Johann Berkowski took this image of the total solar eclipse in 1851.
On Aug. 21 the moon will pass in front of the sun, completely blotting it out for those along a 70-mile-wide corridor stretching across the contiguous United States. Although a total solar eclipse only lasts a few minutes, the rare phenomenon has a long history of eliciting all sorts of odd reactions from the beings it briefly blankets with daytime darkness.
The Vikings made loud noises to scare off Skoll and Hati, the two wolves of Norse mythology who chased the sun and moon and occasionally caught them, causing an eclipse. Centuries later, a woman anxiety-ridden over the doomsaying associated with a 1748 solar eclipse “locked herself up in a room and cut her arm in such a manner that she bled to death,” according to the London Evening Post at the time.
Some of the strangest responses came in previous centuries when understanding of what causes these stellar abductions was less widespread. But we enlightened, modern folk are not immune.
In her 1982 essay “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard recalls hearing screams of terror and/or elation at the sight of a solar eclipse that swept across Washington state in 1979.
Steve Ruskin, a historian of astronomy and author of “America’s First Great Eclipse,” discovered a commonality too.
“What I find most amazing, having studied eclipses throughout history, is that no matter the time period or the scientific knowledge (or lack thereof), human responses to an eclipse are consistently, universally, expressions of awe and wonder, and even fear and terror,” Ruskin told me.
He says Norse wolves weren’t the only creatures, according to ancient myth and legend, causing eclipses by devouring the sun. The Maya, who learned to predict eclipses, sometimes depicted them as a giant snake. The Inca seemed to believe a jaguar swallowed the moon to cause a lunar eclipse.
“One rather unique and largely unknown response to an eclipse is found in an 1886 account of Australian aborigines,” Ruskin says. They “reportedly believed that the eclipse was caused by another tribe up on the moon itself, a people who were sick and angry, and were taking their ‘bad frame of mind’ out on the Australian aborigines below.”
An illustration of an eclipse from 1613.
M. Blundeuile/ US Library of Congress Royal concerns
Ancient Babylonians had an understanding of mathematics advanced enough to predict eclipses, but still saw them as bad omens for their royalty. They often put a commoner on the throne during an eclipse so that if some actual dark doings befell the king they would fall upon the fake king instead. After the eclipse, the regal stand-in was rewarded for his service by being killed, just to be sure any bad eclipse cooties died along with him.
Court astronomers in ancient China met a similar fate when they failed to predict an eclipse, allegedly because they were drunk. The 4,000-year-old anecdote later inspired a poem that has been passed down for centuries:
“Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi, Whose fate though sad was visible, Being hanged because they could not spy Th’eclipse which was invisible.”
Arguably the most famous solar eclipse was the one that coincided with the death of England’s King Henry I in 1133. Chaos and civil war followed.
An eclipse in Turkey in 585 B.C. had the opposite effect. Warring armies took it as a sign from the gods that perhaps they should try to get along. Just like that, the story goes, 15 years of fighting came to a sudden end.
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