All In A Moment: The History and Science of Eclipses

Addison Gregory, Staff Reporter


Eclipses, while they are few and far between, are truly a sight to see, and a source of many stories, legends, and even history. April 8 will be hosting the first total eclipse since 2017. Depending on the type, they last from 7 minutes to 3 hours. But in the short time during the event, they have affected history and society as we know it. They have connected people, and proved theories. Built empires, and destroyed empires. Caused a war, and ended a war. All in a moment.


Humans tend to spin stories about things we don’t understand. The concept of magic is essentially just a word for unexplainable occurrences that just don’t make sense. As our scientific community around the world progresses, this idea is used less and less. But this poses several issues.


Many religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, include the concept of magic. They have stories on how the world was made, and how everything works, and a lot of those explanations include magic in some form or another. No religion has been proved to be correct, but science is disproving some of it, and it’s safe to say that the scientific community isn’t particularly popular among these religious groups. 


Many books have been written on this, one of which is called Where The Conflict Really Lies; Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga. However, for as contradictory as the scientific and religious communities are, they both have significance in eclipses. For science, it’s proof, and for religion, it’s symbolism.


Many religions have tales and symbols associated with eclipses, one of which being Islam. For muslims, eclipses are a reason to pray. In the Quran, Allah’s Apostle said, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of someone’s death or life but they are two signs amongst the signs of Allah, so pray whenever you see them.” Volume 2, Book 18, Number 152. Allah is the god, or creator, for Islam.


Contradictory to this, there is a story that says that the sun eclipsed because of the death of Ibrahim, who was a prophet. This just goes to prove that religions are contradictory, and there really is no right or wrong when it comes to the associated stories.


Legends are just stories that are told and retold throughout the years. They become part of a society, and even a culture, but they are just stories. Some may have hints of truth, or even be based on a real event, but not all. However, even though they may not be true, they do add some color to our cultures and countries.


As with anything unusual or rare, many religions, cultures, and countries have created their own stories that help explain it. In Ancient Hindu mythology, they said that an asura, or demon, named Rahu is the cause of the eclipse. This story is both interesting, and dark, and is their way of explaining the occurrences of eclipses.


In Hindu mythology, Rahu is essentially the demon of chaos. He does his best to throw any land or area he controls into complete chaos and ruin. He enjoyed watching the people and land fall into disarray. But for as much as he loved this, he wanted something else. Immortality. But he had to drink the Nectar of the gods to gain as much.


One night, during the Banquet of the Gods, Rahu took on a disguise. Posing as a beautiful young woman, he snuck into the banquet of the gods. His plan was thwarted, however, by the god of Preservation, known as Vishnu. 


“As punishment, the demon was promptly beheaded” Britannica, Melissa Petruzzello said. Some stories say it was just his severed head that flew in front of the sun and blocked the light. Others say that he did succeed in drinking the nectar, but it didn’t have time to reach his full body, leaving only his head to live. These groups say that he devoured the sun, and still lives on.


There are also many cultures and countries that believe that eclipses are bad, and not a natural occurrence. Some of them have traditions that they do to try and help the sun.


West Africans believed that the shadow of the Sun fell on the moon at lunar Eclipses and they gathered in open spaces to urge the shadow to leave the Sun alone.” Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, Mayak N. Vahia said.


In Japan, it’s common to light fires or wear/display shiny items and jewels. They do this to “compensate for the dulling of the sun or moon,” Vahia said.


American Indians shot arrows at the sun to try and help rekindle the sun, because they believed that eclipses happened because the sun was losing its power.


Eskimos turned their utensils upside down when cooking because they believed the eclipse would cause bad omens to fall upon the food they cooked. “The Eskimo saw the eclipse as bringing something unclean to Earth and turned their pots, bowls and cooking utensils upside down to avoid anything bad settling on them.” WRAL News said. 


These are examples of different countries and cultures, from all over the globe, that have different ways of trying to help the sun. They’re all completely different and unique, and yet they are all similar. Eclipses are centrifugal forces, and connect people from all over the globe. People from different countries, different cultures, different ethnicities, different ages, different religions, they are all connected by the beauty of eclipses, and the beliefs that are centered around eclipses. 


As enthralling as these stories and legends are, eclipses affect much more beyond our cultures and religions. They have made their mark on history. 


In the fourth century, BCE, there was a border war being fought between the Lydians and the Medes. It was near Modern day Turkey and the Halys River, and had been going on for over five years. On May 28, 585 BCE, the gruesome fighting filled the field, the casualties were high, and the blood of the fallen painted the fields in crimson. 


All of the action stopped when the sunny midday sky darkened to night. The sounds of fighting dimmed, and battle cries turned into gasps, and a chilling stillness swept the field.. With their sprawling armies, both sides stood in silent awe, like a field of statues, with their heads tilted up to the sky. 


They believed that it was a sign, and so they laid down their weapons, and shook hands in peace. To ensure they would stay at peace, and that the war was over, they married off the daughter of the Lydian king, Aryenis, and the son of the Medes, Astyages.


This is one of the many historic events that happened during or because of an eclipse. Another is about Xerxes, the leader of the Persian army. In 480 BCE, the Persian king, Xerxes, was planning to invade Greece. However, before he got to do so, an eclipse occurred. Like many who have witnessed eclipses, he thought it was a sign from the sky, but he wasn’t sure what it meant. Going to his advisors, he was told that it was the skies’ warning to the Greeks, that they’re empire was about to fall.


Because of the guidance from his advisors, he went forward with conquering Greece, and the battle of Salamis took place.  His advisors were wrong about the message from the sky, and it is unclear whether or not they misled him intentionally. No matter the intention, this misinformation led to the destruction of Xerxes army, though Xerxes himself survived unscathed. He lived on, retired, for 20 years, until he was murdered in 465 BC.


Who knows what would’ve happened if the eclipse hadn’t occurred? The battle could’ve gone in favor of the Persians, or it never would have occured to begin with. Eclipses have quite literally changed the course of history.


Eclipses bring people together, but also separate people. They are the pinnacle for both good and bad stories. Happy and sad. Light and dark. They only last so long, but in the short time that they shadow the world, history, legends, and entire lives are created and destroyed, written and unwritten, made and unmade.

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