Eclipse Ponderings

Like zillions of others fascinated by the current events of the cosmos, I’ve been reading about eclipses, not just the science of them, which is interesting but pretty straight forward, but also the many historic traditions, beliefs, fears, and attitudes regarding solar eclipses. Many articles make statements that go like this: “before astronomers were around to explain them……”, dismissing attitudes and traditions about eclipses that are not science based as invalid. My inner historian/anthropologist wannabe (I studied both in college) compels me to question this dismissal. I specifically became interested in India’s attitudes and history regarding eclipses when I heard that Dr Vasant Lad, the respected Ayurvedic doctor who introduced Ayurvedic healing traditions to the United States, recommended not looking at an eclipse, but using the duration of the eclipse as a meditative, reflective period of time.  Obviously everyone recommends not looking at an eclipse without eye protection or you can damage your eyes, but he meant more than that.

My curiosity was piqued.

Can stars be seen during an eclipse? Yes!  Larger stars and some planets, such as Venus, are visible, as well as the corona of the sun, which is only clearly seen during a solar eclipse.

There are references to 2600 BC as the time when astronomers in China and Babylon could predict eclipses. A research paper on eclipse records in India states there are references to eclipses in the Rig Veda, oldest known writings in India, dating between 1700 BC and 1400 BC. This makes me think some of the eclipse beliefs and traditions of India and other places are not based on fear of the unknown, but perhaps an understanding of the known, that is the impact an eclipse can have on life on the earth. Perhaps the recommendations found in several cultures to not look at an eclipse, to stay indoors, do not eat during an eclipse, to bath after an eclipse have to do with the best way to mitigate the impact of an eclipse.  A friend shared a research paper she found on a study done to see if microbes died during an eclipse. It’s a little weighty to read, but it seems the particular microbes studied actually proliferated during an eclipse. (Maybe a good reason to bath afterwards? Who knows!)

The ancient rishis of India were smart, much of what they wrote about health, etc. still holds true. (Consider that modern plastic surgery was ‘discovered’ after a German doctor read about a procedure in the Vedas for repairing a nose cut off in a battle.) I think some of their recommendations around eclipses being a time to be more interior, reflective, and to protect oneself from the ‘darkness’ may have been based on their observations. Those same recommendations can be found in other cultures, including many North American tribal traditions. (see article link below from Santa Fe, New Mexico.)

Another factor of eclipse ‘myths’ in any culture is that ancient stories of phenomena were (and still are) used metaphorically to teach certain moral or spiritual concepts. A phantasmagorical event, solar eclipses are a great focus for a good story and does not necessarily imply a lack of understanding.

Whether you will be able to see it, an eclipse is a period of time when the sun, the big light in our sky, will be darkened in the middle of the day. Both modern scientists and ancient wise men agree that birds, animals and plants (you’ll likely be busy looking at the eclipse, but you could also watch your light sensitive plants, the ones who move with the sun, or close at night) show signs of being affected by this day-into-night phenomena. Since we too are “animals” there is no doubt an impact on us. Mike and I will try to spend the eclipse period following the suggestions of the ancients – be quiet, meditative, reflective. But we have our eclipse glasses ready for our curious minds, should we have clear skies here in the Pacific Northwest! (Post script: We did!🌞)

Enjoy reading some of the articles  below about eclipse myths and ponder the meaning of those that aren’t too far fetched.  Maybe a wolf isn’t going to eat the sun, but they might be howling at the moon when it makes it’s appearance in tomorrow’s day time sky!

Interesting info on eclipses in different cultures and history:

How Ancient Cultures Explained Eclipses

The Surprising Ways Animals Respond to Eclipses
The Role Of Solar Eclipses In Religion (refers specifically to Judaism)

Short NPR Video on history of eclipse

Myths and superstitions around eclipses

Respect and reverence: Local tribes prepare members for eclipse

What can you see in the sky during an eclipse?

  • Banner photo from space.com, photo from 2016 eclipse