Long before modern science began to understand the processes that create our weather, people made up their own explanations. Many of these accounts were fantastic in nature, with evil or benevolent gods, monsters, and spirits controlling the elements. In this series, we’ll explore some of these ancient myths and share the science behind them. Weather + mythology = weather-ology!
The Sun is such a pervasive, and important, part of life on Earth, that most ancient civilizations’ pantheons included a Sun god or goddess. In most cultures, the Sun deity was seen as an attractive, radiant, exultant figure. Many of these gods and goddesses were pictured piloting a boat or chariot across the sky, as an explanation of the Sun’s daily east-to-west trek.
To the Wotjobaluk people, an Aboriginal tribe native to southern Australia, though, the story of how the Sun came to traverse the sky is a tragic, not triumphant, one. Their solar goddess is a woman named Gnowee, who carries a torch that lights the sky. Gnowee was once a mortal woman who lived on Earth. At that time, the planet was eternally dark and food was scarce. People had to carry bark torches everywhere they went. One day, Gnowee left her young son sleeping while she went to dig for yams. She had to wander far and wide in her search for food, and eventually reached the end of the Earth. Gnowee was so absorbed in her search for food that she kept walking upside down on the bottom side of the Earth. When she emerged on the other side, she realized she had no idea where she was. Her little boy was nowhere to be found, and so she climbed into the dark sky and raised up her torch to get a clearer view. Sadly, she never found her son, and so she continues to wander the sky to this day, lighting the world with her torch as she searches for him. Each night, she rests, only to take up her frantic search again in the morning.
It’s easy to understand why ancient people created such fantastic stories to explain the Sun’s seemingly peripatetic nature. From where we sit, the Earth feels like a fixed entity, around which the Sun, stars, and other planets revolve. Today, of course, we know that the Earth is actually hurtling through space at the breakneck speed of 67,062 miles per hour. And while the Sun is also moving, revolving its way around the Milky Way, we are moving with it, so from our perspective, the Sun stands still. All the while, the Earth is also spinning on its axis, one full rotation every 24 hours. It is the Earth’s rotation that causes the apparent movement of the Sun across the sky. As the Earth turns, different areas of the globe directly face the Sun’s light at different times. When our little slice of the world is pointing directly at the Sun, it’s noon in our part of the world. When we are pointed in the exact opposite direction, it’s midnight.
To the Wotjobaluk, though, such an idea would have seemed much more outlandish than their own explanation for why the Sun travels across the sky each day. And so their people, from ancient history and perhaps down to the present day, looked up into the sky each day and were thankful for its light, believing its existence to be a fortunate, if sorrowful for one woman, accident of history.