At Litha, the summer solstice, the sun is at its highest point in the sky. Many ancient cultures marked this date as significant, and the concept of sun worship is one nearly as old as mankind itself. In societies that were primarily agricultural, and depended on the sun for life and sustenance, it is no surprise that the sun became deified. While many people today might take the day to grill out, go to the beach, or work on their tans, for our ancestors the summer solstice was a time of great spiritual import.
The Egyptian peoples honored Ra, the sun god. For people in ancient Egypt, the sun was a source of life. It was power and energy, light and warmth. It was what made the crops grow each season, so it is no surprise that the cult of Ra had immense power and was widespread. Ra was the ruler of the heavens. He was the god of the sun, the bringer of light, and patron to the pharaohs. According to legend, the sun travels the skies as Ra drives his chariot through the heavens. Although he originally was associated only with the midday sun, as time went by, Ra became connected to the sun's presence all day long.
The Greeks honored Helios, who was similar to Ra in his many aspects. Homer describes Helios as "giving light both to gods and men." The cult of Helios celebrated each year with an impressive ritual that involved a giant chariot pulled by horses off the end of a cliff and into the sea.
In Native American cultures, such as the Iroquois and Plains peoples, the sun was recognized as a life-giving force. Many Plains tribes still perform a Sun Dance each year, which is seen as a renewal of the bond man has with life, earth, and the growing season. In MesoAmerican cultures, the sun was associated with kingship, and many rulers claimed divine rights by way of their direct descendency from the sun.
As part of the cult of Mithra, early Persian societies celebrated the rising of the sun each day. The legend of Mithra may well have given birth to the Christian resurrection story. Honoring the sun was an integral part of ritual and ceremony in Mithraism, at least as far as scholars have been able to determine. One of the highest ranks one could achieve in a Mithraic temple was that of heliodromus, or sun-carrier.
Sun worship has also been found in Babylonian texts and in a number of Asian religious cults. Today, many Pagans honor the sun at Midsummer, and it continues to shine its fiery energy upon us, bringing light and warmth to the earth.