In light of the recent solar eclipse that crossed North America on the 21st of August, 2017, let’s take a look at the mythology and legends that surround this cosmic spectacle. Today we know, through scientific observation, that an eclipse is a rare moment of alignment between the earth, the moon, and the sun, which causes the day to become night for a short time. But even for the most cynical observer, a total solar eclipse will have their eyes raptured in awe. Yet, we cannot even start to imagine the fear that past cultures experienced when suddenly, with no anticipation, the mighty sun of life turned black, and day was covered by darkness.
Nothing there is beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.
– Archilochus (Greek poet, c680-640 BCE)
Before empirical science conquered our approach to knowledge, an eclipse was received by cultures in the world as a moment of bad-omen or apocalypse; of universal abnormality. Frequently, it was a mythical animal, or a demon that swallowed the sun or the moon. In ancient Chinese mythology for example, it was believed that either the sky-dog called Tiangou, or a celestial dragon, would eat the sun during an eclipse. In fact, the word eclipse in Chinese is ‘Shi’ – ‘to eat’. To chase away the beasts, there had to be continuous beatings of drums or any other object.
Similarly, in Viking mythology the cause for an eclipse were the two mythical wolves: Skoll, chasing the moon, and Hati chasing the sun. They fled across the sky to prey upon the two cosmic bodies and swallow them, making day turn into night. Also in Viking culture the wolves were scared away by loud noises. However, legend has it that when Ragnarok (the apocalypse) will descend upon the universe, Skoll and Hati will finally feast on the sun and moon for good.
Another sun-swallowing beast is found in Hindu mythology: the severed head of the demon (asura) Rahu. It all started when Rahu disguised himself as a god (deva) and crashed a divine banquet to steal a sip from the elixir of immortality. Things went wrong for Rahu when the sun (Surya) and the moon (Chandra) discerned his disguise and alerted Vishnu, god of protection, of his plans. As Rahu was taking a sip, Vishnu had the demon beheaded, yet, without causing complete death because of the elixir’s powers: his head maintained life. From this moment the perpetual battle of Rahu against the sun and moon began, and during an eclipse, he catches up to the cosmic bodies and swallows them. Eventually they escape as lacking arms, the demon cannot hold them for long.
Sometimes it was a monster, or an animal, which caused an eclipse to occur. Other times, an eclipse was caused by fights between the sun and moon. The Batammaliba people of Benin and Togo, contrary to the doomsday perception of other cultures, view eclipses as a time of reconciliation. The legend says that when human quarrel and hatred began, it spread to the sun and the moon and influenced them to fight as well. The primal mothers Kuiyecoke and Puka Puka grew concerned and told the villagers to stop fighting during an eclipse, and re-establish harmony in the village. From ancient times till now, in Batammaliba culture, eclipses are moments of reconciliation.
Giving the causality of an eclipse to a quarrel between the moon and the sun is also shared by the Inuit people of the Arctic region. The story narrates that the moon god Anningan and his sister, the sun goddess Malina, once lived in harmony. However, one day a fight broke out, and in fear, Malina ran away from Annigan who started pursuing her desperately across the heavens. Due to his constant chase he never eats; this causes him to get thinner and thinner, causing the lunar phases. When the moon disappears completely, the Inuit believe that Anningan has gone to eat, before reappearing again to start his endless chase. The eclipse is the moment when, finally, Anningan reaches his beloved sister: Malina.