The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 is only days away, and many of us are buzzing with excitement as this event will mark the first time in this century that a total solar eclipse will cross the contiguous (48) United States. People will be flocking to locations along the “path of totality” to get a better look; they’ll be witnessing the Moon completely block out the Sun’s rays. It’s a time for festivals and celebrations.
But it’s worth remembering that this type of astronomical event wasn’t always greeted with excitement, interest, and joyful anticipation. In our technological age, relatively rare occurrences like total solar eclipses are well understood by scientists, and thanks to the news and internet, we know eclipses are coming well in advance; information about what they are and what to expect are readily available, and so we look forward to them. But in the days when life was harder and accurate information scarcer, eclipses were often seen as a mysterious and unwelcome disruption of the natural order.
Counting on the Sun and Moon
Man has always looked to the heavens, particularly to the Sun and Moon, to mark the passage of time, and provide social stability; daily and seasonal cycles have always been very important to agriculture-based societies. So what happens when the regular, predictable pattern of day and night, and light and dark that we all depend on, is unexpectedly disrupted?
Imagine yourself as a simple farmer in ancient times, out working in the fields, and suddenly, without warning, it begins to grow eerily dark, with the Sun still high in the sky. You glance upward to see what looks like a “bite” being taken out of the Sun. Sometimes the “bite” becomes larger and larger until the Sun seems to disappear altogether, leaving only a ghostly halo. It grows so dark that you begin to see the stars twinkling in the sky as if it were night. Pretty frightening, right?
It’s understandable, then, that solar eclipses were met with anxiety and dread. And it’s no surprise that folklore, myths, and legends about our most prominent celestial neighbors abound in many cultures around the globe.
Taking A Bite Out Of The Sun?
Most cultures viewed a solar eclipse as some mythic creature devouring the daytime Sun. In ancient China, it was a celestial dragon, and in southeast Asia, they imagined it to be a giant turtle, frog, or toad.
In Korea, it was thought that fire dogs were trying to steal the Sun or Moon, and when they bit it, an eclipse resulted. For the Vikings it was a hungry wolf named Sköll (whose name means “Treachery”) that raced across the sky, hunting down and eating the Sun. Even to cultures like Greece and Rome, which had enough mathematical and observational knowledge to be able to predict eclipses, they were often viewed as bad omens, portents of evil, and astrological events to be feared.
In Hindu mythology, it was believed that the demon Rahu stole an elixir of immortality, called amrita, but was beheaded by the god Vishnu before he could fully swallow it. Consequently, the demon’s severed head, forever alive, floats around and occasionally devours the Sun. To this day, in India, people make noise by banging pots and pans and setting off fireworks during a solar eclipse to scare Rahu away and make him cough up the Sun.
A northwestern Native American tribe has a legend that a solar eclipse is the result of a quarrel between a great bear and the Sun, ending with the bear taking a huge bite out of it. In fact, the tribe’s name for a solar eclipse translates to Sun got bit by a bear.
Emperors, Kings, and rulers throughout history have been particularly nervous about eclipses. Their court astrologers interpreted them as bad omens that the monarch’s power was in danger. In ancient Babylon, there was the practice of hiring “stand-in” kings to sit on the throne during an eclipse, so any harm would come to them rather than the real king.
In 1133 King Henry I died shortly after a solar eclipse, and some in his court had, in fact, assumed that it was tied to the astronomical event.
Not all of the tales associated with eclipses are negative. One surrounds Herodotus, an ancient Greek scholar, and a battle in the 6th Century B.C. between the Medes and the Lydians, which was raging until a solar eclipse began. It is said the soldiers threw down their arms and stopped fighting, believing that the gods disapproved of the war.
And in Italy, it is believed that if you plant flowers during a total eclipse, they will bloom with more vibrant colors than those planted at any other time.
To this day, superstitions persist about eclipses. Many cultures still believe that eclipses are evil omens that bring death and destruction. One of the most pervasive is that eclipses are dangerous to young children and pregnant women. Many, even in our modern times, won’t venture outside during a solar eclipse because of the belief that they will be harmed.
In India, food prepared prior to a solar eclipse is routinely thrown out, believing that the eclipse has somehow contaminated it and made it unsafe to eat.
Fortunately, most of us know that what will be occurring on August 21st is nothing to fear, and we will enjoy the solar eclipse for what it is — a rare and beautiful celestial event.
Are there any myths or superstitions you’ve heard surrounding eclipses? Share them with us in the comments below.