It’s obvious I spend far too much time browsing the internet :-D but here’s an interesting article I found today while looking for more info about the upcoming eclipse…
The Sun-Eating Dragon
Eclipse Stories, Myths, and Legends
By Noel Wanner
The light of day begins to fade in the middle of the morning. Looking up, you catch a glimpse of what looks like a disk of pure blackness sliding across the face of the sun. Soon the blackness has almost completely covered the sun, and dusk is falling over the land. The air cools. The birds are silent and still. What do you feel as the light drops away? Is an eclipse frightening? Beautiful? Or both at once?
Eclipses appear often in the mythology and literature of different cultures and different ages, most often as symbols of obliteration, fear, and the overthrow of the natural order of things. The word eclipse comes from a Greek word meaning “abandonment.” Quite literally, an eclipse was seen as the sun abandoning the earth.
A recurring and pervasive embodiment of the eclipse was a dragon, or a demon, who devours the sun. The ancient Chinese would produce great noise and commotion during an eclipse, banging on pots and drums to frighten away the dragon. The Incas, too, tried to intimidate the creatures who were eating the sun. In India they took a different tack — people would immerse themselves up to the neck in water, an act of worship they believed helped the sun fight off the dragon.
As astrophysicist David Dearborn notes, “In many ways it makes sense that eclipses would be seen as bad omens. For most early cultures, the sun was seen as a life-giver, something that was there every day, so something that blots out the sun was a terribly bad event, filled with foreboding.” Milton, in Paradise Lost, captures the unease eclipses generated in early Europeans:
|As when the Sun, new risen,
Looks through the horizontal misty air,
Shorn of his beams,or from behind the Moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Science Steps In
As a mechanistic, scientific view of the universe grew in influence, the image of the eclipse began to shift. The new view reflected the empirical approach to the world and rejected awe and terror, emotions that came to be seen as a sign of an undeveloped, uncivilized mind. William Wordsworth’s “The Eclipse of the Sun, 1820,” describes the contrast between the attitudes of British scientists in India and the Indians as the eclipse begins:
|High on her speculative tower
Stood Science waiting for the hour
When Sol was destined to endure
That darkening of his radiant face
Which Superstition strove to chase,
Erewhile, with rites impure.
In the past 200 years, a recurring theme in European eclipse stories involves western “scientific” man taking advantage of the “superstitious” fear inspired by eclipses to manipulate indigenous peoples. In one of the earliest examples of this recurring story, Christopher Columbus, on his voyage attempting to discover a western passage to the Indies, is stranded in Jamaica, where he and his crew have stopped to gather supplies. The local people are unwilling to provide the food and supplies Columbus demands, and his crew is growing hungry and restless.
Stuck in this awkward position, Columbus (it is said) hits on an ingenious solution: from his astrological charts, he knows that a total lunar eclipse will happen in a few days. When the day arrives, he gathers the local people, tells them that he is very angry with them for withholding supplies, and that he will show his wrath by causing the moon to disappear. As if on cue, the moon begins to fade away behind the shadow of the earth. The local people are struck with terror, and they offer Columbus whatever he wishes, if only he will return the moon to its place in the sky. Columbus relents, the moon reappears in a few minutes, and Columbus and his crew are lavishly resupplied and sent on their way by the grateful Jamaicans.
Though this story may well be apocryphal, it provided the model for literary eclipses for years to come. Mark Twain, in his book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has his main character, Hank Morgan, use a similar gambit. Morgan is about to be burned at the stake, so he “predicts” a solar eclipse he knows will occur, claiming power over the sun, and offering to return the sun to the sky in return for his freedom. “The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk. . . . The multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny night breezes . . . and see the stars come out. . . .” Morgan is set free, and held in extreme awe for his “wizardry.”
This theme of science-versus-superstition even appears in the world-renowned comic-book adventures of Tintin, the boy reporter created by Hergé. In Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin and his companions have been taken prisoner by a tribe of Incas. For their crime of accidentally entering the Temple of the Sun, Tintin and Captain Haddock are to be burned alive, their pyre lit by a huge magnifying glass focusing the rays of the sun. The only dispensation the Incas give them is that they may choose the day and hour of their death. Tintin finds a scrap of newspaper in his pocket, and notices that a total eclipse is predicted a few days hence. Choosing that day and time for their execution, Tintin then is able to halt the ceremony, shouting to the leader of the Incas “Stay, Husker! . . . The Sun God will not hear your prayers! O magnificent Sun, if it is thy will that we should live, give us now a sign!” And the sun, appearing to obey Tintin’s will, begins to disappear behind the eclipse. The Incas are terrified, and rush about in chaos. The Inca leader frees Tintin and his friends, and they are accorded places of honor.
There May Be More to the Story
All of these literary examples imply that it is foolish to be afraid of an eclipse. Their authors would agree with Bryan Brewer, who, in his book Eclipse, put the idea this way: “With advance notice of the event and a higher level of scientific understanding among people, there is no need for anyone to be frightened by what should be a marvelous experience of the beauty of nature.”
But is it really superstitious to react to an eclipse with fear and wonder? Do scientists really feel no awe or amazement when the sun disappears behind the moon? Often science is portrayed as a struggle in which the discovery of facts liberates us from the tyranny of emotional reaction to experience. But a look at some other literary reactions to eclipses, and a look at the feelings of modern scientists themselves, reveals a different picture. Perhaps these people would agree with Thomas Carlyle that “The man who cannot wonder is but a pair of spectacles behind which there is no eye.”
Consider the experience of the writer Annie Dillard, watching a recent total solar eclipse from the hills of Washington state:
“From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly, it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall us to our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.” (“Total Eclipse” in Teaching a Stone to Talk.)
And consider the enthusiasm and reverence expressed by J. B. Zirker, a veteran astronomer who has seen countless eclipses, in his account of an eclipse in 1980:
“I pull off the lens cap. Ray adjusts the pointing of the telescope a hair and says “GO!” Our motorized camera begins to whine and snap regularly, as Horst sets the time for increasingly long exposures. I look up. Incredible! It is the eye of God. A perfectly black disk, ringed with bright spiky streamers that stretch out in all directions. A few red prominences. A star or two. This fantastic object, blazing in the surrounding blackness, at mid-morning. What a stunning sight!”
Zirker, director of the Sacramento Peak Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, understands better than most exactly what’s happening during an eclipse, yet he still experiences the event as a momentary contact with the fantastic majesty of the universe.
Astrophysicist David Dearborn shares this feeling, “I’ve seen many eclipses, and each time it is just a marvelous experience, a phenomenal thing to see.” As he puts it, eclipses are not interesting to scientists just because of all the phenomena that can be seen and researched, but because, “all of these beautiful and interesting things are happening during the middle of the day, when the sun just should be there!”
What power does knowledge have over terror? Does knowing how something works diminish its beauty and mystery? Or is the beauty of the world deepened by understanding the things we see? As you watch the total solar eclipse along with us and learn more about eclipses, ask yourself how your perception of this unique event is affected by the things you’re learning.