of the unconquered sun’) was celebrated on December 25th. Early Christians were persecuted in Rome till Constantine the Great became emperor. According to the stories, before the battle of the Milivian bridge (312 AD), Constantine saw a cross in the sky arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’ (‘with this sign you will conquer’). Other stories suggest he was visited by Christ himself in a dream. He then used the Christian sign of the cross on his army’s shields and they won the battle. He would later go on to end persecution against Christians and legalise Christianity paving the way for the rise of the Catholic Church and modern day sun worship.