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How 5 Ancient Cultures Explained Solar Eclipses

How 5 Ancient Cultures Explained Solar Eclipses



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Solar eclipses have been fascinating—and often terrifying—humans throughout the course of history. For the first time in nearly 100 years, a solar eclipse’s path of totality, where the entire sun is obscured by the moon, will cross a wide swath of the United States on August 21, 2017. As millions prepare to witness the phenomenon, find out how some early cultures and religions tried to explain and understand a solar eclipse.

1. Ancient China and the Sun-Eating Dragon

One of the first accounts of an eclipse—though one should note that this might be an old wives tale—dates back to 2136 B.C. Legend has it that the Emperor Chung K’ang executed his royal astronomers, Hi and Ho, for failing to predict an eclipse. While the ancient Chinese might have been able to predict eclipses, their explanation for them was based in lore. They believed that giant beings—either a dog or a dragon—were eating the sun. In fact, the Chinese word for eclipse includes the character “shi,” which means “to eat.” To scare the beast, the ancient Chinese would bang on drums and make enough noise to chase it away.

2. Vikings and the Wolf Siblings

As in ancient China on other early cultures, the Vikingsbelieved the sun was being eaten during an eclipse. Their legend involves two wolves, Hati and Skoll, who sought to eat celestial bodies. Skoll sought out the moon, and Hati the sun. When one caught up to its prey, the lights would go out. The Vikings also would make loud noises to scare off the wolves and return the light of the sun or moon. They believed that Ragnarok, or the apocalypse, would occur when the wolves truly devoured the sun and the moon.

3. Inuits and the Squabbling Siblings

The indigenous Inuits of Greenland, Alaska and the Artic used the legend of two celestial beings, moon god Annigan and his sister, sun goddess Malina to explain both eclipses and the lunar cycle. It all began when Anningan chased Malina after a fight. As he repeatedly pursued her, he forgot to eat and lost weight (symbolized by the moon’s waning phase), finally disappearing completely when he stopped to regain his strength—becoming the new moon. A solar eclipse occured when Anningan finally reached Malina, just as the moon caught up with the sun.

4. The Batammaliba and the First Mothers

The Batammaliba people of Benin and Togo regard eclipses as a time to make peace with family, friends and neighbors. Their legend tells of the first two women in the world, Kuiyecoke and Puka Puka, who eventually became the matriarchs of a village. As the village grew, its inhabitants became more argumentative, quarreling with each other frequently. Kuiyecoke and Puka Puka tried to stop the fighting, but no one would listen, so they darkened the sun and the moon to threaten the villagers. Frightened, the villagers stopped fighting, listened to the women, and made peace offerings to each other to bring back the light—a tradition that continues during eclipses today.

5. Hinduism and the Disembodied Demon

One of the more graphic eclipse legends can be found in Hindu mythology, where gods and demons worked together to create an elixir of mortality. The demon Rahu, however, was determined to taste of the nectar himself. He donned a disguise and crashed a banquet, but the sun and moon told the god Vishnu of his plans just as he took a sip. Vishnu had Rahu beheaded, but his head (with the bit of elixir) remained immortal while his body died. Rahu’s severed head lived on, perpetually chasing after the sun and moon in anger. Occasionally he catches up to them and eats them, but the sun and moon re-emerge quickly because he has no arms to hold them, and the chase begins again.


How ancient cultures explained eclipses

On August 21, a total solar eclipse was visible across parts of the United States.

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk – a spectacular celestial event.

A 1765 painting of Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology. - Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damages the eyes, a sign of the sun deity’s wrath.

So the idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

The various creatures include the Vikings’ sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, it was believed that such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, and banging pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu is said to have attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu’s transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon by pursuing them across the sky to eat them. Once in a while – at the time of an eclipse – Rahu actually catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun, and it gradually disappears into Rahu’s throat – only to reappear from his severed neck.

Rahu swallowing the moon. - Image Credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, CC BY

In other branches of Hindu culture, the “sun eater” took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water in an act of worship, believing that the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for – and defenses against – a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant that the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they’d cover up everything of importance – themselves included – lest they be infected by the “diseased” rays of the eclipsed sun.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse actually ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, it’s thought that the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus had, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were also said to be sophisticated enough to not only understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the “dragon” would come to devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses, to the extent that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

Of course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists say this year’s eclipse will cause the end of the world – perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.


