' I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.'


‘Day Became as Night’ – The Solar Eclipse in Myth and Days Gone By

Across the UK today thousands of people looked to the skies to catch a hopeful glimpse of a partial solar eclipse; the first such occurrence seen by the nation since back in 1999. And we weren’t disappointed.

Much of the cloud that had been predicted broke and onlookers were rewarded with the breath-taking and eerie site as the path of the moon’s orbit crossed between earth and the sun and sent us into temporary twilight. Those who were stuck inside and missed it needn’t worry – you only have to wait a mere 75 years to see the next one here again.

Further up the northern hemisphere in Svalbard, where hotels have been booked up specifically for this occasion since as far back as 2008, the obscuration of the sun was total, and the islands were plunged into utter darkness. 

The word ‘eclipse’ itself actually derives from the Greek ekleipein, literally meaning ‘to abandon’, since the sun seemingly appears to forsake the sky. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how ancient cultures across the globe created all manner of myths and legends as they sought to explain an event which even today – despite our scientific understanding – cannot fail but to fill us with awe and a certain vague sense of dread, as daylight is momentarily extinguished.

Though they had a great knowledge of the heavens, the Inca people of South America were surprisingly unable to predict eclipses, so when one took place they became understandably distressed. They feared that Inti, the Sun God (and second only in importance to the Creator God himself), was displeased and had hidden his life-giving light from them. Although the Inca rarely practised human sacrifice, such anxious times often demanded it, in their eyes, along with offerings of food, livestock and gold, in an attempt to appease the god.

According to Hindu belief, the sun is devoured by the demon Rahu during a solar eclipse. It is said that he once tried to drink sacred nectar that would make him immortal, but the sun and moon quickly realised his plan and alerted the god Vishnu, who lopped off the demon’s head just as he had begun to drink. Since the nectar didn’t get any further than his throat, only his head became immortal, and floated off into the sky. Ever since, he has vengefully chased the sun and moon and manages to swallow them from time to time, but they always re-emerge from his severed throat.

The ancient Chinese, on the other hand, believed that it was a dragon consuming the sun when an eclipse occurred and so would shout and bang whatever they could get their hands on to frighten off the creature.

Viking Mythology predicted that Ragnarök (the apocalypse) would be brought about when two monstrous wolves devoured the sun and moon, so a solar eclipse undoubtedly had them worrying that the end of the world had arrived.

Whatever was thought to be their cause throughout the ages, eclipses have almost always been seen as ill omens. Various early historical accounts tell of one total solar eclipse that took place during a 6th century battle in the long drawn out between the Lydians and Medes. As fighting commenced, ‘day was suddenly turned into night’; both armies ceased their combat out of fear and became anxious to agree a treaty of peace.

Supernatural association with the phenomenon still exists even to this day. Some people maintain the romantic notion that certain significant cosmic events appear to be inexplicably connected to the life of King Richard III, whose body is to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral this weekend after being discovered buried beneath what is now a car park in the city. On the day of his wife’s death in March 1485, a great eclipse of the sun took place; several days after Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth that same year, a partial lunar eclipse or “Blood Moon” would have shone down as his corpse lay on humiliating display, naked and bound, beneath the arches of a nearby church. Numerous fervent Ricardians see this latest solar eclipse, only a few days before his reburial, as the final celestial sign to coincide with important events relating to the life of the last Plantagenet king.

As well as the solar eclipse, today also marks the Spring Equinox, exactly halfway between the longest and shortest days of the year, when the Earth’s axis is perpendicular to the sun’s rays, and day and night are of equal length. What’s more, the moon will be orbiting at its closest point to our planet, appearing much larger than normal as what’s known as a Super Moon. 

The rare coinciding of these three celestial events could be seen by the superstitious as a portentous sign of change, of new beginnings. Whatever the case, however, it is a day to make each one of us pause and be reminded of the many wonders of the universe we live in.

(Image 1 © Sarah Deboe 2015; Image 2; Image 3&4 taken from De aetatibus mundi imagines by Francisco de Holande; Image 5 Das Wunderzeichenbuch (The Book of Miracles), 1552. )

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