On August 21, much of the United States will be graced with the first total solar eclipse to go from the Pacific to the Atlantic since 1918. Although it still brings about its fair share of silly myths (in fact, NASA has a whole page dedicated to debunking modern-day myths surrounding eclipses) we now have a good understanding of what’s going on “up there” thanks to thousands of years scientific development.
But what must humans have thought about solar eclipses before we understood the Solar System and all its eccentricities? In short, most of them were terrified.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote stories of how the philosopher and astronomer Thales of Miletus managed to successfully predict the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE. Although doubt has been shed on the legitimacy of this prediction, the eclipse was said to have risen during a vicious battle between the Medes and the Lydians. Soldiers believed they had been blessed (or perhaps threatened) with an omen from above, so they put down their weapons and ceased fighting.
Unfortunately, not all myths surrounding solar eclipses are always this peaceful.
The Aztecs are famous for their love of the Sun. So, you can imagine the upset when this symbol was suddenly blanked from the sky. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún was a missionary during the 16th century Spanish Conquest of the Americas who documented a 1596 CE total eclipse.
According to Edwin C Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, de Sahagún reported: “There was shouting everywhere. People of light complexion were slain. It was thus said: 'If the eclipse of the sun is complete, it will be dark forever! The demons of darkness will come down. They will eat men."
Solar eclipses were widely described by numerous ancient cultures in terms of a vengeful beast swallowing up the Sun. The Shan people of now present-day Vietnam believed it was an evil spirit in the form of a toad gobbling the Sun, the Vikings saw a pair of sky wolves chasing it away, and the Buryats of Siberia said it was a giant bear, as did the indigenous Pomo of Northern California.
For the ancient Chinese, it was dragons. In fact, one of the earliest words for eclipse, shih or chih, translates as “to eat”. Since nobody wanted to be eaten by this fearsome sky dragon, it was common for the Ancient Chinese to bang drums and pots to scare the dragon away.
The Batammaliba people of Western Africa also have one of the most unique and upbeat interpretations of solar eclipses. In their legend, the eclipse occurs because the Moon and the Sun have fallen out, so the people must try to encourage them to make up. Once they do, it’s taken as a symbol to make amends with old enemies and rebuild friendships.
So, although any eclipse-viewers will undoubtedly have an incredible experience, spare a thought for the poor humans of years gone by.