Say what? Old eclipse myths, legends will make you grateful for science

Examining what ancient people thought of solar phenomena

By Michelle Ganley - Online Editor
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(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

(GMG) - Is an eclipse scary, beautiful or a little bit of both? Maybe it’s best that we can’t ask the ancient people, many of whom feared eclipses, which were seen in some early civilizations as an attack on the sun or moon by the forces of darkness.

Luckily, these days, we know a little bit more about science and how the world works.

Inside WSLS: Do your plans Aug. 21 involve heading out for the eclipse? We want to hear!

National Geographic confirmed in a 2013 piece that some people saw the eclipse as a time of terror: Mythical figures eating or stealing the sun, or a sign of angry or fighting gods. But others viewed an eclipse as part of the natural order that deserved respect, or at least reflection and reconciliation.

It seems as though everyone was just trying to come up with a logical explanation on why the sun temporarily vanished from the sky.

Many cultures explain eclipses as a time when demons or animals eat the sun or the moon -- often, the animal involved was a dragon. In fact, the Chinese word for an eclipse, chih or shih, means to eat. In Vietnam, people believed that a solar eclipse was caused by a giant frog devouring the sun, while Norse cultures blamed wolves for eating the sun, according to timeanddate.com.

In order to combat this so-called "eating of the sun," people in many cultures used to make noise in order to scare the demon or animal away. Those including the ancient Chinese and the Incas banged on pots and pans or played on drums to get whatever was swallowing the sun or the moon to go away. This was the case during both solar and lunar eclipses.

In India, people would immerse themselves up to the neck in water, an act of worship they believed helped the sun fight off the dragon.

Let’s take a more in-depth look back at some more of what the ancient people thought.

-- The Vikings (who lived from about 750 AD to 1050 AD):

The Vikings saw a pair of sky wolves chasing the sun or the moon. When one of the wolves caught either of the shining orbs, an eclipse would result. Simple enough.

-- The Koreans (time period unclear; likely 3rd or 4th century):

Korean eclipse mythology involves fire dogs that try to steal the sun or the moon, Nat Geo said. The Koreans weren’t the only ones who used tales of theft or deception to explain the sun’s disappearance during an eclipse. You’ll see a theme as we continue to go down the list of cultures.

“On orders from a king, the mythical canines try their best to capture the fiery sun or the ice-cold moon,” the Nat Geo piece reads. “They always fail, but whenever they bite either orb, an eclipse results.”

-- The Hindus (6th century):

And then there’s the Hindu demon Rahu, who disguises himself as a god in order to steal a taste of an elixir that grants immortality. The sun and moon see what Rahu is up to, and they report him to the god Vishnu.

"Vishnu slices off his head before (the elixr) can slide past his throat," Nat Geo’s expert said. As a consequence, Rahu's head turns immortal, but his body dies. The demon's head continues to move through the sky, chasing the sun and the moon because he hates them. "Every now and then he catches them and swallows them." But because Rahu has no throat, the sun and the moon fall out of the bottom of his head. Makes sense, right?

-- The Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin: In Africa (time period unknown)

In this myth, the sun and the moon are fighting during an eclipse. The people then talk the the sun and the moon into making an agreement to stop the quareling, and the whole thing is seen as a time of coming together and resolving old feuds.

It's a myth that has held to this day.

-- Navajos (time period unknown):

A Navajo tradition has lasted into current times, as well. The Navajos regard the cosmic order of the universe as revolving around the idea of balance, or as being part of nature's law. It’s about pausing for reflection on the order of things.

Some Navajo still observe traditions associated with an eclipse by staying inside with their family, singing songs and refraining from eating, drinking or sleeping, Nat Geo said.

--

Eclipses appear often in the mythology and literature of different cultures and different ages, most often as symbols of obliteration, fear, and the overthrow of the natural order of things, according to The Exploratorium in San Francisco, which said the word eclipse comes from a Greek word meaning "abandonment." Quite literally, an eclipse was seen by some as the sun abandoning the earth.

Scientists and astronomers around the world have debunked these myths. There’s no evidence that eclipses can affect human behavior, health or the environment, timeanddate.com says.

Source: National Geographic

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