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Did the Romans and Greeks worship the sun as their sun god, or was their sun god distinct from the astronomical sun?

Can the same be said about the moon and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn?

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As far as the sun is concerned, the answer is: Yes... but also No.

For somewhat different reasons, this gets very complicated and even confused particularly with regard to three of the classical seven planets in question, namely the sun, the moon, and Venus.

Sun and Moon

In ancient Greco-Roman cosmology, as celestial objects themselves, the sun and the moon literally are indeed the same things as the deities who represent them, these being, respectively the Titan siblings Helios and Selene of Greek mythology, who in turn correspond, respectively, to their Roman counterparts Sol and Luna.

Helios's name is simply the Greek word for "Sun" (from which we get English terms like helium and heliotrope) just as Sol is Latin for the same (hence English solar) and Luna's name is the Latin word for "Moon" (whence English lunar). The Greek Selene was also called Mene, both of these names being used as terms for the heavenly body, the latter of these appellations being a clear cognate of English "moon."

Within the aforementioned cosmology, the seven planets and all the other stars were conceived of as shining entities: celestial winged deities who each drove a fiery chariot drawn by flaming horses across the sky. Helios's task was the most labour-intensive of these, as his circuit of the world occurred daily, since he travelled across the heavens throughout each day, and sailed asleep on the cosmic river Okeanos [Ocean] by night in order to return from the west to his eastern rising-point to resume the cycle all over again.

Selene's sky-journeys were similar, taking place, for the most part, at night, but not as frequently as those of Helios. And then each of the stars, including the planets, had his own circuit, in his own blazing chariot, with its own frequency which could be seen determined from watching the night sky.

The Romans basically copied this cosmology from the Greeks, along with the rest of the mythology, swapping out the Greek names for Roman ones. So just as the sun in the sky meant Helios charging across the heavens in his vehicle for the Greeks, so it was for the Romans with Sol.

Confusion comes in with the Greek Apollon and Artemis, known to the Romans as Apollo and Diana. These two were among the twelve most important gods who were called the Twelve Olympians, chief of whom was their father Zeus (= Roman Jupiter). Apollon and Artemis were siblings, just as Helios and Selene were brother and sister.

Perhaps because Apollon was worshipped as a god of light, from fairly early on he was identified with the sun and thus with the Titan Helios. Even ancient writers debated about whether they were the same god. Mythologically speaking they were very different characters, with different parentages, relationships and stories.

Similarly Artemis was identified with Selene and worshipped as a moon-goddess. This conflation, or identification, carries over into Roman religion, with Diana and Luna often being closely associated. According to Joseph E. Fontenrose's article "Apollo and Sol in the Latin Poets of the First Century B.C." in Vol. 70 (1939) of Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (Johns Hopkins University Press), however, the Roman gods Apollo and Sol are never conflated in this way, consistently maintaining their distinction from each other.

In the mythology, the god Helios/Sol is most certainly the same thing as the ball of light seen in the sky to be giving light to the world every day. If, however, we consider Apollo[n] to be a sun-deity, then this complicates the answer to your Question to an extent. According to William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Helios and Apollon

were originally quite distinct; and the identification was, in fact, never carried out completely, for no Greek poet ever made Apollo ride in the chariot of Helios through the heavens, and among the Romans we find this idea only after the time of Virgil. The representations of Apollo with rays around his head, to characterise him as identical with the sun, belong to the time of the Roman empire.

The same complication maps fairly equivalently onto the moon. Selene/Luna literally is the moon, personified as a goddess, but there are also other important moon-goddesses in the same pantheon[s], primarily Artemis/Diana, as well as Hekate [Hecate]. Unlike Selene/Luna, none of these other deities drove the moon-chariot across the sky.

Stella Veneris, the "Star of Venus"

Helios and Selene had a sister named Eos, "Dawn," whom the Romans called Aurora. She was the herald of Helios, perpetually driving her own bright chariot ahead of his, dispersing the darkness of night to welcome his light. In primordial times, Eos was married to another Titan, named Astraios, whose name means “Starry” (Astraeus to the Romans). The numerous stars of the sky, including the planets, were the sons of Astraios and Eos, with the exception of the Sun and the Moon (which, as we have seen, were Eos's brother and sister).

Among these many celestial offspring of the dawn-goddess, we come to our third major source of confusion among these star-gods: the planet Venus. There are a few different levels of perplexity which arise from thence. Perhaps it is best to work our way backwards with this one.

Venus is famously known as a goddess, an undoubtedly female divinity. A much less-known fact is that the planet, just like all the other stars in this mythology, is a male deity. Nomenclature is the start of the bewilderment here, since the planet is typically "known" to be called by the name of the notorious goddess of love.

