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I heard the expression in the title once around 10 years ago, when my English teacher defined it to mean "people who worship wealth, success, and the like". I haven't heard anyone else use it anywhere else. And I can't find this anywhere on the Web today.

I wonder if my memory of the expression is wrong or I was taught wrongly. Can you throw more light on this expression and its usage, if any?

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Apparently, in Roman times, there was Emperor worship, and this Emperor worship was based on Sun worship. The Sun was viewed as a very powerful deity, and they made the Roman emperor its equivalent, thus "worshipping the son" –  Thursagen Jun 16 '11 at 12:20
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@Ham and Bacon: aren't you conflating Emperor worship with Mithraism here? –  user1579 Jun 20 '11 at 14:47
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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Using Ngram I did find several instances of this phrase used in such a way. Here is one example:

But Louis XIV. still lives, recovers from his lengthened swoon and inquires for Madame de Maintenon, for whom a courier is instantly despatched. The news, the unwelcome news, swiftly reaches the Palais Royal. Immediately the worshippers of the rising sun fly back to pay homage to the setting luminary; whom, in their precipitancy, when but obscured by a passing cloud, they believed already sunk below the horizon.

The Old Régime: Courts, Salons, and Theatres, Volume 1, Lady Catherine Charlotte Jackson, 1880

It seemed to be used most often in a political context to refer, I think, to those eager to seek favor from any new person in power.

Originally, Worshippers of the Rising Sun appears to refer to a Hindu sect and there may be a story there that led to this use of the phrase. I'll keep working on it. Great question.

Edit:

I found a definition that confirms my guess, but still no background:

Idiom: Worshipping the rising sun

Meaning: To be with the successful.

Idiom: To worship the rising sun

Meaning: To respect a man who is coming in power

TargetStudy.com

This reference is from an Indian higher education website, however, so I still suspect there is a story behind the phrase involving Hinduism.

Edit 6/16/11

As @Alain points out in his comment, my example reference above is not the best because Louis XIV came to be known as "The Sun King." See @Tragicomic's answer for uses of the phrase in other contexts.

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Oh,that explains it. Many thanks for the references! –  PKG Apr 3 '11 at 6:40
    
It seems to me like a relatively transparent metaphorical phrase that could even have been coined more than once. It probably gains some traction from 'accidental' connotations with Japan (as a rising economy/world power), but I stand to be surprised if there's anything much deeper than that. –  FumbleFingers Jun 16 '11 at 3:44
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@Callitumpian, In this occurrence the phrase "worshippers of the rising sun" is a clear reference to the symbolic of the sun to which Louis XIV had always been associated. This is confirmed by the rest of the excerpt: "setting luminary" and "when but obscured by a passing cloud, they believed already sunk below the horizon". In his youth, Louis XIV wanted to be called a new Apollo and suggested to he be called the "Roi Soleil". There is I believe no real link with the meaning suggested by the OP. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 16 '11 at 5:26
    
@Alain: I wondered about this myself, aware of "Roi Soleil," but I'm convinced the author here is cleverly using an already existent phrase to add to the sun imagery in the passage. This refined Google Books search shows the many other contexts the phrase has been used. –  Callithumpian Jun 16 '11 at 11:23
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@Callithumpian - down-vote cancelled. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 16 '11 at 11:56
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As a native Hindi speaker, and looking at the possible context where the OP might have heard this, this might be a literal translation of a Hindi proverb(Duniya hamesha ugte suraj ko namaskar karti hai dubte ko nahi- Literally meaning that the world worships the rising sun, not the setting one), which uses the same idiom for a person on the ascendancy, albeit in a cynical context.

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Very interesting. In my search I found references to a Hindu sect named the Worshippers of the Rising Sun (see the link in my answer). Would you have any further information on this? Could the name be related to the proverb? –  Callithumpian Jun 16 '11 at 11:54
    
You may be onto something here. The British could very well have come into contact with this saying during their occupation of India enough so that some folks may have co-opeted it. So it could be a bit of a regionalism. I've never heard the saying myself here in the USA (although TragicComic did dig up a NYT use from over a hundred years ago). I note that the OQ who said he got this from his English teacher has a rather Indian looking name. –  T.E.D. Jun 16 '11 at 14:41
    
While I was hoping the bounty might lead to a more definitive answer, your answer seems to have moved the momentum in the right direction. If you have the time or inclination, I'd love to learn more about this proverb and its history (with some references). –  Callithumpian Jun 22 '11 at 2:37
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@Callithumpian: There's no particular Hindu sect named the Worshippers of the Rising Sun (at least as far as I am aware) — the book result you found is some "theoretical" classification. It's just that offering daily prayers at sunrise (to the sun, among other divinities/luminaries) is one of the daily rituals in (much of) Hinduism. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 10 '11 at 6:17
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"To worship the rising sun" seems to mean that people surround and support those whose fortunes are on the way up.

Here's an excerpt from King Solomon's Mines:

And the people being fickle, and ever ready to worship the rising sun, clapped their hands and cried, 'Twala is king! Now we know that Twala is king!'

This makes the meaning pretty clear, calling the people fickle for switching their loyalties over to "the rising sun".

