SUN AS POLYSEMANTIC SYMBOL IN LATVIAN
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an
Lec, Saulīte, rītā agri,
Noej laiku vakarā:
(Latvian Folk Song)
The Sun - the brightest star in the sky and the closest one to us. The
Sun is the source of warmth, light and life. That is the reason why the
ancient Latvian people turned attention to various aspects of the Sun, and
we find them represented in our national ornament. So we see how one small
sign can depict the order of the Universe.
THE SUN IN THE ORNAMENT
The most common sign of the Sun is a circle. However, very often it also
has a multangular shape. There are two main groups:
1) octagonal rosettes,
2) quadrangle signs.
The Sun Tree is also very closely linked to the more ancient signs of the
Sun. In Latvian decorative art it appears in many ways, which we can divide
into three groups:
1) a simple symbol of Tree without the Sun sign,
2) a combination of
the Tree with the sign of the Sun,
3) a very complicated composition,
when different signs of the Moon and the Sun are combined.
Each of them has their own story to tell.
THE CIRCULAR SUN
The central element among the solar symbols is the Sun. Its graphical
presentations can be very different. It is often shown as a circle or a
rhomb. There can also be a dot in the middle of the circle or the rhomb.
The symbols of the sun, the solar symbols, spread in Latvia in the late
Neolithic era, when they were seen carved on the objects made of horn and
bone. As we know, it is the time, when the main branches of the economy were
cattle breeding and cultivating of land, so the cycle of the Sun and the
Moon took a special place in the life of people. In the early iron epoch
these symbols became the main ornamental elements on bronze bracelets,
In the mid- and late Iron Age. The sign of the Sun is used as an
ornamental element on all sorts of decorative articles, which belong to the
The symbol of the Sun is also in the brooches of middle ages - in the
traditional form of a circle and in more complicated motives with triangles.
(Pict.8) Sometimes the Sun is combined with the signs of the Moon.
In the 18th - 20thcenturies the sign of the Sun is
a favourite component part of the geometrical ornament, which appears in all
regions of Latvia. Its abundance among other signs in the ornament is
surprisingly corresponding to the great variety of folk songs, describing
the Sun and its course over the Vault of Heaven.
In Latvian folk songs as a designation of the Sun the following symbols
are very often used:
1) the gold apple,
2) the gold pea,
3) the ball,
5) the gold acorn.
People have given many names to the ornamental Sun. In the 19th
century its was called:
1) the flower,
2) the star,
3) the wheel,
4) the spoke.
The course of the Sun over the sky, which is often described in the folk
songs, has got its main reflection in the Wheel of Sun. (Picture 9) Its
spokes are the symbolic images of rays starting out from the centre of the
circle. The small angular Sun sign in the middle of the circle reminds of
the nave of a wheel.
The Wheel of Sun is modified into a rosette, which is associated with a
flower and is named "the ornament of roses". In the woven cloths the
flower-type Sun is very common. (Pict.10) In the ornaments of socks, mittens
and gloves different signs are used. The Sun sign takes the most significant
Very often it has other complementary signs:
the angular Sun,
the Sun Tree
the zalktis (the Snake).
The folk song says:
"Visapkārt sīki raksti,
"Tiny signs all around,
In the middle rolling
Ornaments of the Sun are the most important ornaments in the articles of
womens festivity costume - the blouse, the villaine (a woollen shawl of a
special type), the crown and the belt. It is also important in the ornaments
of gloves mittens and socks, (Pict.13-16) which are presented as gifts to
the bridegroom at the wedding. There the symbolic meaning of the Sun
presenting the positive energy of life very strongly manifests itself.
THE ANGULAR (DIAMOND-SHAPED) SUN.
A rhomb as an ornamental element spread in the territory of Latvia in the
middle of the Stone Age. In many variations it is used in the Neolithic
epoch on the articles of pottery. In the epoch of bronze "the pointed
rhombs" are used, i.e. the quadrangles, which are divided into four parts
with a dot in each of them. This sign is used in later epochs, and it forms
the basic type of the angular Sun. In the early Iron Age this sign is used
very rarely. Sometimes it appears in the brooches sakta, the decorations
of bracelets and also multicolour brooches. In the middle of the iron epoch
it is used on the so-called decorative pins, brooches and quite seldom in
In the late iron epoch the motives of the rhomb are used on the objects
made of metal, in the textiles and, especially in Kurzeme, - on the
bracelets and brooches. A rhomb is often made from two other signs, for
example, the sign of Dievs (God) of two separate zigzag elements. (Pict.35)
There are one or four circles in the middle of rombs.