The sun and the moon, however, are really the only of these seven astra planetoi, "wandering stars," which are colloquially assigned their proper names. When we call the planets by the names of these more famous Roman deities, it is technically only a shorthand for saying that these astra were anciently assigned to those respective divinities. With the exception of Sun and Moon, though, the deity and the planet are actually not the same thing.

Calling the planet "Venus" is an abridgement of saying that it is the planet of Venus, dedicated to the love-goddess. The planet itself, however, was a star-god who in Greece was named Eosphoros, the "Dawn-Bringer," commonly known in many cultures as the morning star, because he is the last star to be seen shining at sunrise. He is also called Phosphoros, "Light-Bringer."

Prior to the sixth century BC, Hesperos, the evening star, the first star to appear in the night sky, was thought to be a completely different heavenly body from Eosphoros. It was either Parmenides of Elea or Pythagoras of Samos who identified them as one and the same, whereupon Eosphoros and Hesperos, who had been brothers before, now became the same god.

There was a similar mythological situation for the Romans, whose name for Eosphoros was Lucifer (an exact translation of Phosphoros, meaning the one who carries the light), and whose name for Hesperos was Vesper (likewise a direct translation). Lucifer and Vesper were also equated with each other.

Because the Greeks assigned Eosphoros-Phosphoros/Hesperos to their goddess Aphrodite, this same goddess's Roman counterpart Venus was granted the Roman planet-star Lucifer/Vesper. Beyond these associations, the star-god and the love-goddess have precious little to do with each other in the myths.

The Other Four Planets

The star-god Stilbon was presided over by the messenger-god Hermes, thus he was called Hermaon, "Of Hermes," which to the Romans was Mercurii, "Belonging to Mercurius," and thus we now have Mercury.

The star-god Pyroeis was governed by the war-god Ares, hence dubbed Areios, "Of Ares." In Latin this is Martis, "Of Mars" = the planet Mars.

The star-god Phaethon was ruled over by Zeus, whence referred to as Dios, "Of Zeus" = Latin Jovis, "Of Jove/Juppiter" > planet Jupiter.

The star-god Phainon [Phaenon] was dedicated to the Titan Kronos, so he was called Kronion, "Of Kronos" = Latin Saturni, "Of Saturnus" > planet Saturn.

In general, the planets themselves were very minor star-deities each individually "owned" by a certain high-profile member of the pantheon, hence the more famous names we now have for these heavenly bodies, with the exception, as always, of the much more important Sun and Moon, who are their own persons, so to speak.


Related Question: Is it Lucifer or Venus?

See here for a small family-tree illustrating how the Stars were (biologically) related to the Sun, Moon, Dawn, Earth and Sky.

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Yes, that is the case.

In Ancient Greece, sun-worship personified by Helios had once been prevalent and powerful among the people of the pre-Hellenic culture, but very few of the communities of the later historic period retained it as a potent factor of the state religion.

According to Roman sources, the worship of the sun personified by Sol was introduced by Titus Tatius shortly after the foundation of Rome. There is some disagreement on whether Roman religion had two sun deities, Sol Indiges and the originally Syrian Sol Invictus.

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  • Can the same be said about the moon and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn? – Geremia Jan 27 at 22:49
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    There is some discussion whether this also applies to the planets. Deities were centainly associated with the planets, but there is no explicit textual reference that they considered them equal to their gods. I think it was more thought of as representing the will of the gods (hence astrology). – Codosaur Jan 28 at 14:34
  • "There is some discussion" Can you please point me to some sources on this discussion? thanks – Geremia Jan 28 at 15:41
  • For example, "Draw in breath from the rays, drawing up three times as much as you can, .... You will hear nothing either of man or of any other living thing, nor in that hour will you see anything of mortal affairs on earth, but rather you will see all immortal things. For in that day and hour you will see the divine order of the skies: the presiding gods rising into heaven, and others setting." in oxfordre.com/planetaryscience/view/10.1093/acrefore/… is interpreted by some as the planets actually being the same as deities. – Codosaur Jan 28 at 15:47
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In Etymologies bk. 8 §11 "Gods of the heathens (De diis gentium)," p. 185 (PDF p. 199), St. Isidore of Seville writes:

  1. By empty stories the pagans attempt to connect some of the names of their gods to physical causes, and they interpret these names as involved in the origins of the elements. But this has been entirely made up by poets, with the intention of enhancing their gods with certain figures of speech, while histories reveal these gods to have been lost and full of the infamy of shame. Indeed, when truth leaves off, room for fiction is wide open.

Thus, it seems that the mythological stories and gods came first, and they were only later applied to real physical entities.

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