The solar wheel

In the Rigveda there are eleven references to the wheel (cakram) of Surya or Suvar.23 In Greek tragedy ^Aiov kvkAos is something of a formulaic phrase (Aesch. Pers. 504, [Aesch.] Prom. 91; Soph. Ant. 416; Eur. Hec. 412, El. 465), and Empedocles (B 47) has avaKTos . .. ayea kvkAov 'the lord's pure wheel' in the same sense. We also find ^Aiov Tpoxos (Ar. Thesm. 17). But kvkAos is evidently the traditional word. It corresponds etymologically to the Vedic word (which is usually neuter, but occasionally masculine), both going back to *kw(e)-kwl-o-, a reduplicated formation from the root *kwel 'turn'. This is also the source of Old Norse hvel, which is likewise found in poetic expressions for the sun and sometimes the moon. In Alvissmal 14. 3

22 Fled Duin na nGed p. 1. 5 Lehmann (Dublin 1964); a poem attributed to Cinsd ua h-Artacain, ed. L. Gwynn, Eriu 7 (1914), 227/235 st. 61; further references in O'Rahilly (1946), 298.

23 RV 1. 130. 9, 174. 5, 175. 4; 2. 11. 20; 4. 16. 12, 17. 14, 28. 2, 30. 4; 5. 29. 10; 6. 31. 3, 56. 3. The passages are set out by Schmitt (1967), 166 f. There are others referring simply to 'the wheel' in a solar context.

and 16. 5 hverfandi hvel 'the roaming wheel' is given as a name for the moon, and fagrahvel 'the beautiful wheel' for the sun. The phrases sunno hvel and mana hvel appear in the non-Eddic poems Harmsol 36. 7 and Liknarbraut 7. 3.24

Another old Indo-European word for 'wheel' is represented in Latin rota, Old Irish roth, Lithuanian ratas, etc.; it provides an Indo-Iranian word for 'chariot' (Vedic ratha-, Avestan ra6a-). We should expect it to appear in Italic or Celtic reflexes of an inherited formula 'wheel of the sun'. Such phrases occur in Latin poetry from Ennius onwards. He called the sun rota Candida, and solis rota is found in Lucretius and others. In Old Irish we have roth greine, 'wheel of the sun', or in one place just 'the wheel', and in Welsh rhod tes, 'wheel of heat'.25

In RV 2. 11. 20 Indra is said to have felled the demon Arbuda and set him rolling (avartayat) as Surya does his wheel. Here we have the simple picture of a god rolling his wheel forward. If the sun's daily path is seen as climbing up to its high point and then descending, the wheel would need pushing, one might suppose, only for the upward part, and then it would roll down of its own accord. We cannot but recall the Greek myth of Sisyphus' underworld labour: he is forever rolling a stone up to the top of a hill, from which it runs down again. It does not make sense to say, in the manner of the old nature-mythologists, that Sisyphus' stone 'is' the sun.26 But it might well be that an old solar myth provided the model for Sisyphus' cruel and unusual punishment.

As a pictorial device the solar wheel is abundantly attested. A simple circle, or a circle with a central point, need not be a wheel, but when it has spokes it clearly is. The connection with the sun is sometimes demonstrable.27 For example, on early pottery from the hill fort of Vucedol on the middle Danube the sun is depicted either by a series of concentric circles, with stylized flames shooting from the outer rim, or by a cross inscribed within circles (again with flames).28 The cross characterizes the disc as a four-spoked wheel. Achaemenian cylinder seals show a four-winged solar figure hovering

24 Old English sunnan hweogul, sometimes cited in this connection, should not be. It occurs only in a word-for-word translation of a Latin hymn that uses the phrase Solis rotam: Joseph Stevenson, Latin Hymns of the Anglo-Saxon Church (Durham 1851), 22.

25 Enn. Ann. 572 (with Skutsch's note, pp. 712 f.); O'Rahilly (1946), 304, cf. 519-22; Saltair na Rann 1077 ardRuiri ind roith, 2385 ardRïgrene; Bader (1989), 242.

26 So interpreted by V. Henry, Revue des ├ętudes grecques 5 (1892), 289.

27 For methodological considerations in the identification of solar symbols see M. Green (1991), 24 f., 34, 40, 44; Lucy Goodison, Death, Women and the Sun (Institute of Classical Studies, Bulletin Supplement 53; London 1989), 11-15, 78-80.

over a large, upright eight-spoked wheel with a milled edge.29 On certain early coins from Latium and Campania we find the device of a six- or eight-spoked wheel alternating with the solar disc or with the radiate head of the personified Sun.30 Model wheels, whether ritually significant or for personal ornament, are common in Romano-Celtic Europe, and some of them have clearly solar decoration or are associated with lunar crescents.31

Another very widespread artistic motif, especially in Iron Age Europe, is the swastika. This seems to be a variant of the spoked wheel, giving a clearer suggestion of rotary movement, and again its religious and specifically solar significance is often contextually apparent.32

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