The temple of Solomon was meant to be dedicated to Yahweh, the Jewish god, alone, yet many Bible verses speak of pagan altars and idols within the structure, including “chariots of the sun.” Sun horses and chariots have parallels in many cultures across the Old World and likely influenced those mentioned in the Bible. What were these “chariots to the sun” doing in perhaps the most famous temple to monotheism, and what do they reveal about the secret pagan origins of Judaism?
The supremely wise and wealthy Israelite king built Solomon’s Temple possibly the most famous structure in the ancient world, in the tenth century BCE. For four hundred years it stood in Jerusalem, before the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE. Dedicated to Yahweh, the monotheistic god of Israel, the temple, unlike any other in the ancient world, did not have an idol to worship. Based on YHVH, the four Hebrew consonants, or ‘tetragrammaton,’ revealed to Moses, ‘Yahweh,’ is usually presented as the name of the eternal and invisible sole god of the Jewish people.
However, just beneath this surface of orthodoxy lie many virtually pagan secrets of this famous temple. Challenging the idea that monotheism was distinct from its religious predecessors, or that is was created ex nihilo (out of nothing), are many seeming Biblical references to ‘idols’ within the temple of Solomon. These included pillars and altars to the Canaanite gods Asherah and Ba’al, soothsayers, astrologers, and prostitutes—all common elements of other temple cults. Solomon himself is famous for having hundreds of foreign wives, worshipping their own gods, and accumulating 4,000 chariots and 12,000 horses—all in apparent opposition to the Law of Moses. Perhaps the most interesting of the so-called “pagan idols” were the “chariots of the sun” (Hebrew: Merkabhoth ha-Shemesh).
The Israelite king Josiah, in a fit of religious revivalism centuries after Solomon, burned the chariots of the sun that had been in the temple: “He (Josiah) removed from the entrance to (Solomon’s) temple of the Lord the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun…Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun.” (2 Kings 23:11).
The fact that perhaps the best-known building in Western history, a structure devoted to Yahweh, apparently contained ‘heathen idols’ within it for centuries testifies primarily to the long process of evolution that monotheism underwent. It also hints at many ancient and essentially pagan secrets at the heart of Judaism. What were these “sun chariots” doing in the foremost temple of monotheism? It is important to ask this question because of the growing evidence that Solomon’s Temple was a historically real structure, not just a myth. In the Atlantis Rising (#81, May/June, 2010) article, “Archaeologist Backs Up Story of Solomon’s Templem,” Dr. Eilat Mazar reported finding stone fortifications at the foot of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount dating to the tenth century BCE, the time of King Solomon. These include a 230-foot stone wall up to 20 feet high.
The horse was first domesticated by nomadic groups on the Central Asian Steppe around 3500 BCE. They invented the bridle, bit, stirrup, and cavalry. By 2000 BCE the chariot first emerged in central Asia, and from there it radiated outward past 1800 BCE (during the contentious “Indo-Aryan” migrations), all the way to northwestern Europe. It was there, in Denmark during 1902, that the oldest-known depiction of a solar horse and chariot was found in a peat bog. This well-preserved, bronze-and-gold statue dates to 1600–1400 BCE and was produced by a Bronze Age nomadic culture that had descended from the older Asian Steppe horse cultures.
Once chariots had spread across the ancient world, they began to appear associated with sun worship. Among the first to make this connection were the Vedic-Aryans, who composed the Rig Veda text between—1800-1500 BCE. The Rig Veda referred to Surya, the Hindu sun god, driving a golden chariot pulled by seven horses: “Traversing the sky and wide mid-air, thou metest with thy beams our days, Sun, seeing all things that have birth. Seven Bay Steeds harnessed to thy car bear thee, O thou Far-seeing One, God, Surya, with the radiant hair. Surya hath yoked the pure bright Seven, the daughters of the car, with these, his own dear team, he goeth forth.” (Rig Veda 50:7-9)
In Mesopotamian cultures, the sun god was Utu in Sumer and Shamash in Babylon and Assyria. He was updated from a man “sawing” his way through the horizon with a jagged knife to flying across the sky in a “sun chariot,” similar to Surya’s. A piece of a model chariot with the image of Shamash has been recovered from Iraq dating to 2000–1600 BCE, and this could have been similar to Solomon’s sun chariots to Shamash. The Assyrians worshipped the god Ashur, who was depicted riding a winged sun and who was closely associated with Shamash. The Persian sun god Mithra likewise rode a sun chariot.
