What is an eclipse?
Dangerous dragons, greedy frogs and deadly demons were all blamed by different ancient cultures as culprits behind solar eclipses.
Voracious beasts or demons were often to blame for the sun’s sudden disappearance: hungry Korean fire dogs tried to eat the sun but instead got burned, and a hungry Vietnamese frog also attempted to dine on it.
Viking sky wolves or bears have also been named as solar slayers engaged in celestial strife, according to eclipse lore, which also says a hungry Hindu demon tries to devour the sun, according to Michael Weisenburg, reference and instruction librarian of rare books and special collections at the University of South Carolina.
Each culture spun their own yarn to explain an eclipse, but all typically regarded these celestial events as bad omens.
“They’re generally considered frightening, or threatening, or foreboding,” said Weisenburg.
Today they’re regarded differently.
As many will soon gather to eagerly watch as the Great American Eclipse briefly turns day to night on Monday, leaders now offer different warnings to the public, urging people to shield their eyes to avoid injury, being mindful of potential traffic jams, and avoiding tall grass where ticks and snakes may be lurking in the dark.
Now, eclipses are a time for people to group together at parties in the name of science, but long ago they were mostly considered bringers of dark tidings.
Some of the darkest eclipse lore goes back to the earliest known records of astronomical history. According to Louis Rubbo, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Coastal Carolina University, in 1999, Neolithic rock carvings were discovered in Ireland and linked with a solar eclipse that happened in 3340 B.C. Nearby to these primitive drawings, a basin kept the remains of about 50 human bodies. Historians can’t say with certainty, but many believe the remnants found were a sacrificial offering meant to appease a sky god.
Some ancient cultures believed the disappearing sun briefly went into the belly of a beast when eclipses suddenly caused their daytime skies to fade to black. Ancient Chinese sought to protect the precious glow of the sun from a dangerous dragon, hungry for a solar snack.
“They would try to ward it off by preventing it when it came through. They would try to bang drums and shoot arrows at it in the sky trying to keep the sun from going away,” said Rubbo.
Legend has it that two royal ancient Chinese astronomers once got drunk when they should have been looking out for the eclipse, leaving everyone vulnerable when the dragon emerged and devoured the sun. Presumably, if they had been sober and alert, the dragon never would have gotten so close to gobbling up the sun. The two were executed for their criminal negligence.
“The eclipse came and no one had warning about it, so they couldn’t go out and help ward off the dragon, so they were punished by being beheaded,” Rubbo said to legend goes.
Even today, people base their lives around the sun’s rising and setting, but it was more so in ancient times, when the sun’s sudden vanishing chilled people with fear as they worried they were under some demonic attack or had drawn the ire of angry gods.
“When (the sun) disappears suddenly in the middle of the day, that’s a horrifying prospect, especially if you don’t understand why the universe is designed the way it is,” said Weisenburg.
“All the sudden the sun disappears and if the sun is your primary god, your primary god is under attack.”
Not all ancient civilizations saw a solar eclipse as malevolent.
In West African culture, the sun and moon were in a dramatic lovers’ spat, but found forgiveness by the end. Inuit folklore viewed the sun and moon as a quarreling brother and sister, and here too, eclipses were seen as a time of forgiveness.
Ancient Greek historian Herodotus credited the appearance of a solar eclipse in 585 B.C. as halting a lengthy ongoing war between the Medes and Lydians in modern day Turkey. Soldiers laid down their weapons in mid combat during an eclipse, which they viewed as a sign from the gods that to end their longstanding strife.
Through the years, eclipses carried both good and bad meaning. Literary masters and wordsmiths of the Renaissance Shakespeare used eclipses as metaphors, and modern day writers like Stephen King have used eclipses as vehicles to drive plot.
An eclipse in 1919 has been credited with propelling Albert Einstein’s fame. It cast a spotlight on his complicated theory of relativity that had previously been viewed with skeptical eyes when it was published in 1915, Rubbo said. After a British astronomer put it to the test during an eclipse and proved it true, Einstein’s popularity soared, making him a household name.
“Really when we think about it, we’re still doing something similar to what the ancients did. …” said Weisenburg. “We’re still turning this into a once-in-a-lifetime social event phenomena that we’re going to share and experience, and it should be beautiful by all accounts.”
For more on eclipses and their history:
Louis Rubbo, associate professor of astronomy at Coastal Carolina University and Louis Keiner, associate professor of physics of CCU are leading an event called “What to expect from the Great American Eclipse of 2017” on Thursday, Aug. 17, at 6:30 p.m. in Wheelwright Auditorium at CCU. The event is free and open to the public, and there’s also a live feed of the talk at https://livestream.com/coastalcarolinauniversity/.
Louis Rubbo will also give a talk on the eclipse on Sunday, Aug. 20, at 6 p.m. at the Strand Theater in Georgetown.