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Chinese Mythology: the Time of Ten Suns

Updated on February 5, 2017
Rubbing of a stone relief depicting Hou Yi taking aim.
Rubbing of a stone relief depicting Hou Yi taking aim. | Source

According to the legends of ancient China, there was a time when there was more than just our single sun to light the sky each morning. In fact, there were ten, each of which would take its turn to rise at dawn, and to set in the evening. Within each of these ten suns, it was possible to find one of the mystic jun-ravens — divine birds whose role it was to carry their sun through the sky.

These divine birds were the children of the ruler of the Heavens, Di Jun, and the goddess Xi He. Each morning, in the hours before dawn, the goddess would bathe one of her children in a stream before sending it on its way.

For many years, this process continued uninterrupted, and it seemed likely to continue for many more. Each down, one of the ten divine ravens would take to the sky carrying its sun while its siblings rested. There was no reason to believe that this would ever change.

One day, though, the people woke as normal, intent to go about their business on what must have seemed a perfectly ordinary day. Yet, an hour after the sun rose at dawn, the people were shocked to see a second light appear on the horizon, indicating the rising of a second sun. Two suns lit the sky now, and the people were left confused. Though, of course, they quickly realised that this was only the beginning. In another hour, a third light appeared as a third sun rose — a third jun-raven joining its siblings in the sky above. Then, a fourth rose soon after.

Throughout the day, this continued. A new sun rose each hour until, finally, the people found themselves struggling beneath the sweltering heat of all ten suns. The ten ravens shared the sky, unconcerned about the world below.

Yet, the worse was still to come, as the people soon discovered. As evening finally approached, the people looked up, hoping to see the ten suns finally set. Yet, they were dismayed to discover that the jun-ravens refused to do so. Throughout all that night and the next day, and the day after that, the ten suns remained in the sky, shining their light down on the world below.

Day after day, this continued. And, with each day, the situation only seemed to become more dire. Beneath that harsh glare, and the intense heat, crops died and rivers and streams dried up, and both human and animal were forced to cower in whatever shade they could find.

In desperation, Emperor Yao offered up prayers pleading for divine intervention. Di Jun heard these prayers, and saw the devastation being wrought upon the Earth by his children, and so he felt compelled to respond. Di Jun's answer came in the form of the divine archer Hou Yi who, armed with a bow given to him by Di Jun himself, descended from the Heavens and presented himself to the mortal Emperor, offering his aid and support.

Hou Yi had come to the mortal world hoping for a peaceful solution, but on seeing the devastation that had been wrought, he had begun to doubt whether that would actually be possible. Still, Hou Yi set out to confront the divine ravens. His attempts to speak to them were ignored, though, so Hou Yi fired off an arrow in warning, hoping to scare the ravens. But this, too, was ignored. In anger, Hou Yi took aim with another arrow, firing at the nearest of the ten suns. The arrow struck its target, and there was an explosion of black feathers as the raven fell. And, as it fell, the sun that it carried was extinguished.

Again and again, Hou Yi took aim and each arrow struck its mark with an accuracy that no mortal archer could hope to match. With each shot, there was an explosion of black feathers, as one sun after another was extinguished. And, as each raven fell to earth, the air grew cooler and the sky darkened. As each sun was extinguished, the desperate people began to emerge from their hiding places, offering up cheers of support for the divine archer.

Finally, as the ninth raven fell to earth, Hou Yi lowered his bow and watched as the last disappeared over the horizon, likely fleeing in fear for its own life.

From that point on, there was only ever that one lone sun to light the world each morning — its sibling having been shot down by Hou Yi. It was an act that earned him the gratitude of the mortal Emperor Yao, and made him a hero to humanity. Yet, regardless of the threat they posed, these divine ravens were still the children of Di Jun and Xi He. Hou Yi may have saved the mortal world, but he did so at the cost of making powerful enemies among the gods.

© 2016 Dallas Matier

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