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Solar Eclipse: A Moment of Awe, Wonder, and Belief

A sculpture of the upper torso of a god in black stone. He holds two crecent moons, one in each hand..

The ravenous Hindu god Rahu Ketu before losing his head. Sculpture in the British Museum. Photo by Redtigerxyz, 2007 and shared in English Wikimedia with a Creative Commons license.

According to Hindu mythology, there is an unseen “planet” out there in the form of the head of a serpent god, Rahu Ketu. This god wanted to gobble up the sun.  To prevent this Vishnu cut off his head. The head, Rahu, and the body, Ketu, became two entities out there circling the Earth (in Earth-centered astrology). These are the deities of  eclipses and comets. Rahu is fixated on eating the sun and the moon, and will try to catch them and gobble them up. Fortunately he only succeeds once in a while. Since his head was cut off, the sun or moon just falls out the hole where his neck used to be. This is an eclipse. Ketu, on the other hand, sets stars in motion that then become comets.  The eclipses and comets have meanings as they go through the sky, as do all the other “wanderers” in the sky according to astrological systems. Eclipses and comets could have profound influences on ordinary people’s lives, as well as the fates of royalty and countries.[1]

Though very different, the Asian and European versions of Astrology are both related to East Indian Vedic astrology. In Europe, both comets and eclipses were seen as potentially disastrous signs for rulers and countries. They could also signal major upheavals such as pandemics or earthquakes. By the time these ideas were written down, the connection between the predictions and the Hindu story were no longer current, so the reason that comets and eclipses had similar meanings was no longer tied to the serpent god Rahu Ketu. In Chinese mythology, it is a dragon that devours the sun causing an eclipse. So that idea of a serpent in the sky was likely carried over from Vedic astrology, but the serpent never lost its head. There are many more magical beings that may be said to eat the sun and moon in various cultures. The lunar eclipse is caused by magical dogs that eat the moon in China, and magical dogs are also responsible for the solar eclipse in Korea. On the other side of the Eurasian continent, Vikings believed sky wolves ate the sun.

In other parts of the world different animals eat the sun at an eclipse. Among the Choctaw, for example, it is a black squirrel that eats away at the sun. Among the Cherokee it is a frog. In many places the traditional remedy is the same: people go out and make noise, such as shaking a rattle, or beating on drums, gongs, or pots and pans. This is intended to drive the bad spirit away and get the sun back again.  In the case of the Choctaw, the women and children make all the noise, while the men stand and observe the progress of their efforts.

These myths explained why the solar eclipse seemed unpredictable, and provided something to do about it. But not all cultures provided a way to protect the sun, and people need to protect themselves.  In some cultures all that can be done is to go and hide in house, place of worship, cellar, or cave to try to avoid the bad fortunes or ill health caused by the eclipse. Prayers or rituals might need to be performed.  Heads of state would need to do something to help avoid catastrophe. In China there were special rituals for the emperor to perform to protect his realm.[2]

Astrological systems required the measurement and prediction of the movements of heavenly bodies in order to make predictions. All astrology, with its careful records of such events, helped us on the way towards the science of astronomy. Eclipses, as well as comets, were unpredictable for the early observers, and, though there were efforts to predict them in ancient times, prediction was very difficult until the birth of modern science. The ancient records of eclipses, the earliest from Asia, are still valuable in helping to predict eclipses today.[3] But ancient peoples could not begin to predict eclipses until they understood what was actually happening. Vedic astrology had to add an invisible “planet” in order to explain what was happening.  Most ancient mythologies did not describe what was happening as an interaction of the sun and the moon. But a few did.

Interestingly, the myths I know of that explain eclipses in terms of the relationship of the sun and the moon are of peoples who had no strong interest in predicting them. Eclipses were just seen as an unpredictable part of the natural order of things. Some Native American stories explain that the moon is chasing the sun. According to some Inuit myths, the moon is the brother of the sun, and he is in love with her. In many mythological systems the taboos of humans do not apply to the gods. But in this case the sun does not want her brother for her lover. She runs away and he tries to catch her. He rarely does catch her, but when he does, she quickly escapes and runs again. This moment of eclipse when he captures her is a dangerous moment for humans, and so it is not good to observe an eclipse. There are peoples of Australia with a similar myth, also with a male moon and a female sun. The similarity is surprising because these peoples are so distant from each other.[4]  The Navajo also have a similar myth and see the interaction of the sun and moon as a sacred moment that is not for people to observe.[5] In their mythology the sun is male and the moon is female.

Ceiling mural showing many sequential views of an eclipse with the total eclipse in the center.

Oil painting “Solar Eclipse” by George Harding, 1938. Located on second floor rotunda ceiling, U.S. Custom House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.02659

In several Native American cultures the effects of the solar eclipse are considered especially dangerous for women who are carrying a child. A pregnant woman touched by the eclipse could have a child that is disabled, for example, or her health might suffer. Among Mexicans this idea has spread through the general culture, possibly complementing ideas about eclipses brought by the early Spanish settlers. So the Mexican American idea that the eclipse is dangerous to the unborn child is now becoming common in the United States. Even those expectant mothers who do not believe it strongly, may decide to stay indoors just in case, or in order not to worry their elders.

Clipping shows a drawing of a woman in a bonnet looking through a telescope and a diagram of the relationship of the sun and moon at an eclipse.

The Eclipse.” A clipping from an article explaining the coming solar eclipse of January 1, 1889 to non-scientists in The National Tribune, Washington DC, December 27, 1888, p 8. This article was widely distributed and can be found in several US newspapers of the time. The National tribune. Found in Chronicling America. 