These traditions helped influence the hybrid Greek and Roman cultures, in which the sun god became Helios and Sol, respectively. Both of these sun gods (as well as Apollo) drove chariots pulled by fiery, shining horses—exactly like the more ancient Surya and Shamash. Helios, the Greek sun god, is referred to in the seventh century BCE “Homeric Hymn 31”: “(He) rides his chariot, shining upon men and deathless gods…bright rays dazzling from him…and stallions carry him…in his golden-yoked chariot and horses.” The Greek traveler Herodotus commented in the fifth century BCE that the Persians were known for performing rituals that saw the sacrifice of white horses before the sun.
In Egypt, we find explicit examples of a solar deity riding a chariot. For example, we read on the Victory Stele of Amenhotep III (father of Akhenaten) that Horus is “the Good God, Shining in the chariot, like the rising of the sun, great in strength, strong in might.” We know that Egypt maintained relations with Israel all during the time of the Temple of Solomon. The winged sun disk was the official royal emblem of Israel, and if linked Solomon and his descendants directly with the sun, a by-then common theme in the Mediterranean world.
The most likely candidate for Egyptian influence on Solomon’s sun chariots would have to be the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten. He was the first king to include sun chariots as part of his daily religious rituals in worshipping his sun god, the Aten. The king’s chariot was coated in electrum and shone brilliantly. He used to ride it many kilometers every day to worship the sun at Amarna, his city.
From a boundary stele found at Amarna, we read of the chariot of the king: “The Pharaoh appeared mounted on the great chariot of electrum, like Aten when he rises in the horizon…” (Later Proclamation). From an earlier temple of Akhenaten at Karnak, we read the following inscription adjacent to an image of the king in his chariot under the sun: “Appearance in glory, on his chariot, by His Majesty like the sun disk in the midst of heaven, brightening the Two Lands.”
We can see a great example of such a kingly Egyptian chariot coated in brilliant gold-silver electrum amongst the grave goods found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, the nephew of Akhenaten. This chariot looked exactly like the one Akhenaten would have driven each day at Amarna. Such metallic chariots were reserved for only the monarch and his family. The royal chariot of Tutankhamun from 1340 BCE would have been similar to the chariots of the sun of King Solomon.
Solar Religion in Ancient Israel
To better understand why there may have been horses and chariots dedicated to the sun in Solomon’s Temple, we must go back to Canaan from before the time of the Israelites. The ancient site of Beth Shemesh, mentioned in the Bible, means “House of the Sun.” It was named in the Egyptian Execration Texts from 2000–1800 BCE, indicating that a sun cult to the goddess Shemesh (the Canaanite version of the male Shamash) was functioning near Jerusalem almost a thousand years before David captured it for Israel.
Interestingly, Jerusalem—the home of Solomon’s Temple and capital of Israel—was dedicated to a sun god thousands of years before Solomon and the Israelites arrived: Shalem. The famous American archaeologist William F. Albright noted that Shalem was the Canaanite god of the setting sun, and he was often conflated with the similar sun gods Shemesh and Shamash. The Ugaritic texts from Syria mention his conception and birth: From kissing came conception, from embracing, impregnation…Both of them crouched and gave birth to Shahar and Shalem.” (KTU 1.23:43-48).
Indigenous Canaanite peoples ruled Jerusalem from as early as 4000 BCE, and cuneiform Mesopotamian records from 2400 BCE mention Uru-Salima, associating the site with the Mesopotamian solar god Salim, a forerunner of Shalem. Later, Egyptian Execration Texts called the place Ru-Shalem-em, while Abraham visited Melchizedek at Shalem in Genesis, and it is called Uru-Shalem in the Amarna Letters of 1350 BCE. When the Israelites eventually entered Canaan a century later, they carried with them a new law of Yahweh given to them by Moses.
In this law (the Torah), Moses commanded his people to abstain from worshipping any gods other than Yahweh, including the sun, lest they be stoned to death: “If a man or woman living among you…is found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky…take the man or woman…to your city gate and stone that person to death.” (Deuteronomy 17:2-5). However, most scholars date these proscriptions to centuries after the time of Moses.
The Jewish King David finally conquered Jerusalem, says the Bible, from the indigenous Jebusites and made it the new capital of Israel. His son Solomon built the temple to Yahweh, referring to his god in oddly solar language while lifting his hands towards the sun during the dedication ceremony: “Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud…. Then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayers and their pleas, and uphold their cause.” (Chronicles 6:1, 39).
