III - The Sun-Tree

Looking at the image of the Sun in the Baltic and Latvian tradition, I encountered the description of the Sun-Tree, 'Austras Koks'. Due to particular historical circumstances—i.e., the history of domination of the country which led to the formation of the Latvian nation during the first half of the 19th century—the distinction between what was properly Latvian1 and what belonged to a shared Baltic tradition has not been easy to make.2 Indeed, ancient Latvians have left no written records of an explicit theory of their mythological world structure.3 Mythological space in Latvian tradition has been recently reconstructed by scholars from different disciplines such as history, folkloristics, linguistics and study of religion through the analysis of two groups of sources: historical records and folklore material including fairy tales and the dainas, an ancient form of poetry transmitted orally through songs.4 The description of mythological images varies according to different sources. The following description is an extrapolation from what I have collected so far.


The Sun-Tree, or the Tree of Dawn, is a symbolic figure supposed to have originated in the wake of the Sun's path. It is in particular the setting or rising of the sun that is connected to the appearance of this image. According to different scholars, the image of the Sun-Tree represents a derivation of the image of the World Tree, a mythical projection of the Milky Way, or a representation of the mythological image of the axis mundi: the universal pillar deemed to connect or support three cosmic levels, with a base fixed in the underworld.5 The Tree is thought to grow—or appear—at the side of the sun’s path or at the side of the sea’s path, connecting this world (called in Latvian Pasaule, which means under this sun) to the other world (Viņsaule, or the other sun).6 The movement of the Sun was deemed to generate a path of connection between the different levels of existence. In her disappearance at night,7 the Sun was thought to be carrying along to the other world the souls of those who have died before sunset. The Tree itself represented, with its very appearance, the multiple worlds. In particular, its roots would grow in the underworld, the place the Sun reaches at night. In the same way, the branches of the Tree would connect this world to the celestial world of the deities. Probably an oak originally, a frequent representation of this image shows the Tree as a birch with three types of leaves or three branches. Upon these the Sun, the stars or deities rest or act.8 As a representation of the ephemeral, or something not fully belonging to this dimension, the Tree of Dawn is described as unreachable, appearing and disappearing in the same place: “I walked in the forest for two days, I saw nothing; When I went on the third day, I saw a golden oak”.9


The Tree bears properties of the Sun—her splendor, shining feature—in whose path it is deemed to appear, and the possibility of connecting different levels of reality. Looking at these qualities, I could identify similarities to my understanding of radioactivity. I could relate the different levels of existence as symbolized by the Tree with different properties/implications of radioactive energy and contamination: in particular, the connection with the world of the deceased that the Sun would reach at nightthus allowing the appearance of the Treewould remind me of the consequences of radioactive exposure as a way of reaching a further dimension of existence. Furthermore, in the symbology of the celestial world of the deities I could read a different way of understanding matter: prerogative to the development of the atomic bomb was the discovery of quantum physics, a completely new perspective on understanding the physical world.

The Tree is characterized by being invisible, and by the possibility of shining/emanating light. Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by physicist Henri Becquerel, who was studying fluorescence and phosphorescence in minerals. During his research, Becquerel assumed that uranium had the property to absorb sunlight and then emit it thereafter. While he was experimenting with photographic plates a famous accident occurred: due to overcast weather, he had stored uranyl sulfates together with photographic plates in a drawer for several days without being able to expose them. Somehow, he later decided to develop the plates, only to find that the mineral was able to emit radiation without the need to be previously exposed to sunlight.

Image: drawing of a variant of the symbol of Austras Koks.

The numbers in the tree refer to the corresponding Dainas, as listed in the online collection http://dainuskapis.lv/