The blotting out of the sun during a solar eclipse has long been surrounded with fright and superstition by people around the world. Early civilizations came up with interpretations of the phenomenon to try and explain what they could not understand. Early cultures saw the sun as the giver of life in its consistency, so something that could shadow the sun was seen as an ominous and catastrophic event, associated with many beliefs, myths, and superstitions.
For much of human history, the reasons behind solar eclipses were a mystery. Different cultures around the world have believed in anything from demons stealing the sun's light to dragons swallowing the sun in anger, and associate solar eclipses with calamities, war and epidemics. For centuries, priests of ancient civilizations kept the knowledge of eclipses to themselves. Because they could predict the incidence of eclipses they could terrify people into believing that they could blot out the sun at will. Most people were made to fear eclipses and to make sacrifices to safeguard against their effects.
Ancient Eclipse Myths
In India, the solar eclipse symbolizes the demon Rahu eating up the sun. Indian mythology tells of Rahu deceiving the gods, and being beheaded as punishment for his transgression. Rahu's head was thought to come back every few years to devour the sun god. Believers looked at the solar eclipse as dangerous, and said that the danger from the eclipse passed only when the sun emerged from Rahu's head.
The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses were caused by a dragon trying to swallow the Sun. They believed that the dragon needed to be frightened away by beating drums, banging gongs, and shooting fireworks into the sky. To this day, the Chinese word for a solar eclipse is "resh" or "Sun-eat".
The African solar eclipse myth tells of a snake emerging from the ocean that grew so large it moved to the sky and swallowed the sun. The snake was scared by the beating of drums.
17th Century Britain was not free from eclipse superstition. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Gloucester says:
"These late eclipses in the Sun and the Moon pretend no good to us."
In Paradise Lost
, John Milton
"The Sun in dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change perplexes monarchs"
Not all peoples were afraid of solar eclipses. There is an Amazonian myth that describes the Sun and the Moon as lovers. They loved each other so much that the Sun's light scorched the Earth and the Moon's tears drowned it. It was decided that the Sun and the Moon should live apart in the sky and only be allowed to touch each other's shadow, during a solar eclipse.
In Tahiti, like in the Amazon, solar eclipses had a romantic undertone. They were interpreted as the lovemaking of the Sun and the Moon. People in Tahiti found solar eclipses to be the herald of a divine blessing.
Eclipse Superstitions Today
Despite scientific explanations and an understanding of the solar eclipse as a natural phenomenon, many people continue to beat drums, fire guns into the sky, or hide indoors during the event. Solar eclipses have been associated with wars, floods, famines, political turmoil, and calamity. To many, a solar eclipse indicates a disease on the sun, and to avoid catching the disease, one must protect himself. In ancient times, eclipses were events of ill portent. Even today, many people who do not understand their nature still fear them.
Many in India believe that during an eclipse, the number of germs increases. Therefore, no food is eaten or cooked during the event, and any food cooked before the eclipse is discarded. In an act of cleansing, people immerse themselves in water up to their neck. Pregnant women refrain from cutting and sewing during the eclipse, believing the unborn child would be contaminated by the eclipse and become deformed. In India some people lock themselves in their homes to avoid the "bad rays" from the eclipse.
Lucky objects are used to ward off evil omens during a solar eclipse in Thailand. Since black is the color of Rahu (the demon of darkness), black chicken, black liquor, black beans, black eggs, black rice and black moss sticks are thought to be lucky.
In Japan, some people cover wells to avoid them being poisoned by the celestial "disease."
Some Eskimos turn over utensils during a solar eclipse to avoid them being tainted.
Sources: BBC Online Network (http://news.bbc.co.uk), Florida Today (http://www.flatoday.com/space/explore/stories/1999b/081199n.htm), Space.com (http://www.space.com/), and Total Solar Eclipses (http://www.colorsofindia.com/eclipse/index.html)