An Enlightening Event, or a Bad Omen?

As we reach the summer solstice and we leave our lights off as long as we can—or is that just me?—to bask in the glory of daylight until almost midnight (if you’re lucky!), it calls to mind another auspicious event we have been lucky enough to experience this month; a solar eclipse, or partial eclipse, to be more precise.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I actually missed this eclipse. Yes, I forgot but, in my defence, it was cloudy, as is usually the case. I say this because whenever I have got overly excited about seeing a supermoon and make plans on how best to view it, Mother Nature has become coy and closed the curtains on me, so you can understand why I subconsciously didn’t rate my chances of seeing this eclipse… and forgot.

I have been lucky enough to see many solar eclipses in my lifetime, some full and others partial, but they haven’t always filled me with the excitement and wonder they do today.

The first eclipse I remember was whilst I was at primary school, so it would have been the late 70s. No one had told us it was going to happen; maybe because the teachers didn’t know… I remember it gradually getting darker and darker in the middle of the day until the day turned into night—it was a total eclipse—at which point panic set in. I’m not sure if there was any screaming, but I do remember hiding under the desks with everyone else until daylight returned.

At some point, I must have been educated on the phenomena, as the next one I remember, I viewed from my back garden with a handmade pinhole projector made from cardboard; the pinhole focusing the sun’s rays onto another piece of card, revealing the eclipse. These were the days before eclipse glasses, when we had to work hard for what we wanted! I remember the bubbles of excitement and light-headedness I felt as I watched the sun disappear behind the moon, as though hiding, before treading the boards once more as the star of the show.

I have seen many solar eclipses over the years, including one when I was away on holiday. I can’t remember where I was, but everyone in the street stopped and looked to the skies. I didn’t have the correct eyewear to watch it, but it was a pretty amazing experience as silence descended and everyone drew still; all in awe of the celestial event.

But solar eclipses—full or partial—haven’t always been viewed in such a positive way. Mostly, eclipses are portentous and viewed as bad omens by many cultures. Before the advent of science and astronomy, where we learned of the movement of the planets, the sun, and the moon, many beliefs were formed as to the cause of an eclipse.

In ancient cultures, animals were largely blamed for the disappearance of the sun. The Vietnamese told of a giant frog devouring the sun, while in Norse culture wolves were to blame, and in China it was a celestial dragon. The Chinese word for eclipse—chih or shih, means “to eat”. Hindu culture had a more elaborate story, telling of the deity Rahu being beheaded by the god Vishnu for drinking Amrita (the gods’ nectar). Rahu’s head flew into the sky and swallowed the sun, thus causing an eclipse. They believed the only way to get the sun back was to make enough noise to scare away the demon who had stolen it.

Another story about the gods came from the ancient Greeks who, you won’t be surprised to learn, believed an eclipse was a sign humans had displeased the gods, making them angry and prompting them to bring disaster and destruction upon the earth.

Native Americans had more elaborate stories still. The Pomo believed an eclipse was caused by a bear who started a fight with the sun and took a bite out of it. After taking the bite and resolving the conflict, the bear met the moon and took a bite from it too, causing a lunar eclipse. The Tewa tribe believed an eclipse represented an angry sun who had left the skies to go to his home in the underworld, while the Inuits believed the sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother, the moon god Anningan. The solar eclipse occurred when Anningan caught up with Malina.

Of course, with the advancement of science and astronomy, we are well aware of what causes an eclipse, but that doesn’t stop people believing them to be bad omens, bringing death, disaster and destruction.

One misconception which remains in some cultures is that an eclipse is dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn children, with many cultures ask young children and pregnant women to stay indoors during an eclipse. In India, people fast during an eclipse, believing food cooked during an eclipse to be poisonous and impure.

I don’t know about you, but I love all the stories and folklore surrounding events such as this, as it adds an air of mystery and wonder that science has taken away. As a storyteller, such folklore forms the basis for great tales, and it would be a shame to lose all that in the practical application of science.

For me, eclipses, supermoons, shooting stars, and any celestial event remain full fascination; something no amount of science will ever take away.

’Til next time,