How ancient cultures explained eclipses

Editor’s note: Roger Culver, professor emeritus of physics at Colorado State University, wrote the following article for The Conversation in May 2017. Colorado State is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between editors and academics that provides informed news analysis and commentary to the general public. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.

A 1765 painting of Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology. Wikimedia Commons

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across parts of the United States.

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk – a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damages the eyes, a sign of the sun deity’s wrath.

So the idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

The various creatures include the Vikings’ sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, it was believed that such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, and banging pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu is said to have attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu’s transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon by pursuing them across the sky to eat them. Once in a while – at the time of an eclipse – Rahu actually catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun, and it gradually disappears into Rahu’s throat – only to reappear from his severed neck.

Rahu swallowing the moon. Anan dajoti Bhikkhu , CC BY

In other branches of Hindu culture, the “sun eater” took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water in an act of worship, believing that the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for – and defenses against – a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant that the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they’d cover up everything of importance – themselves included – lest they be infected by the “diseased” rays of the eclipsed sun.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse actually ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, it’s thought that the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus had, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were also said to be sophisticated enough to not only understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the “dragon” would come to devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses, to the extent that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

Of course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists say this year’s eclipse will cause the end of the world – perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Monsters try to devour the Sun- worldwide

Eclipses of the Sun are awe-inspiring phenomena. It is no wonder that in many early cultures they were believed to be the end of the world or bad omens. Seeing one makes me connect to what our ancestors might have felt and experienced.

In China, India, southeastern Asia and in Peru there were beliefs that dragons or demons attack the Sun during eclipses. In North America, dogs and coyotes in South America, big cats like pumas in Vietnam, a very large frog tries to swallow the sun.

The ancient Egyptian myth of the snake Apep that attacks the boat of the Sun god is believed to refer to solar eclipses.

The Ch’orti’, indigenous Mayas, believed an eclipse of the sun that lasts more than a day will bring the end of the world, and the spirits of the dead will come to life and eat those on earth.

The Florentine Codex, a ethnographic study of 16th-century Aztecs in Mexico, described a solar eclipse in particularly vivid terms:

There were a tumult, and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. Then there was weeping. The common folk raised a cup, lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out shrieking. People of light complexion were slain as sacrifices captives were killed. All offered their blood. They drew straws through the lobes of their ears, which had been pierced. And in all the temples there was the singing of fitting chants there was an uproar there were war cries. It was thus said: “If the eclipse of the sun is complete it will be dark forever. The demons of darkness will come down. They will eat men!”

The Chinese and the Incas tried to frighten these monsters away, by banging pots, chanting or shooting into the air.

But the Indians have a different attempt by immersing themselves in holy water, the Ganges. They performed this religious ritual to help the Sun struggle against the decapitated head of a Hindu demon, Rahu.

The god Vishnu, warned by the sun and the moon, caught Rahu drinking the elixir of life and as punishment sliced off the demon’s head before the elixir passed through his throat. The immortal head takes his revenge on the celestial bodies by devouring them, but because he has no body, they re-emerge after he swallows them.

Muslims pray five times daily, but during eclipses they specially perform the “eclipse prayer”. This is one of the traditions of Prophet Mohammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH). The purpose of this prayer is to remember the might and gifts of Allah the Creator.


Here's how ancient cultures explained eclipses

A partial solar eclipse is seen behind the 9th century Prambanan Temple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. The rare astronomical event is being witnessed Wednesday along a narrow path that stretches across 12 provinces encompassing three times zones and about 40 million people. (AP Photo/Slamet Riyadi) (AP)

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This article was originally published on The Conversation.

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across parts of the United States.

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk — a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god — Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks — or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damages the eyes, a sign of the sun diety’s wrath.

So the idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

The various creatures include the Vikings’ sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, it was believed that such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, and banging pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu is said to have attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu’s transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon by pursuing them across the sky to eat them. Once in a while — at the time of an eclipse — Rahu actually catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun, and it gradually disappears into Rahu’s throat — only to reappear from his severed neck.

