Using Myth and Superstition

Photo Courtesy Michael Dwyer.

Like a significant percentage of Americans, I was absorbed in the recent (August 21, 2017) spectacle of the solar eclipse.

While we now know the astronomical reasons for the event, ancient cultures, without such scientific understanding, tried to explain why the Sun temporarily vanished from the sky … with legends.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine how solar eclipses were once a cause of fear that became associated with myths, legends and superstitions throughout history. Even today, an eclipse of the Sun is considered a bad omen in many cultures.

Myths and Superstitions
My curiosity aroused, I looked up several of those legends. In Vietnam, people believed a solar eclipse was caused by a giant frog devouring the Sun, while Norse cultures blamed wolves. In ancient China, a celestial dragon was thought to lunch on the Sun.

In ancient Hindu mythology, the deity Rahu, for drinking Amrita, the gods’ nectar, was beheaded by the other gods. His head flew off into the sky and swallowed the Sun.

Ancient Korean folklore offers another explanation. It suggests solar eclipses happen because mythical fire dogs are trying to steal the Sun.

I even found an indigenous American people The Pomo, who lived in the northwestern United States, who told the story of a bear who took a bite out of the Sun. The Pomo name for a solar eclipse translates literally to Sun-Got-Bit-By-Bear.

Predicting the Future
Surviving records have shown that both the Babylonians and the ancient Chinese were actually able to fairly accurately predict solar eclipses, as early as 2500 BCE.

In China, such astronomical events were thought to be associated with the health and success of the emperor, and failing to predict one meant putting him in danger. There is even a Chinese legend that says two astrologers, Hsi and Ho, were executed for failing to predict a solar eclipse.

Historians and astronomers believe the eclipse they failed to forecast occurred on October 22, 2134 BCE, which would make it the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded in human history.

Clay tablets found at ancient archaeological sites show the Babylonians also predicted and recorded eclipses … the earliest known Babylonian record is of the eclipse that took place on May 3, 1375 BCE.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, a solar eclipse in 585 BCE actually stopped the war between the Lydians and the Medes, who saw the darkening skies as a sign to make peace with each other.

Scientific Discoveries
The word eclipse comes from ekleipsis, the ancient Greek word for being abandoned … perhaps appropriate for what they believed was happening when the sun started to disappear.

Although early eclipse pioneers tried to describe and explain solar eclipses and their features, it wasn’t until 1605 that astronomer Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.

More than a century later, Edmund Halley (after whom the famous Halley’s Comet is named) predicted the timing and path of the total solar eclipse of May 3, 1715. His calculations were only four minutes off from the eclipse’s actual timing and path.

A solar eclipse is also responsible for the discovery of helium.

The evidence for the existence of the second most abundant element known was discovered by the French astronomer Jules Janssen, during a total solar eclipse on August 16, 1868. Because of this, it’s named after the Greek word for the Sun: Helios.

Proving Relativity
The British astronomer and mathematician, Sir Arthur Eddington, used the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919 to test Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By taking pictures of stars near the Sun during totality, Eddington was able to show gravity can indeed bend light, almost exactly as Einstein predicted.

It might be hard to picture widespread panic ensuing during an eclipse in modern-day North America, but there is no doubt the events struck immense fear in ancient people who didn’t understand them … and sought to explain them the best way they could.

I found the myths and legends that have grown up around solar eclipses to be fascinating (these are by no means all of them) and think there must be myriad new story ideas that can be generated about them. I know it works. I’ve used myth and legend before in my own stories. My well-received novel BLOOD LAKE is an example.

You have time to work on it. There won’t be another total solar eclipse until April 8, 2024.

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My books have all garnered some terrific reviews, and you can see the ones I have available by using the Amazon link below. Look for them. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now amazon

You’re invited to visit my website, BROKEN GLASS, or
like my Book of Face page. You can find me on Goodreads, or follow some of my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

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Visit my web site to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” by The Authors Show.

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I plan to attend the Rochester Writers’ Fall Conference at Oakland University on Saturday, October 21, 2017 and hope to attend a book-signing the next day, October 22, 2017, at the Leon and Lulu Books & Authors Event in Clawson, Michigan.

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Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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