Will Solar Eclipse Myths Reappear?

A look into the cultural astronomy behind a solar eclipse.

Columbia, S.C. (WOLO)– We know the science behind an eclipse: the moon comes in front of the sun. However, some cultures used to believe it was a bad omen.

“Something ate the sun! Maybe the Vikings’ sky wolves, or in Chinese mythology it involves a dragon eating the sun. Mayans, a giant serpent, or the Choctaw Indians– a black squirrel. That’s my favorite, a black squirrel eats the sun,” Matthew Whitehouse said, the observatory Manager with the State Museum.

“The early word for Eclipse in Chinese is ‘She’ which means to eat or to swallow slowly,” Michael Weisenburg said, a University of South Carolina rare books and special collections librarian said.

Having an appetite for the sun is a common theme in cultural astronomy, which is the study of how people used to understand the skies.

“Usually it has to do with some sort of frustration or disruption in the cosmic order. Whether that’s some sort of monster or demons attacking the sun or the moon and attempting to swallow or eat them, or a type of war between the Gods,” Weisenburg said.

“Another theme you see a lot is maybe something steals the sun. Like in Korean myth, fire dogs steal the sun,” Whitehouse said.

Not all cultures view solar eclipses as a bad thing. The Navajo Native Americans in the south west thought it was a special time, and as a sign of respect, they wouldn’t go outside during the event. While people don’t take these precautions now, there are still some fallacies about solar eclipses.

“A modern day misconception that keeps coming up is that if you’re a pregnant woman, that it is dangerous for you to be outside, and that’s also not true,” Whitehouse said.

It can also be seen as a new beginning since there must be a new moon for a total solar eclipse to occur. Back in those ancient times, it was the duty of the people to bring back the fiery star.

“People would make a whole lot of noise. Maybe they’d bang on pots and pans or they’d bang on drums. They’d try to scare those demons or animals away. Maybe that’s why we’re all going to yell during the eclipse, and cheer. To scare all the demons away,” Whitehouse said.

If worse comes to worst, make sure you cheer loudly so the sun will come back.

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