A rhomb as an ornamental element is also used in 17th and
18th centuries for decorating circular silver brooches
In the 19th century the angular sun is called:
1) the garden,
2) the table,
3) the floor,
4) the oak,
In the ethnographic ornament all the types of the angular Sun are used
and are formed in very many new ways from the simple rhomb to the
many-faceted quadrangle motives. In Latvian art the angle of the sign is
usually 900 (straight). Very often there is a dot or a small
circle in the middle of the angular Sun. It is an ancient symbol of a field
just sown. One of the similarities with the circular Sun is that, they both
are united with many other signs. But other signs (as the Sun Tree, the Moon
and the Swastika) are made more complicated by introducing the circular Sun
in the ornamental compositions. (Pict.17-18)
One of the ways of angular Sun is also the double Cross or the cross
The motive of the angular Sun, which has been formed from five
quadrangles, arranged in the form of a cross is very often used. The central
quadrangle is usually bigger. The other four are placed at the corners of
the bigger one.
In the beliefs of ancient Latvians the symbolic meaning of this sign could be close to that of the magic cross
lietuvēna krusts. The angular Sun is used as an important element in the
ornament of blankets, linen cloths, gloves, even architecture.
In the ethnographic material the rhombic Sun is widespread in all regions
THE SUN TREE
The Sun Tree is used in the ornament of many nations in the world. This
ornamental sign reminds of a plant, the branches of which begin in the
centre and stretch out to the top and to the sides. In literary sources the
name of the Sun Tree (most often as the Tree of Life) is very popular.
In the archaeological material the Sun Tree has almost not been found.
Very simple motives, where we can see the first examples of the Sun Tree are
found on the articles of ceramics of the late
Neolithic era and in the art of the iron epoch. These examples show us the
beginning of the Sun Tree in the zigzag motives of different type the
skujiņa (a fir-tree twig), the Roof and the Moon. (Pict. 22-24)
The Sun Tree has reached the culmination of its development in the first
half of 18th and 19th centuries in the decorations of
the Latvian national costumes. It has especially complicated and decorative
form in the ornament of national costumes in the eastern part of Latvia.
(Pict.25-26.) There is the diamond-shaped Sun in the middle or on the top of
the Sun Tree and that shows its relevance to other solar symbols.
As one of the versions of the Sun Tree we can distinguish also the
so-called Laimas Broom, (Pict.27) which reminds of the evergreen fir-tree
and its needles.
In the Latvian geometrical ornament only the solar symbols - the Sun, the
Moon and the Stars - make the Sun tree more complicated. A vase with
flowers, plants, birds and animals in the decor on cupboards and chests
appear later often as more recent variations of the Sun Tree.
THE ANCIENT CALENDAR
Every festivity in the life of the ancient Latvian people was connected
with the course of the Sun in the sky. When the Sun was in a certain
position, they celebrated their special
festivities. That is the reason why the greatest festivities are called
"grieži" (turning points), and are connected with the solstice. The
calendar was also composed according to the movement of the Sun.
Traditions of every festivity have been connected with obtaining energy
from the Sun, of stimulating fertility, protecting people, household and
home from all kind of evil spirits.
Latvian people know four main festivities, which are connected with the
position of the sun in the sky or the solstice: the winter solstice with the
shortest day and the longest night are, the spring solstice and the autumn
solstice, when the day is as long as the night and the summer solstice, when
we have the shortest night and the longest day.
You can see the annual circle of nature and farmers life in these
graphs. (Pict.28-29) And it is quite obvious that the circular (dynamic) and
quadrangular (static) shapes perfectly resemble the characteristic Sun
Every quarter, divided in two parts, coincides with important changes in
nature. So there are eight main events, which our ancestors celebrated and
some people still do.
Soon there will be one of these festivities Jāņi.
Visas puķes uzziedēja,
Tā ziedēja Jāņu
Zelta miglu miglodama.
