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Eclipse Stories from Around the World

painting of the Norse myth of the Wolves Pursuing Sól and Máni
Eclipse Stories from Around the World

 

Eclipses can be mystifying experiences.

Traditions from around the world imagine the eclipse as everything from the Sun being eaten by monsters to an intimate meeting with the moon.

Here, we explore some eclipse stories and customs from around the world.

The Sun Is Devoured

In Vietnam, legend has it that a giant frog swallows the Sun. Its master, the lord of Hahn, then convinces the frog to spit it out.

In Javanese mythology, the god of darkness, Batara Kala, swallows the Sun. Javanese villagers try to make Batara Kala release the Sun by offering sacrifices and beating drums.

This 2016 commemorative stamp from Indonesia shows Batara Kala swallowing the Sun.

This 2016 commemorative stamp from Indonesia shows Batara Kala swallowing the Sun.

In Andean mythology, a puma devours the Sun. To prevent the Sun’s death, the puma must be frightened away by the screams of children and the cries of animals.

According to Choctaw legend, a mischievous black squirrel gnaws on the Sun.

In the US Northwest, the Pomo people’s name for a solar eclipse is “Sun got bit by a bear.” They tell a story about a bear who goes out for a stroll along the Milky Way. The bear meets up with the Sun, and the two begin to argue about who will move out of the other’s path. The argument turns into a fight, which is the eclipse.

The traditional belief of the Kwakiutl people on the western coast of Canada holds that a sky creature swallows the moon.

 Kwakiutl people dance in a circle around a smoking fire

Several Kwakiutl people dance in a circle around a smoking fire in an effort to cause a sky creature that swallowed the moon to sneeze it up. (Library of Congress)

In ancient China, it was commonly held that a celestial dragon attacked and devoured the Sun. To frighten away the dragon and save the Sun, people would bang drums and make loud noises.

In Norse culture, the evil enchanter Loki is chained by the gods. He gets revenge by creating wolflike giants, one of which swallows the Sun. Another of the giant wolves chases the moon, trying to eat it.

painting of the Norse myth of the Wolves Pursuing Sól and Máni

In Norse mythology, Sköll is a wolf that chases the sun (Sól) through the sky every day, trying to eat her. Sköll has a brother, Hati, who chases Máni, the moon. (The Wolves Pursuing Sól and Máni by J. C. Dollman, 1909)

 

An Intimate Relationship

From the Navajo perspective, eclipses are a time of renewal and a manifestation of the cyclical relationship between the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth. The old traditional knowledge of the Navajo people recognizes that it is dangerous to look directly at the Sun. Navajo elders strongly instruct their community to go inside the hogan (their traditional dwelling) during an eclipse to ensure people don’t look up at the Sun. Traditional Navajo people sit quietly and in reverence, a practice that is grounded on their deeply-held respect for the cosmic order. Some people will choose to look at the eclipse using protective eclipse glasses, but that decision is up to each family or individual.

traditional navajo structure made of mud and tree bark

A hogan, traditional dwelling and ceremonial structure of the Navajo.

 

In the Euahlayi oral traditions of southeast Australia, the Sun is known as a woman named Yhi and the moon as a man called Bahloo. Yhi falls in love with Bahloo and chases him across the sky. Yhi tells the spirits that hold up the sky that if they let Bahloo escape she will plunge the world into darkness (a total solar eclipse). A medicine man would recite magical chants to combat this evil omen.

In German mythology, the hot female Sun and cold male moon are married. The Sun rules the day, and the sleepy moon rules the night. Seeking companionship, the moon is drawn to his bride and they come together to create a solar eclipse.

In Tahitian myth, the Sun and moon are lovers who join up—the eclipse—but get lost in the moment and create stars to light their return to normalcy.

The Inuit tell of the Sun goddess Malina, who is chased across the sky by her brother, the moon god Igaluk. Occasionally he catches up with her for a brief reunion and everything goes dark.

The Maya of Mesoamerica observed and recorded eclipses in accordion shaped bark paper books called codices. The Dresden Codex (named after the city that houses the original document) records eclipse prediction tables for both solar and lunar eclipses. The Maya were able to predict eclipse seasons, although the precise location where the eclipses would be visible was unknown. Today, Maya people bang pots and pans to make the Sun and Moon release their embrace.

Mayan eclipse tablets representing a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse

Reproduction of the eclipse tables of the Dresden Codex (Maya, pre-Columbian). The symbol on the left page with light (left) and dark (right) symmetric design shows a lunar eclipse. The symbol of the right page shows a solar eclipse. Illustration Credit: Patricia Martin Morales, Muna, Yucatan, Mexico.

Unhappy Gods

Ancient Greeks had a different spin on this celestial event. They believed that eclipses were a sign the gods were angry with humans and that the Sun would abandon Earth, bringing untold misery. The word “eclipse” actually comes from the Greek word meaning “abandonment.”

The Inca worshiped Inti, the all-powerful Sun god. Inti was generally believed to be benevolent, but solar eclipses were understood to be a sign of his wrath and displeasure.

medallion with the sun god Inti on it

The sun-god Inti on an exhibit in the Bode-Museum, Berlin, Germany

In Transylvanian folklore, an eclipse occurs when the angry Sun turns away and covers herself with darkness in response to humans’ bad behavior.

 

Other Stories

According to Aymara tradition, an eclipse means the Sun is sick and near death. The Aymara people would light fires on hillsides to warm Earth for the brief period when the Sun could not.

Ojibwa and Cree peoples have a story that a boy (or sometimes a dwarf) named Tcikabis seeks revenge on the Sun for burning him, and catches it in a snare. Various animals try to release the Sun from the trap, but only the lowly mouse can chew through the ropes and set the Sun back on its path.

According to the Batammaliba of northern Togo and Benin, an eclipse is caused by fighting between the Sun and the moon. When an eclipse occurs, the Batammaliba come together as a community and try to end their own fighting as a way of encouraging the Sun and moon to do the same.

The Chippewa of North America shot flaming arrows toward the sky to rekindle the Sun. The Bella Coola people of Canada figured that the Sun was just a little clumsy and occasionally dropped its torch.