The Wisdom of Hypatia

Ancient Spiritual Practices
for a More Meaningful Life
The Reborn Sun

Since the date of Jesus' birth is unknown, in the fourth century Christmas was placed on December 25, the winter solstice in the old Roman calendar, either because it's nine months after His supposed conception on the Spring Equinox (March 25), or because Dec. 25 was celebrated already as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti). Therefore I think it would be worthwhile to say a little about the symbol of the Reborn Sun, drawing from the emperor Julian's Hymn to King Helios (362 CE), which is actually more of a Neoplatonic philosophical essay than what we usually think of as a hymn. (Although it's probably redundant, it's worth remarking that Helios and Sol are the Greek and Latin words, respectively, for the sun.)
Byzantine mosaic of Helios in a Zodiac Wheel from the 6th century ancient Beth Alpha synagogue. [wikipedia commons]
In order to understand the symbol of the Sun, it's necessary to make a distinction that I omitted from The Wisdom of Hypatia for the sake of simplicity. The emperor discusses three realms: the Noetic, the Noeric, and the Visible (the material universe). The noetic and noeric realms are the higher and lower parts of the Cosmic Nous, or World Mind, which is the realm of the eternal, universal (transpersonal) archetypal Ideas, the Jungian collective unconscious. At the noetic level, the Ideas (the noeta) exist in a state of mutual interpenetration, each containing all the others. At the noeric level, the Ideas (called noera) are still universal, eternal, and timeless, but articulated as distinct archetypal personalities, i.e., the gods. (I am avoiding the conventional, but misleading translations "intelligible" for "noetic" and "intellectual" for "noeric.")

Each of the three worlds (noetic, noeric, visible) has a "sun" at its conceptual center, which is its unifying, harmonizing, organizing, and creative principle, which also illuminates the level below with its (metaphorical) "light." At the noetic level Neoplatonists call this principle "The Ineffable One" because, as the ultimate principle of unity, it is beyond all duality and, therefore its nature is inexpressible in words. It is described metaphorically as the Good, the Idea of Being, and the source of existence, truth, perfection, and beauty. At the noeric level, which is the level of the archetypal gods, the image of The One is Helios (or Sol), the sun god, about which I'll have more to say. Finally, in the visible world we have the physical sun, which is a symbol of the higher suns (Helios and The One).

Helios is central in two respects. First, he is the governor of the community of gods. Second, he stands between The One above and the physical sun below. Therefore he is the principal mediator between the noetic and the visible realms, which is why he is important for our psychospiritual development. Platonists call him Logos (articulated thought) because he articulates the unified Ideas (noeta) into distinct archetypal Ideas (noera), and the Demiurge (Craftsman) because these ideas govern orderly change in the physical world (embodying being in becoming). He transmits the blessings of the Good into the visible world and provides the way by which we may ascend to union with The One. 

Plato says that the sky is our teacher in wisdom. It teaches us mathematics through the cycles of the sun and moon (which give us the day and month). Moreover, as a symbol of the higher realms, the sky teaches us about them. For example, we see that the sun governs the motion of the planets, which as a consequence is orderly and harmonious, though each planet has its own characteristic motion. Likewise, at the noeric level, King Helios governs all the other gods, who are aspects of him, but have their own offices. This governing role might seem more appropriate to Zeus, the chief god, but Julian equates the two.

For example Apollo, who was often equated with Helios, is specifically his unifying power and single-mindedness ("Apollo" was derived from a-pollon = not-many). Conversely, Dionysos is the power to separate forms, for in myth he was torn apart and became the divine substance of our bodies. Because Venus is always close to the sun, Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, assists Helios in the work of generation. Most relevant for us is Athena Pronoia (Foresight), sprung from the mind of the King (Zeus in myth, but equated to Helios) and representing his intelligence in its most perfect form. Her wisdom unifies the gods and guides them in their common purpose. She shows the way to individuation, which I'll explain next.