In other branches of Hindu culture, the “sun eater” took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water in an act of worship, believing that the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for — and defenses against — a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant that the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they’d cover up everything of importance — themselves included — lest they be infected by the “diseased” rays of the eclipsed sun.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse actually ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, it’s thought that the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus had, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were also said to be sophisticated enough to not only understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the “dragon” would come to devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses, to the extent that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

Of course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists say this year’s eclipse will cause the end of the world — perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.


Here's what ancient cultures thought of solar eclipses

1 of 15 A total eclipse will be visible in North America on Monday and people all over the world are making plans to see it in person. Before the event could be explained scientifically, ancient civilizations had numerous myths to explain the eclipse.

See what civilizations believed about solar eclipses ahead. Contributed photo Show More Show Less

The Chippewa tribe shot flaming arrows at the sun during an eclipse, in the hopes of relighting the sun. Tribes in Peru also shot at the eclipse in an attempt to fight off whatever beast was blocking out the sun.

Source: Farmer's Almanac

4 of 15 In Hindu mythology, the demon Rahu is caught drinking the elixir of life after the sun and the moon tell the god Vishnu. Rahu's head is cut off by Vishnu, before the elixir passes through his throat. As revenge, Rahu eats the sun and the moon, causing a solar eclipse. But, since Rahu's body is not attached, the sun and the moon escape each time they're eaten.

5 of 15 In ancient Egyptian mythology, the cosmic world serpent Apep embodied choas and death. Apepe would chase after the sun god Ra as he pulled the burning sun across the sky, heralding a new day. An eclipse would occur when Apep caught Ra and ate the sun. Ra would eventually escape with the sun, ending the eclipse.

Source: Atlas Obscura James Gerholdt/Getty Images Show More Show Less

7 of 15 The ancient Chinese believed a dragon would eat the sun, causing the eclipse. When the sun was blotted out, people would bang on pots and drums in hopes of scaring off the dragon.

Source: Exploratorium.Org Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

8 of 15 Siberian culture believed a vampire ate the sun. Not much is explained online as to how the vampire could come near the sun, as common vampire lore believes vampires die in the sunlight. Nor is it explained how the sun comes back if it was eaten by a vampire. But, the idea of the bloodthirsty creature eating the sun instead of humans was too good to not include here.

Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek Show More Show Less

10 of 15 In Inca mythology, Inti was the sun god and considered one of the most powerful deities in the pantheon. While generally seen as a generous god for his ability to make crops grow, eclipses were seen by the Inca people as a manifestation of his displeasure. The Inca would offer food, clothes and other goods in hopes of appeasing Inti during eclipses.

11 of 15 Japanese cultures believed poison would drop from the sky during solar eclipses. To prevent from getting "poisoned," the Japanese would cover their wells during the phenomenon.

13 of 15 Many cultures have believed fog, dew or precipitation that occurs during an eclipse is considered dangerous and capable of poisoning people.

Source: Farmer's Almanac George Rose / Photos by George Rose / Getty Images Show More Show Less

14 of 15 Some modern superstitions revolving around solar eclipses involve pregnancy. The Aztecs believed a celestial beast was eating the sun. If a pregnant mother saw the eclipse, the Aztecs believed the beast would eat the unborn baby, too. Evidence for a solar eclipse affecting pregnant women has not been proven, meaning moms-to-be don't have to worry about any potential health affects. The only health warning: Don't look into the sun because it'll cause you to go blind.

Source: Farmer's Almanac Hero Images/Getty Images/Hero Images Show More Show Less

For the first time in 38 years, people in the continental United States will be able to see a total solar eclipse on Monday.

People all over the world are planning to converge in small towns across America where the celestial phenomenon can be viewed. And while NASA can simply define the event as a time when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, the event still inspires awe from those who see it.

In ancient times, many civilizations believed a fantastic beast was eating the sun, causing it to temporarily turn black. Others thought the eclipse was the result of a deity's wrath, causing them to panic.

The Greeks believed the gods were contemplating punishment on a king so before the event, prisoners would be forced to stand in as the king. After the eclipse and the king wasn't dead, the substitute kings would be executed, reports the Washington Post.

Yugoslavian tribes believed a werewolf was eating the sun while Koreans told tales of a king who ordered his fire dogs to steal the sun so he could brighten his own kingdom, according to Live Science.

