We know that Monday’s total solar eclipse will not be caused by a bear biting the sun, a dragon swallowing it or an X-rated get-together between heavenly bodies.
And yet, as our ancestors have for millennia, we are freaking the heck out.
It’s a gentler, more festive kind of frenzy now — no panic, no human sacrifice, no flaming arrows. But the fact that we know more about cosmic mechanics nowadays doesn’t make us any less excited.
“The hair on the back of your neck is up, you’ve got goosebumps. . . . It’s just absolutely beautiful and at the same time a little terrifying because there’s nothing you can do about this. There’s no power on Earth that can stop this.” That’s how former NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak, an authority on calculating the paths of eclipses, describes the visceral feeling of a total solar eclipse.
If an astronomer in 2017 finds the experience overwhelming, imagine what a guy herding goats 3,000 years ago thought when the sun suddenly went dark in the middle of the day.
Often, that guy concluded that something had eaten the sun.
Dragons, dogs and demons: What people thought caused eclipses
A dragon did it, according to stories from China, India, Armenia, Tibet, Persia and other parts of the world. Traditional tales from other cultures blamed a demon, a jaguar, a frog or toad, a wolf, a group of snakes, a werewolf.
The indigenous Pomo of Northern California envisioned a great cranky bear ambling through the heavens and biting the sun when it refused to move out of the way.
According to an elaborate tale in the ancient Sanskrit poem “Mahabharata,” a demon stole an immortality potion and tried to drink it, but the sun and moon reported him to the god Vishnu. Vishnu lopped off the demon’s head before the liquid passed his throat, so his immortal head travels around the heavens chasing the sun and moon for revenge. Occasionally it catches one or the other and eats it, but the orb falls out of his throat.
The Tatars of western Siberia said that a vampire tried to swallow the sun, but he spat it out when it burned his tongue. Same for the “fire dogs” of Bolivian and Korean tradition, which were sent by an evil king to steal the sun but couldn’t hold it in their mouths for very long.
Some stories were another kind of hot. According to oral traditions of several Tlingit and Australian aboriginal cultures, the sun and moon were a man and woman in love, and eclipses darkened the world when they got together so they would have a little privacy.
Certain native Australians correctly assumed that something covered the sun, but they thought it was possum fur, a huge black bird or a sorcerer’s cloak rather than the moon.
Suriname’s Kalina tribe believed that the sun and moon were brothers, and an eclipse meant their sibling rivalry had gotten violent and one was knocked out.
In a Transylvanian folk tale, the sun turns away from humankind’s horrible behavior during an eclipse, and a toxic dew falls. (Dew does appear during some eclipses because of a temperature drop, but it is not poisonous.)
Even into the 19th century, some people believed that you shouldn’t breathe the outdoor air during an eclipse. Laundry left out to dry was considered contaminated. Native Alaskans interpreted an eclipse to mean that the sun was sick, so they turned over their pots and cooking utensils to avoid the sun’s illness.
Other explanations were less ominous but not exactly comforting. The Bella Coola tribe of Canada figured that the sun was merely a little clumsy and occasionally dropped its torch.
A few moon-worshiping cultures, such as the Chimu of northern Peru, celebrated solar eclipses as lunar victories. But the takeaway from most other myths, legends and stories was that solar eclipses were bad or even terrible.
Throughout recorded history, eclipses were blamed for tragedies, wars, disease outbreaks and the deaths of prominent people.
A century ago, some Navajo believed that the eclipse of 1918 over the American Southwest was an omen that foreshadowed the Spanish flu pandemic. Tens of millions died in the following months, including 2,000 Navajo.
And now? We’re no longer superstitious about eclipses — except that maybe we are.
In 2009, financial behaviorist Gabriele Lepori found that stock prices tend to fall on eclipse days.
Some people will close their curtains and refuse to go outside, just in case.
A quick Internet search will turn up warnings about “eclipse rays” that can harm children and unborn babies, and some people believe that you shouldn’t eat or drink during an eclipse. (Of course, another quick search will get you a trove of eclipse-themed appetizer and cocktail recipes.)
Sacrifices, drums, flaming arrows: What people did about eclipses
Because they figured that nothing good was coming from an eclipse, people often came up with creative ways to try to end them.
The Chippewa of North America shot flaming arrows into the sky to rekindle the sun. Ancient Mayans ate a certain type of snake.
Hindus immersed themselves in water — particularly the Ganges River, which is considered to be purifying — to encourage the sun to fight off the dragon. (Some modern Hindus still take a traditional dip in sacred waters during eclipses.)