Psychologically, the noeric level is the level of the unconscious where the archetypes reside, and therefore Helios corresponds to what Jung called the "Self," which is the totality and also the central principle of all the archetypes. (Jungians sometimes call the Self "the God image within.") The unconscious Self (and not the conscious ego) is the root of a person's authentic individuality, and the ultimate governor of his or her psychological development. Jung's "Copernican revolution" was to discover that the ego revolves around the Self and not vice versa, as commonly supposed. The conscious integration of the Self is the goal of the lifelong process that Jung called individuation (the process of becoming individuus = undivided, integrated). In mythological terms, this is the process of coming to know Helios (the source of enlightenment, we might say) and of following him.

For a god, will, ability, and activity coincide, "because," as Julian says, "all that he wills he is, and can do, and puts into action." Not so for most mortals, but the goal of ancient Neoplatonic spiritual practice was to become godlike so far as possible for humans, which is essentially the process of individuation. Therefore, it seems reasonable that for the ideal sage — for the god-man (theios anêr) as he was called — there might also be a coincidence of will, ability, and action (boulê/voluntas, dynamis/potentia, energeia/actio). This is a worthwhile goal for all philosophers (lovers of wisdom). (The three degrees of wisdom, taught in The Wisdom of Hypatia, aim for it.)

In each of the three realms the sun is the source of (metaphorical) light, which is the substance of that realm. Thus The One is the source of truth, the light of the noetic realm; it illuminates the Ideas in their undifferentiated unity. In the visible world, the sun illuminates the planets and is the origin of the faculty of vision and of the visibility of objects. Likewise, at the noeric level, Helios radiates the substance of the gods, which is nous, the faculty of intuitive understanding, which the gods and we possess, and also the potential to be comprehended by nous. Thus the sun in each realm is the creative source of that realm.

In the case of the physical world, the earth, this statement is not entirely metaphorical, for the sun is the generator of most of the order, and specifically of the life, on earth, for the sun is the principal source of free energy (the other is geothermal). This energy is reradiated into space in a lower grade (higher entropy) form, which drives the increase in order (decrease in entropy) on earth: the origin and evolution of life, from bacteria to ecosystems. So in a real sense, the sun's light does create the visible world (the world of organized matter and energy).

According to the emperor, the sun governs change in the material world, keeping it in definite limits, orderly, balanced. The sun creates, and therefore must also destroy to keep the world in finite bounds (for its substance is limited and must be recycled). Thus, Julian observes, the sun approaches, granting his gifts, revivifyng the earth, stimulating new life and growth, but then withdraws again so that, with justice, he can bestow his blessings on the other hemisphere. He gives to some and takes away from others in order to maintain balance.

The sun defines the year and its four cardinal points (the solstices and equinoxes) and thereby is the mythological father of the Seasons (Horai). (Some say Zeus is their father, but it amounts to the same thing.) In ancient Rome the winter solstice occurred at the end of the Saturnalia (Dec. 17-23), the joyous festival of annual renewal that gave us many of our Christmas traditions (gift-giving, decorated pine trees, etc.). The solstice was celebrated in games, the Heliaia (Solis Agon), for the Unconquered Sun on Dec. 25. However, the emperor observes, the New Year was celebrated when the lengthening days became visible to ordinary people (non-astronomers), that is, January 1.

The sky is our teacher in wisdom. The sun is the symbol of Helios, the integrating and coordinating principle of the archetypal realm, that is, a symbol of the Self. The Self is sometimes more visible, sometimes less, but always present, coordinating the archetypes to fulfill our destinies. The sun in each realm generates its realm, but also unites it and guides it toward its own perfection. Thus Helios, king of the archetypal gods, guides our psyches toward individuation.

When Helios illuminates our lives, we should rejoice and plant our seeds; when he withdraws, we should harvest the fruits and prepare for his return. Therefore, the winter solstice symbolizes the return of illumination by the archetypal wisdom of the unconscious and the consequent revivification of our souls, if we cultivate what we have planted. It's a time to welcome enlightenment.

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