Our ancestors didn’t chase solar eclipses – they chased them away
You think America is gripped with total eclipse fever now? You should have seen how our ancestors used to mark the celestial phenomenon.
Today we’ve got the benefit of scientific knowledge (and NASA’s exhaustive eclipse guide) to understand that when the sky goes dark for almost three minutes on Monday, it’s because the moon is passing between the Earth and the sun.
But if you didn’t understand celestial orbits, you would think the world was coming to an end. Day becomes night. The temperature drops. Animals act crazy. And so a corona of fascinating rituals has risen around the eclipse, from firing arrows at the sun to wearing red underwear.
“Whereas you see comets sometimes equated as a good omen – you make a wish upon seeing a ‘shooting star’ – I’ve never encountered a solar eclipse being a good or lucky omen,” James Deutsch, a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, told Moneyish.
“Among many traditional cultures, for people who did not have the benefit of our scientific information, this was a calamity that they needed to correct,” he added. “You can only imagine what was going through people’s minds when the sky suddenly turned dark in the middle of the day.”
One common belief shared in many different parts of the world was that the sun was being devoured by some very powerful creature. Chinese and Armenian tales tell of dragons eating the sun during total eclipses; the Hungarians blamed a giant bird; the Buryats in Siberia said it was a giant bear; the Vikings blamed a sky wolf; in Vietnam, it was a frog or toad; in Paraguay and Brazil, it was the Eternal Bat or the Celestial Jaguar.
So in these cultures, people would bang pots and pans, fire cannons or pound on drums to drive the sun-swallower away. The Chippewa Indians of North America would fire flaming arrows at the sun to keep it from going out. Hindus would immerse themselves in water, believing that the purification ritual would help the sun fight the dragon trying to consume it. They would also clean their homes and throw away any cooked food.
Other cultures believed the sun and moon were in a relationship, and their movements resulted in eclipses. In Africa, fights between the sun and moon resulted in the total darkness, so people would try to encourage the sun and moon to stop fighting by resolving their own feuds or anger on the ground.
“The eclipse is a great misfortune that needs to be corrected,” summed up Deutsch.
And there are beliefs that the sun rays peeking around the moon during an eclipse are tainted or impure – which contaminate food and drinks, or laundry hung out to dry. Some feared that conceiving a child during an eclipse would lead to birth defects, or that pregnant women exposed to eclipses had children with cleft lips or disfiguring birthmarks. So Mayans and Aztecs wore an arrowhead with red string to prevent this, and even today, some superstitious women in South America will wear red pants or underwear with a safety pin through them. For the record, moms-to-be, science shows you can safely go outside and observe the eclipse.
Solar eclipses were bad news for rulers. In China, because the sun was the symbol of the emperor, seeing it go dark was taken as a serious warning. So the emperor would leave the main palace, eat vegetarian and perform rituals to save the sun, as he feared for his life. The Greeks would let commoners or prisoners play at being “king” for a day, with all the perks of the royal court, in hopes of tricking the eclipse and saving the real king.
So it’s not surprising William Shakespeare used eclipses as bad signs in his tragedies “King Lear” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Solar eclipses have also been creepy plot devices in Stephen King’s books “Dolores Claiborne” and “Gerald’s Game.”
But the North American Navajo Indians observed the eclipse a bit more closely to how many American families will do so on Monday, by pausing to acknowledge what a special occasion this was. They stayed inside with family and sang special songs, and they also didn’t eat, drink or sleep while the eclipse was happening.
“People like to believe that they are not victims of forces beyond their control – we like to feel we have some control over the situation,” said Deutsch. So we tell ourselves that throwing spilled salt over our left shoulders, or wearing a special charm or token, will bring us good luck.
Or that making enough noise will drive the dragon away from the sun.
“We’re constantly surrounded by possible misfortune, so we find a way to ‘correct’ it,” said Deutsch.
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