creating community through celebration

The Sun Singer…..or somebody - May 2009

The legend was one that I first encountered in my student days back in the Midwest. It was circulated with great conviction among my peers and was embodied in a monumental sculpture: The Sun Singer. Here’s how the story went.

The Illini were a tribe that inhabited the Sangamon River valley. It seems that each summer the tribal shamans would select a young man to ritually enact the solstice by making the sun rise. This was accomplished by everyone trouping out to a sacred clearing in the predawn darkness. The celebrant would then face a precise point on the horizon and begin to chant a song. He would extend his arms slightly above his head and in seeming response to this invocation, the sun would obligingly spring up between his outstretched fingertips. Having sung up the sun, the tribe could then go about its daily life in peaceful synchronicity with the seasons. The modern embodiment of this custom is a large bronze male nude situated in the midst of Allerton Park, a large tract left by the eponymous donor to the University of Illinois. As it happened, the estate included the actual site where the Illini had practiced their solstice morning ritual, and that is where, some eighty years ago the monument was erected. The statue, called The Sun Singer , depicts a young man with his arms outstretched, clad only in a headdress of some sort. He appears to be singing. One foot rests on a turtle, the symbol of the earth in the Native American creation myth. Significantly, the statue is carefully oriented to the exact point on the horizon where the sun rises on solstice morning.

Each June, crowds gather at the base of the statue to recreate the ritual of the Sun Singer, and watch the golden orb of the sun leap into the heavens at the Singer’s behest. It is an inspiring legend.

And it’s nonsense. Almost all of it.

The true story of the statue has nothing to do with the Illini (although the estate is located on territory they once claimed) and it has little to do with the solstice. The figure is actually a fifteen-foot tall bronze art moderne depiction of the Greek god Apollo. The original was cast in 1928 by the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, but people found it disappointing, and so he whacked off the head and forearms for the version that he himself displayed. Robert Allerton liked the original though, and commissioned this replica.

The headdress could be mistaken for a primitive cloche with a feather sticking up, but it’s actually a Greek helmet. Classical convention dictates that the figure be posed with the weight shifted onto one leg, and so the other one would commonly be perched on a rock or something. Historians speculate that Milles put in the turtle just to cock a snook at his detractors. Oh, and the alignment with the sunrise stuff? Not really. The statue does face generally east, but you’d have to maneuver yourself into just the right spot to get the “singed fingers” angle.

So where did I get my charmingly phony story? I really thought it was true and have been telling it to people for years. Maybe I told it to you. I was certainly crestfallen when a little research revealed the fallacy of my “legend”.

After some reflection, I have come up with two thoughts about this.

The first is that my chagrin is misplaced. Rather than regretting a fabricated legend of several hundred years reputed duration, I should be marveling at the fact that there is a depiction of Apollo, charioteer of the sun, iconic statement of the polarity of classical thought, standing right there in the midst of the picnickers and wedding parties. This is a great legend that spans millennia, not centuries. In an age when we flew astronauts to the Moon, we still named the spacecraft that carried them after the god whose occupation was to drive the Sun from horizon to horizon on an unfailingly regular basis. My bronze figure should be viewed as a celebration of the tenacity of that metaphor, as evidence of the powerful hold that myth exerts on the human imagination.

And what about the yarn that my friends and I have been perpetuating? Viewed in a forgiving light, we simply did what “the folk” always do. We responded to a primal image by mapping onto it bits and pieces of other equally evocative bits of ritual, shaping and smoothing the emerging story as it was passed from hand to hand until it was formed into a thoroughly plausible “legend”.

True or false, it served us in the way that legends are supposed to: it explained in a lovely and metaphorical way something about the world we live in. And most importantly, The Sun Singer gave voice to that deepest and most human of emotions, a sense of wonder.

- David Parr, Artistic Director