How humans made sense of moments without the Sun
A few hours ago, part of the world found itself in an unusual darkness. The Moon’s orbit had taken it directly between the Sun and the Earth, casting a shadow over parts of Southeast Asia in a total solar eclipse. These sorts of alignments aren’t terribly frequent (although those of us in North America get to see one in 2017!), which probably helped them retain a degree of mystery throughout human history. Unsurprisingly, before humans understood what was happening, many attempts to explain these brief spells of unexpected darkness often focused on fear and astronomically-sized fauna threatening the world as we knew it.
While we can now explain, predict and illustrate the event tied to a solar eclipse, it’s important to keep in mind that these events caught most people by surprise when they intermittently came up. Before the Moon is blocking light from the sun, it’s not really visible, as the light hitting it is being reflected away from the Earth. Then, as it suddenly moves in front of the Sun, the sky can darken enough to make some stars faintly visible while the Sun is reduced to a thin corona around the Moon’s silhouette. The word eclipse comes from the ancient Greek word for “abandonment,” as there was fear that the gods were essentially forsaking the Earth, and that humanity was likely doomed. At least for the next couple of minutes.
Drama in the dark
If it wasn’t the gods feeling fickle, cultures around the world assumed that the Sun had been eaten or lost, not unlike some explanations for the disappearance of the Moon during a lunar eclipse. Hungarians blamed a hungry bird, Mayans looked to huge serpents, and in Burma the Sun was thought be getting punished for breaking a promise and oversleeping. While some stories involved the culprit burning their mouth on the Sun, as with Tartars’ story of an ambitious vampire, Vikings rang bells to chase away Sköll, a huge wolf that was supposedly responsible (which of course was guaranteed to “work” in just a couple of minutes!)
Some cultures noted the visible stars in the darkened sky and took a more positive tone. Some African and Mesoamerican peoples looked on those stars as offspring from a coupling between the Sun and the Moon, making these events a moment of rebirth rather than fear. We’ll see how North America handles it all next August.
My first grader said: What if… What if the story was that a huge monster came out and tried to get the Sun, but the Sun ran away, and it was just the monster, and then the Sun came back in a magic bubble to be safe, and the monster saw that there were guards to protect the Sun after that, and so it stayed back, and…
My three-year-old then interrupted: Planets and the Sun don’t have faces! The Sun doesn’t have eyes or a face!
And that pretty much settled that.
Source: A Demon Ate the Sun: How Solar Eclipses Inspired Superstition by Mindy Weisberger, Live Science