Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities

The Okunev people have been the subject of many studies, both with their origins and the interesting abstract drawings they left behind. In the geography they spread, the solar-headed petroglyphs carved on steles and rocks are one of the oldest mythological archetypes related to the Sun. There is no definite data yet that these petroglyphs symbolize a sun god or a shaman. However, similar drawings often appear as sun gods in paintings dealing with both Asian and European mythologies.

Okunev Culture and the Origin of the Okunev People

The Okunev culture, one of the Bronze Age archaeological cultures in Southern Siberia, developed in the area around Khakassia and Minusinsk, which are part of the Russian Federation.

According to current archaeological findings, the origin of the Okunev culture dates back to the second half of the 3rd millennium BC. Genetic analyzes and haplogroup data have proven that the Okunev people are largely composed of an indigenous Siberian population.1 Moreover, anthropometric data show that most of the Okunev people had Mongoloid features.2

But where was the former home of the Okunev people? Many studies indicate that this indigenous group came from the northern taiga, expelled the Indo-Europeans from the region and settled around Khakassia. Palaeogenetic studies revealed that Y chromosomal haplogroup Q1a was dominant in the Okunev population. This suggests that the Upper Paleolithic Siberian ancestry of Native Americans is likely to have shared ancestry with the Okunev people.3

The Okunev people made their living mainly by hunting and lake fishing. It is known that they are also interested in metallurgy. They left behind steles and monumental stone sculptures filled with artistically interesting figures. Spirit-like abstract drawings, shamanistic symbols, fantastic creatures, cosmological signs, and anthropomorphic deities are the most common figures in the art of the Okunev.

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities
A stele from the Okunev culture. It is thought that the drawing on the stele is a kind of Sun goddess.

Solar-headed zoomorphic or anthropomorphic petroglyphs have also been found outside the Okunev cultural geography and in later times. The Saymaluu-Tash petroglyphs in Kyrgyzstan and the Tamgaly petroglyphs in Kazakhstan are among the best-known examples.

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities
Anthropomorphic Figures in Tamgaly
? Tokatosha ©CC BY-SA 4.0

Sun Gods and Goddesses

The sun was of vital importance to ancient societies, as it is undoubtedly now. The people, who arranged almost all of their daily division of labor according to daylight and the Sun, found different ways of being grateful to it. Many communities deified the Sun, which provided them with light and heat energy, and found ways to give thanks by worshiping it. The situation was not different in the societies that dominated the Okunev cultural geography and the Eurasian steppes. Doğan Avcıoğlu wrote that the Xiongnu emperors used to come out of their tents called otağ, and worship the Sun every morning.4

Turkic Mythology

The Sun, which is usually loaded with feminine features such as life, health or abundance, is personified with Gün Ana and Kuyaş in the Turkic pantheon.

Gün Ana is a kind of sun goddess in Turkic mythology. She symbolizes the feminine aspect of the sun. It is believed that she lives on the seventh floor of the sky.

The other deity associated with the Sun in Turkic mythology is Kuyaş. He symbolizes the masculine aspect of the Sun. He is the son of the creator god Kayra Han and brother of Ülgen. Ülgen is also often depicted with the Sun and light. According to Altai shaman legends, the god who taught people how to make fire is Ülgen. The phrase “creator of the Sun” is often used for Ülgen in shamanic prayers.5

Baltic and Slavic Mythology

The god associated with the Sun, warmth and fertility in Slavic mythology is Dazhbog. He is one of the major gods in Slavic myths. He is usually depicted with a shining Sun behind his head.

Saulė, the sun goddess in Baltic mythology, is also depicted with a shining Sun on the back of her head. Saulė’s husband is Mėnuo, the moon god.

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities
Saulė fresco by Latvian painter Janis Rozentāls, dated 1910.

Baltic pagans used to hold feasts and ceremonies in the name of the Goddess Saulė, every summer solstice. This tradition is tried to be kept alive by neopagans today.6

Germanic and Norse Mythology

In Germanic and Norse mythology, the Sun was personified as a goddess and named Sól, also known as Sunna/Sünna. Sól is also the brother of the moon god Máni. According to Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, Sól and Máni are Mundilfari’s children.

The murder of Sól by the giant wolf Fenrir is one of the events that will happen during Ragnarök.

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities
Máni, the moon god, and Sól, the sun goddess, drawn by Danish illustrator Lorenz Frølich.

The personification of the day in Norse mythology is Dagr. Dagr’s mother is Nótt, the personification of the night. According to the myths, Skinfaxi, which illuminates the earth with its mane, revolves around the Earth with Dagr’s chariot and creates the cycle of night and day.

Greek and Roman Mythology

In Greek mythology, the Sun is personified with Helios. Like Dagr in Norse mythology, he is depicted riding a chariot through the sky. His father is Hyperion. The giant statue erected in the name of Helios in Ancient Rhodes was destroyed during the earthquake in 226 BC.

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities
Helios, Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany

Another god associated with the Sun in ancient Greece is Apollo. Apart from the Sun, he is often associated with light, music, poetry, and fertility. The ancient Greeks named Mercury after Apollo.

How did They Get Their Name? Planets and Greco-Roman Gods

The equivalent of Helios and Apollo in Roman myths is Sol.

Finnish and Sámi Mythology

In Finnish mythology, the goddess associated with the Sun and the day is Paivätär. It is believed that Paivätär rules the light and weaves silver clothes.

The Sámi people (also known as Lapps), a people of Finno-Ugric origin and living in the north of Scandinavia, called the sun goddess as Beaivi. The sun is much more important to the Sámi people than to other communities. Because part of this region is located in the north of the Arctic Circle, some days in winter the Sun never rises. This makes the sun goddess more important. For this reason, reindeer used to be sacrificed to the Beaivi on certain days of the year.

It should be noted that Beaivi is described as a god in some myths. However, she is often depicted as a goddess.7

Okunev Petroglyphs and Eurasian Solar Deities
The Sámi shamanic drum. The cross/plus symbol in the middle of the drum symbolizes the Sun.

Áinu and Lugh in Irish mythology, Belenus and Grannus in Celtic mythology, Nap Király and Nap Anya in Hungarian mythology, Usil in Etruscan mythology, Amaterasu in Japanese mythology, Mithra in Persian mythology and Barbale in Georgian mythology are some other important deities associated with the Sun.

  1. New genetic evidence of affinities and discontinuities between bronze age Siberian populations“, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, September 2018, Volume 167, Issue 1[]
  2. Андрей Викторович ГРОМОВ – Происхождение и связи населения окуневской культуры[]
  3. The Origin of the Okunev Population, Southern Siberia: The Evidence of Physical Anthropology and Genetics“, A. G. KOZINTSEV, Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia, 2020;48(4):135-145[]
  4. Doğan AVCIOĞLU, Türklerin Tarihi, ISBN: 9789754780208[]
  5. Abdülkadir İNAN, Eski Türk Dini Tarihi, Altınordu Yayınları, ISBN: ‎9786056600975[]
  6. “Of Gods and Holidays: The Baltic Heritage”, Jonas TRINKŪNAS (Editor), 1999, ISBN: 9789986476276[]
  7. Lite Om Samisk Förkristen Din[]