Total solar eclipses belong to a rich and diverse cultural heritage steeped in myth and superstition. Even today, the sight can stimulate primitive receptors in our bodies to react when we see daylight suddenly turn dark and behold the preternatural glow of the solar corona surrounding the "black hole" of the New Moon.
Little wonder many cultures across the globe imagined the event as a beast (dragon, frog, wolf, snake, giant, ghoul ... you name it) devouring the Sun, and made noises (like banging drums) to scare the offender away. In time the beast gave way to superstitious beliefs, and we can still see age-old rituals re-enacted. For example, during the October 1995 totality over northern India, 1 million people bathed in the sacred waters in Kurukshetra, believing that doing so would bestow blessings of peace unto them and other wandering and unhappy souls. That may sound funny, but it's no different from the age-old tradition (superstition) of voting along party lines; we just put our faith in a different kind of promise in the belief that life will suddenly get better.
During the 2016 totality over Indonesia, I met locals who were told (as children) that if they looked at the Sun directly, ghosts might steal them away when the sky turned dark; so it was best for them to stay indoors with the curtains closed. When older they learned to watch the partial phases of totality indirectly — reflected in a dark bowl of water. This behavior, I thought, is culturally no different from parents employing the idea of Santa Claus to instill fear in children who might otherwise behave badly — until they know better.
The world over, superstitions abound when it comes to pregnant women and total solar eclipses. The women are cautioned to stay indoors with the curtain closed or their unborn child might be born deformed, or blind, or ... well, does it really matter what they're told? The root superstition stems from the fear that the mother-to-be may do herself harm if she looks at the Sun (which is true, if she does so without proper eye protection), and therefore will not be able to care for her unborn child.
On the opposite end of the scale is the belief in totality's healing power. For instance, during the July 2009 total solar eclipse over Pakistan, some parents with disabled children buried them up to the neck in sand, hoping the event would help to heal them. It's no different, really, than bathing in sacred waters; it's another cultural belief that helps one's soul in a time of despair. Drastic? Yes. But who's to judge?
Some Native Americans will not look skyward during an eclipse largely out of respect. When a total solar eclipse occurs, it steals daylight from the sky causing an imbalance in what's known as the "cosmic order." Looking sunward at this time is regarded as taboo. The Sun is sacred and should not be watched for long; by staying inside and not looking skyward during an eclipse, one respects the Sun, allowing it to undergo a rebirth ... in private. Perhaps just as one shouldn't watch a couple consummate a marriage, one shouldn't interfere with the Sun as it undergoes its sacred and intimate union with the Moon.
On the other side of the coin, there's a fear component to this tradition. Watching a solar eclipse can adversely affect the mind, tilt life out of balance, and invite evil into one's life. In essence, one is left to weigh a minute or two of totality against a potential lifetime of turmoil and chaos. It's like the dieter's creed: a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips ... You decide!
Fears and superstitions will undoubtedly still lurk in the Moon's shadow when totality occurs over parts of the United States on August 21, 2017 — especially with the uninformed. Most of us, however, will have, by then, read articles and blogs, had casual conversations with experienced or prospective eclipse watchers, and learned proper safety measures (for eye protection) which, if followed, will provide a completely harmless, enjoyable eclipse experience.
As for the various traditions that continue to linger, what are they but "good lies" spoken by the uninformed with an aim to either protect those they love from forces unknown or to help them in times of need. "Unknown" is the key word. With education, we can help people disperse the mists of mystery and learn how to appreciate one of the world's most visually rewarding natural spectacles — totality.
CAUTION: Never look at the Sun, either directly or through a telescope or binocular, without a professionally made protective solar filter installed that completely covers the front of the instrument, or permanent eye damage could result. When using a truss tube telescope to view the Sun, both a properly fitting solar filter and light shroud are required.
Stephen James O'Meara is an award-winning visual observer, whose writings, lectures, and numerous books on amateur astronomy have inspired observers across the globe to see the sky in new and wonderful ways. A contributing editor for Astronomy magazine, Stephen is an avid "eclipse chaser", having witnessed a dozen total solar eclipses dating back to 1959 (when he was 3 years old).