The wise King Solomon finally built the temple for Yahweh on a threshing floor (an old solar cult center), outfitting the temple with exquisite riches and decorations of gold and embroidery. The temple faced east, and therefore greeted the sun every day when it rose above the city. Other religious structures at Arad and Beersheba have similar solar alignments, and an Israelite temple was just recently discovered at Tel Motza west of Jerusalem, which dates to 900–800 BCE and faces east. Jerusalem was likely chosen as the new capital of Israel specifically because of its ancient solar traditions, and David even named his sons Solomon and Absalom after the ancient sun god Shalem.
During these days in Israel, from the eleventh to fifth centuries BCE, we know solar horses were an artistic motif. We know this from several archaeological finds from the country. Numerous clay figurines have been found across Israel, including at Jerusalem, and while most are female fertility idols, some are of horses. A few even have an image of a sun disk associated with the head. One cult stand dates to the tenth century BCE, the time of Solomon, and clearly shows a horse under a sun.
Perhaps most interesting is how Yahweh was depicted on many synagogue floors throughout the Greco-Roman period, even up until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century CE. When these ancient mosaic floors were first uncovered, scholars were at a loss to explain their pagan nature. They depicted the twelve signs of the zodiac, and in the center were images of Yahweh as Helios, the sun god riding a four-horse chariot, or quadriga. Despite the resounding Biblical commandment not to make any graven images of Yahweh, here are blatantly pagan depictions of Yahweh in the form of the sun god, riding a chariot, exactly like Helios and Solomon’s sun chariots. Why was this transition so easy to make for the supposedly aniconic Jews of Israel?
Could it be because Yahweh had always been imagined as a solar deity? From the earliest days of Abraham and Shalem, to the solar face of Moses; to Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still and retiring to the “City of the Sun,” to Samson, the “Man of the Sun,” to Gideon defeating Shalem-unna; to the sun worship of Solomon’s Temple described by Ezekiel; to the many Biblical references describing Yahweh as the sun—all attest to the fact that for perhaps millennia, Yahweh was conceived of in terms of the sun and riding chariots: “His (Yahweh’s) splendour was like the sunrise, rays flashed from his hand.” (Habakkuk 3:4); “He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 104:3-4); “For the Lord God is a sun and a shield!” (Psalms 84:11).
Memories of these solar chariots appear further in the Greco-Roman period at Qumran, in the Apocryphal books of Enoch and Baruch, and onwards through the centuries in the Merkabah (“Chariot”) and Hekhalot (“Palaces”) mystic literature of late antiquity and Middle Ages (from which Kabbalah emerged). This ancient Jewish mysticism is believed to have originated under Ezekiel and his vision of the solar “chariot throne” of Yahweh, but it could also date to much earlier.
Chariots were an important part of life during early Israel, and they formed an integral religious component as well, always being associated with the sun and the king. Author Robert Feather has chronicled the importance of this secretive and “dangerous” Jewish chariot mysticism (rabbis still warn against its study); and he suggests that it was, and still is, considered so dangerous because it contains secret connections back to Amarna and the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, who likewise rode a brilliant solar chariot-throne.
When we examine the mysterious sun chariots of Solomon’s Temple, we can now place them in their proper context: a rich tapestry of different regional sun gods and their chariots—Shamash, Shalem, Surya, Ashur, Akhenaten, Helios, Sol, and even Yahweh. Examples range all the way from Bronze Age art in Scandinavian caves to the Indian sun temple at Kornak. They emerged past 2000 BCE amidst a complex cross-cultural milieu that linked horses and chariots with the sun.
These traditions survived as undercurrents in monotheism for millennia, and many still survive. The pagan name of “shemesh/shamash” is still used in several Jewish traditions related to helping, such as the Shamash Hanukkah candle and the synagogue caretaker. Shemesh is the Hebrew word for the sun. Solomon’s sun chariots help demonstrate how such elements not only helped form Judaism, but were retained in many cases, despite the best efforts of orthodox purists.
It is likely that Solomon and the Jewish kings were mirroring similar rituals from Assyria or Canaan, or earlier memories from Amarna in Egypt. Over a thousand years after the sun chariots were destroyed in a religious purge, Jewish people were still depicting these images on synagogue floors. And over a thousand years after that, Jewish religious students were still being warned of studying the dangerous “chariot mysticism.” Today, the sun chariots remain a poignant reminder that the evolution of monotheism was far from the orthodox picture so often portrayed. It was a century-spanning syncretism that retained many archaic secrets—and we have yet to discover them all.
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.