If—in a year from now—you suddenly see the sky turn dark in the middle of the day, it’s not the rapture, but a solar eclipse estimated to take place on August 21, 2017. So what exactly is a solar eclipse, you ask? To put it simply, it’s when the moon completely covers the sun, leaving behind a faintly glowing nimbus encircling a black disk in the sky. The result is a bizarre window of time where animals become perplexed and go to sleep, nighttime insects come out of hiding and begin to buzz around, and then in a snap, the horizon starts to illuminate, the sun is no longer blocked and everything returns to normal.
To wit, the 2017 solar eclipse is unique in that it will be the closest to “home” in four decades. August 21, 2017 will mark the first time since 1979 that a total solar eclipse will cross the contiguous United States. Even more rare, the shadow track, or “path of totality,” will only go past the United States and no other nation for the first time in history. This has led to some people dubbing the event “The Great American Eclipse.” In anticipation of this momentous occasion, here are some old myths that our ancestors created to explain the eclipse phenomenon.
In many ancient cultures, a solar eclipse signified a monster or demon eating the sun. The Vietnamese thought that the sun was devoured by a gigantic frog. The Vikings believed that wolves were responsible for feasting on the sun and creating the sudden darkness. In ancient China, a divine dragon was the culprit—as a matter of fact, the Chinese word for eclipse is chih or shih, meaning to eat. Ancient people would often make loud noises during the solar eclipse, like banging pots and pans, as a way of frightening the demon away.
The aboriginals of the northwestern United States, called the Pomo, believed in a tale of a bear who fought the sun and took a bite out of it. After mending their conflict, the bear later met with the moon and took a bite of the moon, causing a lunar eclipse. This myth was a way of describing why a solar eclipse happens a fortnight before or after a lunar eclipse.
In ancient Greece, a solar eclipse was an omen by angry gods that disasters and devastation were around the corner. The Tewa tribe from New Mexico thought that a solar eclipse meant the Sun was mad and had left to go chill out, leaving the skies to turn dark.
The Inuits believed that the Sun goddess Malina fought with her brother Annigan, the Moon god, and walked away. When Annigan caught up to Malina, a solar eclipse resulted. According to the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo, an eclipse signified that the Sun and the Moon were brawling and that the only way to prevent them from damaging each other was for humans on Earth to resolve all their conflicts.
Korean superstition suggests that solar eclipses occur because mystical dogs are trying to steal the Sun.
Although science and humanity has come a long way, fear of solar eclipses still exists today. Many societies around the globe still view eclipses as evil prophecies that bring destruction, death and disasters.
A common misbelief is that solar eclipses can be hazardous to pregnant women and their unborn children. In some cultures, young kids and pregnant females are forced to stay inside during a solar eclipse.
In many parts of India, people fast during a solar eclipse because of the belief that food cooked during that time will be poisonous and impure.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people believe solar eclipses are a good sign. In Italy, it is believed that flowers sowed during a solar eclipse come out brighter and more vibrant than flowers planted at other times of the year.
Scientists and astronomers around the world have all squashed any superstitions regarding eclipses. There is no scientific proof that solar eclipses are able to affect human actions, health or environs. Nevertheless, scientists do recommend that anyone watching a solar eclipse should protect their eyes.
By next year, many Americans will have the rare opportunity to see firsthand one of the most glorious and exhilarating events to take place in our skies. It is estimated that 12 million people live within the path of the solar eclipse, and probably around 200 million people within driving distance of the totality zones.
Notable cities inside the totality path include Idaho Falls, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; Grand Island, Nebraska; Lincoln, Nebraska; Columbia, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina. The metropolitan areas of Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Louis are right on the edge of the totality path, according to NBC News.
Have you ever seen a total solar eclipse? Will you watch the one in 2017?