Ancient Chinese banged drums and pots and made as big a racket as possible to scare the dragon away. Chinese astronomers kept meticulous records of eclipses, in part because they were considered to be a kind of cosmic referendum on the emperor, and not in a good way. Fearing that the eclipse meant they might die, emperors would stay out of the palace, eat only vegetarian meals and perform rituals to restore the sun. Legend has it that at least two palace astronomers were beheaded for being drunk on the job and, depending on the story, either failing to predict an eclipse or failing to show up when one appeared.
Solar eclipses were extremely serious business to the sun-worshiping Aztecs, who had a grisly way of “preventing” them, said Susan Milbrath, emeritus curator of Latin American art and archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The Aztecs believed that on a certain date in their calendar year — 4 Ollin, to be specific — a solar eclipse accompanied by an earthquake would cause the end of the world. When that date rolled around every 260 days, priests performed a ritual human sacrifice to feed and strengthen the sun and ward off the eclipse.
Conveniently, a solar eclipse could not occur on 4 Ollin until at least the 21st century — something the priests, who were also astronomers, probably knew, Milbrath said.
“They knew that this event was not going to happen in their lifetime or in the foreseeable future,” she said, “but the general populace didn’t.”
That is not to say that the Aztecs were calm and cool about eclipses that occurred on other days. A Spanish friar in the 16th century described a terror-stricken frenzy of sacrificing captives and “men of fair hair and white faces” to the sun during a solar eclipse, fearing that it would never return and that people-eating demons would be unleashed upon Earth.
The Aztecs weren’t the only ones to react to eclipses with bloodshed. By the third century B.C., Greek astronomers could accurately predict an eclipse to within 30 minutes, but the celestial weirdness still spooked them.
Like the Chinese, they thought eclipses were dangerous to the person on the throne. In the days before an eclipse was due, commoners or prisoners were chosen to stand in for monarchs — with all the perks of royalty — in hopes of tricking the eclipse so that no bad luck would befall the real king. After the eclipse, the substitutes were usually executed. This appears to have happened during Alexander the Great’s reign, when three partial eclipses were expected in 323 B.C. But the eclipses apparently weren’t fooled by the fake Alexander, and the real one became ill and died soon afterward.
These days, we don’t generally try to stop, prevent or fool eclipses. We just try to catch them.
The first eclipse chaser may have been Monsieur le Chevalier de Louville of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, who trekked to London in 1715 to see the eclipse that his friend Edmond Halley had predicted. Halley built on work that Isaac Newton had published a few years before and, for the first time, factored gravity into his prediction of a solar eclipse. (Halley is better known today for predicting when a certain comet would come around again.)
The bravest eclipse chaser may have been Navy photographer Alvin Peterson, who spent two hours on top of a flying dirigible with his movie camera to film the eclipse over New York on Jan. 24, 1925. According to John Dvorak, who tells Peterson’s story in “Mask of the Sun,” Peterson got several reels of video and severe frostbite.
But perhaps the most impressive and literal example of eclipse chasing occurred on June 30, 1973. Scientists who chartered a supersonic Concorde traveling at 1,250 mph over Africa managed to stay in the path of totality for 74 minutes, at least 10 times longer than anyone could ever see a total solar eclipse from the ground.
“Why do people like me go to these extremes to see an eclipse?” asks cartographer and eclipse chaser Michael Zeiler, who has created a robust website around the 2017 event. “The reason is quite simple: because it’s the most beautiful sight you can see in nature. . . . It’s a deeply emotional event, because you feel the ominous shadow of the moon racing across you. It’s a sensory experience. But then the other part of it, too, is that you have the realization that you’re looking at the solar system in motion. It’s a rare opportunity to really viscerally experience that.”
The quest for that experience will spur millions of people to flood parks, roads, trails and towns along the path of totality this week, many traveling for hours or days and paying jacked-up hotel rates to put cardboard glasses on their faces and spend a couple of minutes staring at the sky.
Clearly, eclipses still make us a little crazy.
About this story
Most of the information and anecdotes in this article come from these books: “Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets,” by Tyler Nordgren; “Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets,” by E.C. Krupp; “Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses,” by John Dvorak; and “ Totality — Eclipses of the Sun (3rd edition)” by Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox.
Other sources: “Eclipses in Australian Aboriginal Astronomy” by Duane W. Hamacher and Ray P. Norris, published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, July 2011; “Our Sun: Harvard books on astronomy,” by D.H. Menzel, 1949; Florida Museum of Natural History; National Geographic; NASA; GreatAmericanEclipse.com; UPI