Eclipses Elicit Emotions
What do you feel as the light drops away? Is an eclipse frightening? Beautiful? Or both at once?
The light of day begins to fade in the middle of the morning. Looking up, you catch a glimpse of what looks like a disk of pure blackness sliding across the face of the Sun. Soon the blackness has almost completely covered the Sun, and dusk is falling over the land. The air cools. The birds are silent and still. What do you feel as the light drops away? Is an eclipse frightening? Beautiful? Or both at once?
Across the ages, cultures from around the world have interpreted eclipses in myriad ways. Sometimes eclipses cause fear, awe, or a sense that the cosmic order has fallen out of balance. The word “eclipse “comes from a Greek word meaning “abandonment.” Quite literally, the Greeks saw a solar eclipse as the Sun abandoning the Earth.
A recurring and pervasive embodiment of the eclipse was a dragon, or a demon, who devours the Sun. The ancient Chinese would produce great noise and commotion during an eclipse, banging on pots and drums to frighten away the dragon. The Incas, too, tried to intimidate the creatures who were eating the Sun. In India they took a different tack: people would immerse themselves up to the neck in water, an act they believed helped the Sun fight off the dragon.
As astrophysicist David Dearborn notes, “In many ways it makes sense that eclipses would be seen as bad omens. For most early cultures, the Sun was seen as a life-giver, something that was there every day, so something that blots out the Sun was a terribly bad event, filled with foreboding.”
Ancestral knowledge is based on sustained and intentional observations of celestial cycles. Just because our ancestors and many contemporary cultures today have rich stories about eclipses does not mean that they are unaware of the astronomical cause of the phenomenon. For millennia, keen observers of the sky have understood that solar eclipses are caused by the moon covering the Sun. Despite this understanding, the rare and beautiful total solar eclipse, when the Sun disappears behind the moon, elicits awe or amazement in all humans.
Consider the experience of the writer Annie Dillard, watching a total solar eclipse from the hills of Washington state: From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent Sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the Sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the Sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the Sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly, it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the Sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed . . . In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over. (“Total Eclipse” in Teaching a Stone to Talk)
And consider the enthusiasm and reverence expressed by the late J. B. Zirker, a veteran astronomer who witnessed countless eclipses, in his account of an eclipse in 1980: “I pull off the lens cap. Ray adjusts the pointing of the telescope a hair . . . I look up. Incredible! It is the eye of God. A perfectly black disk, ringed with bright spiky streamers that stretch out in all directions. A few red prominences. A star or two. This fantastic object, blazing in the surrounding blackness, at mid-morning. What a stunning sight!”
Zirker, former Director of the Sacramento Peak Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, understood better than most exactly what’s happening during an eclipse, yet he still experienced the event as a momentary contact with the fantastic majesty of the universe.
David Dearborn shares this feeling: “I’ve seen many eclipses, and each time it is just a marvelous experience, a phenomenal thing to see.” As he puts it, eclipses are not interesting to scientists just because of all the phenomena that can be seen and researched, but because “all of these beautiful and interesting things are happening during the middle of the day, when the Sun just should be there!"
As you watch the total solar eclipse along with us and learn more about eclipses, ask yourself how your perception of this unique event is affected by the things you’re learning.