Solar Eclipse

















The Sun-Eating Dragon
Eclipse Stories, Myths, and Legends
By Noel Wanner

The light of day begins to fade in the middle of the morning. Looking up, you catch a glimpse of what looks like a disk of pure blackness sliding across the face of the sun. Soon the blackness has almost completely covered the sun, and dusk is falling over the land. The air cools. The birds are silent and still. What do you feel as the light drops away? Is an eclipse frightening? Beautiful? Or both at once?

Eclipses appear often in the mythology and literature of different cultures and different ages, most often as symbols of obliteration, fear, and the overthrow of the natural order of things. The word eclipse comes from a Greek word meaning "abandonment." Quite literally, an eclipse was seen as the sun abandoning the earth.

A recurring and pervasive embodiment of the eclipse was a dragon, or a demon, who devours the sun. The ancient Chinese would produce great noise and commotion during an eclipse, banging on pots and drums to frighten away the dragon. The Incas, too, tried to intimidate the creatures who were eating the sun. In India they took a different tack — people would immerse themselves up to the neck in water, an act of worship they believed helped the sun fight off the dragon.

As astrophysicist David Dearborn notes, "In many ways it makes sense that eclipses would be seen as bad omens. For most early cultures, the sun was seen as a life-giver, something that was there every day, so something that blots out the sun was a terribly bad event, filled with foreboding." Milton, in Paradise Lost , captures the unease eclipses generated in early Europeans:

  As when the Sun, new risen,
Looks through the horizontal misty air,
Shorn of his beams,or from behind the Moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs.

Science Steps In

As a mechanistic, scientific view of the universe grew in influence, the image of the eclipse began to shift. The new view reflected the empirical approach to the world and rejected awe and terror, emotions that came to be seen as a sign of an undeveloped, uncivilized mind. William Wordsworth's "The Eclipse of the Sun, 1820," describes the contrast between the attitudes of British scientists in India and the Indians as the eclipse begins:

  High on her speculative tower
Stood Science waiting for the hour
When Sol was destined to endure
That darkening of his radiant face
Which Superstition strove to chase,
Erewhile, with rites impure.

Solar Eclipses Back