Mythology

Myths And Fables Of The Eclipse

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The story first turned up in Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court," but we've seen it a million times since then: somebody accidentally travels to a more superstitious age and "proves" to those people that they have magic powers by predicting a well-timed solar eclipse. We haven't been able to try that out quite yet, but the message is clear. Back in the day, people didn't understand how the solar system worked, so they would come up with explanations that made sense with what they did know. Here's some of the stories from the past to explain how eclipses worked — and a few myths and legends we haven't quite gotten rid of yet.

Omens And Origins

Since the dawn of time, the sun's daily pattern has been one thing that people have always been able to rely on — until they can't. So it's not surprising that we would have come up with explanations for those rare occasions when the cosmic constant gets disrupted. What is surprising, though, is the way those mythical explanations hung around, even after we started learning how to predict eclipses with some accuracy.

The stories that accumulated around the eclipse can broadly be categorized into two types: those that explain what they mean, and those that explain why they happen.

OMENS

To some ancient people, it wasn't so important whether the sun left because it was feeling sulky or if it was being temporarily eaten by a mythological creature. Instead, they cared about what the eclipse meant for the future. Here are a few examples of those types explanations of the eclipse from around the world.

Eclipses are good news, as long as they're predicted ahead of time (China). There's some debate over its authenticity, but the story of Hsi and Ho is one of the oldest that's been linked to a historical eclipse. More than 4,000 years ago, Chinese custom stated that eclipses were an omen of health and prosperity for the emperor, as long as they were foretold by his talented astronomers. Unfortunately, Hsi and Ho were not talented astronomers. Without their prediction, an eclipse darkened the land and terrified the people (historians now believe it occurred on October 22, 2134 BCE), and Hsi and Ho were put to death for their failure.

Eclipses are very bad news for kings (Babylon). Similar to the Chinese legend, ancient Babylonians believed that eclipses were extremely dark omens for the king, particularly if they came unexpectedly. When Babylonian astronomers believed an eclipse was coming up, they'd unseat the king and replace him with a substitute. The decoy would absorb all of the bad vibes, and as soon as the sun returned, the rightful king could as well.

Eclipses are a time for reconciling your differences (Togo and Benin). There's a story among the Batammaliba people of Togo and Benin that the sun and moon are locked in an eternal struggle (click here to listen to it). Every eclipse is a battle in that endless war, and thus, a sign of what can happen if you let your grudges spiral out of control. So when the moon casts its shadow on the Earth, the Batammaliba saw this as a reminder to bury the hatchet with their neighbors.

Eclipses mean the gods are mad at us (Greece). The ancient Greeks saw a shadow over the land as a sure sign that Zeus & Co. were angry with humanity. What they did with that information varied. But in one notable story told by Herodotus, an eclipse in the year 585 BCE darkened the battlefield during a war between the Lydians and the Medes. In response, every soldier dropped his weapon and the war ended shortly after.

ORIGINS

Other stories from antiquity concerned themselves with reassuring the listener that eclipses were just a part of the normal workings of the cosmos. These might overlap with the "omen" stories — if Hsi and Ho had done their job, they likely would have ascribed the eclipse to a fire-eating dragon. Actually, a lot of stories revolved around one creature or another trying to eat the sun. Take a look:

Thieves and Devourers (China, Vietnam, Scandinavia, North America, and Many Others). Like we mentioned, in ancient China it was a celestial dragon, while in Vietnam the darkness was blamed on a hungry frog, and the Vikings attributed it to sky-wolves. The Pomo of northern California said a bear would take a bite from the sun then a bite from the moon, explaining why a solar eclipse is always shortly accompanied by a lunar eclipse. And in Korea, a pair of fire-dogs don't try to eat the sun, only steal it.

A Demon's Revenge (India). Technically this is another story of somebody eating the sun, but it's different enough to describe in greater detail. Long ago, the Hindu demon Rahu disguised himself as a god in order to steal a potion of immortality. But the sun and moon caught him and reported him to Vishnu. Rahu got a mouthful of the potion, but Vishnu cut off his head before it reached his throat. As a result, Rahu's body died, but his head will live forever. So he sails through the cosmos, occasionally eating the sun and moon as revenge, only to have them slip out the bottom of his throat-hole.

Almost Nothing at All (Egypt). An example of an extreme oddity, historians and archaeologists have found very few references to eclipses in Egyptian mythology, which was built almost entirely around sun worship. According to some theories, this might have been because eclipses were seen as the antithesis of everything good, and thus, far too evil to even write about. Or it could be that all of their astronomy textbooks were in the Great Library of Alexandria.

Modern Myths

Believe it or not, there are still a number of legends surrounding eclipses that have absolutely no basis in reality. Speaking with National Geographic, Griffith Observatory director E.C. Krupp (pictured here donning a wizard costume to "banish" a lunar eclipse) admitted that every time there's a eclipse, he gets dozens of calls asking if they are really harmful to unborn children (they're not). Another legend claims that food will spoil during an eclipse (it won't).

There's one precaution with roots in antiquity that modern-day people should follow, though. The Navajo and other indigenous American peoples believed that looking at the sun during an eclipse was a very bad idea, and they were exactly right. So when the solar eclipse rolls around, pregnant women should feel free to stand outside snacking on whatever they want, as long as they bring their protective glasses.

Want to learn more about the eclipse? See our other articles here. And to hear an astronomer give even more insights into the eclipse, check out our special podcast episode here or click below to stream.

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