Today, science has removed the idea of celestial animals eating the sun and the moon. The legends show however that humans have also been fascinated by natural phenomena and their place in the world on a universal scale.

Whatever you believe, all civilizations knew to not looking into the eclipse as it can blind you. No other known health affects are associated with solar eclipses.

See more myths and legends about the solar eclipse in the slideshow above.


How ancient cultures explained eclipses

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across parts of the United States.

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon&rsquos disk – a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damages the eyes, a sign of the sun diety&rsquos wrath.

So the idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

The various creatures include the Vikings&rsquo sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, it was believed that such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, and banging pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu is said to have attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu&rsquos transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon by pursuing them across the sky to eat them. Once in a while – at the time of an eclipse – Rahu actually catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun, and it gradually disappears into Rahu&rsquos throat – only to reappear from his severed neck.

In other branches of Hindu culture, the "sun eater" took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water in an act of worship, believing that the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for – and defenses against – a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant that the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they&rsquod cover up everything of importance – themselves included – lest they be infected by the "diseased" rays of the eclipsed sun.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse actually ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, it&rsquos thought that the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus had, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were also said to be sophisticated enough to not only understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the "dragon" would come to devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses, to the extent that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

Of course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists say this year&rsquos eclipse will cause the end of the world – perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.

This article was originally published by The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.


Devouring sky beasts

Krupp is a respected authority on ancient astronomical lore, and the author of several books on the topic, including "Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets" (Oxford University Press, 1991).

He said that many traditional explanations of solar eclipses suggest that the events occur because a mythological beast of some description is devouring the sun. This idea stems from the sun's appearance during the first stages of an eclipse, which resembles an orb with a "bite" taken out of it.

But the variety of beast responsible for eating the sun depended on local traditions it was a frog in Vietnam, for example, and a mountain lion or puma in the Andes region of South America, Krupp said.

One of the best-known traditions comes from the Norse culture of Scandinavia's Vikings, which described two supernatural wolves — Sköll and her brother, Hati — who were said to chase the sun and moon across the sky. An eclipse of the sun or moon occurred whenever one of the wolves caught and tried to eat the object that the animal was hunting, he said.

In a lunar eclipse, the moon was said to bleed, which was the explanation given for its red color. This is actually the reflection on the face of the full moon of the ring of sunsets that surround the eclipsing Earth.

"That's part of the traditional lore that comes down to us that reflects what people see in the sky," Krupp said. [10 Solar Eclipses That Changed Science]

In China, where the devouring beast is traditionally a "heavenly dog," ancient observations of eclipses also describe the sun as "being eaten," while today's Mandarin words for eclipses are derived from the root "shi," which means "to eat," Krupp said.

In Mayan legends from central Mexico, the monsters responsible for devouring the sun during an eclipse are described as "star demons," which were often portrayed as giant snakes or insects, he said. Mayan records make clear that the "star demons" were in fact the other planets, such as Venus or Mercury, which could briefly become visible in the darkened daytime sky.

"What they were referring to was the appearance of the planets when the sky grows dark enough in an eclipse for those objects to appear," Krupp said. "Suddenly, something that shouldn't be there is there, usually in the vicinity of the sun — and so some of those people in central Mexico assigned the responsibility to" the planets.


West African

The Batammaliba are an ancient people of northern Togo and Benin. According to their legend, human anger and fighting spread to the Sun and the Moon, who began to fight with each other and caused an eclipse. The legendary first mothers, Puka Puka and Kuiyecoke, urged the villagers to demonstrate peace to the Sun and Moon to convince them to stop their brawl. During an eclipse, Batammaliba people make amends for old feuds and peacefully come together to encourage peace between the celestial bodies.


