Eclipse Lore and Legend
Imagine living in a world without advanced astronomical reckoning. Imagine your world plunging into sudden darkness, the animals growing eerily silent. Imagine witnessing the sun, your source of warmth and life, being consumed by a swiftly encroaching shadow, leaving only a blinding hole in its wake.
The solar eclipse has always been seen as a powerful omen, variously ill and auspicious. This awesome sight has influenced wars, ended lives, made regular appearances in literature and, even with a modern comprehension of the forces at play, still holds a powerful hold over our collective imaginations. It is no wonder that the solar eclipse, which occurs only once in most life times, is the stuff of legend.
The history of the eclipse is divided between those who were able to predict its occurrence, and those who were taken by surprise. Though the tale may be apocryphal, the oft-repeated example of Columbus’ manipulation of native Jamaicans is illustrative. The fellow apparently became stranded and ran out of supplies during his fourth trip to the new land, and he needed help. Rather than replenishing his resources, the inhospitable locals expressed their displeasure at his appearance by refusing sustenance and aid. It was only Columbus’ ability to predict a fortunate lunar eclipse that saved him; announcing the great displeasure with which heavenly forces viewed the natives’ reticence, Columbus claimed that the moon would be struck from the sky should the natives fail to assist him. How would the course of history have been affected, had the eclipse not come to pass?
Others have been less fortunate with their predictions. Advanced knowledge of the eclipse has been used to schedule important events, thereby ‘proving’ their auspiciousness to the naïve masses. However, when two early Chinese court astronomers failed to notify their Emperor of an upcoming solar eclipse circa 2000 BCE, they paid for it with their heads!
When eclipses occur unexpectedly, they have profound influence on world events. Take this tale of two wars; in 413 BCE a surprise eclipse convinced Athenian strategists of the Peloponnesian war that a planned retreat was ill advised. Delaying the move led to the easy slaughter of their troops; an early and unnecessary defeat at the hands of the Syracusans. Contrarily, in 585 BCE both the Lydians and the Medes saw the eclipse as evidence of heavenly displeasure with their years of war. In this instance, the magnificent sight inspired an early armistice and saved many lives.
This duality in our perception of the eclipse is apparent in world mythology, as well as in our history books. In many places, the disappearance of the sun is an alarming occurrence, attributed to mythical beasts (variously dragons, dogs, birds and demons) that come to consume our life-source. There is a widespread fear that, without intervention, the skies would be permanently darkened and life ever altered. It is only through scaring the Mongolian Sun Eater away with firecrackers, drumming and general cacophony that balance can be restored.
While this perception of eclipse as an ill omen is pervasive, there are also many cultures where the event is viewed positively. In Tahiti the eclipse is understood as the lovemaking of the Sun and Moon. Amazonian myth describes a passion so great between these lovers that the earth becomes scorched by the Sun’s heat and drenched from the Moon’s tears; to protect us from their excess, the two will only touch through the shadow of eclipse. This perceived concern for our well-being is reflected again in various Native American mythologies wherein the sun or moon absent themselves from the sky during an eclipse, to check that all is well on earth.
While there is often disparity between scientific understanding of the eclipse and mythological explanation, in Vedic tradition eclipse myth clearly demonstrates an accurate understanding of the principles at play. In this tale, the demon Rahu Ketu has come between the sun and moon to steal a sip of immortality nectar. Angered by this presumptuousness, Lord Visnu strikes the demon in half, separating head from body. As the demon was successful in procuring the heady libation, he is not killed but positions his two components at the north and south lunar nodes, ever after to seek vengeance on the two celestial bodies by swallowing them at the time of eclipse.
The eclipse as a portent and harbinger of change is a common theme in history, literature and religion. The New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe a solar eclipse during the crucifixion of Christ, causing his lament ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’. Indeed, this use of eclipse as metaphor in classical texts has helped scholars to place events in historical context. We can, for example, compare Amos 8:9 of the Old Testament ‘and on that day…I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the Earth in broad daylight’ with Assyrian historical records, to conclude that ‘that day’ occurred on June 15th, 763 BCE.
Shadow of the 1999 Total Solar Eclipse as Seen from Space
Our advanced astronomical understanding of eclipse phenomena has done nothing to diminish our fascination with the event. The convenience of modern travel now allows millions of spectators to flock to the path of totality for each occurrence. Perhaps there is something here of wonder; the only place in our solar system where the celestial bodies are of the necessary relative size and distance for complete obfuscation just happens to occur where there is life to appreciate the magnificence of the sight!
Claire’s long-time interest in mythology brings a different perspective to our understanding of the night sky.