Observations on Sun and Sea

The sun and ocean represent boundaries for humans and, indeed, most terrestrial creatures. These entities are immense and embody complicated systems that are challenging to comprehend and, at the same time, have significance on a local, intimate level. Unique to both is the difference between the local and global experience. This experiential dichotomy renders mystery and a multiplicity of meanings to these natural phenomena. The following observations, mostly about the imagining of the ocean and sun within myth, are meant to illustrate not only the difference in their perceptions, but also the commonalities that both confer mystery and benevolence.

That the sun and the ocean take form in myth is a common trope. The constancy of the ocean is of note, while the sun’s presence is both eternal and shifting. The sun god in Egyptian myth first existed within the ocean. Even in the book of Genesis, God creates the earth, formless,  but awash with water before he creates the light of the sun. God separates light and darkness, as the Greeks distinguish the human day (embodied in Apollo), the “Black Sun” (Dionysus) and the heavenly body of the sun (Helios). In all cases, the oceans are ever-present, a connective tissue from which form emerges. The sun, by contrast, gives that form meaning. Imagine the mermaid goddess known as Mami Wata, whose spiritual form can only be discerned when she emerges from the sea, basks in the sun and plays upon the rocks.

Mami Wata herself represents the quixotic relationship between humans and the ocean. A creature at once human, at once spirit, able to change form in order to lure and beguile humans, often through erotic encounters, is full of mystery. In some forms, the Mami Wata draws men into the ocean itself. Mami Wata, only suggests the network driven by ocean currents, in which she dwells. Her figure can be found throughout Africa, the Caribbean and India revealing the cultural connections between people and oceans. Mami Wata has become an amorphous figure, adopting features based on late 19th century German lithographs as well as the characteristics of an actually photographed woman, Maladmatjaute. Like the ocean itself, Mami Wata has evolved with transoceanic trade, imperialism and globalism. It is worth wondering if this polymorphism is similarly present in reference to the sun, or whether its manifestations remain static, an entity foreboding and uniform in providing light, heat and power. Ultimately, however, it should be understood that the experience of the ocean, as embodied in the figure of the mermaid Mami Wata, is one of mystery, transfiguration, and capriciousness, yet intimate. The ocean is something we can enter, but never truly be inside, see clearly or understand thoroughly.

A representation of the conjoining of the sun and ocean can be found in the landscape, where the horizon acts as a border between these two entities. Here, the sun is mirrored within the ocean, which imparts an imperfect copy of the original. This mirror was viewed as the means for humans to commune with Mami Wata, the “permeable threshold crossed by Mami Wata when she enters the bodies of her mediums…” (Drewal, 65). However, like the ocean itself, the reflections of Mami Wata are often flawed, or a “creative interpretation and re-presentation of the things they [worshippers] see and experience” (Drewal, 65). Both the perfect image created by the sun and its imprecise replication, created by the ocean, can meet within the landscape and be in dialogue with each other. Describing such a landscape as painted by JMW Turner, Ruskin describes the water’s ambiguity: “They [images reflected on the water] have all character and are evidently reflections of something definite and determined; but yet they are all uncertain and inexplicable; playing colour and palpitating shade, which, though we recognise in an instant for images of something… we cannot penetrate nor interpret: we are not allowed to go down to them…” (Ruskin, 354). Turner’s work provides an excellent canvas for the relationship between sun and ocean. His compositions that combine ocean and sky are lush with color and light, more than those where terrain alone is the singular subject. Particularly famous among Turner’s work are seascapes in which the ocean is in tumult, and sun and sky turbid. As interpreted by Turner, distant from land’s definition, ocean and sun converge, diminishing the concept that these two entities are separate and apart.

In the depictions of Turner, as well as those of the figure Mami Wata, is seen the relationship between the sun and the sea as one of mystery, inextricably tied to the sky, with a constancy for those who live and profit from their abundance. It is worth noting that the role of the ocean, like that of the sun, has changed drastically within the Anthropocene, as human involvement has changed climate in total. As nature became an abstract to be mastered (Chakrabarty, 208),# the ocean became a venue for conquering these undiscovered frontiers. However, the ocean itself still, to some degree, remains elusive: “Does not that very elemental character, the ocean’s inability to be categorized as place or space, its unboundedness, make it fundamentally incompatible with a range of importations from land-based thinking, among them dominion itself?” (Connery, 687). However, as the Anthropocene has progressed, even this notion has come under threat as the ocean is further explored and mapped to its depths. The sun, similarly, remains mysterious, with the possibility of it eventually becoming delineated and abstracted within the Anthropocene, as in the ocean’s case. However, the fluidity and turbulence of the ocean continues to be a source of imagination and creation.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 197–222. Web. 18 Dec. 2011.


Connery, Christopher. “Sea Power.” PMLA 125.3 (2010) 685-692.


Drewal, Henry John. Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas. Fowler Museum, 2008. Print.


McLean, Stuart. “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’.” Cultural Anthropology 24.2 (2009): 213–245. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.

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