March 8, 2024

Eclipse Legends

         Planet Earth is due for a total solar eclipse this year on April 8.  I’ve got my astronomically-approved eclipse glasses, and I’m ready to view it!  By the time the eclipse rolls around, however, I’ll already be ten letters deep into the April A to Z Challenge here on this blog, so I thought I’d better take the opportunity today to take a brief look at how humans have viewed eclipses through the lens of myth.
        Not surprisingly, an eclipse is the sort of natural phenomenon that catches people’s attention, that is not readily explainable to the pre-Copernican understanding, and that is dramatic enough to suggest that something really wild is happening in the heavens.  A situation ripe for legend!
        The most widespread explanation that seems to have occurred to people around the world is that something must be devouring the sun.  After all, we can see the bite being taken from the shining disc in the sky, and during a total eclipse it’s evidently been swallowed completely.  Vietnamese legend holds that a giant frog swallows the sun.  Javanese mythology accuses the god of darkness.  Chinese culture attributes the eclipse to a celestial dragon’s maw.  According to Andean cultures, it’s a puma; Choctow legend has a mischievous black squirrel; and Kwakiutl stories tell of some kind of sky creature.  Norse mythology claims the sun and moon are swallowed by giant wolves created by Loki.  Luckily, all these monsters always spit the sun back out again for one reason or another, sometimes because it’s too hot or because gods make them, but often because people scare the monster away with loud noises.  The Kwakiutl people light fires so that the smoke will make the sky creature sneeze and spit out the sun.  In Hindu mythology the sun is occasionally swallowed by the decapitated head of the demon Rahu — but since the monster is just a head, the sun quickly comes out from the back of his throat!
        But what if the sun weren’t being swallowed by a monster?  Perhaps instead the eclipse is the result of love.  In traditions of southeast Australia, the Moon chases the Sun across the sky and threatens to darken the world if she can’t catch him.  In Inuit legend it’s the Sun chasing the Moon.  In both German and Tahitian mythology the Sun and Moon are in a sort of “Ladyhawke” scenario in which they are lovers and the eclipse is one of the rare times they can actually be together.  Some people of Benin add the idea that when the Sun and Moon do get together, they turn off the light for privacy!  The Maya make loud noises to make the Sun and Moon break up their embrace, which seems kind of cruel.  Surely you could wait patiently in darkness for just a little while, to give them a rare chance to enjoy each others’ company!  (On the other hand, another source claims the Maya were in the sun-eating camp.  It’s entirely possible that there were multiple legends.  Also entirely possible that some of my sources for a shallow little survey post like this are not very accurate!)
        We get our word eclipse from Greek, and it meant literally “abandonment, forsaking,” because it happened when the gods were angry and the sun abandoned the Earth.  The Inca also believed an eclipse was a sign of the wrath of the sun god, and in Transylvania it was said that the sun would cover herself in darkness when she was angry with humans' bad actions.
        Sometimes it isn’t the sun’s fault at all.  Stories of the Aymara of South America say that an eclipse comes when the sun is sick.  People have to light fires to keep the Earth warm until the sun gets better.  The Ojibwa and Cree people of North America tell of a boy who catches the sun in a snare.  Only the mouse gnawing through the ropes can set the sun free.  Other indigenous North American stories suggest that the sun has dropped its torch or somehow gone out and needs to be rekindled with flaming arrows.  Persians suggested that an eclipse was caused when a peri (like a fairy or jinni) hid the sun as a prank.
        Perhaps the best take on it that I’ve read is the story from the Batammaliba of western Africa.  They say that the eclipse is caused when the sun and the moon fight — and the people's response is to gather together and try to sort out all their own arguments, in order to encourage the sun and the moon, too, to work out their differences and go back to their usual peaceful routines.
        What’s your favorite explanation for an eclipse?  And will you be able to observe the one on April 8?

[Pictures: Dragon and sun, detail from embroidered court robe, China, 19th century (Image from The Met);

Wolves pursuing the sun and moon, illustration by J.C. Dollman from Myths of the Norsemen by H.A. Guerber, 1909 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Demon Rahu eating the moon, linoleum block print by Brian Reedy ca. 2018 (Image from @brianreedy on Instagram).]

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