Written by Yamini Bharadwaj, grade 9 student
The solar eclipse this 21st of June 2020 revived innumerable superstitions, myths, and tales of Indian culture, but the interpretation of eclipses are present and varied in all mythologies. Prior to astronomical justification for solar eclipses, they were considered terrifying events, with several cultures believing that mythical figures steal or eat the sun, while others perceiving it as a sign of gods quarrelling above. However, there is no doubt that all cultures have agreed it is an ominous time for us on Earth. In fact, the word ‘eclipse’ is derived from the Greek term ‘ekleipsis’ meaning abandonment.
The Ancient Chinese
In ancient China there was a widespread belief that solar eclipses are a result of a legendary celestial dragon devouring the sun. To frighten away this dragon, the people of China used to shoot arrows into the sky, bang drums and pots, and burst fire crackers. Another lore tells us that it was a heavenly but hungry dog, Tiangou who devoured the sun. This dog was also repeatedly attacked but seemingly stubborn since he left only at his own choosing.
The Vikings were terrified of wolves instead of dogs like in China, and there Tiangou was replaced by a pair of wolves, Hati and Skoll, who ate celestial bodies. Skoll had an appetite for the moon whereas Hati much preferred the sun, resulting in Solar eclipses. They too would make loud noises to scare Hati away and believed Ragnarok would occur when he would consume the sun truly.
The Native people of the northwestern United States, the Pomo, believed a bear initiated a fight with the sun and took a bite of it. In Pomoan, solar eclipses are called The Sun got Bit by a Bear. To resolve the conflict, the bear believed the appropriate compensation was to take a bite out of the moon as well, thus causing lunar eclipses.
The Greeks believed that eclipses foretold the gods punishing the king. So the king escapes cosmic punishment, captives were rounded up as substitutes in his place. After the eclipse, they executed the captives as a cautionary measure, somehow overlooking how this could lead to further punishment. The Greeks were one of the first ancient civilisations to calculate the occurrence of an eclipse accurately.
To the Aztecs it seemed, a solar eclipse if ever allied with an earthquake occurred on the date 4 Ollin, it would result in the end of the world. Since they were exceptionally skilled astronomers, they calculated that until the 21st century, an eclipse would not occur on 4 Ollin. The demons of darkness would destroy the earth in case of a complete eclipse. It was believed blood sacrifices were capable of averting such a disaster.
The Ancient Indians
In ancient India and sometimes now as well, Rahu the demigod (also considered the north node of the moon) is thought to be responsible for solar eclipses. When the gods and demons allied to produce the elixir of immortality, Rahu was desperate to have a taste. He found himself at the banquet in a disguise but was reported to the Hindu god Vishnu by the Sun and Moon and there he was decapitated. Except he already had the elixir in his mouth. His head remained immortal while his bodied died. To extract revenge Rahu eats the Sun and Moon each solar and lunar eclipse but does not have the body to keep hold of them, thus eclipses are short-lived.
However distinct these cultures were is immaterial since the overarching fear of the unexplained and unknown is invariable. Only with the scientific explanation of eclipses has this fear dissipated.
By Yamini Bharadwaj
Yamini is an artist and a writer. She loves to paint in her free time
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