Aug 12, 2017

Myths And Superstitions About Solar Eclipses


On August 21, 2017, much of North America will witness a relatively rare phenomenon:  a solar eclipse.  The last time North America saw a solar eclipse was in 1979.  After this year, North America will not see one again until 2023.  However, this year's eclipse is special because it will cross the U.S. from coast to coast.  The last time that happened was in 1918.

As one might expect, eclipses, both solar and lunar, have been the subject of much myth and superstition.  To ancient peoples, the sun was a constant, predictable force in their daily lives.  Many (if not most) ancient cultures worshipped the sun or had a god devoted to the sun.  When solar eclipses occurred, they struggled to explain what was happening.  In most (though not all) instances, solar eclipses were viewed as a bad omen, a time of great turmoil and disturbance.  For example, the ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and that it marked the beginning of disasters.

Many cultures sought to explain solar eclipses by reference to mythical animals devouring the sun. In Vietnam, for example, people believed that a giant frog devoured the sun; the Vikings believed it was wolves.  Some Native American cultures believed it was a giant bear.  In ancient China, a celestial dragon was responsible for eating the sun.  In fact, the oldest known word for an eclipse comes from China - chih or shih - which means "to eat."

Perhaps, the most unusual myth about solar eclipses involves the Hindu demon Rahu.  Rahu disguises himself as a god so that he can taste a nectar that grants immortality.  The sun and the moon spy Rahu and tell Vishnu.  Vishnu cuts off Rahu's head, and it goes flying across the sky, consuming the sun and the moon.

Because they tended to be viewed as disruptive events, predicting solar eclipses became an important skill to ancient people.  Existing records show that the Chinese and Babylonians were able to predict solar eclipses as early as 2500 BCE.

Even today, some cultures continue to view solar eclipses as a dangerous time.  Some believe that solar eclipses are dangerous for pregnant women and unborn children, so pregnant women are encouraged to stay indoors during a solar eclipse.