Let’s face it, seeing a solar eclipse is an unforgettable magical moment. It is also one of the most beautiful natural phenomena we can appreciate from Earth.
In today’s society, we perfectly understand what occurs when a Solar Eclipse—or Lunar Eclipse—takes place.
However, thousands of years ago—and perhaps even tens of thousands of years ago—people saw these majestic natural events from a different point of view.
They asked… are these some sort of signs from the Gods? Do these events mark the end of the world? Were these natural events divine omens?
Many ancient cultures worshiped the Sun as a God; Egyptians worshiped Amun-Ra, while the Ancient Greek Helios. Ancient people of Japan saw the sun as goddess Amaterasu.
In this article, I invite to accompany me while I take a look at how ancient civilizations across the world interpreted solar eclipses, and what these astronomical events meant to them.
Let’s take a look at the word ‘eclipse.’
The word eclipse derives from an ancient Greek expression meaning “abandonment.”
The momentary disappearance of light: was as if the Sun had abandoned the Earth, a dramatic event, a bad omen that announced negative events to come. This idea was shared by numerous ancient cultures on Earth, but many of these ancient people interrupted the events differently.
Imagine living on Earth thousands of years ago and seeing a meteor burn up in the atmosphere, or seeing how the might sun disappears for moments, leaving the Earth in total darkness. Those were dramatic events and were interpreted y the ancient as a sign from heaven, a message from the gods.
If we take a look at ancient astronomy and how the ancients interpreted these events we find that natural events such as comets, meteors, lunar and solar eclipses were feared.
In ancient China, solar and lunar eclipses were considered as signs that predicted the future of the emperor.
The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses occurred when a celestial dragon devoured the Sun.
They also believed that this dragon attacked the Moon during lunar eclipses.
In the Chinese language, the term for eclipse was “shi” which also means “to eat.”
The Norse were convinced that the Sun and the Moon were personified by the Sun and Mani brothers. According to their legends, the brothers crossed the sky in flying vehicles and decided the duration of a day and the seasons of the year. They were the forces that animated the Sun and the Moon and were an integral part of the natural order of the world.
While the two brothers flew through the sky, the ancient Norse thought that they were chased by the Sköll and Hati wolves.
It was believed that these wolves were constantly chasing both the Sun and the Moon and that they would catch them eventually.
When one of them is caught by the wolves, an eclipse occurs.
It was believed that the inhabitants of the Earth must make a lot of noise, hoping to scare the wolf away, and freeing the Sun or Moon.
Curiously, there is an ancient Chinese record of a solar eclipse described as a moment when the “Sun was eaten.”
It was a tradition in that eastern country to play drums and make loud noise during eclipses to scare away the dragon which was eating the Sun or Moon.
The ancient Maya—who were exceptional astronomers—gave great importance to these celestial events. In fact, the movement of celestial bodies had great influence on their daily lives and their culture in general.
For the ancient Maya, the movement of the celestial bodies was how the Gods communicated, so a solar eclipse was considered a very shocking event.
They called the solar eclipses chi ‘ibal kin “eating the sun” and devoted much effort to predicting them. Notice the resemblance between the Norse, Ancient Chinese and Maya, all of them thought something was ‘eating’ the sun or the moon.
The ancient Maya wanted to be prepared for such a phenomenon.
Another ancient culture who thought the Sun was devoured was the Ancient Hindu Culture who had a rather creative story to explain the natural events.
According to the ancient Hindu, the mortal Rahu wanted to attain immortality. The Sun and Moon called upon Visnu and told him of his transgression. Eventually, Visnu decapitated Rahu.
However, Rahu sought vengeance on the sun and moon and pursued them across the sky. Sometimes he would catch the moon and sun. When a solar eclipse occurred, it was believed that Rahu was eating the Sun as it disappears into his through, but since Visnu decapitated him, the sun would eventually reappear from his severed neck.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock.