Solar eclipses have caused fear, inspired curiosity, and have been associated with myths, legends, and superstitions throughout history. Even today, an eclipse of the Sun is considered a bad omen in many cultures.
Ancient Explanations for Solar Eclipse
Ancient cultures tried to understand why the Sun temporarily vanished from the sky, so they came up with various reasons for what caused a solar eclipse.
In many cultures, the legends surrounding solar eclipses involve mythical figures eating or stealing the Sun. Others interpreted the event as a sign of angry or quarreling gods.
Hungry Demons, Thieving Dogs
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.
In ancient China, a celestial dragon was thought to lunch on the Sun, causing a solar eclipse. In fact, the Chinese word of an eclipse, chih or shih, means to eat.
According to ancient Hindu mythology, the deity Rahu is beheaded by the gods for capturing and drinking Amrita, the gods’ nectar. Rahu’s head flies off into the sky and swallows the Sun causing an eclipse.
Korean folklore offers another ancient explanation for solar eclipses. It suggests that solar eclipses happen because mythical dogs are trying to steal the Sun.
Traditionally, people in many cultures get together to bang pots and pans and make loud noises during a solar eclipse. It is thought that making a noise scares the demon causing the eclipse away.
Native American Solar Eclipse Myths and Legends
The Pomo, an indigenous group of people who live in the northwestern United States, tell a story of a bear who started a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. In fact, the Pomo name for a solar eclipse is Sun got bit by a bear.
After taking a bite of the Sun and resolving their conflict, the bear, as the story goes, went on to meet the Moon and take a bite out of the Moon as well, causing a lunar eclipse. This story may have been their way of explaining why a solar eclipse happens around 2 weeks before or after a lunar eclipse.
The ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and that it was the beginning of disasters and destruction.
The Tewa tribe from New Mexico in the United States believed that a solar eclipse signaled an angry Sun who had left the skies to go to his house in the underworld.
Quarreling Sun and Moon
According to Inuit folklore, the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with the Moon god Anningan. A solar eclipse happened when Anningan managed to catch up with his sister.
The Batammaliba, who live in Benin and Togo, used a solar eclipse as a teaching moment. According to their legends, an eclipse of the Sun meant that the Sun and the Moon were fighting and that the only way to stop them from hurting each other was for people on Earth to resolve all conflicts with each other.
Modern Day Sun Superstitions
Fear of solar eclipses still exists today. Many people around the world still see eclipses as evil omens that bring death, destruction, and disasters.
A popular misconception is that solar eclipses can be a danger to pregnant women and their unborn children. In many cultures, young children and pregnant women are asked to stay indoors during a solar eclipse.
In many parts of India, people fast during a solar eclipse due to the belief that any food cooked while an eclipse happens will be poisonous and unpure.
Not all superstitions surrounding solar eclipses are about doom. In Italy, for example, it is believed that flowers planted during a solar eclipse are brighter and more colorful than flowers planted any other time of the year.
No Scientific Basis
Scientists and astronomers around the world have debunked any such claims. There is no scientific evidence that solar eclipses can affect human behavior, health, or the environment. Scientists, however, do emphasize that anyone watching a solar eclipse must protect their eyes.
Solar Eclipses in History
Solar eclipses have historically been viewed as omens that bring about death and destruction. But in reality, they are harmless—and they even helped prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The word eclipse comes from ekleipsis, the ancient Greek word for being abandoned.
The British astronomer and mathematician, Sir Arthur Eddington, used the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919 to test Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
By taking pictures of stars near the Sun during totality, Eddington was able to show that gravity can bend light. This phenomenon is called gravitational deflection.
Helium Named After the Sun
A solar eclipse is also responsible for the discovery of helium. The first piece of evidence for the existence of the second lightest and the second most abundant element known to humans was discovered by the French astronomer Jules Janssen during a total solar eclipse on August 18, 1868. Because of this, it’s named after the Greek word for the Sun: Helios.
Predicting the Emperor’s Future
Surviving records have shown that the Babylonians and the ancient Chinese were able to predict solar eclipses as early as 2500 BCE.
In China, solar eclipses were thought to be associated with the health and success of the emperor, and failing to predict one meant putting him in danger. Legend has it that 2 astrologers, Hsi and Ho, were executed for failing to predict a solar eclipse. Historians and astronomers believe that the eclipse that they failed to forecast occurred on October 22, 2134 BCE, which would make it the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded in human history.
Clay tablets found at ancient archaeological sites show that the Babylonians not only recorded eclipses—the earliest known Babylonian record is of the eclipse that took place on May 3, 1375 BCE—but were also fairly accurate in predicting them. They were the first people to use the saros cycle to predict eclipses. The saros cycle relates to the lunar cycle and is about 6,585.3 days (18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours) long.
Like the ancient Chinese, the Babylonians believed that solar eclipses were bad omens for kings and rulers. Predicting solar eclipses enabled them to seat substitute kings during solar eclipses with the hope that these temporary kings would face the anger of the Gods, instead of the real king.
Eclipses as Peacemakers
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, a solar eclipse in 585 BCE stopped the war between the Lydians and the Medes, who saw the dark skies as a sign to make peace with each other.
The Greek astronomer Hipparchus used a solar eclipse to determine that the Moon was about 429,000 km (268,000 mi) away from the Earth. This is only about 11% more than what today’s scientists accept as the average distance between the Moon and the Earth.
Kepler Close, Halley Closer
Although early eclipse pioneers, including Chinese astronomer Liu Hsiang, Greek philosopher Plutarch, and Byzantine historian Leo Diaconus tried to describe and explain solar eclipses and their features, it was not until 1605 that astronomer Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.
More than a century later, Edmund Halley, who the famous Halley’s comet is named after, predicted the timing and path of the total solar eclipse on May 3, 1715. His calculations were only 4 minutes and about 30 km (18 mi) off from the actual timing and path of the eclipse. Halley’s comet causes 2 annual meteor showers: the Eta Aquarids and the Orionids.
Some Other Notable Solar Eclipses in History
The scientific fascination with solar eclipses has led to some important scientific discoveries about the nature of the Sun, Moon, and our solar system.
6 Ways Cultures Have Explained Eclipses
Without a scientific explanation, the darkening of the Sun (or Moon) during an eclipse would be a startling event, to say the least. Throughout history, eclipses have been seen as a disruption of the natural order, and many groups have believed them to be bad omens. Many ancient (and not so ancient) peoples had spiritual explanations for solar and lunar eclipses to help them make sense of these seemingly inexplicable and random phenomena. Read on to learn some of these theories from around the world.
In ancient China it was commonly held that solar eclipses occurred when a celestial dragon attacked and devoured the Sun. Chinese eclipse records are some of the oldest in the world and go back more than 4,000 years; at least one simply states “the Sun has been eaten.” To frighten away the dragon and save the Sun, people would bang drums and make loud noises during an eclipse. Since the Sun always returned after this ruckus-making, it is easy to see how the tradition was perpetuated. Interestingly, it seems the ancient Chinese were not particularly bothered by lunar eclipses, and one text from about 90 BCE dismisses them as “a common matter.”
Ancient Hindu mythology provides a rather graphic and disturbing explanation for solar eclipses. According to legend, a cunning demon named Rahu sought to drink the nectar of the gods and thus attain immortality. Disguised as a woman, Rahu attempted to attend a banquet of the gods and was discovered by Vishnu. As punishment, the demon was promptly beheaded, and it is his decapitated head flying across the sky that darkens the Sun during an eclipse. Some versions say that Rahu was actually able to steal a sip of the nectar but was beheaded before the elixir reached the rest of his body. His immortal head, in perpetual pursuit of the Sun, sometimes catches and swallows it, but the Sun quickly reappears, as Rahu has no throat.
The Inca of South America worshiped Inti, the all-powerful sun god. Inti was generally believed to be benevolent, but solar eclipses were understood to be a sign of his wrath and displeasure. Following an eclipse, spiritual leaders would attempt to divine the source of his anger and determine which sacrifices should be offered. Although the Inca rarely practiced human sacrifice, it is thought that an eclipse was occasionally deemed serious enough to do so. Fasting was also common, and the emperor would often withdraw from public duties during and following an eclipse.
According to Choctaw legend, a mischievous black squirrel gnawing on the Sun is the cause of eclipses. Like the Chinese dragon, the squirrel must be frightened away by the clamor and yells of the event’s human witnesses. Ojibwa and Cree peoples have a story that a boy (or sometimes dwarf) named Tcikabis sought revenge on the Sun for burning him. Despite the protestations of his sister, he caught the Sun in a snare, causing an eclipse. Various animals tried to release the Sun from the trap, but only the lowly mouse could chew through the ropes and set the Sun back on its path.
The Batammaliba are an ancient people of northern Togo and Benin. According to their legend, human anger and fighting spread to the Sun and the Moon, who began to fight with each other and caused an eclipse. The legendary first mothers, Puka Puka and Kuiyecoke, urged the villagers to demonstrate peace to the Sun and Moon to convince them to stop their brawl. During an eclipse, Batammaliba people make amends for old feuds and peacefully come together to encourage peace between the celestial bodies.
Surprisingly, ancient Egyptians did not leave any explicit records detailing solar eclipses, though such an event would undoubtedly have been observed by these astronomy-savvy sun worshippers. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps eclipses were highly distressing and were deliberately left unrecorded so as to not “endow the event with a degree of permanence” or tempt the sun god Re (Ra). One Egyptologist has suggested that various references to an apparently metaphorical form of blindness align with historical eclipse dates and may be symbolic records of these events. Or perhaps papyrus records were simply lost to time.