If you were in the UK over the past few weeks then undoubtedly you’ll have seen the excitement that the broadcasters, in particular the BBC, approached the solar eclipse. There was something uniquely British about the coverage on the day of the eclipse – not many other broadcasters would devote so much time and money on covering an eclipse or treat it with such fanfare. As it was, here in London the eclipse turned in to a bit of a non-event. Heavy cloud cover obscured much of the spectacle, in many ways adding to the very British nature of the day – we seem to specialise in cloudy weather at important events.
Weather aside, there is nothing like an eclipse to remind us of our position in the solar system and make us feel small, yet closer together. Around 7,000 different languages and a myriad of unique cultures may separate the 7.2 billion inhabitants of our planet making us feel completely disparate from our neighbours but an eclipse is a great reminder that in reality, we all inhabit a ball of rock hurtling through space at around 19 miles per second, rotating on its axis at 1,040 miles per hour.
While our knowledge of the solar system and the complexities of our galaxy may well be far from complete, we do hold a significant advantage over our ancestors who viewed the celestial event with fear and awe. It’s fascinating to look at the various myths and legends that developed amongst different cultures as a way to somehow explain the strange phenomenon. Interestingly, the sun being eaten features heavily throughout various cultures.
The Chinese placed great importance on correctly predicting solar eclipses as they were seen as heavenly omens that foretold the future of the Emperor, because of the importance to the ruling Chinese dynasties, we now have records dating back over 4,000 years detailing every eclipse of the time. By using the data of Chinese observations of five solar eclipses between 1161 BCE and 1226 BCE, modern astrologers were able to study the rate of rotation of the earth on its axis and have been able to determine that the length of a day in 1200 BCE was shorter by 0.047 seconds than a day is now.
Eclipse Myths and Legends
While the inner circle of the Emperor’s court may have become adept at predicting solar eclipses, the legend that sprung up amongst the populous was one of a celestial dragon that feasted on the sun (the Chinese word for eclipse is shi, which also means to eat) – in order to scare away the dragon, people would bang on pots and pans making lots of noise, even shooting arrows towards the sky in order to save the sun.
As late as the 19th Century, the Chinese Navy would fire their cannons to participate in the legend.
The Vietnamese believed that a giant frog was the hungry entity responsible for devouring the sun, while in Viking legend; a pack of wolves called warg devoured the sun.
In Korea, a pack of ferocious hounds called Bulgae were sent by a dark lord to bite both the sun and the moon – the sun proved too hot to bite into for too long and the moon proved too cold – explaining the short lived nature of an eclipse.
Another legend that attempts to explain the short spectacle is found in India where the Hindu demon Rahu is said to have attempted to drink the elixir of immortality but was witnessed by the sun and the moon who promptly informed the god Vishnu who cut off Rahu’s head as he was drinking. Rahu’s head was granted immortality but his body was lost forever. Propelled by incredible rage, Rahu is engaged in an eternal chase of the sun and the moon, occasionally swallowing them only for them to reappear out of the bottom of his head where his body should be, thus beginning the chase again.
Surprisingly, we know very little about the one ancient culture who we know placed so much emphasis on the sun. The ancient Egyptians, who worshiped the sun god Ra and believed the Pharaoh to be his direct descendant, have left little in evidence for us to ascertain there reaction to a solar eclipse.
Some scholars have surmised that a solar eclipse was seen as far too evil an omen to even transcribe. A far more plausible explanation is that any records of solar eclipses were lost in the fire at the Great Library of Alexandria.