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Here at the The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we do love our folklore and mythology—and there’s nothing like a total solar eclipse to get folks wondering why things happen. For the Sun to suddenly disappear demands explanation—or, let’s say, imagination! People around the world, especially in ancient times, have come up with many interesting stories, legends, and superstitions.
A Solar Eclipse and Fear
For many people in ancient times, a total solar eclipse generated fear. They thought the world would come to an end or a great evil would follow.
Myths often involved a beast trying to destroy the Sun with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance—or, a Sun-god becoming angry, sad, or sick.
Native people in Colombia shouted to the heavens, promising to work hard and mend their ways. Some worked their gardens and other projects especially hard during the eclipse to prove it.
In Norse culture, an evil enchanter, Loki, was put into chains by the gods. Loki got revenge by creating wolflike giants, one of which swallowed the Sun—thereby causing an eclipse. (Another of the giant wolves chased the Moon, trying to eat it.)
Fear led Chippewa people to shoot flaming arrows into the sky to try to rekindle the Sun. Tribes in Peru did the same for a different reason; they hoped to scare off a beast that was attacking the Sun.
In India, the demon spirit Rahu steals and consumes the nectar of immortality but is beheaded before he can swallow it. His immortal head flies into the heavens. The Sun and Moon had alerted the gods to his theft, so he takes revenge on them: When Rahu swallows an orb, we have an eclipse—but the orb returns to view because Rahu has no body!
Similarly, in China, Mongolia, and Siberia, beheaded mythical characters chase and consume the Sun and Moon—and we experience eclipses.
In Indonesia and Polynesia, Rahu consumes the Sun—but burns his tongue doing so and spits it out!
In Armenia, a dragon swallowed the Sun and Moon.
In Transylvanian folklore, an eclipse stems from the angry Sun turning away and covering herself with darkness, in response to men’s bad behavior.
In India, many believe that when an eclipse occurs a dragon is trying to seize the two orbs. People immerse themselves in rivers up to their neck, imploring the Sun and Moon to defend them against the dragon.
A Solar Eclipse and Romance
Many cultures thought that the Sun was in a fight with its lover, the Moon! Others found a different kind of romantic explanation.
To the Australian Aborigines, the Sun was seen as a woman who carries a torch. The Moon, by contrast, was regarded as male. Because of the association of the lunar cycle with the female menstrual cycle, the Moon was linked with fertility. A solar eclipse was interpreted as the Moon-man uniting with the Sun-woman.
In German mythology, the hot female Sun and cold male Moon were married. The Sun ruled the day, and the sleepy Moon ruled the night. Seeking companionship, the Moon was drawn to his bride and they came together—thus, a solar eclipse.
Some Native Americans drew on a similar concept: that a solar eclipse was a visit of companions.
West Africans of Benin switch the gender roles of the Sun and Moon and suggest that the orbs are very busy, but when they do get together, they turn off the light for privacy.
In Tahitian myth, the orbs are lovers who join up —providing an eclipse—but get lost in the moment and created stars to light their return to normalcy.
A Solar Eclipse and Weather
It’s no surprise that weather associated with an eclipse might spark some interesting theories.
The fog or dew or other precipitation resulting from an eclipse was considered dangerous.
The Japanese thought that poison would drop from the sky and covered their wells.
In Transylvania, they believed that eclipses could cause plague.
Alaskan natives believed that the moisture and dew could cause sickness; dishes were turned upside down; affected utensils were washed.
Solar Eclipses and Human Behavior
Even today, people still hold some fear regarding solar eclipses!
As recently as 2010, during the near annular (very large partial eclipse), out of fear, people stayed home. Few were on the streets, restaurants and hotels saw a dip in business (many customers preferred not to eat during the event), and most schools closed when students did not show up.
In Cambodia, in 1995, instead of screaming and banging during a solar eclipse, soldiers shot into the air to scare the mythic dragon from the sky. It was reported that the only scattered casualties were from the bullets.
In Baja, California, in 1991, astronomers were surprised by the weeping and wailing of hotel staff, who were terrified by the onset of darkness.
There are many more examples, but the human response that stands out the most is related to pregnancy …
Solar Eclipse and Pregnancy Superstitions
Many ancient people worried that an eclipse caused pregnancy issues such as blindness, cleft lips, and birthmarks.
Even today, there are some beliefs in superstitions! Pregnant women are sometimes warned to stay inside, not eat, not carry sharp objects, and not eat cooked food from prior to the eclipse.
Modern baby blogs ask if pregnant woman should wear some sort of metal, such as a safety pin, to protect the baby.
Some say that the baby superstitions date from the Aztecs, who believed that a celestial beast was biting the Sun—and the same thing would happen to a baby if the pregnant mother watched.
Eclipses did not incite fear in at least one group: Bohemia’s miners. They believed that the event portended good luck in finding gold.
Some North American Indian tribes believed that an eclipse was simply nature’s way of “checking in” with the sky, perhaps a sort of cleaning house. The Sun and the Moon temporarily leave their places in the sky to see if things are going all right on our planet Earth.
Solar Eclipse: What Really Happens
Of course, now we understand the science of eclipses. We no longer tell stories to explain why the Moon or the Sun went dark. Still, there’s a certain magic to these stories, isn’t there? Perhaps the romance comes from knowing that all is well with the Sun and the Moon.