The lore and lure of eclipses
It’s not just the skies that get dark when there’s a total solar eclipse. So do we.
Modern science explains that the sun disappears because the moon is passing in front of it. But before that, people had to come up with reasons for what was happening in the sky.
The lore of early eclipses often told us more about the people spinning the yarns than it did about the sun or the moon, said Anthony Aveni, author of “In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses.”
“It’s not myth. It’s not science. It’s culture,” said Aveni, a professor of physics and sociology at Colgate University.
They are often morality tales to warn against everything from incest to lying, Aveni said.
They could be quite bloody and scary – and thus make a good lesson.
Here’s a sampling of eclipse lore and history:
Perhaps the bloodiest eclipse story comes from India and “it’s not for the faint of heart,” said former planetarium director Mark Littmann of the University of Tennessee.
A demon named Rahu tried to steal the nectar of immortality from the gods, but the sun and the moon recognized him. Rahu started drinking the nectar when Vishnu threw a discus and it “sliced right through Rahu’s neck,” Littmann said. The nectar was still in Rahu’s mouth but the rest of the body disappeared. So the immortal head would chase the sun and moon around the sky and “whenever it catches up with the sun and moon it takes a bite.” But because Rahu has no body, when he swallows the sun or moon, they soon reappear.
German myth has the cold and lazy male moon, ignoring the fiery passionate female sun during the day most of the time, except for a few bits of passion during an eclipse. Then they’d squabble again and the sun would resume shining again, Littmann said. In western Africa, it’s the occasional and furtive rendezvous but this time between the male sun and female moon, with the couple modestly turning out the lights during an eclipse.
Because the sun disappears like a cookie being nibbled, eating myths abound. The Norse had a wolf that took a bite out of the sun. Elsewhere it’s been a dog, dragon, bird and snake from the underworld. Often the beast would spit out the sun because it was too hot. End of eclipse.
The Babylonians, the Maya and the Chinese all hundreds and even thousands of years ago noticed a mathematical pattern when eclipses showed up and started calculating them in advance. They noticed they return to a place after 18 years and 11 days, Littmann said. “If you could predict something, it’s no longer scary,” he said.