The lore and lure of eclipses: Blood, sex and some snacking
By Seth Borenstein
WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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. Some of them weren’t exactly bedtime stories.
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. After all, what’s more unnerving than the sun disappearing in the middle of the day?
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.
Littmann described what might be the first case of California road rage. The Pomo Indians talked of a bear that was walking when it bumped into the sun. They fought about who was in the way, so the bear, in a fit of rage, bit the sun and kept eating until the moon came and saved the day.
Andean people used to speak of the moon whispering lies in the sun’s ear — the crescent in the eclipse. So they would bang drums and make dogs howl to alert the sun that “the moon is a liar and he’s lying to the sun” about the people of Earth, Aveni said.
An eclipse stopped the battle between the Lydians and the Medes more than 2,500 years ago, according to writings by the first Greek historian Herodotus. “Soldiers on both sides were so terrified they stopped fighting” and they made peace, with the daughter of the Lydian king marrying the sun of the Median king, Littmann said.
Tenskwatawa, a Shawnee prophet of the early 19th century, was trying to unite tribes in Indiana and Ohio. William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana territory and later president, tried to belittle the efforts. He asked the prophet if he could perform miracles and challenged him to “cause the sun to stand still, the moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from the graves.” Tenkswatawa knew of the upcoming June 16, 1806 eclipse and proclaimed he would blot out the sun and came out in full regalia. The sun went away temporarily, “which was very embarrassing for Harrison,” Littmann said.
The Babylonians, the Maya and the Chinese all hundreds and even thousands of years ago noticed a mathematical pattern in 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.