Total Solar Eclipse of 2017: How Rare Cosmic Event Gave Rise to Ancient Myths and Legends
Today, August 21, America will darken under the path of a total solar eclipse. This rare and spectacular astronomical alignment, when the Moon appears to completely cover the sun, shadowing the surface of the planet, has always given humanity pause. The event of midday twilight is said to even quiet birds. They stop singing, thinking night has somehow come.
“During a total solar eclipse, the disk of the moon blocks out the last sliver of light from the sun, and the sun's outer atmosphere, the corona, becomes visible,” reports Space.com. “The corona is far from an indistinct haze; skywatchers report seeing great jets and ribbons of light, twisting and curling out into the sky.”
Detailed map of the path the total solar eclipse will take on August 21 ( CC by SA 2.5 )
Prehistoric Myths and Legends
Humans have been alternatively amused, puzzled, bewildered and sometimes even terrified at the sight of this celestial phenomenon. A solar eclipse was seen as so traumatic or ‘unnatural’ to humanity that since prehistoric times myths and legends have sprung up throughout cultures in attempts to explain the event, or protect against it.
The indigenous Da’a tribe in Sigi, Indoensia will be holding special rituals to protect the people of the Earth from this important celestial event. It is believed by many cultures around the world to be an inauspicious, even dangerous moment of darkness.
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The eerie sight of a partial eclipse of the sun. Public Domain
Solar eclipses were seen by the ancients as symbols or messages.
The ancient Greeks believed they were portents, and warnings of disaster. Certainly a disruption of the established order was seen as frightening and a sign of doom, especially as so much depended on the movement of the sun, guiding beacon for many cultures.
The sun or moon being devoured by supernatural entities was a common theme in myths and legends, and a way to explain their sudden and temporary disappearances.
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The Examiner writes it was believed in Vietnam that a solar eclipse was evidence the sun was being eaten by a giant frog.
In Korea it was thought the sun disappeared due to attacks by gigantic hounds. Mythical fire dogs called Bulgae were bid by the lord of a dark realm to chase down and bite the sun and moon. The sun was too hot and the moon too cold to bite for long, and the injured dogs would return without their prize.
According to the Serrano natives of California, “an eclipse is the spirits of the dead trying to eat the Sun or Moon. So during an eclipse, the shamans and ceremonial assistants sing and dance to appease the dead spirits while everyone else shouts to try and scare the spirits away,” writes StarrySkies.com.
The Vikings explained that eclipses were the doing of sky wolves, or warg, which would chase and eat both the sun and moon.
Illustration of the mythical Norse skywolves chasing the sun and moon. ‘The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani’ (1909) ( Public Domain )
National Geographic writes about a legend wherein Hindu demon Rahu (or Kala Rau to the Indonesians on the island of Bali) attempted to sneak a taste of an elixir of immortality. The sun and moon told the god Vishnu about Rahu’s crime. Vishnu sliced off Rahu’s head as the demon was drinking, so Rahu’s head became immortal, but his body died. In rage and frustration, Rahu’s head continues to chase the sun and moon, occasionally swallowing them. Because he has no body, however, the moon and sun disappear only momentarily, and fall out the bottom of his head.
A statue depicting Kala Rau swallowing the sun, the legend being solar eclipses. Thailand. ( Public Domain )
The Dark Side of Eclipses
Many different traditions and practices are still carried out by various cultures to ward off evil during an eclipse, or avoid the bad luck it might create. Fasting is still recommended in some countries, and children and pregnant women are sometimes asked to stay indoors as the dramatic darkness is believed by some to be a danger. Other traditions include banging pots, playing drums, and making noise during eclipses in the attempt to scare off evil forces, and encourage a return of the proper cosmic alignment.
Examiner notes that the Batammaliba people from West Africa address the dramatic celestial changes in a positive way. Their legends say that “during an eclipse the Sun and Moon are fighting. The only way to stop the conflict, they believe, is for people on Earth to settle their differences.”
No matter the beliefs or legends, events such solar eclipses do bring people together, if only to share in the experience of the power and drama of the natural world.
The last time a total solar eclipse was visible across the entire contiguous United States was during the June 8, 1918 eclipse, and not since the February 1979 eclipse has a total eclipse been visible from the mainland United States. The path of totality will touch 14 states, although a partial eclipse will be visible in all fifty states. The event will begin on the Oregon coast as a partial eclipse at 9:06 a.m. PDT on August 21, and will end later that day as a partial eclipse along the South Carolina coast at about 4:06 p.m. EDT
Top Image: “Diamond Ring” effect of a total solar eclipse. Aug. 11, 1999 in Bulgaria. (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )
By Liz Leafloor