Demon heads, giant jaguars and other eclipse myths
Much of North America will see a solar eclipse on Aug. 21. But that doesn’t mean bad things are going to happen.
People have long associated eclipses with dramatic events. It’s easy to see why: it’s pretty disconcerting when the sun disappears.
“Back in the old days, an eclipse was the last thing anyone wanted to see. It really indicated that the foundation of the whole universe was at stake,” said Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
Although eclipses are predictable, astronomical events, different cultures have invented all kinds of reasons why they happen, and there are still lots of superstitions about them.
Here are a few:
Solar eclipses emit special radiation that can cause blindness
This is a modern superstition: that there’s something special about eclipse radiation that makes it entirely unsafe to look at.
“We emphasize so strongly and so correctly that it is dangerous to look at the sun, and in particular, the partial phase of the eclipse without genuinely safe filters,” said Krupp. “But that conveys to some people the notion that somehow the eclipse is unsafe.”
Staring at the sun can always damage your eyes, but it’s not somehow even more damaging during an eclipse.
Pregnant women shouldn’t watch eclipses
Krupp says he occasionally gets questions at the observatory about whether eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women. “Of course not!” he said.
“There’s nothing that the eclipse can do to women that it can’t do to men, and unborn children are perfectly safe.”
The sun is being eaten
In ancient times, people came up with lots of explanations about what was happening to the sun.
“In the case of a solar eclipse, it begins with the tiniest of nibbles out of the bright disk of the sun. It gradually grows larger and larger until the sun is completely engulfed,” said Krupp.
“It looks like a bite is being taken out of the sun and that’s how people spoke of it.”
Many cultures imagined that the sun was being eaten during an eclipse. The ancient Chinese word for eclipse, shi, was the same as the word “to eat,” he said, and the Mayans were the same.
But that begs the question: what exactly is eating the sun? In central Mexico, people imagined it was a jaguar. In the Andes, it was a mountain lion. In parts of Europe, it was a dragon.
WATCH: Some Americans across the U.S. will be able to view a full solar eclipse on Aug. 21 while portions of Canada will be able to view a partial eclipse.
And in Krupp’s favourite myth, it was the decapitated head of a demon.
In an ancient Hindu myth, he said, the gods were busy making the world and enlisted demons for help. They produced the sun, moon, and other things, including the elixir of immortality. Obviously, the gods didn’t want the demons to get their hands on this, but one, Rahu, managed to. “He grabs it for a moment and takes a swig, swallows it, and of course that begins to make him immortal,” said Krupp.
But the god Vishnu, who was tipped off by the sun and moon, realized what was happening and threw his weapon, severing Rahu’s head – which remained immortal, but his body died. And Rahu’s head, angry at the sun and moon, spends his days chasing them around the sky.
“Every so often he catches one of them and he swallows them and they go into eclipse. But because his head has been severed from his body, inevitably the sun or the moon fall out the bottom of his throat,” he said.
Dragon be gone
Many cultures would make noise during an eclipse to scare off whatever was eating the sun, said Krupp, and it’s a tradition he carries on at his observatory.
“Not only are we in the business of presenting the eclipse to people, we are in the business of protecting the sun and the moon,” he explained.
He dresses in special eclipse wizard robes, decorated with astronomical symbols, and observatory staff march around banging pots and pans. They even have a hashtag: #dragonbegone.
“We are always successful. There is not one eclipse that we have not dispatched or returned the sun or the moon to safety.”
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