Swallowing the Sun: Folk Stories about the Solar Eclipse

A long time ago, before NASA and Google teamed up to create interactive maps of forthcoming solar eclipses, or before we ever sought celestial advice from GeekDad.com, our human ancestors would look up at the darkening sky and exclaim something like, &ldquowhat the heck?&rdquo

A total solar eclipse is amazing. I&rsquove seen only one before&mdashon August 11, 1999, in eastern Bulgaria, not far from where I was living at the time&mdashbut am planning to be in South Carolina, within the path of totality, on August 21, 2017. Not that I&rsquom one of those &ldquoeclipse chasers,&rdquo recently profiled by WAMU 88.5, for whom &ldquofollowing the moon&rsquos shadow is an addiction,&rdquo but I would like to see more of what NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller vividly described to WAMU: &ldquoThe sky starts to get cool and dark, a couple minutes before totality. And all of your instincts, all of a sudden, start to freak out. Something&rsquos going wrong. . . . There&rsquos this deep basic panic that sets in as the whole world changes in a way it&rsquos not supposed to. All of a sudden it feels like you&rsquore standing on another planet.&rdquo

Moreover, what especially intrigues me as a folklorist are the folk beliefs shared and the stories told across world cultures to explain this astronomical phenomenon. According to the Motif-Index of Folk Literature, a magisterial six-volume compilation of myths, legends, and folktales collected by folklorists in the early twentieth century, these may include a monster devouring the sun, a punishment from the gods for human errors, and a prelude to apocalypse.

Several entries in the Motif-Index from the late 1940s feature stories about eclipses from Native tribes in South America. For instance, according to the Chiqutoan Manasi people of eastern Bolivia, &ldquoThe sun was a resplendent man and the moon was his sister. Eclipses were caused by celestial serpents which attacked these luminaries, threatening mankind with darkness. This catastrophe was to be followed by the transformation of men into hairy animals and by their mutual extermination.&rdquo

Among the Apapocúva-Guaraní people of eastern Paraguay and northern Brazil, &ldquoEclipses are caused by the Eternal Bat [or in some cases the Celestial Jaguar] which gnaws the Sun or the Moon. The Apapocúva have a very pessimistic outlook on the future of the world they are firmly convinced that its end is near. Very soon Our Great Father will set the earth on fire, unleashing the Eternal Bat and the Blue Jaguar which will destroy the stars and mankind.&rdquo

Similar feelings of foreboding are expressed in Armenian folklore, according to a seven-volume study, The Mythology of All Races, also cited in the Motif-Index. &ldquoAs among many other peoples, the eclipse of the sun and moon was thought to be caused by dragons which endeavor to swallow these luminaries. . . . When the moon was at an eclipse, the sorcerers said that it resembled a demon. It was, moreover, a popular belief that a sorcerer could bind the sun and moon in their course, or deprive them of their light. . . . Needless to add that the eclipses and the appearance of comets foreboded evil. Their chronologies are full of notices of such astronomical phenomena that presaged great national and universal disasters.&rdquo

Indeed such &ldquouniversal disasters&rdquo associated with eclipses are also part of The Legends of the Jews, a seven-volume collection by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, published over the period from 1909 to 1942. These legends explicitly link solar eclipses to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and also to the crucifixion of Jesus. As explained by Dov Neuman in his analysis of this folk literature, the sun is eclipsed &ldquobecause it cannot stand tragic happenings in world history.&rdquo

For those of us within the path of totality on August 21, it may indeed appear as if a dragon or serpent is swallowing the sun. When day becomes night and temperatures suddenly drop, it may feel as if the end is near. Like our ancient ancestors, we can only hope that the sun will return to shine after a period of total darkness lasting no more than 2 minutes, 41.6 seconds (if you&rsquore near Carbondale, Illinois). And if that&rsquos the case, eclipse chasers in the United States can look forward to more in our future: 2024, 2044, 2045, and 2078. What the heck!

James Deutsch enjoys browsing through the Motif-Index of Folk Literature even when he is not working as a program curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Related Listening - Celebrate the Solar Eclipse with Folkways, a curated compilation of cosmic songs from our collection.

Afrolatinidad: Art & Identity in D.C. is an interview series highlighting the vitality of the local Afro-Latinx community. Before the term Afro-Latinx entered popular discourse, Latin Americans of the Diaspora have been sharing their stories through artistic manifestations online and in community spaces throughout the district. Their perspectives are intersectional in nature of existing in between spaces of Blackness and Latinidad.

Folklife is a digital magazine of music, food, craft, and culture. We tell unforgettable stories about people, ideas, and a wide array of arts and traditions that help us explore where we have come from and where we are going. We delve into the complex lives of individuals and communities to find what inspires and motivates people as they respond to animating questions at the center of contemporary life.


Watch the video: 7 πολιτισμοί που χάθηκαν μυστηριωδώς. (August 2022).