WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

How ancient cultures explained solar eclipses

Posted August 15

For as long as people have watched the skies, they have attempted to explain solar eclipses.

Common themes emerge among these stories: devouring of the Sun, display of anger by the Sun, or either a lovers quarrel or canoodle between the sun and moon.

Many cultures tell of creatures big and small devouring the moon. The earliest word for eclipse in Chinese means “to eat.”

Hindu, Buddhists, and Jains share a story of Rahu, a dragon who swallows the moon. In parts of China and Vietnam, it’s a dog. Choctaw people tell of a black squirrel eating the sun. A Viking tale tells of a pair of wolves who catch the sun after months of chasing. Northern California’s Pomo Indians, along with the Buryats in Siberia, describe a bear chewing on the sun.

For Dom people of the Middle East, the sun and moon are devoured by an ancestor who is owed money. Legends from the Cherokee tribe tell of a huge frog that consumes the sun, an idea shared in Vietnam.

In ancient Egypt, a whale-sized serpent leaps from the depths of the Nile to swallow their sun god, Ra. The Pharaohs, who considered themselves to be direct descendants of Ra, thought it their duty to walk around the temple until the eclipse was over, ensuring the continued motion of the sun across the sky.

The Ge and Awawak of South America, as well as indigenous people of Canada, saw an eclipse as a battle between the sun and moon. The Batammaliba people, of Togo in Western Africa, tell of a fight, but also see it as a time to come together and resolve old feuds.

The Fon people, of Western Africa, and Tahitians, in the South Pacific, avoid viewing the eclipse, not out of fear but modesty. The sun and moon are sacred to these and many other native peoples. Viewing any eclipse, solar or lunar, is taboo for the Navajo, who instead stay inside with family and refrain from eating or sleeping. This is a sacred time when the “sun, moon, and Earth are in an intimate position."

Cultures and religions observe rituals during an eclipse, too. In Japan, Shinto light bonfires and hang glittering jewelry to compensate for the darkness brought on by the eclipse.

Health is the focus of many eclipse myths. The Eskimo saw the eclipse as bringing something unclean to Earth and turn their pots, bowls and cooking utensils upside down to avoid anything bad settling on them. In India, some fast on the day of an eclipse, believing food cooked that day to be impure.

Also in India, expectant mothers to be are cautioned to protect their babies by remaining motionless in bed for the duration, believing that they are more susceptible to illness and injury during the eclipse. If pregnant Navajo women should catch sight of an eclipse, a special ceremony is conducted to rid her of harm to her mind or the health of the baby.

Other traditions encourage participation, though.

The calm in the environment brought on by totality is broken in many cultures by making a lot of noise to hasten the sun’s return. If you hear your neighbors shouting or banging drums or other noisemakers during the eclipse, they might be honoring the tradition of a number of native tribes. Roman historians wrote of the practice as well, an effort to drive away the demons and their shadows.

In parts of Western Africa, people gather in the streets shouting, “Go away!” Chinese beat on a mirror or fired cannons to scare away the beast devouring the sun. In the middle ages, historians recorded Germans chanting, “Win Moon!”

The Chippewa and Ojibawa Indians similarly take matters into their own hands, firing flaming arrows at the eclipsed Sun to reignite it.

The Babylonians were incredible astronomers who were able to calculate the occurrences of eclipses with great accuracy and worked out the concept of the 223 month Saros cycle of eclipses that we continue to use today.

They also paid particular attention to the planets that become visible during totality. If Jupiter was not among them, this was seen as an omen predicting the death of the king. A temporary replacement king was selected and coronated, and the real king went into hiding until the eclipse was over.

Not all eclipse myths and superstitions are negative, though. Some Italians plant flowers during a solar eclipse, believing they will be more vibrantly colored.

Some of these myths persist today, though there is no scientific basis to them.

But eclipses are not dangerous to pregnant women—they should enjoy the event along with the rest of the family. Also, there is no special or harmful radiation emitted by an eclipse, and it is safe to view with proper eye protection.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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