Unelanuhi: Cherokee Goddess of the Sun

My mother and I were discussing the topic of the perceived genders of the Great Luminaries last night. According to her, she has always seen the sun as feminine and the moon as masculine. “After all, he is the man in the moon, isn’t he?” she asked. However, this viewpoint is unusual in much of Western cosmology, despite the existence of Sun Goddesses from European traditions such as the Norse who saw the sun as the Goddess Sunna, from whose name we derive our word for the sun in English.

In the patriarchal classical world, solar energy was masculine while lunar energy is feminine. Due to Western culture’s inheritance from these patriarchal traditions, as a whole we have much the same mindset regarding the masculinity/femininity of the cosmic bodies. However, in many cultures worldwide, the roles were reversed. Sun Goddesses reign over the daylight hours, while moon gods watch over the night. The Cherokee Sun Goddess Unelanuhi is a wonderful example of this viewpoint. As I am one-sixteenth Cherokee, the legends of Unelanuhi especially interest me.

According to Cherokee legend, in the beginning Unelanuhi lived on the other side of the world. The animals of the world, tired of perpetual darkness, decided to come together to bring light to the world. The opossum tried to bring the sun to this side of the world, but burned off his tail. The vulture tried next, but ended up burning off the feathers on his claws. Finally, Grandmother Spider spun a web on which She traveled across the sky. She found Unelanuhi, roped Her into Her basket, and brought Her shining light to our world. However, the sun was too low in the sky, and the new heavenly light became a curse as people died left and right from the extreme heat. The animals came together and raised the sun up to Her present height in the sky.

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Another legend tells of her romance with a young man whom She met with once a month in the dark of night, but who refused to tell Her his name. In the dark, she dipped her hands in ashes and rubbed his face. When daylight came, her brother, the moon god, met her at breakfast with ash on his face. This is how the moon came to have its characteristic marks. Ashamed, he ran away as far in the sky as possible, but could not resist visiting his sister once a month in the new moon’s darkness.

The last legend I shall tell has many parallels to the Filianic faith, in which Unelanuhi is an aspect of Sai Raya. Unelanuhi had a Daughter who lived in the middle of the sky. Every day at noontime, Unelanuhi would join her daughter for dinner. Unelanuhi grew to resent the people who lived upon the Earth below, as every time they looked up at her they squinted their eyes and wrinkled their faces. She decided to kill the people with Her intense heat. The spirit people told their human kin that in order to survive they must kill the Sun. They transformed two people into a copperhead and a spreading adder, who traveled to the heavens to await Unelanuhi by Her Daughter’s house. When the spreading adder was about the spring and attack, the bright light blinded him and he could only spit out yellow slime, as he continues to do to this day. The people went to the spirit people a second time, and this time they transformed two people into a rattlesnake and an Uktena (a fearsome horned serpent in Native American mythology). However, the rattlesnake was very quick and eager, and coiled up just outside the house. When the Daughter opened the door to look out for Her Mother, the rattlesnake ended up biting Her instead of the Sun, killing Her instantly.

When Unelanuhi found Her daughter dead at the doorstep, She went inside the house and refused to come out because of Her immense grief. The people did not die from heat anymore, but the world was plunged into darkness yet again. The spirit people told the humans that if they wanted the Sun to come out again, they must travel to Tsusginai, the ghost country, and retrieve Her Daughter from the dead. In the ghost country, they would find the ghosts dancing in a circle, and when they saw Her they must strike Her with rods and place Her inside a box to carry back home to Her Mother. Under no circumstances should they open the box before they reach the Daughter’s home. They did this as they were told, and when the Daughter awoke inside the box on their way back to Her home, She began to cry and plead with them to let Her out. She complained of hunger and thirst but the people would not let Her go. Finally She told the people that She was suffocating inside the box, and out of fear that She would die, the people lifted the lid to give Her a little air. She escaped from the box in the form of a red bird (some say a cardinal). When the Mother found out that Her daughter would never come back to Her, she wept so much that a flood washed over the entire Earth. Young men and women danced before the Sun and sang their best songs, but She could not be consoled. Finally, a drummer changed the song, and Unelanuhi lifted Her face, so pleased at the sight that She forgot Her grief and smiled.

Unelanuhi

Unelanuhi’s story shares characteristics with that of another Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Like Amaterasu, She hid away from the people and refused to come out. The story of Her tears of grief reflect another important myth reflected in cultures around the world, the Great Flood.

In the Filianic tradition, Unelanuhi represents Sai Raya, the solar aspect that is most close to Dea the Mother. Sai Raya is also my birth Janyati, which makes Her especially special to me. The Sun is the heart of our solar system, and on a microcosmic level, is the literal heart in our bodies and the hearth in ours homes. All things upon the Earth depend on the Sun’s warmth and light to grow, a very feminine outlook on the nature of solar energy. The Sun also helps us mark the passage of time. In Cherokee legend, Unelanuhi has a Daughter, which parallels to the Filianic tradition of the Daughter being a lunar reflection of the Mother, one that the people of Earth do not have to “squint their eyes at,” but rather can see more clearly.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Filianism, Goddess, Paganism

2 responses to “Unelanuhi: Cherokee Goddess of the Sun

  1. mya

    So happy to see a female aspect of the sun! Thank you for sharing!

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