Looking at North American and British newspapers of the late 18th and the 19th century it becomes clear that scientific reports of solar eclipses had to deal with beliefs in various ways. By the late 19th century and early 20th century the authors either disregarded belief and stuck to the science or mentioned past beliefs and dismissed them as backward.[6] But before that there were people looking seriously at some of the beliefs to sort out what was true and what wasn’t. The world wide ideas about eclipses being a time to get into shelter and avoid the sun probably come, in part, from observations about what animals did. For the common sense of ordinary people, if the animals are going into hiding, then they should too. But there are hints at other sources of the ideas of dangers. There was such a widespread idea that birds died during eclipses that scientists investigated it. They doubted that the idea was true, but knew so little about eclipses that they did not simply dismiss the idea. An early amateur experiment with captured wild birds found that three of them died.[7] That may have been caused by mishandling the birds, but that lead to scientists calling for reports of animal behavior at eclipses.[8]

Another possible source of beliefs about solar eclipses is that what happened at different events causing the sun to disappear and their consequences might have been confused in early histories. There are records of eclipses that lasted for days, for example, that must be exaggerations, or something else. A modern example of this occurred in Papua New Guinea in 1962. Anthropologists found that villagers they were working with were upset by news that the sun would soon go away for two minutes. Instead, they began preparing for the sun to go away for two weeks. They began stockpiling food. The anthropological team led by Brian Du Toit assumed there was a misunderstanding and attempted to clarify that the sun would only briefly disappear. [9] To their surprise they were told that they were wrong, that this had happened before to their ancestors. The sun went away for two weeks and people suffered from lack of food. The peoples of Papua New Guinea have strong oral traditions that record historical events. So the anthropologists took them seriously. It turned out that the event, the only one that these people could relate to the coming eclipse, was a volcanic eruption that had blotted out the sun. Volcanic eruptions may cause the sky to become dark and cause destruction of crops and sometimes even mysterious deaths of animals and people from gasses hundreds of miles from where the eruption occurred. The eruption of Laki, a volcano in Iceland, caused illness and may have contributed to an increase in mortality from gases as far away as Britain and France in 1783, for example. So it is not a good idea to simply attribute beliefs about solar eclipses to hysteria. There is a long complicated history that we do not yet fully know that may account for the most common cross-concerns about eclipses.

Many of us see the solar eclipse that will occur on August 21, 2017 as an exciting natural phenomenon and look to science to tell us more about it. But many thousands of generations have seen the awe-inspiring moment of eclipse as something that may be dangerous, and these ideas do not simply fall away all at once. Many readers may have heard that there are predictions about changes in the United States government, as systems of astrology have predicted for millennia for the nations where eclipses occurred. Questions about personal well being and the possible effects on unborn children are among the most common that scientists find themselves answering today. The warnings not to look at the eclipsing sun without eye protection may also inadvertently reinforce ancient and not-so-ancient ideas about the dangers of eclipses. Should people also be protecting their animal’s eyes? Will my baby be ok?  Should kids be kept indoors?

On August 21 the shadow of the moon will pass over the Earth, amazing, awe inspiring, but still a shadow. For those in the area where there will be complete totality, it is ok to look at the sun with the naked eye just for those two minutes when the moon completely covers the sun. Then put those dark glasses back on. But animals are not like curious humans and don’t stare at the sun, they just bed down for a short while. And the baby will not be affected. Still, if it is your tradition to avoid the eclipse, well, you have many thousands of years of human history behind you. For myself, I think I might beat on some pots and pans!

Notes

  1. A more detailed version of the myth of Rahu Ketu can be found in the Encyclopedia Mythica, (pantheon.org).
  2. For a more extensive introduction to the ancient beginnings of Chinese Astronomy see The Mandate of Heaven, by David W. Pankenier, Archaeology, Vol. 51, No. 2 (March / April 1998), pp. 26-34 (in Justor).
  3. The records in China are being studied today for their value to current astronomy. See for example: “The Regular Records of Solar Eclipse in Ancient China and a Computer Readable Table,” by Ciyuan Liu, Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Vol. 59, No. 2 (January 2005), pp. 157-168 (in Justor).
  4. A short version can be found in Solar Folklore and Storytelling, Compiled by Deborah Scherrer
    Stanford Solar Center, 2015 Stanford University, pp. 18-19 (full text online at the link).
  5. “Avert Your Eyes: Eclipse Viewing in Navajo and Other Cultures,” Theresa Braine, Indian Country, May 20, 2012.
  6. For an example see The New York Herald., October 22, 1874, Page 3, Image 3. “The Moon: The Shadow of the Earth on Cynthia’s Brow.” Found in Chronicling America, Library of Congress. In this case the full article is about a lunar eclipse, but the discussion of beliefs is of eclipses in general which “…greatly affected the minds of the Inhabitants of the earth.”
  7. “Influence of the Solar Eclipse on Animals,” New York Daily Tribune, March 07, 1843, Image 2, col. 5. Found in Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
  8. For example see “The Solar Eclipse,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1878, Image 1. Found in Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
  9.  du Toit, Brian M. “Misconstruction and Problems in Communication,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Feb., 1969), pp. 46-53 (in Justor).

Resources

Deutsch, James. “Swallowing the Sun: Folk Stories about the Solar Eclipse,” Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Magazine, August 11, 2017.

Deutsch, James. “What Folklore Tells Us About Eclipses: Across multiple cultures, says a Smithsonian folklorist, a darkening of daytime skies provokes a foreboding of evil,”  Smithsonian.com, August 15, 2017.

Scherrer, Deborah, compiler.  Solar Folklore and Storytelling, Stanford Solar Center, 2015 Stanford University, pp. 18-19 (full text online at the link).

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