Here's another from a deliciously quaint gazette way back in 1824: The Telescope

Where are they, when the taint of worldly dishonour has fallen on our heads, and shame, whether deserved or not, has pointed us out for mockery? They have gone to worship the rising sun, and left, perhaps, their former benefactor to pine in gloomy solitude over their ingratitude . . ."

And an excerpt from an article in the New York Times in 1885:

However, the disposition of the party to worship the rising sun is shown in the fact that on Thursday the Democrats in the Senate declined to vote for the resolution saying that the appointment of Mr. McDonald in the Cabinet would be satisfactory to the Indiana Democracy.

The usage of this idiom seems to be mostly outdated, except in Indian English.

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Nice examples. I came to the same conclusion in my answer. Any leads as to its origin? Why is it still used in India? Is there a Hindu connection? I started the bounty to get at some of these questions. –  Callithumpian Jun 16 '11 at 11:42
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@Callithumpian: I know there is a Hindu connection. One of its many rituals includes worshipping the sun god. My very religious Hindu grandfather used to do the sūrya namaskāra each morning at dawn. (The sūrya namaskāra is a yogic ritual to pray to the rising sun.) If you're interested, you could search Google images for "sun worship Varanasi". –  Tragicomic Jun 16 '11 at 12:17
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@Callithumpian: However, I do not know if this is where the phrase originated. (Its usage in the West suggests it could have come from another pantheistic religion.) As @Vaibhav Garg suggests, similar usage of this idiom exists in Hindi too. I am not sure whether English and Hindi developed the idiom independently or were affected by each other. (The British were in India for 200 years, so it could be either way.) But this could certainly be a reason that the usage persists in Indian English. –  Tragicomic Jun 16 '11 at 14:18
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I have observed that some of the English users in India make literal translations of the idiomatic expressions in their native languages to English. I also confirm that the OQ has a decidedly north-Indian name, which is a Hindi speaking region in India. There might be a connection here. –  Vaibhav Garg Jun 17 '11 at 3:36
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Mithras was worshiped as a primary deity during the Roman Republic and much of the Roman Empire, particularly in Byzantium.

There are possibly Hindu and Vedic origins for Mithras as a sun god as well. From an unspecified Vedic hymn 1

...he [Mithras] is invoked with Ormazd, or Ahuramazda, the god of the sky, and is clearly a divinity of light, the protector of truth and the enemy of error and falsehood.

This is a more specific reference 2

In Vedic hymns (Rigveda, III, 59), he [Mithras] is frequently mentioned and is nearly always coupled with Varuna, but beyond the bare occurrence of his name, little is known of him.

The Avesta was more specific than the Vedas, probably because the role of Mithras was more significant in the former. The Avesta is a religious text that is also associated with the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia. It featured Ormazd as a major deity 1

His worship spread with the empire of the Persians... their belief that the legitimate sovereign reigned by the grace of Ormazd, whose favour was made manifest by the sending of the Hvareno, a celestial aureole of fire, resulted in the doctrine that the Sun was the giver of the Hvareno. Mithras, identified with Sol Invictus at Rome, thus became the giver of authority and victory to the Imperial House... the Sun was the most important of deities; and it was the Sun with whom Mithras was identified.

Summary

Mithras probably originated in India. The belief spread, and expanded in scope, to nearby Persia. It continued westward over a period of many centuries, eventually making its way to ancient Rome, and lands that were part of the Roman Empire. This included Germany, and of course Britain. The religion declined in adherents very quickly as of 300 A.D. The historical record has remained intact though e.g. sculptures of Mithras as a sun deity survive through the present day in Rome, on the Capitoline Hill.

This was my rationale for conjecturing that Mithraism could be an antecedent for the expression "worshipers of the rising sun", and maybe for the association with worldly success.

1 Mithras: 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

2 Arendzen, J. Mithraism in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. From New Advent.

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It's possible your English teacher was confusing "sun" with "son": a "rising son" is a young man who is on his way up in the world.

"Rising sun" on the other hand, refers to morning, and is usually used to refer to Japan (日本 nippon meaning "sun origin") whose term for "rising sun" is kyokujitsu (旭日) and who, during World War II, used the following image, kyokujitsu-ki (旭日旗 ) as their battle standard.

enter image description here

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Two brothers decide to start a cattle ranch together; their preparations and business arrangements are coming along smoothly, but one thing stands in their way: they absolutely cannot agree on a name for their joint venture. After months of wrangling, they finally decide to ask their mother, and after a moment she says "Call it Focus Ranch." "Focus?" they ask. "Why 'Focus'?" She replies "Focus: where the sons raise meat." –  MT_Head Jun 16 '11 at 2:50
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@MT_Head: I like your parabolic story. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 10 '11 at 6:20
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There is a house in New Orleans . . . ♬ –  tchrist Aug 16 '12 at 2:43
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FWIW, heliolatry, and rarely, heliotheism or solarism, are words used to describe the religion, belief, and/or practice of Sun worship. It then follows that a heliolater would be a sun-worshipper. A rising-sun-worshipper would presumably also be included :)

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