All flowers blossomed out,
The fern did not blossom out;
It blossomed out at Jāņi night,
The summer solstice is the time, when we have the shortest night and the
longest day. This is the time when the Sun manifests itself in all its
As it is seen from the graph, the solar radiation in 1999 reaches its
yearly climax right in June. (Pict.30-32) One of the most distinguished
experts of Latvian folklore E.Melngailis once said: Janis is the moment
when the Sun has reached the highest point in the sky and it has been waited
for the whole year. The ornamental sign of Janis includes the symbol of
the Sun. (Pict.33-35)
However, we can point out the ambiguity of the moment which is related to
the name of Janis and its possible origins in Latvian culture: Janis is not
related to St. John from the New Testament, but is similar to the
double-faced Janus from the Roman mythology.
One of his faces is still
turned back to the withdrawing spring while the other is facing the
approaching autumn. This idea was expressed by our famous collector and
publisher of folk songs Krisjanis Barons.
The fern usually does not blossom out, but there is a belief that in the
night of Jāņi (June 23-24) it does. The flower of the fern is a symbol of
the light of the Sun. So the Sun as if does not stop shining in that night
as it does in other nights. Only those who succeed in finding the
fern blossom can experience real happiness. However, all have failed so far,
but it is most important not to stop trying.
At Jāņi night people always make a bonfire, which is also the symbol of
the warmth and light of the Sun. In this way the ancient Latvians
thanked the Sun for its care and generosity. So Jani is the time when people
as if establish direct contact with the energy coming from the Universe and
become aware of the secret rhythm of nature.
The Sun Tree is only one of the graphic symbols denoting this
interrelation, no matter if it represents the fern, the oak-tree or the Tall
This picture is a vivid example of how the signs of the ornament have
been connected with the celestial bodies and constellations.
THE SUN THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE
It seems to be worthwhile to consider the ornament signs in connection
with a linguistic aspect as regards the word saule the Sun in the Latvian
Vaira Vīķe Freiberga (Pict.38-39) has discussed this problem in
much detail in her book The Cosmological Sun.
In a surprisingly concise form only by adding prefixes to the word
saule (the Sun) it has been possible to construct a model of the Universe.
There are two ways how to show the model of the Universe: the vertical
and the horizontal.
Tiny ornaments all around,
In the middle passed the Sun.
Judging from these words the Sun is in the centre of everything. The
world (pasaule) the place where we are living under the Sun, but
beyond the Sun (aizsaule or
viņsaule) the place where dead souls and the God are living
the other side of the Sun.
An interesting fact beyond the Sun can be under the Sun and also
above the Sun. So this world and that world are closely
Noiet saule vakarā, zeltābolu mētādama;
No rītiņa uzlēkdama, sijā
The Sun sets in the evening, tossing a gold apple;
the morning rising, pours clean silver.
Šī saulīte man zināma
This world is known to
That world is unknown.
It must be mentioned that Latvian fairy tales give a perfect example of
the specific interpretation of the cosmological structure. The traditional
Latvian folktale motive refers to an orphan girl, who accidentally drops her
spindle into the well and her cruel stepmother makes her jump into the well
to find it. (Pict.41-42)
The orphan girl all in tears hurried to the well and in she jumped. But
what a miraculous sight! AS she had jumped in she found herself in a green
meadow with sheep grazing and a shepherd looking after them.
Sometimes the framework of a well is presented by the sign of well
(Pict.43). What you actually see is a modification of the diamond-shaped
sign of the Sun.
What is most surprising the relativity of where that world can be found
is connected with the peoples moral standards. It depends on everyones own
choice and conscience whether they get into the Hell or into the Heaven.
Most important is that this centuries old heritage is a live source of
inspiration and creative interpretation for many modern artists. The Sun
sign in most diverse images is used in connection with nation- wide events
like Folk festivals and Song and Dance festivals. (Pict.44-45) Some of the
artists may show the ancient signs and images in a new light and from a
different point of view. (Pict.46)
A long time had passed before we developed our written language. Now we
can write about everything we want. Everyone will understand
Not many of
us can read ornamental language, but it also tells us about how the ancient
people lived, what their perception of life, nature and the Universe was.
Ornamental signs were used not only as the décor, it was a way of
communication. Now we look upon it only as a décor. But we should not forget
the specific language of the ancient people, as it is a way to get more
information about them.
If we learn to read these old signs we can discover similar thoughts, the
same festivities, forgotten traditions and feelings. Only folk songs,
fairy-tales and ornamental signs can lead us to the mysterious world of the
past, or maybe the present and the future.