Jayne: Could we learn something from ancient eclipse myths?




Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

What, pray tell, did the ancients think?

Long before the Internet was here to answer all of our questions with only the most irrefutable of facts, long before television and radio, even long before newspapers, solar eclipses were a fact of life.

Rare, but a fact at once awe-inspiring and inexplicable. And the hunch is that for most of human history, an eclipse arrived without warning on people who had little understanding of science or astronomy or how that big ball of fire in the sky actually works. (No, this is not a segue to a joke about conservatives and science.)

So, while the past several months have brought us fair warning about the impending eclipse — it’s Monday, in case you were unaware — I can’t help but wonder what people in the days before Galileo thought when the sun would quickly disappear. Think about it: You’re barely past the hunter-gatherer stage, and you’re rather convinced that the earth is flat. All you really know about the sun is that it shines light on the land every day — even if you don’t really have a concept of what a day is. And all of a sudden, the world is going dark when it shouldn’t be.

What would you think?

“People depend on the sun’s movement — regular, dependable, you can’t tamper with it,” said astronomer E.C. Krupp in a 2013 National Geographic article. “And then, all of a sudden, Shakespearean tragedy arrives and time is out of joint. The sun and moon do something that they shouldn’t be doing.”

That is an interesting analogy because Shakespeare, in fact, wrote in King Lear, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” King Lear certainly qualifies as a tragedy, with the leader descending into madness and giving away the kingdom to those who flatter him. (No, this is not a segue to a joke about … oh, never mind.)

A time to come together

All of which makes it interesting to ponder how ancient civilizations responded to a solar eclipse. It’s not, after all, like they could research it online. Instead, they probably consulted the village elder, who was kind of like the internet of his time — full of certitude and bereft of accuracy.

“All around the globe, ancient cultures and religions attempted to explain solar and lunar eclipses,” Calla Cofield recently wrote for Space.com. “Many of those stories involved gods, demons, dragons and other creatures that prowled through the sky and threatened to devour the sun or the moon. People prayed, made offerings, or hurled things into the sky to chase off the invaders.”

Like in Norse mythology, which says that a pair of sky wolves are trying to catch the sun or moon, and when they reach it an eclipse occurs. Or in Vietnam, where a giant toad eats the sun. Or in ancient China, where the belief was that a dragon was trying to eat the sun. Why? Because dragons love fire.

And while it is understandable that early civilizations would concoct a story to explain an eclipse, the thought of hurling things into the sky to scare away demons seems a little far-fetched.

Then there are the Batammaliba people of Africa, who believe that an eclipse means the sun and the moon are quarreling, so they encourage the celestial bodies to stop fighting. “They see it as a time of coming together and resolving old feuds and anger,” astronomer Jarita Holbrook told National Geographic. “It’s a myth that has held to this day.”

Which isn’t a bad idea. If we can’t get along during an eclipse, when can we get along? After all, an eclipse can’t be dismissed as fake news; it’s simply a reminder of how insignificant we all are in the grand scheme of things.

Which might be the point of tomorrow’s eclipse. And it might be why an estimated 1 million people are expected to come to Oregon to take it all in.

They’ll watch the sky go dark and welcome the return of the light and tweet about the magical experience and post selfies on Instagram.

You know, just like the ancients used to do.